Poetry Analysis of "Admonitions to a Special Person"
Anne Sexton was an American poet born in 1928. She was plagued by mental health problems and in 1957 a doctor told her that she should renew her high-school interest in poetry, hoping it would help her to endure her illness. Sexton won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1967 and committed suicide in 1974. She is considered a “confessional” poet because her verse -- such as you see in “Admonitions to a Special Person” -- seems to speak from experience and is intensely personal.
The first six stanzas of this poem are very regular in structure. They all begin with the phrase “Watch out for.” The rhetorical device used in the first six stanzas is anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive statements. You might want to think about why Sexton chooses to emphasize the negative -- that is, “don’t do this” -- rather than give advice about what the reader should do. Do you think her outlook on life negative or realistic?
Sexton consistently follows the phrase “Watch out for” with an abstract word-concept: power, hate, friends, intellect, games and love. In stanza 3, the reader is warned to watch out for friends. Everyone can grasp the meaning of the concepts of “friends” and “friendship,” but in reality, most people would be hard-pressed to agree on any particular definition. The end of this stanza uses an interesting rhetorical device called dysphemism, which is the opposite of euphemism. Instead of simply writing, “Your friends will leave you,” Sexton chooses to make the action sound more offensive than it actually is: “[Your friends] will bury their heads in the toilet / and flush themselves away.”
A second line containing anthropomorphism, the bestowing of human attributes on things that aren't human, follows all of the word concepts except for friends in stanza 3. For example, in stanza 4, “Watch out for the intellect because it knows so much it knows nothing,” the intellect itself -- and not the person doing the thinking -- is described as “knowing.” The intellect is not fully personified because it is still referred to as “it” and not “he” or “she.” The second line uses a paradox: How can somebody know so much that they know nothing? This particular paradox is known as a Socratic paradox, “I know that I know nothing,” and alludes to the work of Plato.
Where there is second line anthropomorphism in “Admonitions,” it is followed by an analogy, that is, a reasoning from parallel cases. In stanza 1, trying to obtain power is compared to the risk of climbing a mountain. There is a real possibility that you will be hit by an avalanche: “snow, snow, snow, smothering your mountain.” You could argue that this is, instead, a metaphor; however, metaphors tend to be implicit and compare two dissimilar things. It is very easy to see how trying to obtain power is just as dangerous as mountain climbing. The rhetorical device used in repetition of the word “snow” -- because there are no intervening words -- is called epizeuxis.
When the tone of a poem suddenly changes, you can call it a volta, which means “a turn.” Although “Admonitions” is not a sonnet, there is still an abrupt change of tone from pessimistic to optimistic. This change in tone is foreshadowed by a parenthetical remark in stanza 6: “Watch out for love /(unless it is true […]).” This is the first time Sexton has hinted at a positive statement. The true volta comes at the beginning of stanza 7, which, unlike all the previous stanzas, begins with a questioning: “Love?” You can read this as an example of apostrophe: a changing-of-subject or interruption. The last two stanzas, 8 and 9, sustain the more optimistic tone, although an element of conflicting desires -- highlighted by the word “but” -- is introduced: “Oh special person,/possible leaves,/this typewriter likes you on the way to them,/but wants to break crystal glasses/in celebration.”
Based in Montreal, Emily Valentine has been editing academic papers and writing short stories since 2001. She is a contributing writer to Synonym.com, and various other websites. She holds an Honors Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Toronto. Her specialties include writing fiction and nonfiction, and the history of the English language.