Anne Sexton’s The Awful Rowing Toward God is obsessive in that best of ways which all the best poetry is. Every poem contributes to the theme of the book, which creates an extremely satisfying whole. But calling this book “satisfying” may be misleading: it’s a book of hungers and questions. In the middle of the book is Sexton’s long poem “Is It True?” This poem is strategically placed as a centerpiece for the manuscript, illumining the central questions and themes of the book. A closer look at this poem is a good way to get a sense of Sexton’s big questions and feelings on this most existential question which the book poses: Is there a God? How can we know?
“Is It True?” is rife with repetitions. The poem swirls and circles. It moves us in and out of questions which never resolve, which is just how uncertainty presents itself in life. Sexton captures exactly how an existential crisis feels: the worry that we are not good enough, the search in every part of life for an answer that feels satisfying, the return again and again to that same question: “Is it true?”
The words “is it true” are repeated thirteen times in the poem. All but once Sexton creates couplets of “Is it true? / Is it true?” Every time the speaker seems to be approaching understanding of a sort, this refrain echoes. Interestingly, a little over halfway through the poem Sexton has these lines which break the refrain:
If religion were a dream, someone said, then it were still a dream worth dreaming. True! True! I whisper to my wood walls.
Sexton’s speaker searches everywhere for answers and the only one she seems sure of is that the search is worth it, even if the answers continue to elude.
Sexton repeats phrases within a stanza in ways that reference mantra, liturgy, or religious text. Three times she includes sections of blessing; first, blessing women’s rights; second, blessing “all useful objects”; and third, blessing animals and plants. Additional sections that feel like sacred texts include the repetition of the Hare Krishna mantra, a section of praise (“Let me now praise / the male of our species”), and the following intriguing section which reads like a prophesy:
In heaven, there will be a secret door, there will be flowers with eyes that wink, there will be light flowing from a bronze bell there will be as much love as there are cunners off the coast of Maine, there will be gold that no one hides from the Nazis, there will be statues that the angel inside of Michelangelo’s hand fashioned. I will lay open my soul and hear an answer.
The answer which follows I’ll examine later; for now, I am interested in how this section moves from enigmatic to specific. The first five of these lines could be pulled from the Bible or another religious text—maybe Hindu scriptures. Then, Sexton gets specific: “Maine” and “Nazis” put us firmly in the modern era and the new world. The prophet here is transformed from sacred mystery to something tangible and possible in contemporary times.
Sexton creates motifs which, in their insistence, begin to feel obsessive. One major theme in this poem is hunger and eating. In fact, the prophetic section quoted above concludes,
I will lay open my soul and hear an answer. Hello. Hello. It will call back, “Here’s a butter knife,” it will say. “So scrape off your hunger and the mud.”
Before this prophesy, Sexton has mentioned hunger, eating, or food at least five times. A notable example is when the speaker is asked “Whose God are you looking for?” and responds, “a starving man doesn’t ask what the meal is.” The idea returns another five or more times. “Eggs” specifically are mentioned three times, and “butter” is mentioned twice. The first mention of butter is above; it returns in the poem’s denouement:
Maybe I’m dead now and have found him. Maybe my evil body is done with. For I look up, and in a blaze of butter is Christ, soiled with my tears, Christ, a lamb that has been slain
The repeated “maybe” keeps the conclusion from holding the satisfaction of an unequivocal answer, but Sexton allow here for the possibility that the hunger—for answers, for something to truly fill the soul and body—is sated in Christ as meal, of sorts.
I must backtrack here to explain another motif throughout, a countermelody to the hunger and the blessings/praises: the body as evil and poisoned. Early in the poem, Sexton relays a conversation the speaker has with a priest about how she is evil. The priest doesn’t understand at first: “Do you mean sin? he asks,” and the speaker says, “What I mean is evil, / (not meaning to be, you understand, / just something I ate).” While the speaker is hungering after God, she seems also to be filled with evil. At other points, the evil is refenced as the devil, who “has crawled / in and out of me” and as shit, which “was poison / and the poison was all of me.” Just as the speaker longs to be filled with goodness, she feels filled with evil. This tension heightens the need for answers:
Because to one, shit is a feeder of plants, to another the evil that permeates them ...................................... So much for language. So much for psychology. God lives in shit – I have been told. I believe both. Is it true? Is it true?
Again here, all that can be repeated is the deepest question of the soul, “Is it true?” The tension between these differing viewpoints remains unresolved, leaving room for subjective truths.
Sexton ends this poem by returning to the book’s motif: the rowing of a boat upon the sea toward, as she calls it in the book’s final poem, “the island called God.” Here are the final lines of “Is It True?”:
Christ, a lamb that has been slain, his guts drooping like a sea worm, but who lives on, lives on like the wings of an Atlantic seagull. Though he has stopped flying, the wings go on flapping despite it all, despite it all.
If the speaker is upon the sea rowing, and God is the island, Jesus becomes here a third party, one who was blessed to be able to fly above the sea and island, separate. From his vantage, perhaps he knew the answers. But he also fell, was slain, became a meal for the speaker. Jesus, though, is not yet dead. Something continues to beat. And the book goes on, and the rowing goes on, and the questions remain unanswered in the poem, as they are in life.
Sexton, Anne. “Is It True?” The Awful Rowing Toward God, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975, pp. 48-57.
Sexton, Anne. “The Rowing Endeth.” The Awful Rowing Toward God, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975, pp. 85-86.