In her poem “Her Kind” originally published in To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), Anne Sexton paints a picture of woman as an outcast in youth, marriage, and death. First, she presents the woman as a rebellious youth, “not a woman, quite,” “dreaming evil,” “haunting the black air, braver at night.”1 In the second stanza, she presents woman as a passive housewife.2 Still, at least for her speaker, there is no connection with society: Her house is found in “warm caves in the woods.” Her husband and children are “worms” and “elves.” She is misunderstood. Finally, in the third stanza, having survived adversity, she is at last “learning the last bright routes.” Approaching death, she is still separate and outcast from society, this time because of the path she is on (i.e., the cart she is riding), and can only wave “at villages going by.” In the end though, the poem transforms this rejection by embracing it in a sort of active passivity, “not ashamed to die,” and claiming it triumphantly, “I have been her kind.”
The witch, an archetypal feminine outcast, is presented boldly and possessively from the very beginning. “Witches (always female, of course) are by nature alienated, different, shunned by society” (Hall 90). The descriptions of an outcast pile up quickly. The speaker is “braver at night,” whereas most people are braver during the day. The speaker dreams of evil, indicating a rebel attitude, a desire to throw off the shackles of conventional morality. When she speaks of having done her “hitch over the plain houses, light by light,” we can see two things. First, she is not in the houses, and she considers the houses to be plain. Second, she is over them, above them, aloof from them. We begin to see a possibility that this rejection is not necessarily externally enforced; nevertheless, we are presented with a character that is not happy with her situation. She is “a lonely thing,” — desirous of company; she is twelve-fingered — different, possibly a monstrosity; she is out of mind — unattended, unnoticed, unworthy. Indeed, she is somehow less than a woman. Kay Capo notes, “Even amid cries for indulgence and passive imagery, a resistant tone keeps emerging” (26). This tension between helplessness or passivity and resistance or rebellion is mirrored in the rhymes (e.g., between witch representing rebellion, and hitch, a required term of service, representing passivity).
The second stanza describes a housewife who is so cut off from society that she places herself not in a house in suburbia, but in “caves in the woods.” It is important that we see that this is only a metaphor, so she tells us that she has all the trappings of civilization, indeed, “innumerable goods.” In this stanza the tension between passivity and rebellion is further heightened as passivity gains the upper hand. She passively conforms by cooking and cleaning, yet the resistance is still there, for she does not cook for her husband and children: She cooks for “worms and the elves.” Even the dominant vowels in this stanza have shifted from the hard resistant i and o of night, light, mind, quite, out, possessed, over, lonely in the first stanza to the softer more passive and i of woods, filled, skillets, silks, goods, fixed, worms, misunderstood in this one. It does not take much to understand how this woman is “misunderstood,” but it does require some work to connect her to the witch of the previous stanza. The relationship is certainly a temporal one, between the middle-aged housewife, hiding in fantasy, and the young rebel, flirting with evil; however, the relationship is also a progressive one as the passivity builds unacceptably. This connection is confirmed when we move on to the depiction of the woman facing (or flirting with) death.
In the final stanza, we see a woman who is “learning the last bright routes.” That is to say that she is facing death. Of paramount importance, and often ignored, is the question of the identity of the new character introduced in this stanza, the driver.3 This stanza differs from the previous stanzas, both in that it is directed at a particular recipient and in that it is projected as an outcry rather than as a passive description. The driver, I believe, is a symbol for society, which drives the woman to be something she cannot be in the first two stanzas, forcing her to rebel and live as an outcast. She is, of course, still an outcast. She can only wave her “nude arms at villages going by.” Now, though, she is stronger; no longer does she need to be “braver at night.” She has survived the aspersions of a society whose wheels have cracked her ribs. No longer does she seek to bring the trappings of society into her exile, or to pretend to be that which she is not. She will no longer fix “suppers for the worms and the elves,” nor can she any longer be misunderstood, for she is at peace with herself and with her outcast status, “not ashamed to die.” While society has not reconciled itself to her (“[its] flames still bite my thigh”), she has at last reconciled herself to society or, rather, out of it. The tension in the piece, built up through the first two stanzas between passivity and rebellion has reconciled itself into the ultimate form of passive rebellion, death.
Having examined the stanzas individually, it is necessary to examine the work as a whole. The poem begins with a very regular rhythm, though without a traditional normative meter. It is reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It has an accentual meter of four beats; the majority of the lines are broken up in to distiches separated by a caesura; and some of the lines even have the appropriate accentual alliteration (e.g., “black air, braver” and “dreaming evil, I have done”), further reinforcing the cadenced feel. “‘Her Kind’ employs a rhythmic, incantatory stanza and refrain” (Kammer 128). This chanting rhythm is quite appropriate considering the otherworldly topic. Although she loosens the strictures of the form very quickly, one is nevertheless induced to almost chant it in the mind as it is read. This meter, the end rhyme (i.e., ababcbC dedeceC fgfgcgC ), and the stanza ending repetends tighten the ties between the stanzas, and force one to examine the poem as a themed whole, rather than as several disparate pieces. Jeanne Kammer says: “The endings of Sexton’s poems are for the most part unmemorable, except for a few that set up a complex resonance and mark the best pieces” (130). “Her Kind” is one of those memorable “best pieces.” Additionally, the poem is presented in a temporal sequence, following the woman’s life from youth to death (or at least acceptance of death). The completed woman is presented as outcast and alone throughout her life. First “not a woman, quite,” then “misunderstood,” and finally “not ashamed to die.” In each summary line, the woman is presented as separate — from society, from her family, and from the world.
At the same time, there is a contrasting thread of unity that is brought out by the three distinct, though undifferentiated, voices in the piece. Many critics have noted this multiplicity of voices.4 Diane Middlebrook sees only two personas or viewpoints, the two Is, but I think that a case can be made for a third (“Poet” 114). The first voice is the voice of the outcast, the madwoman, a self-descriptive and self-abusive character who rants through the first five lines of each stanza. The second voice is the voice of judgment or conscience or society that makes a value call about the previously described woman in the sixth line. And finally the last line is the voice of the reader or the narrator or even, this being confessional poetry, the author, who ultimately identifies with the outcast. “‘Her kind’ contains its own perfect reader, its own namesake, ‘I'” (Middlebrook, Anne 114). In so doing, the poem creates a kind of society of outcasts of everyone who reads and identifies themselves with that line. It creates a synthesis of acceptance and passivity with rebellion and unconformity and announces this synthesis as survivorship. The ability of the outcast to come to terms with her own estrangement and to accept death “not ashamed” is in fact a victory of sorts over the repressionist society that has rejected her.
All quotes without parenthetical notation are from the primary source: Sexton 21.
2 Many critics interpret the second and third stanzas differently. For some of the more common alternative interpretations, see Colburn 167 and Johnson 85 (Speaker as a witch throughout), or George xiii and McCabe final paragraph (Speaker as poet: autobiographical interpretation).
3 For a notable exception, see Capo 36.
4 Discussion of the multiplicity of voices throughout Sexton’s work can be found in George 100-101 and Middlebrook “Poet” 72-73 and Anne 114-15. McDonnell 40-41 discusses the psychotic nature of these multiple voices.
Sexton Anne. “Her Kind.” To Bedlam and Partway Back. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960. 21
Capo, Kay Ellen Merriman. “Anne Sexton’s Communal Voice.” Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton. Ed. Francis Bixler. [Conway, Arkansas]: Central Arkansas UP, 1988. 22-45.
Colburn, Steven E. “‘This Is My Tale Which I Have Told’: Anne Sexton as Storyteller.” Wagner-Martin 166-77.
George, Diana Hume. Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton. Chicago: Illinois UP, 1987.
Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Anne Sexton. Boston: Twayne Pub., 1989.
Johnson, Greg. “The Achievement of Anne Sexton.” Wagner-Martin 81-93.
Kammer Jeanne H. “The Witch’s Live: Confession and Control in the Early Poetry of Anne Sexton.” Anne Sexton. Ed. Steven Colburn. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1988. 125-134.
McCabe, Jane. “A Woman Who Writes: A Feminist Approach to the Early Poetry of Anne Sexton.” Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Ed. J. D. McClatchy. N.p.: n.p., 1978. Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. 10 Feb. 2003 <http: // www. english. uiuc. edu /maps/ poets/s_z/ sexton/ herkind.htm>
McDonnell, Thomas P. “Light in a Dark Journey.” Wagner-Martin 40-44.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
—. “Poet of Weird Abundance.” Wagner-Martin 72-80.
Wagner-Martin, Linda ed. Critical Essays on Anne Sexton. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.