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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)


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