Questions Without Answers In “Is It True?” By Anne Sexton

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.

Mystery and the Thin Place in “Language Barrier” by Robert Penn Warren

In Robert Penn Warren’s book Being Here, the poem “Language Barrier” comes amid poems written from the quiet desk of a man who sees many of his active years as already behind him. He reflects on life and aging, on death and the afterlife, within natural imagery, often recalling moments from his past in which he had adventures in the wilderness. “Language Barrier” is one iteration of this, and it drew me in especially because of its ruminations on death and God.

I recently learned the term “thin place,” which is used in religious and spiritual circles to describe moments in which the boundary between the plane of human existence and a larger, eternal, and unseen plane grow very close to one another—in a thin place, the separation between God and the physical seems no more than a thin gauze. I think the scene Warren paints in “Language Barrier” is of one of his own experiences of a thin place.

Warren begins with a stanza of pure description, leaning heavily on “snow” and “blue,” both of which appear three times in five lines. There is a piercingness in the language, a pull between heat and cold—“snow-glitter, snow-gleam” on the peaks above, and waters below which “face upward to sky-flaming blue.” The landscape is anything but static: the “peaks scream joy”;  “the shelf falters, fails.” The mountains and cirques below are full of movement, perhaps even agency, and each element is in conversation with the others—the peaks screaming joy to the sun, the waters facing upward, the shelf, giving way under the great distance below and tumbling in a “tangle of stone.”

We see a world which speaks, perhaps of this struggle between warmth and cold, and Warren brings the struggle to a head in the first line of the second stanza in the simile “like Hell frozen,” which, if a bit cliché, also captures this deep dichotomy of good (or maybe joy—the joy of the peaks) struggling against evil, warmth and cold pitted against one another. The speaker as “I” never shows up in this poem; the closest Warren gets to an “I” is in the second stanza, when the speaker draws inward, reflecting on himself in relation to the landscape: “Alone, alone, / What grandeur here speaks?” Whereas the landscape is active, even interactive, the speaker stands apart, alone, but only for a moment because in the very next line, the speaker expands to include a larger humanity: “The world / Is the language we cannot utter. / Is it a language we can even hear?” I can’t help but pause in this space as a reader, thinking about the language of the world, especially as it relates to human destruction of the environment. The world has a language; we are separate from it. The world is active, alive, but because we don’t hear it speak, we don’t care enough about it to take good care of it.

At this point, Warren turns from the scene to a later time—“Years pass”—and now, the speaker addresses us in second person: “at night you may dream-wake / To that old altitude, breath thinning again to glory.” In this way, we move from “alone” to a collective “we” and then back to singularity, this time focused not on the speaker but outward, toward the audience. We are each of us alone, reflecting; but in our aloneness, we find similarity, a collective.

Additionally, time seems to have changed the landscape, perhaps dulling the awe to something less fierce, because it’s no longer “Hell frozen” but rather “glory.” I’m sure these word choices are not an accident; Warren is thinking about death. Perhaps, he is thinking about how as we age, if we live long enough to grow tired in our old bodies, death becomes less scary, dulls from terror to a welcome rest. Still, whether the world is hell or heaven, it remains a mystery, as much upon later reflection as upon that moment in the thin place. Warren writes, “What, / Long ago, did the world try to say?”

After these two middle stanzas that feel more meta, both of which end with questions, the fourth stanza mirrors the first in that Warren returns here to pure description, now of the homely scene from which the old body reflects: “The stars have changed position, a far train whistles / For crossing. Before the first twitter of birds.” In the fifth line, Warren shifts focus again from loneliness to the corporate experience, writing, “You may again drowse. Listen—we hear now / The creatures of gardens and lowlands.” This gathering together seems to me reminiscent of death again, perhaps of heaven or the garden of Eden. It is a waking from sleep—an image of returning to life, but in the context, it feels like an ending, a waking to an entirely different world.

And in this new world, the answers to the questions that the lonely humans ask of the world come clear, if not in the straightforward way we would prefer. The single-line final stanza reads, “It may be that God loves them, too.” The implication here, I think, is that God loves us—but just as much as God loves us, God also loves the world which is so mysterious to us. Our view, even from the thin places, is limited to what our lonely minds can imagine. And in poetry, such as this poem, I think we come as close as we can to understanding.


Warren, Robert Penn. “Language Barrier.” Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980, Random House, 1980, p. 72.