Something Worth Learning
an essay by Genevieve Brooks
In university, I harboured a deep disdain for a particular literature professor who posited that the writings of the Brontë sisters was somehow inadequate. In her telling, their work was diminished because, although romantic relationships are to varying degrees the subject of all of their novels, none of them—as far as we know—experienced requited romantic love.
This struck me as inordinately stupid.
I am quick to take issue with strictly biographical readings of literature, which are in my mind the least interesting and most limiting approaches to any text. These readings ignore the possibilities of imagination and empathy, asserting that art must find its basis in life. And I am especially curious as to why we seem particularly obsessed with the lives of female artists.
But I’ve also been to Sylvia Plath’s Yorkshire grave, had tea at the church in London where she was married, and paced back and forth between her two flats in Primrose Hill (the second of which she killed herself in). I make an annual pilgrimage to Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House, know exactly which Kensington terrace she was born in, and have drunk cava on the shores of the Ouse--the Sussex river in which she drowned herself.
* * *
It was my psychotherapist who first told me about the book: An Accident of Hope, a literary exploration of an American poet’s therapy tapes. We were having one of our frequent conversations about my overidentification (her term) with Plath and Woolf. She couldn’t remember the name of the poet. New Englander. Shagged her analyst. Killed herself.
I dredged up the name “Anne Sexton.”
Yes, that’s the one.
I told Naomi because I thought it was odd. Odd for a therapist to recommend a book on the therapy sessions of a woman for whom those sessions were in some sense unsuccessful; odd for a therapist who already thinks I’m too obsessed with Woolf and Plath--other suicided women of letters.
From there, I can claim no credit for the project that would become A Certain Sense of Order. I played no role in its creation, composition, or direction. I didn’t even read the book until after Naomi already had. But I already knew too much about Anne Sexton’s life to ever come to her poetry, and this opera, without biographical preconceptions. Without recasting it all in the knowledge of how it ends.
* * *
At the March workshop for A Certain Sense of Order, during the question and answer session it became clear that the vast majority of the audience had never heard of Anne Sexton. The creators—Naomi Woo, Sasha Amaya, and Catherine Kontz—had explicitly chosen to not include reference to her biography in the program notes:
A Certain Sense of Order is an operatic work-in-progress for two female singers exploring the poetry of Anne Sexton, the multiplicities of identity, and the relationship between poetic and therapeutic practice. Throughout, the singers take on different roles from both the home and the therapy room, interacting as mirrors, foils, and supports for one another.
Most of the audience was free to watch the opera without reference to the Sparknotes version of her life that I seem to have always known: depressive housewife, unfit mother, predatory lover, garage suicide. Afterwards, however, the audience was keen to know about her life, and of course her suicide came up almost immediately. As is often the case with Woolf and Plath, Sexton--and thus A Certain Sense of Order--was quickly understood predominantly through the prism of her death.
Perhaps because both parts of the opera are sung by women, some members of the audience seemed to gain the impression that Sexton’s therapist had been female. In fact the two most important therapists in her life--the one who encouraged her to write poetry, and the one who had an affair with her--were both men. But in the audience’s comments they produced a cohesive reading of the opera which relied on the assumption that the two characters on the stage literally represented Sexton and her therapist. One could feel a certain amount of relief in their commentary; a sense that they had found the truth behind the art in her life and the life in her art.
Of course I judge this March audience, from a position of knowing. I was already compromised; I could never come to this opera or her poetry without my preconceptions of her life.
* * *
I recently moved to Boston and on my last weekend in London, Naomi and I got matching tattoos. Abstract and geometric, they mean nothing to anyone but ourselves. But for us, we spent almost a month sending carefully sketched drafts back and forth, changing an angle, thickening a line.
The tattoos are inspired by a line from the same poem as A Certain Sense of Order:
And if you turn away
because there is no lesson here
I will hold my awkward bowl,
with all its cracked stars shining
like a complicated lie,
and fasten a new skin around it
as if I were dressing an orange
or a strange sun.
Tattoos are a bit like poetry: people want to know what they mean. I have made an effort to memorize the poem as I am asked so frequently for an explanation. But sometimes I also like to tell people that my tattoos (I have two) mean nothing. People are strangely uncomfortable when you assert that a tattoo means nothing at all: that it is just a geometric pattern stencilled onto your body which will remain visible until you die. That it could mean a myriad of different things. They want to know for sure.
We don’t like not knowing: tattoos that mean nothing and art that could mean many things.
* * *
At the August premiere, Sasha, Naomi, and Catherine played with this question of knowing: they decided to perform the opera twice. In between the two performances, scholar Victoria Van Hyning read a paper which made explicit references to the facts of Sexton’s life. Thus in theory the audience had the opportunity to watch the opera once without biographical preconception, and then again through the lens of what they had learned. Strangely, I think I was sad at this loss of literary innocence. It is so rare to be able to approach art with such limited knowledge of the author’s life.
But perhaps Sexton’s poetry is meant for knowing. Alongside W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, among others, she came to be associated with the school of “Confessional Poetry,” which arguably collapsed the distance between poet and persona, art and biography. Can one even read confessional poetry with knowing something of the confessor? The opera takes its libretto from a single Sexton poem: “For John, who begs me not to inquire further.” The John in this title is not a pseudonym: John Holmes was an early poetry teacher of Sexton’s, who had advised her not to write so transparently, not to record the intimate details of her mental illness. But Sexton ignored his advice, and overstepped the bounds of propriety writing not just about life, but very specifically her life, clear for all to see. She makes the case that there is value in doing so: that in the messiness of her own mind there is "something worth learning".
Maybe this is the answer to my therapist's question. I identify with Woolf and Plath—and maybe now Sexton—because I find “a certain sense of order there” in their writing and lives, a “cracked mirror” in which I can see my own reflection, as these authors put words to the way I sometimes feel in the world.
* * *
Boston, as it turns out, was Sexton’s hometown. Perhaps I’ll make a pilgrimage to her house.
I wonder what my psychotherapist will make of that.