Sexton believed and frequently asserted that poetry should hurt. Her poetry deals with the most painful incidents in her life in a direct and uncompromising way; it is often excruciating to read. Although her style changed considerably over the approximately twenty years of her writing life, her subjects remained basically the same: madness, death, and God’s silence. Although she had written some poetry as a student, she did not really begin her career as a poet until after her first mental breakdown, when her psychiatrist directed her to write down her feelings. Thus her work begins on a basis of breakdown and chaos. Her various books show her attempt to work back to some sense of wholeness.
The first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, focuses on her mental illness and conveys to the reader the impressions of a patient in a mental ward. Written after the crisis that followed the birth of her first child, it shows Sexton’s slow steps back to the rational world. Poems of her experiences in the asylum are interspersed with elegies for people she has known. Her second book, All My Pretty Ones, deals with the loss of her parents and other loved ones, as well as with other losses—lovers, faith, identity. In an interview, she explained that the first book described the nature of madness and the second explored the causes of it.
Sexton felt constantly aware of death and loss, and this awareness overwhelmed any other, more positive feelings. In her first two collections, she often uses formal patterns to contain and control her materials. This formality often distances the material somewhat and gives the work the tone of a dignified elegy. Patterns are part of the effect of “Elizabeth Gone” and “Some Foreign Letters,” two poems in which Sexton commemorated the life and death of her aunt, Anna Ladd Dingley, who had lived with her. These poems are restrained but moving in their effort to show, through particulars of the woman’s life, how much the speaker has lost through her death.
The fear of death and the sadness of loss are replaced, to a certain extent, in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Live or Die by a deep longing for death. When she hears of the death of poet Sylvia Plath, according to “Sylvia’s Death,” she is envious of Plath. In “Wanting to Die,” she explains how the desire to end her life obsesses her, addressing those who are not afflicted by this visceral urge and do not understand it. Her tone is ironic, almost playfully so:
But suicides have a special language.Like carpenters they want to know which tools.They never ask why build.
The collection ends with the poem “Live,” which describes her decision not to kill the unwanted puppies her dog bore, and her choice to allow herself to live also. Although the book ends with this positive poem, darker tones outweigh any glimmers of hope throughout the collection.
The later Sexton is more unrestrained, wilder in her outpourings and yet not always directly confessional. Transformations is something of a diversion from her usual concerns. She puts her anger at the world’s injustices into retellings of Grimm fairy tales. Transformations consists of feminist poetry that bears the mark of the 1970’s. The fairy tales Sexton has twisted and retold are in themselves frightening; they are tales of Rapunzels and Cinderellas and Snow Whites, women who are abused and imprisoned but who are finally able to overcome all obstacles to win the ultimate joy of the happily-ever-after marriage with the prince. The 1970’s feminist interrogated the fairy tales of her childhood to ask whether this desired ending was, after all, the ultimate joy—or if it was not, in fact, just more imprisonment and abuse.
Sexton retells these stories with dark humor and wicked irony, so that the reader can share her doubts about the tales and the values they imply. She stresses the unreality of the Cinderella ending, for example, when she concludes her tale that Cinderella and the prince lived “happily ever after,/ like two dolls in a museum case/ never bothered by diapers or dust,/ . . . their darling smiles pasted on for eternity./ Regular Bobbsey Twins.” (The Bobbsey Twins are two sets of unrealistically upbeat twins in a popular children’s series dating to Sexton’s childhood.) The Transformations tales show a different Anne Sexton; they sparkle with wicked humor. In this one collection, she substitutes women’s issues for her own torments, at least in part.
Sexton’s later work, however, returns to her earlier preoccupations, this time without the use of form to shape them. The last few years of her life resulted in several books that express her desperate struggles to escape despair and find a reason for living. The search for God became an obsession, as the poet tried to find some way of approaching the deity that would make her feel validated and forgiven. “Rowing,” a frequently anthologized poem from The Awful Rowing Toward God, shows the intensity of her desire for God and her energetic pursuit of grace. She begins the poem with a quick summary of her emotional life, presented as a tale: “A story, a story!/ (Let it go. Let it come.)” Rowing is her metaphor for her search: “God was there like an island I had not rowed to.” The rest of the poem takes her on an exhausting trip toward this island: “I am rowing, I am rowing/ though the oarlocks stick and are rusty/ and the sea blinks and rolls/ like a worried eyeball.” When she arrives, she says, God will “get rid of the rat inside”—the “gnawing pestilential rat” that has been eating her all of her life. “God will take it with his two hands/ and embrace it.”
The rat is a...
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