domingo, 6 de agosto de 2017

Anne Sexton

(1928 - 1967)

Anne Gray Harvey was born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1928. She attended Garland Junior College for one year and married Alfred Muller Sexton II at age nineteen. She enrolled in a modeling course at the Hart Agency and lived in San Francisco and Baltimore. In 1953 she gave birth to a daughter. In 1954 she was diagnosed with postpartum depression, suffered her first mental breakdown, and was admitted to Westwood Lodge, a neuropsychiatric hospital she would repeatedly return to for help. In 1955, following the birth of her second daughter, Sexton suffered another breakdown and was hospitalized again; her children were sent to live with her husband's parents. That same year, on her birthday, she attempted suicide.
           She was encouraged by her doctor to pursue an interest in writing poetry she had developed in high school, and in the fall of 1957 she enrolled in a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. In her introduction to Anne Sexton's Complete Poems, the poet Maxine Kumin, who was enrolled with Sexton in the 1957 workshop and became her close friend, describes her belief that it was the writing of poetry that gave Sexton something to work towards and develop and thus enabled her to endure life for as long as she did. In 1974 at the age of 46, despite a successful writing career--she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for Live or Die--she lost her battle with mental illness and committed suicide.
           Like Robert Lowell, Sylvi Plath, W.D. Snodgrass (who exerted a great influence on her work), and other "confessional" poets, Sexton offers the reader an intimate view of the emotional anguish that characterized her life. She made the experience of being a woman a central issue in her poetry, and though she endured criticism for bringing subjects such as menstruation, abortion, and drug addiction into her work, her skill as a poet transcended the controversy over her subject matter.

Anne Sexton's Life

by Linda Wagner-Martin
sextondesk.jpg (10939 bytes)
Sexton, Anne Gray Harvey (9 Nov. 1928-4 Oct. 1974), poet and playwright, was born in Newton, Massachusetts, the daughter of Ralph Harvey, a successful woolen manufacturer, and Mary Gray Staples. Anne was raised in comfortable middle-class circumstances in Weston, Massachusetts, and at the summer compound on Squirrel Island in Maine, but she was never at ease with the life prescribed for her. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother's literary aspirations had been frustrated by family life. Anne took refuge from her dysfunctional family in her close relationship with "Nana" (Anna Dingley), her maiden great-aunt who lived with the family during Anne's adolescence. Sexton's biographer, Diane Middlebrook, recounts possible sexual abuse by Anne's parents during her childhood; at the very least, Anne felt that her parents were hostile to her and feared that they might abandon her. Her aunt's later breakdown and hospitalization also traumatized her.

Anne disliked school. Her inability to concentrate and occasional disobedience prompted teachers to urge her parents to seek counseling for her--advice her parents did not take. In 1945 they sent her to Rogers Hall, a boarding school in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she began to write poetry and to act. After graduation she briefly attended what she called a "finishing" school. Anne's beauty and sense of daring attracted many men, and at nineteen she eloped with Alfred "Kayo" Sexton II, even though she was engaged to someone else at the time. Then followed years of living as college student newlyweds, sometimes with their parents. Later, during Kayo's service in Korea, Anne became a fashion model. Her infidelities during her husband's absence led to her entering therapy. In 1953 Anne gave birth to a daughter, and Kayo took a job as a traveling salesman in Anne's father's business.
Depressed after the death of her beloved Nana in 1954 and the birth of her second daughter in 1955, Sexton went back into therapy. Her depression worsened, however, and during times when her husband was gone, she occasionally abused the children. Several attempts at suicide led to intermittent institutionalization, of which her parents disapproved. During these years, Sexton's therapist encouraged her to write.
In 1957 Sexton joined several Boston writing groups, and she came to know such writers as Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, George Starbuck, and Sylvia Plath. Her poetry became central to her life, and she mastered formal techniques that gained her wide attention. In 1960 To Bedlam and Part Way Back was published to good reviews. Such poems as "You, Doctor Martin," "The Bells," and "The Double Image" were often anthologized. Like such other so-called confessional poets as W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell, Sexton was able to convince her readers that her poems echoed her life; not only was her poetry technically excellent, but it was meaningful to the midcentury readers who lived daily with similar kinds of fear and angst.
In 1959 Sexton unexpectedly lost both of her parents, and the memory of her difficult relationships with them--so abruptly ended--led to further breakdowns. Poetry seemed the only route to stability, though at times the friendships she made through her art, which led to sexual affairs, also were unsettling. Her marriage was torn by discord and physical abuse as her husband saw his formerly dependent wife become a celebrity.
In 1962 Sexton published All My Pretty Ones. So popular was her poetry in England that an edition of Selected Poems was published there as a Poetry Book Selection in 1964. In 1967 Sexton received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Live or Die (1966), capping her accumulation of honors such as the Frost Fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference (1959), the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship (1961), the Levinson Prize (1962), the American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship (1963), the Shelley Memorial Prize (1967), and an invitation to give the Morris Gray reading at Harvard. To follow were a Guggenheim Fellowship, Ford Foundation grants, honorary degrees, professorships at Colgate University and Boston University, and other distinctions.
Sexton's reputation as poet peaked with the publication of Love Poems (1969), an off-Broadway production of her play Mercy Street (1969), and the publication of prose poems in Transformations (1972). Clearly her most feminist work, the pieces in Transformations spoke to a different kind of reader. The Sexton voice was now less confessional and more critical of cultural practices, more inclined to look outside the poet's persona for material. In 1963 Sexton had traveled in Europe, and in 1966 she and Kayo had gone on an African safari. In 1970 she had helped him start a business of his own after he broke associations with her father's former company. Contrary to her seemingly confident public manner, however, Sexton was heavily dependent on therapists, medications, close friends--particularly Maxine Kumin and, later, Lois Ames--and lovers. Continual depressive bouts, unexpected trance states, and comparatively frequent suicide attempts kept her family and friends watchful and unnerved. Finally, in 1973, Sexton told Kayo she wanted a divorce, and from that time on a noticeable decline in her health and stability occurred as loneliness, alcoholism, and depression took their toll.
Estranged from many of her former friends, Sexton became difficult for her maturing daughters to deal with. Aware that many of her readers did not like the religious poetry that she had recently begun writing with her more personal themes, Sexton became nervous about her poetry. Readings had always terrified her, but now she employed a rock group to back up her performances. She forced herself to be an entertainer, while her poems grew more and more privately sacral. In 1972 she published The Book of Folly and, in 1974, the ominously titled The Death Notebooks. Later that year, she completed The Awful Rowing toward God, published posthumously in 1975. Divorced and living by herself, Sexton was lonely and seemed to be searching for compassion through love affairs. She continued to be in psychotherapy, from which she evidently gained little solace. In October 1974, after having lunched with Maxine Kumin, Sexton asphyxiated herself with carbon monoxide in her garage in Boston.
Other posthumous collections of her poems include 45 Mercy Street (1976) and Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (1978), both edited by Linda Gray Sexton. The publication of Sexton's work culminated in The Complete Poems in 1981. Sexton also wrote important essays about poetry and made insightful comments in her many interviews. She understood the fictive impulse, the way the writer uses both fact and the imagination in creation; and, like Wallace Stevens, she saw her art as the "supreme fiction," the writer's finest accomplishment. Much of what Sexton wrote was in no way autobiographical, despite the sense of reality it had, and thus criticisms of her writing as "confessional" are misleading. She used her knowledge of the human condition--often painful, but sometimes joyous--to create poems readers could share. Her incisive metaphors, the unexpected rhythms of her verse, and her ability to grasp a range of meaning in precise words have secured Sexton's good reputation. Though comparatively short, her writing career was successful, as was her art.
Anne Sexton's papers are housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. The authorized biography is Diane Wood Middlebrook, Anne Sexton: A Biography (1991), controversial in part because of the information supplied by Sexton's first therapist. The major critical study is Diana Hume George, Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton (1987). Collections of criticism by various critics are Diana Hume George, Sexton: Selected Criticism (1988); J. D. McClatchy, Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics (1978); Frances Bixler, Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton (1988); Steven E. Colburn,Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale (1988); and Linda Wagner-Martin, Critical Essays on Anne Sexton (1989).
Cameron Northouse and Thomas P. Walsh published Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: A Reference Guide (1974), but no complete bibliography exists. Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diane Hume George coeditedSelected Poems of Anne Sexton (1988), and Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames edited Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977). Steven E. Colburn edited No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose(1985), a collection of Sexton's previously published prose.
Source: ; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Sun Mar 18 18:01:55 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved

A Sexton Chronology

Compiled with information supplied by Diane Wood Middlebrook

1928 Born Anne Gray Harvey on November 9 in Newton, Massachusetts.
1934-47 Educated in Wellesley public schools; graduated from Rogers Hall, Lowell, Massachusetts.
1947 Attended the Garland School, a Boston finishing school for women.
1948 August 16: eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton 11 ("Kayo").
1949-52 Lived in Boston area, with brief residence in Cochituate, Baltimore, and San Francisco.
1953 July 21: Linda Gray Sexton born.
1954 July 15: Anna Ladd Dingley ("Nana" ) died at age eighty-six.
1955 August 5: Joyce Ladd Sexton born.

1956 July13-August 3: hospitalized for treatment of anxiety; children sent to grandmothers.

1957 January: enrolled in John Holmes's poetry workshop at Boston Center for Adult Education. Met Maxine Kumin.
1958 Scholarship to Antioch Writers' Conference to work with W. D. Snodgrass. Began attending Robert Lowell's writing seminar at Boston University. Met George Starbuck.
1959 January: Sylvia Plath joined Lowell's seminar. March 10: Mary Gray Staples died of cancer. May 19: Houghton Mifflin accepted To Bedlam and Part Way Back for publication. June 3: Ralph Churchill Harvey died of cerebral hemorrhage, August: received Robert Frost Fellowship to attend Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

1960 April: To Bedlam and Part Way Back published) nominated for National Book Award. June-July: courses in modern literature with Irving Howe and Philip Rahv at Brandeis University.

1961 Began writing play. Appointed to Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study.

1962 October: All My Pretty Ones published; nominated for National Book Award. November: Levinson Prize from Poetry.

1963 May 22: awarded traveling fellowship by American Academy of Arts and Letters. August 22-October 27: tour of Europe with neighbor Sands Robart.

1964 Selected Poems published in England. September-March 1965: Ford Foundation grant for residence with the Charles Playhouse, Boston.

1965 Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, London. Received the first literary magazine travel award from the International Congress of Cultural Freedom.

1966 August: hunting safari in Kenya with Kayo Sexton.

1967 May: awarded Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die. Shelley Award from the Poetry Society of America.

1968 July: formed rock group "Anne Sexton and Her Kind." Taught poetry at McLean's Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

1969 April: Guggenheim Fellowship for work on play Mercy Street, produced at American Place Theater, New York City, October 8-November 21. Began teaching at Boston University and conducting workshops for Oberlin College Independent Study students.

1970 June: honorary doctor of letters, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts.

1972 Promoted to full professor at Boston University. May-June: Crashaw Chair in Literature at Colgate University. Honorary doctor of letters, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Connecticut.
1973 May 5: Transformations in opera version by Conrad Susa premiered by the Minneapolis Opera Company. August: lectured at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
1974 October 4: died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her home.
from Sexton: Selected Criticism. Ed. Diana Hume George. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reprinted by permission.

On Sexton's Career -- by Diana Hume George

Diana Hume George
Anne Sexton's poetry tells stories that are immensely significant to mid-twentieth-century artistic and psychic life. Sexton understood her culture's malaise through her own, and her skill enabled her to deploy metaphorical structures at once synthetic and analytic, In other words, she assimilated the superficially opposing but deeply similar ways of thinking represented by poetry and psychoanalysis. Sexton explored the myths by and through which our culture lives and dies: the archetypal relationships among mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, gods and humans, men and women. She perceived, and consistently patterned in the images of her art, the paradoxes deeply rooted in human behavior and motivation. Her poetry presents multiplicity and simplicity, duality and unity, the sacred and the profane, in ways that insist on their similarities--even, at times, their identity. In less abstract terms, Sexton made explicit the intimacy of forces persistently treated as opposites by the society she lived in.
I appreciate the intention of statements made since her death that caution readers against becoming enamored of Sexton's illness and that encourage concentration on the celebratory aspects of her poetry. But another cautionary note is perhaps in order: that readers not ignore the expression of poetic and personal anguish for which the celebration is counterpart and foil. "The soul is, I think, a human being who speaks with the pressure of death at his head," Sexton wrote in a 1963 letter. Her poems articulate some of the deepest dilemmas of her contemporaries about their--our--most basic fears and wishes. Although Sexton's canon reaches for the unities of human experience, she did not abandon duality, even dichotomy. Poets must transcend us in some ways to be counted great of mind, but they must also be of us. Her poems vibrate in that energetic, passionate area between everlasting certainty and everlasting doubt. When she perceived the sameness of everything, it was against the background of the difference; when she perceived the difference, it was in reference to the sameness--just as metaphor, the imaging of connectedness, always implies a prior discontinuity.
Sexton flashed a sparkling, multiple light on human faces from the beginning of her writing career until the month of her death. For seventeen years she spoke in a direct, intimate way of people she loved. Her concentration on human relationships produced sharp, masterful portraits of people who were worth keeping alive, or worth resurrecting. That they were often "all her pretty ones" creates part of her poetry's poignancy. Her personal relationship to many of those who people the world of her poems amplifies the resounding creation of whole, complicated characters whose compelling presence is perhaps more deeply artful for having been lived. If many of Sexton's people had not so lived, her skill and art would have been solely responsible for breathing the life into them. As it was, she most often worked from the life and perhaps must share her credit with those who died before her and those who have outlived her: her mother, her father, her daughters, her husband, her lovers, her aunt, her grandfather, and her remarkable friends. I am glad there was or is an Eleanor Boylan, whatever name she bears.
When Sexton tells her dead father that she will bend down her strange face to his and forgive him, she is speaking of what we all need to do: to bend down our faces to our fathers, living or dead, and forgive them. When she calls her mother her mocking mirror, her overthrown love, her first image, she speaks for all of us of woman born and first nurtured against "her plump and fruity skin." When she becomes the child of "elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight," she is the child in all of us, recapturing those moments when "love grew rings around me." When she says to her daughter, "Everything in your body that is new is telling the truth," she may be transcribing what she said to her daughter; she is also expressing for the collective mothers of her readership what we all want to be saying to our daughters, what we sometimes have not the courage or the attentiveness to say. The mother of "life is not in my hands" tells a terrible truth, but she is also the mother of "Darling, stand still at your door, sure of yourself, a white stone, a good stone. . . . " This is a mother who tells the truth, one who gives you "the images I know."
In her lively, lonely telling of her truth, in her giving of the images she knew, Sexton looked for "uncomplicated hymns/but love has none." So the daughter who has loved and watched her mother closely enough to see "that blaze within the pilgrim woman" will also confess that this most important death does not equip her with grief. The friend who watches Eleanor Boylan talking with God, "as close as the ceiling," will warn her to speak quickly, "before death uses you up." The great aunt who climbed Mount San Salvatore, that "yankee girl, the iron interior of her sweet body," will one day careen into the streets and stop passersby "to mumble your guilty love while your ears die."
In "Her Kind" and "The Black Art," Sexton characterizes the poet as one who feels too much, thinks too much, and lives in an atmosphere of "weird abundance." In a 1966 letter she writes about the abundance that "runs wild with love as cancer." Sexton did, in some respects, connect the sources of poetic inspiration with death. Certainly the connections between extremist art and suicide as a form of poetic destiny have been destructively romanticized. My intention in raising the point is not to confirm it but to suggest something that it indicates. The limited extent to which Sexton connected art and self-destruction may have been symptomatic of her illness. I think she would have agreed: "Suicide is the opposite of the poem." That she might have felt called upon to fulfill a poetic as well as personal destiny by suicide--and I do not necessarily think she did--is better viewed as symptomatic of the cultural conditions she so clearly perceived and lived with.
Poets are among the few whom our culture still invests with a ritual function. We ask them to speak the unspeakable for us, and when they do, we are capable of effecting a violently negative transference. Critical response to Sexton's poetry seems to me to bear this out. Particularly if the poet has exposed our pain, seen into our darkest selves, we need to purge ourselves of the violating member, to punish the one who has broken boundaries and violated taboos. That Christianity depends for salvation on a sacrificial lamb whose death permits us to abrogate responsibility for the human failings we call "sin" speaks of our need to transfer guilt. Sexton's identifications with the crucified Christ sometimes have the ring of a self-aggrandizing and self-appointed martyrdom. But to whatever extent she may have been martyred, it was at the invitation, if not the insistence, of an exceptionally hungry audience.
Yet we are angry with Anne Sexton for killing herself, partly because she is the same poet who wrote with such commitment and intensity of the delight of being alive. If Sylvia Plath was always removed from her readership by the consistency of her "dead hands, dead stringencies," if she was always somehow beyond the merely human, always "the arrow, the dew that flies/Suicidal, at one with the drive," Sexton was not always so. Before and after she was sometimes that, she was also the mother of "Little Girl," the lover of "Us," the daughter of "Oysters," the child of "Young." She spoke to us of celebration of the sun, that "excitable gift," of all the wicked, pure, lovely fun of being alive. Perhaps we could not tolerate knowing that this was the same woman who saw "rats in the toilet." If she was more clearly one of us, then her defection was more serious. It endangered us more deeply. She was an anomaly, a fish with wings.
Many of the qualities of Sexton's poetry so often seen as inconsistent I see as part of the vitalizing struggle to make of her art a salvation both spiritual and bodily. Much like the early Blake, Anne Sexton moved between contraries with equal force, equal conviction, and equal doubt. One can experience disappointment or frustration in the presence of such vacillation and label it a failure of nerve or will or imagination--or one can experience it, as I do, as one’s own truth. To make it more concrete: if you think linearly about the building of a body of truth, then you must think only in terms of progress and regress. Anne Sexton comes to happy resolutions repeatedly in her work, from poem to poem, volume to volume. Live or Die is structured in just such a pleasing, simple shape: after a struggle with destruction, it ends with the affirmation of life. Yet in subsequent volumes she backslides continuously, seeming to erase her previous truths, to compromise them, or to give them up. In the early All My Pretty Ones, Sexton first forgives her father. In later works she sometimes appears to renege on that forgiveness and to exhume the old ghost she had, we thought, laid to rest. In a literary and moral tradition presided over by Paradise Lost followed by Paradise Regained, and a theological one structured by the external resurrection of a crucified god, the linear progression of truth is denied by the return of the ghost from eternal rest.
The wish that art may carve into permanent perfection either our hope or our despair is understandable but too limiting. There is ample room in my own notion of poetry for the repeated reflections of that imperfectibility that separates humans from the gods they create. The repetition of a set of emotional and mental acts is central to Anne Sexton's poetry and represents a striving after personal and poetic catharsis that is never quite achieved, even when it is claimed. Her poetry enacts the repetition compulsion that may justly be called thanatopic from one perspective. From another, the movement that seems repetitive represents an intricate tension between contraries that is at the core of all creative process.
From Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the Unviersity of Illinois. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Diana Hume George
An Overview of Sexton's Canon

Anne Sexton would have been sixty years old in November 1988. When she died in 1974, her reputation as an important member of a misnamed and misapprehended movement in modem American poetry was secured. She had become almost entirely identified with the controversial "confessional school," and she was generally regarded as among that mode's most accomplished practitioners. In company with such poets as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and W. D. Snodgrass, she had risen to fame well beyond the boundaries of New England. She received the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards, including nomination for the National Book Award, and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Ford Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She taught at Radcliffe and Harvard, lectured at Bread Loaf, held the Crashaw Chair at Colgate University, and was a full professor at Boston University by 1972. She was much in demand on the poetry reading circuit, where her flamboyant, dramatic performances were celebrated and criticized.
Yet the confessional label had become a trap that prevented readers and critics from interpreting the range of her achievement. Poetic typecasting did not prevent Sexton from writing poems that reached beyond the personal boundaries that ostensibly formed the confessional territory; it merely kept readers from noticing that she had done so. Robert Lowell escaped confinement because of his established reputation and his stature as a major modern poet before the publication of Life Studies, the single volume usually cited to mark the beginning of the confessional movement. Sylvia Plath's early death and the strategic release of her late poetry over a period of years combined to make her a cult poet, but one whose niche in the academy was well carved and well deserved. W. D. Snodgrass has long since moved far away from the style and subject that first brought him renown. Only Sexton seemed identified with and limited by the confines of the moment that had given her poetic birth.
The academic feminist movement has been central to a reconsideration of this misdirected judgment. At first feminism's appropriation of Sexton was superficial and constituted another form of limitation. Anthologies of poetry by women kept her work visible, but the selections were predictable and limited to a few poems that celebrated feminist subjects or reflected feminist concerns. "Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman" and "In Celebration of My Uterus" are examples of good work by Sexton kept before a large public. Recent feminist approaches, such as the ones represented in this collection of essays, have cracked open the critical bell jar to clarify the range of her themes, the territory of her poetics, and the radical nature of her vision.
Sexton's early poetry dealt with her recovery from a mental breakdown, the deaths of her parents, her relationship to her daughters, and her suicidal impulses. To Bedlam and Part Way Back documented the breakdown and constituted a poetic declaration of independence. The second part of Bedlam begins with "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further," which asserted her determination to pursue the dangerous poetic path that her mentor had urged her to abandon. The second volume, All My Pretty Ones, continued to deal with themes established in Bedlam, but its major concern was the loss of the beloved others that gave the speaker her fragile sense of identity.
In the early work the confessional label is useful, if limiting. If Lowell and Snodgrass are the fathers of confessional poetry, it is legitimate to claim for Sexton the role of mother. She served her apprenticeship as a daughter figure to both male poets, but they could not validate, on behalf of the reading public, the excruciatingly female statements she was making on behalf of herself and other women. She repeatedly acknowledged her debts to both Lowell and Snodgrass, specifying that the latter's "Heart's Needle" had given her "permission" to write about loss, neurosis, even madness.
That permission could not extend to writing about such experiences from a female point of view, and early criticism of her work clarifies the strength of the special resistance of the critical and poetic establishments to such revelations. We are accustomed to thinking that Sylvia Plath was the first of the female moderns to break these taboos, but, in fact, Sexton was writing in the personal mode well before Plath, and she probably served as an enabling model for some of Plath's more celebrated work.
Her third book, Live or Die, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was concerned with a progress from sickness toward health; she was, after all, only "part way back" from Bedlam. While the poetically successful shape of the collection constituted a fiction--Sexton experienced remission in her emotional difficulties but obviously not "cure"--it was a powerful one that spoke to many readers. Love Poems, thematically tight and popular, was organized around the project of building a "love's body" through the mediation and transforming power of the beloved.
Critics have located a shift in theme, subject, and style in Sexton's fifth volume, Transformations. This collection of modernized fairy tales uses the Grimm brothers' versions of culturally resonant myths to suggest that their meanings are both different from and darker than the public that consumed them had imagined. The volume's title is an elaborate pun; each of the tales turns on a magical transformation, and Sexton transformed each one further in two respects: she updated their contexts and language to point out their applications to and parallels with modern life, and she exposed the dark psychic core of each tale in ways that inverted or even reversed their normative meanings.
In Sexton's hands a genre that appears radically to reverse the normal social order in which the poor become rich, the ugly become beautiful, and the powerless gain power is exposed as deeply conservative in values and reflective of massive anxieties about gender. This was the first, but not the last, time that Anne Sexton engaged in a radical critique of cultural values. In this case Sexton anticipated (and in some respects bettered) cultural analysts such as Bruno Bettelheim.
While Transformations marks a shift in style and approach, it is important to recognize that Sexton is still dealing with the subjects that have concerned her from the start: personal transformations from housewife to poet, from sanity to madness, from love to loss, and from life to death were always her subjects. Sexual anxiety, relationships between parents and children, the ambiguity of role reversals were her firmly established territory. Yet the distinction customarily made between the early work and Transformations is useful. Henceforth, Sexton would increasingly become what critics have variously called surreal, mythic, visionary, or prophetic.

The Book of Folly contains many poems on Sexton's customary themes, but she also becomes more poetically ambitious in the series of poems on which some of her greatness rests. In "The Death of the Fathers" sequence, she anatomizes the love affair between father and daughter, which deals with seduction, betrayal, and deaths both symbolic and actual. The "Angels of the Love Affair" invokes a religious rhetoric not new to her work, one she employs in more radical form to critique Christianity's central drama in "The Jesus Papers." Her earlier identifications with Christ as the ragged brother and fellow sufferer are not abandoned, but here she begins a sustained consideration of the distance between the female sufferer and the male deity, as he is embodied in the infant and adult figure of Christ. As in Transformations, she performs an elegant, impudent misprision of the parental text, exposing its misogyny and the nature of its sacrificial gesture. The quester here is the doubter, but the quest is genuine, such that it is appropriate to call Sexton one of our most important religious poets, as well as an accomplished deconstructor of patriarchal religion.

The Death Notebooks continues the mythic reach, returning first to personal, early material. In "The Death Baby" Sexton re-creates and transforms the psychoanalytic consideration of the "death instinct" and the "repetition compulsion." The subtle but pervasive subtext penetrated by the poem is Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Her earlier suicide poetry was explanatory, self-justifying, and engaged primarily in a poetic form of translation from the language of the suicide; "The Death Baby" embodies theory in mythopoesis. While she was never psychoanalyzed, years of psychotherapy and of reading allowed her to traverse the boundaries between one system of metaphor (psychoanalytic theory) and another (poetry). Here the pitched battle between Eros and Thanatos is enacted at the personal level but is clearly meant to be read as a cultural drama. While gender is not the poem's only or primary concern, the scenario in "The Death Baby" is resonantly feminine.

"The Furies" sequence is not specifically religious or spiritual, but its rhetoric and stance belong to the visionary tradition. The speaker voices the prophecies given to one who sees with spiritually naked eyes the passionate contraries of joy and despair. "O Ye Tongues" is Sexton's rendering of both Psalms and Genesis, in which she invents herself as the god who gives form to poetic voice.
The final phase of Sexton's work is inaugurated by the last volume that she prepared for publication, The Awful Rowing Toward God. While many poems in Rowing remain impudent and joyous, or suffused with the longing of the quest, it is generally (though not universally) agreed that here the imagery is less powerful, less imaginative, and less successful than in her earlier work. Sexton wrote these poems at white heat over a period of less than three weeks, and it shows. In thematic and tonal terms the project is less ambitious. The voice is increasingly desperate, ready to settle for less than the demands she made upon the deities or the cosmos in previous volumes. The collection ends with a capitulation to the imaginatively small God of an orthodox religious hope. In feminist terms the female voice of rebirth and transformation turns into the conservative voice of feminine supplication.
It is important not to equate the quality of the poems with their adherence to the voice of power and doubt, need and strength, challenge and acceptance established in the middle period; that voice vibrated in the gap between everlasting certainty and everlasting doubt and traveled swiftly and compellingly between the intricate contraries it found or formed. If the need for certainty softened the strong voice, that is not necessarily equivalent to a loss of poetic power--or it need not be. But in this case the loss of voice and the loss of poetic resonance seem to be simultaneous. it is of course possible that a feminist viewpoint permits its politics to interfere with or to define its poetics. A longer perspective may be necessary to settle the issue. The posthumously published work, consisting of 45 Mercy Street and Words for Dr. Y., was not prepared by Sexton for publication. It therefore lacks her editorial hand and her selection process. While little has been written about the very late work, individual poems in the posthumous volumes show Anne Sexton still writing some fine poems that deserve to survive.

About Anne Sexton

Alicia Ostriker
To penetrate the invisible veil between us all was Anne Sexton's literary calling, much as the justification of God's ways to men was Milton's, the articulation of the true voice of feeling was Keats's, or the recovery of the tale of the tribe was Pound's. The poetic program Sexton announced in her first volume of poems continued to be hers throughout her career. She had committed herself to an erotic view of art and life and remained committed to it. Having grown up in a family and society that resisted reading her and each other, among "people who seldom touched-- / though touch is all" ("Rowing," CP, 417), she places the issue of human intimacy at the center of her writing, both thematically and as the source of poetic language itself.
[. . . .]
When she began taking classes in poetry and meeting poets, Sexton discovered another group who spoke "language." "I found I belonged to the poets, that I was real there." As Diane Middlebrook remarks, what Sexton means by "language" is something compressed, elliptical, metaphoric. "Schizophrenics use language this way, and so do poets: 'figurative language' is the term Sexton might have used here, except she meant to indicate that the crucible of formation was urgent need." Clearly, too, "language" in Sexton's account is what people speak when they are free of the censor's invisible veil of ordinary intercourse; "language" is intimacy, authenticity, love in a loveless world; it is what the inner self uses to communicate with other inner selves.
[. . . .]
That opening the self to intimacy means leaving oneself open to pain and guilt continues to be a deep assumption in Sexton's late work as in her early. The same poem that advises stripping ourselves for God also describes us as earthworms underground, who, were Christ to come in the form of a plow, "would be blinded by the sudden light / and writhe in our distress. / As I write these lines," she adds, "I too writhe."
[. . . .]
From the beginning Sexton saw readers and audiences as potential intimates, and consequently potential sources of pain, much as she sees the other beings who populate her poems. Indeed the condition of her poetry is the presence of an audience, whom she needs to need her; Sexton's vocation as a poet was determined to an extraordinary degree by an assumption of and dependence on readerly empathy.
We may easily find Sexton's addiction to love, her insistence on need, infantile and repellent. She clearly finds it repellent herself, thereby somewhat outflanking us. What must mitigate our judgment is the recognition that we, too, are such addicts, were truth told. Imagine the veil lifted, "language" spoken. Hence the centrality of a strategy of seduction.
The single most crucial device whereby Sexton pursues a seductive poetics is her use of "you," a pronoun she employs, I would not be surprised to learn, more than any other poet in English. Over and over the poems address a "you" who may be mother, father, daughter, husband, lover, friend, psychoanalyst, or God, and who is always also the reader. More powerfully than any other poet in English (only D. H. Lawrence comes close) she renders the complexity of intimate relationships--the way they involve the desire to merge with the other and the desire to resist merger; the way the other can be seen both as antagonist and as lover-beloved; the way joy, sympathy, affection, admiration, resentment, fear, anger, and guilt may (must?) coexist at any moment in a relationship of sufficient nearness and dearness. When we include the inevitable actuality of the readerly "you" within the dynamic of these poems, their potential meaning increases several fold, for the reader may at any moment be identifying/resisting identification with both the "I" and the "you" of the poet's text. Further, those Sexton poems that deal most self-referentially with language gestures of various kinds are often, precisely, addresses to "you" that, in effect, invite "you" to reconsider the meaning of language, of poetry.
From "Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience" in Sexton: Selected Criticism. Ed. Diana Hume George. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

J. D. McClatchy
The poems of the confessionalists--Sexton especially--have a kind of chronicle effect on readers, as one keeps track volume by volume. This pervasive need to follow the contours of time, as if they sanctioned the truth they contain, is most clearly exemplified by Live or Die, where the poems are arranged in no particular narrative chronology but rather according to the compositional chronology, with the date carefully added to each poem like a clinching last line--from "January 25, 1962" to "February the last, 1966." Such a dependence on the details of time and place becomes a rhetorical method of definition and discovery, and points finally to the essentially epistemological concern of confessional poetry: since all that can meaningfully be known is my individual self, how is that self to be known and communicated except through the honest precision of its cumulative experience?
The rhetorical importance of confessional subject matter--especially insofar as it involves a characteristically Freudian epistemology--leads, in turn, to another consideration. In his most important gloss on the mediation of art, Freud wrote: "The essential ars poetica lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in us which is undoubtedly connected with the barriers that rise between each single ego and the others." Or between the single ego and its history, he might have added. And among the barriers the self constructs are the familiar defense mechanisms: repression, displacement, suppression, screen memories, condensation, projection, and so on. Such psychological techniques, in turn, have their rhetorical analogues, not surprisingly those most favored by modernist poets and their New Critics: paradox, ambiguity, ellipsis, allusion, wit, and the other "tensions" that correspond to the neurotic symptoms by which the self is obscured. And in order to write with greater directness and honesty about their own experiences, Sexton and the other confessional poets have tended to avoid the poetic strategies of modernism--to de-repress poetry, so to speak--and have sought to achieve their effects by other means. Sexton's turn toward open forms, as though in trust, is an example. In general, it can be said of Sexton's poems, as of other confessional poems, that the patterns they assume and by which they manage their meanings are those which more closely follow the actual experiences they are recreating--forms that can include and reflect direct, personal experience; a human, rather than a disembodied voice; the dramatic presentation of the flux of time and personality; and the drive toward sincerity. By this last concept is meant not an ethical imperative, but the willed and willing openness of the poet to her experience and to the character of the language by which her discoveries are revealed and shared. Not that the structures of sincerity abandon every measure of artifice. While she may have associated the imagination so strongly with memory, Sexton realized as well that the self s past experiences are neither provisional nor final, that even as they shape the art that describes them, so too they are modified by that very art. The flux of experience, rather than its absolute truth, determines which concerns or wounds are returned to in poem after poem, either because they have not yet been understood or because the understanding of them has changed. And Sexton is sharply aware, in her work, of the difference between factual truth and poetic truth--of the need to "edit" out, while trying not to distort, redundant or inessential "facts" in the service of cleaner, sharper poems. In a crucial sense, confessional art is a means of realizing the poet.
As the poet realizes himself, inevitably he catches up the way we live now: especially the personal life, since our marriages are more difficult than our wars, our private nightmares more terrifying than our public horrors. In addition, then, to our sense of the confessional poet as a survivor, he or she functions as a kind of witness. What may have begun as a strictly private need is transformed, once it is published, into a more inclusive focus--and here one recalls Whitman's "attempt, from first to last, to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America) freely, fully, and truly on record." The more naked and directly emotional nature of confessional poems heightens the integrity and force of their witness to the inner lives of both poets and readers; or, as Sexton has remarked, "poems of the inner life can reach the inner lives of readers in a way that anti-war poems can never stop a war."
From "Anne Sexton: Somehow to Endure." In Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. Copyright © 1978 by J.D. McClatchy.

Greg Johnson
At the heart of Anne Sexton's poetry is a search for identity, and her well-known infatuation with death--the cause of her rather notorious fame, and the apparent reason her work is often dismissed as beneath serious consideration--has little to do with this search; in her best work, in fact, it is most often an annoying irrelevancy, however potent it seems in its occasional command of the poet's psyche. Quite simply, Sexton's poetry is a poetry of life, and if her work is "confessional" at times, or even most of the time, this does not mean that the poet's confessions (the word itself is misleading) necessarily describe experiences ridden with guilt or pain. This is where Sexton's poetry diverges so dramatically from that of Sylvia Plath, of whom she is frequently seen as a kind of epigonic follower. Plath mythologizes death with great power and succinctness, and places herself at the center of a myth whose message is "blackness--blackness and silence"; her vision is brutally nihilistic, and she embraces it willingly. Plath's struggle is that of the mythmaker--primarily artistic rather than personal, since the personal self is mercilessly pared away in her poetry (as are all other selves) in deference to the controlling myth. Anne Sexton, on the other hand, speaks longingly and lovingly of a world of health, of childlike wholeness--a world toward which she struggles valiantly and against insuperable odds. To understand her poetry as a record of this struggle, and as a testament to its value and importance, is to appreciate its special relevance to the contemporary world, a world of increasing disjunction between personal and social selves and one whose chaotic, literally "maddening" effect on the individual mind Anne Sexton manages to convey with that blend of craft and vulnerability that is her special magic.
Unlike Plath, and certainly unlike Robert Lowell--with whom her name is also frequently and pointlessly linked--Sexton is a Primitive, an extraordinarily intense artist who confronts her experience with unsettling directness, largely innocent of "tradition" and privately developing an idiom exactly suited to that experience. As Louis Simpson remarked after the publication of her first book, "This then is a phenomenon ... to remind us, when we have forgotten in the weariness of literature, that poetry can happen." The reader's sense of the direct and seemingly spontaneous quality of Sexton's earliest volumes--To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960), All My Pretty Ones (1962) and Live or Die (1966)--can partially be explained by noting that she first began writing poetry, at the age of twenty-eight, as a form of personal therapy, a way of formalizing past traumas and of coping with an increasing sense of disorientation in her conventional role of suburban wife and mother. Her emotional instability, including her suicidal impulses, contributed to the immediacy, rawness and power of much of the poetry. This kind of therapy no doubt helped the poet in her personal life, but what is heroic in Sexton's case, and particularly relevant to her readers, is the earnestness and scrupulosity with which she mastered her craft, developed her highly original voice, and set about the task of communicating her experience to others. That Anne Sexton herself later succumbed to the "weariness of literature"--her later work, on the whole, is distinctly inferior to her early poetry, and verges at times on self-parody--and finally to her own destructive impulses, does not diminish the value and irresistible power of her finest achievements, which speak to us in a voice by turns inspired and beleaguered, joyful and aggrieved, lost in the confusions of self but found, ultimately, in her masterful articulation of her experience as a whole, a complex experience which serves as a painfully truthful mirror of the age.
From "The Achievement of Anne Sexton" The Hollins Critic (1984)

Helen Vendler
It was not the ethical parables of the Bible, or the fertile suggestiveness of Greek myth, but the grim tit-for-tat of fairy tales--where the unsuccessful suitors are murdered, or the witch is burned in her own oven, or the wicked wolf is himself sliced open--that appealed to Sexton's childlike and vengeful mind. The fairy tales and folktales put forth a child's black-and-white ethics, with none of the complexity of the Gospels, and none of the worldliness of the Greeks. It is characteristic of Sexton that she did use the myth of Prometheus--which reads like one of her folktales, with its rebel hero, its avenging father-god, and its grotesque evisceration by a vulture.
Sexton looked, usually in vain, for ways to stabilize her poems outside her increasingly precarious self. She based one sequence on horoscope readings, another on the remarks of her therapist "Doctor Y," another on the life of Jesus, another on the Psalms, another on beasts. The only group that succeeds more often than it falls is the group based on folktales, Transformations. The tales--Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, the Frog Prince, Briar Rose, Hansel and Gretel, and others--gave Sexton a structure of the sort she was usually unable to invent for herself, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Her poems tend, on the whole, to begin well, to repeat themselves, to sag in the middle, and to tail off. She had an instinct for reiteration; she wanted to say something five times instead of once. Her favorite figure of speech is anaphora, where many lines begin with the same phrase, a figure which causes, more often than not, diffuseness and spreading of effect rather than concentration of intensity:
... I will conquer myself.
I will dig up the pride.
I will take scissors
The tales, as I have said, matched her infantile fantasy; they gave her a clean trajectory; they turned her away from the morass of narcissism. But most of all, they enabled her as a satirist. . . . Sexton's aesthetically most realized tone is precisely a malevolently flippant one, however distasteful it might seem to others.
From "Malevolent Flippancy." The New Republic (1981)

Katha Pollitt
Like Sylvia Plath, with whom she is often paired, Anne Sexton arouses strong feelings of popular adulation and critical unease. How could it have been otherwise? At a time when American poetry was nearly as male-dominated as football, she wrote frankly, extravagantly and without apology about the experience of women. Scarcely less important, she was a democrat practicing the most snobbish of arts. While most of her colleagues were scholars and critics and translators with university affiliations, she was a junior-college dropout and suburban matron who began writing poetry after watching a television program called How to Write a Sonnet. With her recurrent bouts of madness, her suicide attempts (she finally succeeded in 1974), her flamboyant sexuality and her vibrant physical presence on the poetry-reading circuit, she fit as no poet since Dylan Thomas the popular stereotype of the self-destructive genius--beautiful, damned and oh-so-sensitive. It was a role she exploited to the hilt.
From "The Awful Rowing" The Nation (1981)

A Selected Bibliography

45 Mercy Street (1976)
All My Pretty Ones (1962)
Live or Die (1966)
Love Poems (1969)
Selected Poems (1964)
The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975)
The Book of Folly (1973)
The Complete Poems (1981)
The Death Notebooks (1974)
To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960)
Transformations (1971)
Words for Dr. Y.: Uncollected Poems (1978)

Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977)

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