Derek Gentile: An ode to a poet

GREAT BARRINGTON — Thursday was the anniversary of the birth of the poet who made me, in part, what I am today, for better or worse.

I remember reading a poem by Anne Sexton when I was 13 years old. I actually found the poetry book at the old Adams dump. (This is another column, but for those who remember it, the old Adams dump was a treasure trove of weird junk!).

Anyway, there was a picture of a young, very lovely Anne Sexton on the cover of the book, which was called, "Live or Die."

I admit it: I wasn't too interested in the poetry; I wanted to see if there were any more pictures of this hot-looking girl in the book. (I was sensitive and artistic then; but shallow.) So I grabbed the book off a pile of other books to be recycled.

At the time, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In fact, I knew I wanted to work for a newspaper. I had a very specific agenda. I understood that there were genres such as poetry and fiction. I knew poetry and fiction were very popular for some readers. And that was fine. But for lack of a better term, I found that type of writing, well, not particularly useful. At least to me.

My idea of good writing was something like, "Frank Jones scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as the Hoosac Valley High boys basketball team defeated Drury, 65-60." Badda-bing, badda-boom. Very straightforward and informative. Anything more was just window dressing.

I got the Sexton book home. There were no more photos.The poetry was, at the time, depressing to me and I didn't read more than one or two. Stuck it somewhere in my room, probably in an old metal milk box I used to have. It had a cover on it, and I stuffed all kinds of reading material in there, but it was usually reading material I didn't plan on looking at anytime soon.

I revisited the book maybe two years later. Still sensitive, artistic and shallower than ever, I thought if I could memorize a few of the poems, I could use them to impress a girl. But these poems were pretty dark.

But as I read, over a couple nights, the way Sexton used words, it was like a slap in the face. "Lilies growing like yachts in a field," and "fish the color of old spoons," and "God has a brown voice, as soft and full as beer." Leapin' Lizards!

Without showing you the poems in their entirety, I'm not sure if I'm conveying what these words did to me. A lot. They helped me understand how to try to be more descriptive, but economic. Sexton wrote with a deep honesty about illness, and love and sex and the absurdity of life. To be so honest and say it so beautifully was what pulled me in. I wasn't as good. I'll never be as good as she was. But Anne Sexton informed my work as almost no one else.

Reach Derek Gentile at 413-854-8162 or by emailing


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