Sexton, Anne (Vol. 10)
Sexton, Anne 1928–1974
Sexton was an American poet, playwright, and author of books for children. Associated with the confessional school of poetry, Sexton was in fact a student of the confessional poet Robert Lowell at the beginning of her career. Her poetry explores dark and secret areas of the mind, revealing the fearful isolation that accompanies emotional anguish. The critical evaluation of Sexton's work, while acknowledging its energy and respecting its candor, has frequently found her poetry solipsistic and uneven in quality. Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. She took her own life in 1974. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 53-56.)
To mourn the woman [Anne Sexton] by telling less than the truth about the poet is to perform no service. She was, let it be said, a flawed poet who became more deeply flawed, as she made of her worst tricks a trade. I did not follow her career attentively. In a life filled with books to read and things to do, one may be excused for giving second place to a poetry that dwells irritably on the squalor of the everyday, without abatement or relief. Did no one acquaint this poet with Arnold's famous words?—that there are "situations, from the representation of which, though accurate, no poetical enjoyment can be derived? They are those in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous. When they occur in actual life, they are painful, not tragic; the representation of them in poetry is painful also." The amused or wry tone of some of her poems was sheer ballast. She was sustained by a long argument, and a private one, which might well have been carried on in prose or in a diary, about whether life was worth its cost in suffering.
She decided not. And in her last book [45 Mercy Street], together with much ballast, there is an evil spirit brooding, and...
(The entire section is 478 words.)
Anne Sexton's is, indeed, a poetic voice that seems, even when most intense, to lack heart. The falsification of feeling that is a prominent feature of her poems, including the most celebrated among them, emerges more often than not in the form of contrived metaphor, exercises in compression that are at once agile and empty of resonance. One of her most famous poems, called "Live" (1966), is as good a case in point as any, an "affirmation" that has more to do with eliciting approval, a skill at which she was adept when she wished to be, than with any profound realization of life's value:
So I won't hang around in my hospital shift,
repeating the Black Mass and all of it.
I say Live, Live because of the sun,
the dream, the excitable gift.
There were, to be sure, instances when emotional integrity triumphed, notably when her eye turned inward on her life's obsession, suicide, the impulses toward which had yielded her an identity as strong as, and possibly stronger than, any she had found as a poet. Indeed, it was when that identity was most available to her that she seemed to perform best as a poet:
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools
They never ask why build.
Among the letters collected [in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters], none is as strong and evocative as the one she writes her husband during a trip to Europe, in which she confirms her inability to function alone. For Anne Sexton, whose poetry Robert Lowell praised for its "swift, lyrical openness," was clearly all her life a stranger, like a good many other profoundly neurotic people, to the ordinary range of feelings and emotions. In some measure aware, as such people are, that there was something lacking in her relationship to feeling, she became a watcher, an obsessed observer, and sometimes a skilled imitator of the way other people deal with one another. (pp. 76, 78)
Dorothy Rabinowitz, "Death Watch" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1978 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, March, 1978, pp. 76, 78.
[By] the end [of Sexton's career her] work had deteriorated badly. But long before, the faults had been advertised, and like most advertisements the statements were only half true. The labels ("confessional") and the adjectives ("ostentatious") had come so early and had remained so permanently that no one really noticed when they didn't apply. The final, sprawling, entirely personal poems appeared like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet one has only to look at those first five books, and in particular Transformations, which is really a tour de force, to realize how much of her work did not fall into the handy Sexton categories and that where she ended up was not where she had begun.
Sexton began in fact as a formalist, and rhyme and meter, the usual equipment of form, were an integral part of the early poems. In an early review of Sexton's work (Poetry, Feb., 1961), James Dickey complained not that the poems were too loose and rambling but that they were too artificial, too constrained, too conscious of themselves as poems. And he was right. In part, the problem was that of a beginner struggling with the mechanics of form: the too-obvious rhymes (head/bed, know/go) fall heavily at the ends of the lines, reducing some of the serious poems to farce. More important, Sexton had not yet, to use the cliché, found a voice; she had not yet discovered in poetry who she would be. And so we do not feel one clear personality emerging in those first books so much as we feel we are watching a series of performances.
But some of the performances are marvelous. Despite Sexton's problems with form and the many limitations of formalism which made her finally shift away from it, the use of structure served her well, and some of her strongest works are the short, highly structured poems found in the early books, such as "Starry Night," "Her Kind," or "The Black Art." In these, the imagery—always Sexton's strongest point, the area where she was most surely in touch with herself—takes center stage, while the tight form manages to keep the words in check, a problem in the longer poems which often seem unable to stop themselves….
Sexton [succeeds] in creating an extraordinarily eerie effect in ["Her Kind"], as she does in "Starry Night," and "The Black Art"; eeriness, in fact, was the realm in which Sexton did best, where she managed most successfully to bring about an element of shock, the kind of shock one wants in poetry, and which her more "shocking" poems rarely effected. But while it is obvious that the form—which is the same for the three poems—helped her to control the material she was working with, it is also obvious that the material here lent itself to a definite form in a way that the more complex feelings she wanted to write about did not. (p. 3)
Too often Sexton didn't allow her poems independence. "Lullaby" achieves it in part because the poem involves an actual scene from which the poet can stand back to observe; it provides something external upon which her imagination can work. Many of the successful poems in Live or Die, such as "In the Beach House" or "Pain for a Daughter," depend upon the creation of concrete scenes. It is interesting that these are minor poems. In the more ambitious poems of the collection, "Live" or "Flee on Your Donkey," the external scene is much less well defined; essentially the poet is simply...
(The entire section is 1407 words.)