April is National Poetry Month: “Ghosts” by Anne Sexton

I know you won't be surprised that I begin
 National Poetry Month with a poem about ghosts.   

Ghosts - by Anne Sexton

Some ghosts are women,
neither abstract nor pale,
their breasts as limp as killed fish.
Not witches, but ghosts
who come, moving their useless arms
like forsaken servants.

Not all ghosts are women,
I have seen others;
fat, white-bellied men,
wearing their genitals like old rags.
Not devils, but ghosts.
This one thumps barefoot, lurching
above my bed.

But that isn't all.
Some ghosts are children.
Not angels, but ghosts;
curling like pink tea cups
on any pillow, or kicking,
showing their innocent bottoms, wailing
for Lucifer.

Anne Sexton (photo by Elsa Dorfman)

Anne Sexton (1928 – 1974)

American poet Anne Sexton who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for Live or Die, was only 46 when she lost her battle with mental illness and committed suicide in 1974.

Sexton offers the reader an intimate view of the emotional anguish that characterized her life. She made the experience of being a woman a central issue in her poetry, and though she endured criticism for bringing subjects such as menstruation, abortion, and drug addiction into her work, her skill as a poet transcended the controversy over her subject matter.


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24 Responses to April is National Poetry Month: “Ghosts” by Anne Sexton

  1. kvennarad says:

    ‘… her skill as a poet transcended the controversy over her subject matter’ – one can see why!

    Marie Marshall

  2. magsx2 says:

    I didn’t know it was National Poetry Month, what a great idea.
    I read the poem through a couple of times it certainly is a bit out of the norm, but very well written. I sense she writes for impact on that bases it was a very good poem indeed. 🙂

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Mags,
      Do you have a National Poetry month in Oz? We take ours very seriously.

      I don’t expect many people reading a poem written by a female would expect to see a line describing women thus
      their breasts as limp as killed fish
      Not what I’d call a “sweet” image.

      • magsx2 says:

        I am sure we don’t, we have poetry prizes in some schools yearly, but not like what you have over there.

      • dearrosie says:

        I’m so glad to be able to include Australia in our National Poetry Month Mags. I think it’s important that people never forget the power of poetry.
        I’ll be sharing more poems this month. I promise none of them will be as dark as this one.

        I’ve shared some background to Anne Sexton on some of the other comments which you may be interested to see.

  3. That is a powerful piece of work – thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  4. I struggle with poetry, not a form I understand very well. Like Mags, I read this one a few times, trying to get a sense of where she was going, what she was trying to get across to her readers. I’m afraid I only got as far as the actual words, not what the underlying intent was. Do you happen to know what year she wrote this? I wonder if it was towards the end of her life, when she might have had the most mental health demons, already contemplating suicide, that ghosts would be her subject.

    Thanks for enlightening us Rosie.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi EOS,
      I don’t know the year that she wrote this.
      Much of Anne Sexton’s poetry is autobiographical and many of her poems record her battles with mental illness.

      “After giving birth to her first daughter in 1953 Anne Sexton was diagnosed with postpartum depression and had a mental breakdown, and in 1955, following the birth of her second daughter, she suffered another breakdown and was hospitalized again, and also attempted suicide.
      She spent many years in psychoanalysis, including several long stays in mental hospitals.”


  5. Wow .. what a poem! I’ve read Anne Sexton’s poems before but I didn’t realize that she lived such a sad life and struggled so with mental illness. Like EOSR, I agree, it’s certainly abstract but such powerful imagery … and certainly in your Ghosts vein, Rosie!!!

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Betty,
      Her imagery is among the most powerful I’ve seen.
      When you see you’re reading a poem by a female poet with a title “ghost” you don’t expect lines like
      “their breasts as limp as killed fish”


      fat, white-bellied men,
      wearing their genitals like old rags”

  6. shoreacres says:

    Perhaps this only proves I’m not very sophisticated, or it may be I’ve lived long enough to have gained the courage of my choices, but two times through this one was enough. I’m no Pollyanna, and I’m not averse to exploring the darker side of life. But there are television shows I won’t watch, movies I’ll not buy a ticket for and websites I avoid. I happened to bump into Sexton’s “A Curse Against Elegies” a couple of months ago, and was reminded why I don’t read her.

    I am glad for the reminder that it’s poetry month – I had marked it a couple of years ago, but just forgot it this year. I’ll have to remedy that!

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Linda
      I also don’t watch certain movies or TV shows. I’m very sorry I upset you.
      Anne Sexton’s kind of poetry which unveils the poet’s innermost feelings, is called “confessional poetry”

      I don’t know her poem “A curse Against Elegies” so I looked for it. I agree with you that I don’t like it. It begins:

      “Oh, love, why do we argue like this?
      I am tired of all your pious talk.
      Also, I am tired of all the dead.
      They refuse to listen,
      so leave them alone.
      Take your foot out of the graveyard,
      they are busy being dead.”

  7. I’m glad you added in the information about her mental fragility–the poem itself was indeed unsettling to me. Such a tragedy! I was familiar with Sexton only as a notable name, probably at one point hearing of her awards. This was so dark, and perhaps all of her poetry is, but I’d be curious to read something else. I have a feeling she’s not for me…but I am curious! National Poetry month—Garrison Keillor keeps me informed 🙂 Good for you for passing the baton! Debra

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Debra,
      I think it’s important to remind folks about poetry.

      Erica Jong wrote about Anne Sexton:

      “She is an important poet not only because of her courage in dealing with previously forbidden subjects, but because she can make the language sing. Of what does [her] artistry consist? Not just of her skill in writing traditional poems…. But by artistry, I mean something more subtle than the ability to write formal poems. I mean the artist’s sense of where her inspiration lies…. There are many poets of great talent who never take that talent anywhere…. They write poems which any number of people might have written. When Anne Sexton is at the top of her form, she writes a poem which no one else could have written.”


  8. Sybil says:

    Yipes ! She was definitely a “glass half-empty” sorta poet wasn’t she ? I couldn’t read much of her stuff.

    I’m an emotional sponge. Saw “Sophie’s Choice” 25 years ago and still get so sad just thinking about it.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Sybil,
      Look at the Erica Jong quote about Anne Sexton’s poetry that I included in my reply to Debra.

      “….When Anne Sexton is at the top of her form, she writes a poem which no one else could have written.”

  9. Nandini says:

    I didn’t know that either. Nice post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    And also thanks for taking time to visit my blog, I REALLY loved that! 🙂

    • dearrosie says:

      Hello Nandini,
      I really appreciate that you took the time to leave a comment and didn’t just click the “like” button.

      I love your blog. I plan to visit you more often 🙂

  10. Sorry I’m so late to this discussion… I kind of sense a common theme in “Ghosts” and “A Curse Against Elegies.” So often when someone dies we start speaking of them as if they were saints rather than flawed humans like the rest of us. There is a taboo in our culture against speaking ill of the dead. The poet seems to be railing against this notion by suggesting to us that death doesn’t necessarily transform someone into a beautiful person, that character flaws (the breasts as limp as killed fish and genitals like old rags) likely go along with the departed, as ours will go with us in turn. I think she was on to something, much as we recoil from the idea…

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Barbara,
      You’re going to be very surprised getting a reply from me FOUR years late. Funny that you apologized for joining the discussion late. My apologies – I don’t know how I missed your comment. Better late than never.

      I love what you said. We do tend to speak of the newly departed as saints and we don’t like it when someone is honest and mentions their genitals limp as old rags and not their wonderful kind deeds.

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