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On "Her Kind"


Diane Wood Middlebrook

Sexton stayed in the Boston suburbs, where she and Maxine Kumin provided each other with unflagging support as they built what Kumin called their "cottage industry" into successful careers. Of the four, Sexton was the first to tap the constraints women felt in conforming to prevailing feminine stereotypes, perhaps because she was developing her art under the psychological influence of a mother identified not with self-sacrifice but with writing. The last poem Sexton wrote for the manuscript of Bedlam, "Her Kind," shows her trying to do just that.

Bedlam was due at the printers on 1 August. At the eleventh hour Sexton was still frantically shuffling poems in and out and worrying about Lowell's advice to supply fifteen or so new ones. In arriving at the final manuscript, she shrewdly discarded work that she had been proud to send out for serial publication just a few months earlier. She also made a policy decision: "not a love lyric in the lot," she wrote to Snodgrass cheerfully. She divided the book into two parts, roughly of early and recent work. That first section worried her, because it lacked a keynote, a dominant image, a theme. Riffling through what she called her "bone pile" of discarded efforts, she picked up a piece of sentimental verse that had started life in December 1957 as "Night Voice on a Broomstick" and that she had sent to literary journals without success. In July 1959 she retitled it "Witch" and reworked it into a sixteen-line quasi-sonnet form. Then she broke those lines up into very short pieces with irregular but striking rhymes; in that thirty-eight-line version, "Witch" ended

  Who see me here
this ragged apparition
     in their own air
see a wicked appetite,
       if they dare.

This is the sort of poem Sexton had been writing for workshops throughout her apprenticeship. Like "The Farmer's Wife," "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward," "For Johnny Pole on the Forgotten Beach," and "The Moss of His Skin," "Witch" is spoken through a mask by a dramatic persona and offers a psychological portrait of a social type. Sexton polished the poem through several revisions, but something about the short lines bothered her. She lengthened them again, this time trying another structuring principle, punctuating the stanza breaks with a refrain: "I have been her kind." The poem now began this way:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

Through the use of an undifferentiated but double "I," the poem sets up a single persona identified with madness but separated from it through insight. Two points of view are designated "I" in each stanza. The witch (stanza one), the housewife (stanza two), and the adulteress (stanza three) are those who act, or act out; in the refrain, an "I" steps through the frame of "like that" to witness, interpret, and affirm her alter ego in the same line. The double subjectivity of "Her Kind," as Sexton now called the poem, cleverly finds a way to represent a condition symbolized not in words but in symptoms that yearn to be comprehended. "Her Kind" contains its own perfect reader, its own namesake, "I."

Sexton liked this version. The poem had been through nineteen pages of drafting; as she noted on the final manuscript, "took one week to complete." From that time on, "Her Kind" served as the poem with which she began her readings, telling the audience that it

would show them what kind of woman she was, and what kind of poet. It was a most dramatic gesture, and one that Maxine Kumin disliked (she thought Sexton's readings were hammy), but it was the way Sexton stepped from person to persona. The subjectivity in the poem insists on a separation between a kind of woman (mad) and a kind of poet (a woman with magic craft): a doubleness that expressed the paradox of Sexton's creativity. "Her Kind" is not spoken through a mask, nor is it a first-person narrative like "The Double Image." It calls attention to the difference between pain and the representation of pain, between the poet onstage in print--flippant, glamorous, crafty-- and the woman whose anguish she knew firsthand. "Her Kind" was Sexton's debut as witch; it made the ideal keynote poem for To Bedlam and Part Way Back.

From Anne Sexton: A Biography. Copyright 1991 by Diane Wood Middlebrook.


Diane Wood Middlebrook

Because Sexton's writing seems so personal she is often labeled a "confessional" poet and grouped (to her disadvantage) with poets such as Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, and Plath. But Sexton resisted the label "confessional"; she preferred to be regarded as a "storyteller." To emphasize that she considered the speaking "I" in her poetry as a literary rather than a real identity, Sexton invariably opened her public performances by reading the early poem "Her Kind."

[. . . .]

No matter what poetry she had on an evening's agenda, Sexton offered this persona as a point of entry to her art. "I" in the poem is a disturbing, marginal female whose power is associated with disfigurement, sexuality, and magic. But at the end of each stanza, "I" is displaced from sufferer onto storyteller. With the lines "A woman like that ... I have been her kind" Sexton conveys the terms on which she wishes to be understood: not victim, but witness and witch.

From "Poets of Weird Abundance" Parnassus (1985)


Greg Johnson

Does Sexton imagine any way out of this impasse, any way to escape the debilitating terrors of a consciousness plagued by a conviction of its own evil? One possibility is to replace self-loathing with an open acceptance of evil—even admitting the likelihood that she is "not a woman. " What is remarkable, however, is not this admission itself but the lively, almost gleeful tone in which it is uttered:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming of evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

"A woman like that is misunderstood," Sexton adds wryly, but the poem is a serious attempt to understand such a woman--her sense of estrangement, her impulse toward death--by internalizing evil and giving it a voice: a chortling, self-satisfied, altogether amiable voice which suggests that "evil" is perhaps the wrong word after all. Sexton's witch, waving her "nude arms at villages going by," becomes something of value to the community, performing the function Kurt Vonnegut has called the "domestication of terror." Unlike Plath's madwoman in "Lady Lazarus"--a woman at the service of a private, unyielding anger, a red-haired demon whose revenge is to "eat men like air"--Sexton's witch is essentially harmless. Although she remains vulnerable--"A woman like that is not afraid to die"--she rejects anger in favor of humor, flamboyance, self-mockery. She is a kind of perverse entertainer, and if she seems cast in the role of a martyr, embracing madness in order to domesticate it for the rest of the community--making it seem less threatening, perhaps even enjoyable--it is nevertheless a martyrdom which this aspect of Sexton accepts with a peculiar zest.

From "The Achievement of Anne Sexton." The Hollins Critic (1984)


Jane McCabe

Anne Sexton was brought up to be an affluent, middle-class, suburban housewife. In a 1968 interview, she said,

All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children.... I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can't build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.

And I think that Sexton differed from most of her successful female peers in that when she wasn't in the hospital, she lived in comfort behind the white picket fences. She was not urban; she was not an academic (her formal education ended at Garland Junior College); and she was not really an intellectual. She lived very comfortably--a sunken living room, a swimming pool--in suburban Weston, Massachusetts: the look of the country, the convenience of town. But this life worried her; she felt personally at odds with its rather dismal comforts. And although she played her part--"I ... answered the phone,/ served cocktails as a wife/ should, made love among my petticoats,/ and August tan . . . "--she was also concerned with the pressure of isolation and uneasy with the particular kind of social expectation that faces a suburban housewife, especially one who is also a poet. She defined her alienation as witchery, and as a "middle-aged witch" she had the magic of words with which to transform even the calmest and most orderly of suburban lawns into a landscape of both nightmare and vision. And this often led her to explore the dangerous borderland between imagination and insanity:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

And that kind is "a woman who writes." So, although I would not suggest that Anne Sexton is a feminist poet, I think that her poetry catches the feminist's eye and ear in special ways. Many of her experiences and feelings are the product of a society that oppresses women. The anger and excess that run through so much of her poetry are uniquely hers, but there are echoes of the same kind of rage in the poetry of many of her more explicitly feminist contemporaries.

From "'A Woman Who Writes': A Feminist Approach to the Early Poetry of Anne Sexton." In Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. Copyright 1978 by J.D. McClatchy.


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