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Anne Sexton's "Music Swims Back to Me"

Updated on October 8, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Anne Sexton

Source

Anne Sexton's "Music Swims Back to Me"

Wait Mister. Which way is home?
They turned the light out
and the dark is moving in the corner.
There are no sign posts in this room,
four ladies, over eighty,
in diapers every one of them.
La la la, Oh music swims back to me
and I can feel the tune they played
the night they left me
in this private institution on a hill.

Imagine it. A radio playing
and everyone here was crazy.
I liked it and danced in a circle.
Music pours over the sense
and in a funny way
music sees more than I.
I mean it remembers better;
remembers the first night here.
It was the strangled cold of November;
even the stars were strapped in the sky
and that moon too bright
forking through the bars to stick me
with a singing in the head.
I have forgotten all the rest.

They lock me in this chair at eight a.m.
and there are no signs to tell the way,
just the radio beating to itself
and the song that remembers
more than I. Oh, la la la,
this music swims back to me.
The night I came I danced a circle
and was not afraid.
Mister?

Anne Sexton reads her poem, "Music Swims Back to Me"

Commentary

Anne Sexton's poem, "Music Swims Back to Me," dramatizes the experience of a woman in a mental institution.

Anne Sexton's eerie piece consists of three free verse paragraphs (versagraphs). Like most of Anne Sexton's poetry, this one belongs to the confessional style, which focuses on the intimate personal experience of the poet's life.

Sexton began writing at the behest of her psychotherapist as a way of refocusing her suicidal tendencies to give her a reason to live. Famously, this strategy did not conclude successfully as the poet ended her own life after many years of therapy with a variety of therapists.

Because Sexton did spend time in mental institutions, this poem, no doubt, expresses her actual experience, at least to a point.

The poets of confession employ poetics in their craft, even though they are expressing their real experience. However, their speakers still must be evaluated as independent speakers of their poems, just as the speakers of other styles of poems are understood.

First Versagraph: "Wait Mister. Which way is home"

The first line of this poem indicates a confused personality; she is institutionalized, yet she asks some unidentified "Mister," "Which way is home?" She then immediately begins to describe the eerie details of her surroundings: things seem to move in a dark corner, the room has "no sign posts," there are four diaper-wearing ladies over eighty-years-old.

The speaker then introduces the refrain and poem title as she makes it clear that she has been involuntarily placed in a mental facility: "La la la, Oh music swims back to me / and I can feel the tune they played / the night they left me / in this private institution on a hill."

Second Versagraph: "Imagine it. A radio playing"

The speaker commands her listener/reader to "Imagine it." She is referring to the music from a radio and adds that all the inmates of the institution "are crazy." She reports that she was glad to be admitted, and she showed her joy by "danc[ing] in a circle." The speaker then reports the observation that music sparks the memory; by associating the tune she heard when something in her past happened, she can recall the events.

Thus, the speaker claims that the music "remembers better," which suggests that the music assists her memory in recalling her first night at the mental institution. She says, "It was the strangled cold of November; / even the stars were strapped in the sky / and that moon too bright / forking through the bars to stick me / with a singing in the head."

At first, he speaker struggles against being confined in the institution, had to be restrained, and she recalls observing that moon as it shone through the bars of the window.

Because of the music that was recorded by her brain, she remembers those specific details, but she has "forgotten all the rest."

Third Versagraph: "They lock me in this chair at eight a.m."

The speaker reports that every morning at 8:00 o'clock the hospital workers place her in a chair where she must remain, and she remains confused because "there are no signs to tell the way." She has no place to put her mind or body. She does not know what to do or where to go. She is not aware that she has nowhere to go and no need to.

Still the music from the radio continues to "beat[ ] to itself / and the song that remembers" more than she does. It takes her back again—it is swimming back to her again—reminding her of that first night when she "danced a circle / and was not afraid." Once again, she addresses, "Mister?"—questioning where she is supposed to go, but this time without the words.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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