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(9 November 1928 – 4 October 1974 / Newton, Massachusetts)

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Music Swims Back to Me

Wait Mister. Which way is home?
They turned the light out
and the dark is moving in the corner.
........................
........................
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Comments about this poem (August 8th by Anne Sexton )

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  • Ingeborg Von Finsterwalde (3/1/2013 8:08:00 AM)

    She clearly describes being in a nursing homes section for the mentally unstable. Tied onto a chair! Four Ladies over eighty, sitting in diapers. She is in her own world dancing in a circle with the radio playing. If we are lucky, and few are, we can avoid this sad waiting room. Read her Biography and you understand where she is coming from…

    1 person liked.
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  • Ingeborg Von Finsterwalde (3/1/2013 7:59:00 AM)

    She clearly describes being in a nursing homes section for the mentally unstable. Tied onto a chair! Four Ladies over eighty, sitting in diapers. She is in her own world dancing in a circle with the radio playing. If we are lucky, and few are, we can avoid this sad waiting room.

  • Tiffany Anne Tondut (5/2/2012 10:26:00 AM)

    Music Swims Back to Me – A Close Reading

    The poem begins with its title, evoking themes of motion, fluidity, transience, return and self. Its flow of association swims with buoyancy, yet prospect of drowning. Music presently swims back to its source, the ‘self, ’ implying homecoming and remembrance, yet nothing besides music is remembered. Music is both personal and public – catchy songs are often referred to as being ‘stuck in our head’ to the point of driving us mad, implying further underlying themes of continuance, circulation and madness.
    Sexton opens with a commanding voice, then immediately back-peddles with a question for direction: ‘Wait mister. Which was is home? ’ Power is quickly negated. We move blindly into figurative darkness, ‘They turned the light out / and the dark is moving in the corner.’ Sexton’s use of enjambment drives us forward with the fluid motion we expect from her title. In total, there are thirteen lines of enjambment in the poem and only eleven end-stop periods. ‘They’ is a third person pronoun, suggesting both a personal and impersonal collective with whom we cannot identify, other than to associate negative imagery. The verse line is typically childish in tone, since children are afraid of darkness when parents turn out the light. Darkness appears to move in corners through fear of evil, yet the term ‘they turned the light out’ can be interpreted as an adult derogatory buzz-term for loosing one’s mind. Hence, the tone is dichotomously split between child-like fear and adult accusation. Sexton further implies a dichotomous child-adult speaker through the unhyphenated compound word ‘sign posts’: ‘There are no sign posts in this room, ’ A signpost denotes a figurative interpretation as either clues to enlightenment or an act of metaphysical guidance. Literally, it states the obvious – there would be no actual signposts in a room, only signs. Eight of the verse-lines begin with the conjunction ‘and’ - a child-like way to narrate a story. Through this, we can assume Sexton’s character as returning to her state of infancy.
    An undercurrent of dementia is detected in the following: ‘four ladies, over eighty, / in diapers every one of them.’ While ‘Mister’ and ‘they’ are sketchy, impersonal characters, these ladies are described in terms of sex, number, age and ‘diaper.’ The latter word further implies a return to infancy, although describing geriatric patients with toiletry aids. Yet it fails to entirely clarify the term ‘turning out the light’ as ‘losing one’s marbles’ with age, as the two listing commas present possible shifts in meaning:
    Perhaps there are four ladies and each lady is over eighty years old. Or there are four ladies, and then there are over eighty ladies in number (who can tell in the dark?) . Finally, there might be four ladies with a collective age of over eighty, making each approximately 20 years old.
    We are quickly distracted with a sudden outburst of singing, ‘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.’ We sing along breathlessly through Sexton’s strongest and longest point of enjambment. Through the childish, ambient protection of song, our speaker recounts her first night ‘in this private institution on a hill.’
    Retirement homes are not usually referred to as private institutions ‘on a hill’. Mental institutions usually are. The visual imagery of this line throws up an almost unavoidable exclamation mark! Atop its hill, the institution is elevated, pronounced, threatening. Sexton plays on our cultural pre-suppositions, pointing a dramatic verse-line finger up towards the stereotypical hammer-horror mental ward. Out of reach, but not out of sight, the unconscious looms shadow-like over, rather than behind, its conscious suburban demographic. Stanza one’s climactic revelation suspends us between stanzas with the technical grip of a cliff-hanging horror film.
    The following stanza represents a shift in consciousness, yet Sexton’s character remains in the same crazy clutch. ‘Imagine it. A radio playing / and everyone here was crazy’ commands stanza two, echoing the directness of the poem’s opening ‘Wait Mister.’ It is as though we’re looking back over our shoulder to previously issued words. The theme of return is played out again, anchoring us back in from unstable imagery. Here, we have music returning, or ‘playing’ the way children play, and the direct use of the word ‘crazy’. And yet, this crazy mise-en-scène isn’t concrete, since we are being told to imagine it. Sexton uses a period rather than a colon, semi-colon or comma after ‘Imagine it.’ and so she’s not directly instructing us to imagine anything, just ‘it.’ hinting at a mental lacuna.
    Stanza two is replete with sensual imagery, arresting connotative verbs and nouns, fluid senses, sharp textures, musical sounds and overwhelming synaesthesia: ‘music pours over the sense’, ‘music sees more than I.’ The latter suggests both confusion and clarity. The tone is almost orgasmic. Imagery from stanza one flows back as she remembers her ‘first night here’ - the institution becomes present, immediate and inclusive.
    For the first time, Sexton commits to violent metaphors: ‘strangled cold of November’, ‘stars strapped in the sky’, ‘moon too bright / forking through the bars to stick me with a singing in the head.’ Each metaphor conveys a repressed unconscious memory rising to its conscious surface. Psychologically, the music is linked with violent acts that Sexton’s character has possibly repressed since they prove too traumatic, as in the metaphorical too bright moon. In remembering and vocalising the music, her unconscious activities rise with it, fragmented and partial. Sexton affirms her psychological connection with the final line, ‘I have forgotten all the rest.’ Using well-known Freudian theory, it is simple and satisfying to understand the poem’s axis: Music constantly returns because it has replaced suppressed memories too traumatic to remember. However, as we’ve read, slippage occurs through a series of displaced violent associations. This way, Sexton implements psychology accurately, but also poetically, in revealing the possible causes of our character’s madness and subsequent institutionalisation. The ‘strangled cold’ implies attempted suicide or successful murder during the month of November.
    Down the left-hand side of this stanza we can see a total of five ‘I’s, forming a column of isolation. The isolated ‘I’ is locked ‘in this chair at 8am.’ presenting a repetitive return to consciousness and madness in stanza three’s opening. From lines two to nine, Sexton repeats key phrases from stanzas one and two. Everything returns, encircles and closes in with heightened drama: ‘and there are no signs to tell the way, ’, ‘the radio beating to itself’, ‘the song that remembers more than I.’ Notice how Sexton’s singing, ‘Oh, la la la, ’ is now situated on the right-hand side of the poem as opposed to the left. Its mirror image creates an elliptical effect, containing the poem’s body within its own figurative chair. Even the poem’s title is repeated, “music swims back to me”. Crucially Sexton writes “The night I came, I danced a circle / and was not afraid” reiterating line three of stanza two “I liked it and danced in a circle”. The poem is dancing with Sexton in a circle they cannot escape.
    The poem ends with ‘Mister? ’ returning full-circle to its opening. This is not an exit but an open-ended question, tying us in to the poem’s complications. Does Anne Sexton’s Mister exist? Did he exist at all or did we/she simply imagine him? This one word calls into question the entire poem’s existence – is anything that Sexton mentions throughout her verse real or is it a figment of her character’s insanity? Through Sexton’s brilliant use of language, imagery, form, punctuation and psychological mechanisms, she draws us into her fluid, unstable institution of uncertainty and loss of self.


    Bibliography.

    Sexton, Anne, Selected Poems of Anne Sexton, ed. Diana Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George (New York: First Mariner Books,2000) , p.12.

  • Samantha Wallace (3/2/2012 1:28:00 AM)

    Really moving poem with great imagery. Very descriptive emotionally. Great poem!

  • Joyce Yifith (3/1/2012 10:08:00 AM)

    Ahaha! Sexton rocks!

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