“Riding the Elevator Into the Sky”

Elevators have made their way into all kinds of popular media, even poetry. One poem in particular that makes extensive use of the elevator as metaphor is Anne Sexton’s “Riding the Elevator into the Sky,” originally published in the New Yorker, in the June 3, 1974 issue. It was published the next year in her eighth book of poetry, The Awful Rowing Toward God.


The poem starts off with a warning from a fireman not to get a hotel room above the fifth floor in New York, because no one will climb the ladder to reach a higher floor. An even more serious warning comes from the New York Times:

“The elevator always seeks out
the floor of the fire
and automatically opens
and won’t shut.”

But Sexton tells us that we need to ignore these warnings if we are looking for an outside view of ourselves, “if you’re climbing out of yourself./If you’re going to smash into the sky.” The “firemen” won’t climb more than five floors. No one can figure you out for yourself; you have to do the frightening and dangerous work of self exploration and transcendence. The elevator might be old and cranky. It might take you to the very floor you don’t want to go, but it’s the floor you need to go to.

Sexton admits that she’s gone up past the fifth floor many times, “but only once/have I gone all the way up.” On floors 60, 200 and 500, she’s seen many interesting things: “small plants and swans bending/into their grave,” patient mountains, “silence wearing its sneakers,” ancient messages and letters, “birds to drink,/a kitchen of clouds.” On floor 6,000 she finds stars singing:

“And a key,
a very large key,
that opens something—
some useful door—
up there.”

Her journey to the stars was not just an exercise in fantasy. She found a key to a useful door. On her first trip all the way up, she found a key. On her last trip, perhaps, the elevator will take her to the door.

You can read it for yourself at the Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keilor. You can also watch it performed at Cornelia Street Cafe, New York City, on January 28, 2013.

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