Sexton, Anne (Vol. 15)
Mrs. Sexton's body of work evinces a definite progress in personalization. This progress made a giant leap when, in 1971, appeared Transformations, a rich collection of seventeen long poems. Each begins with a contemporary observation or application of the "moral" of some fairy tale, then segues into a contemporary recasting of the fairy tale itself. These "transformations" of Grimm's tales into grim parables for our time are deftly done, and in them Mrs. Sexton continues her practice of transforming the dross of commonplace experience into pure poetic gold—and vice versa, for shocking effect. The ancient is remythologized into the modern…. (pp. 89-90)
By transforming the stories into the language and symbols of our own time, she has managed to offer us understandable images for the world around us. The tales focus on the psychological crises of living, from childhood dependence through adolescent trauma, adult frustrations through the deathbed. (p. 90)
While technically not "confessional" poetry, these verses of Transformations do at times strip the poet bare, as when she uses the wolf's deceptions in "Red Riding Hood" as occasion to reveal that she, too, practices such masquerades:
Quite collected at cocktail parties,
mean while in my head
I'm undergoing open-heart surgery.
In her fifth book then, as in her first, Anne Sexton is domesticating our terrors. With outstanding artistic proficiency, she renders the particular pain of her life into universal truths. (p. 91)
Robert Phillips, "Anne Sexton: The Blooming Mouth and the Bleeding Rose," in his The Confessional Poets (copyright © 1973 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1973, pp. 73-91.
Rise B. Axelrod
In her poetry, Anne Sexton plunges into the abyss and touches the source of regeneration. In the first 3 volumes, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, All My Pretty Ones and Live or Die, she explores the depths of her own consciousness. In the later three books, Love Poems, Transformations and The Book of Folly, she experiments with various mythopoeia providing possibilities of rebirth.
The movement of Sexton's poetic is dual: centripetal as well as centrifugal. The inturning Therapeutic mode analyzes the "cracked mirror" of the self in search of the origins of dissolution. A second, more visionary mode allows the resurrection of the true self and its reunification with others.
Anne Sexton's early poetry takes place in Bedlam, the realm of extremity and madness…. Evidences of her own fragmented psyche, that blasted identity, are scattered through the poetry in synecdochic images. Her very life is a burden: "lugging myself as if/I were a sawed-off body/in the trunk."… Not only is her body irrevocably severed from her mind by a strictly enforced Cartesian dualism, but it is in revolt. (pp. 6-7)
Imagery of the eye and seeing is therefore pervasive in Sexton's poetry. Blindness suggests death: it is a playful confrontation with the void…. This sense of extremity, of consciousness adrift in Nothingness, is characteristic of existential anxiety…. (p. 9)
"The only way to defeat death and abstraction, then, is through the liberation of vision, or true seeing…. A visionary poet like William Blake, Anne Sexton seeks to break through the "walls" of abstraction which enclose and pervert the creative life force, Eros, or the Blakean equivalent, Los. Mythology and ritual, which should ideally protect Eros, serving as a second womb for the emergent self, have now become repressive systems of moral, religious and philosophical dogma. Therefore, instead of fulfilling the traditional role of witness and midwife of ritual rebirth, the modern seer must create new and viable myths of the self. The Confessional poetic is an attempt to extend the role of the visionary poet. By regarding the self an archetype, the poet becomes a participant in, as well as herald of,...
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J. D. McCLATCHY
[Anne Sexton] has described herself as "a primitive," yet is master of intricate formal techniques. Her voice has steadily evolved and varied and, at times, sought to escape speaking of the self, but her strongest poems consistently return to her narrow thematic range and the open voice of familiar feelings…. For the source of her first fame is still the focus of her work: she is the most persistent and daring of the confessionalists. Her peers have their covers: Lowell's allusiveness, Snodgrass's lyricism, Berryman's dazzle, Plath's expressionism. More than the others, Sexton has resisted the temptations to dodge or distort, and the continuity and strength of her achievement remain the primary witness to the ability of confessional art to render a life into poems with all the intimacy and complexity of feeling and response with which that life has been endured.
Endurance has always been her concern: why must we? how can we? why we must, how we do: "to endure,//somehow to endure." It is a theme which re-enacts not only the continuing source of her poetry but its original impulse as well. (pp. 1-2)
Sexton's business with words—the ordering of statement and instinct—is the adjustment of their demands to her experience: in her figure, to made a tree out of used furniture. Though her attitudes towards form have evolved, from the beginning there has been an uneasy ambivalence: the poet insisting on control, the person pleading "Take out rules and leave the instant," as she says in one interview. Her solution has been to use the metaphor of deceit, but to reverse it into a very personally inflected version of form…. Though her early work occasionally forces itself with inversions and stolid High Style, her concern for the precisions of voice and pace reveal her care in indulging a lyric impulse only to heighten the dramatic…. For the poet, form functions to articulate the details and thrust of her actual experience, while for the reader it guides his dramatic involvement in the recreation: both convictions converging on authenticity, on realization. And so the voice is kept conversational, understated by plain-speech slang or homely detail—its imagery drawn from the same sources it counterpoints, its force centered in the pressure of ovents it contours, the states of mind it maps. This is clearly the case with the poems of madness in the first section of To Bedlam and Part Way Back. (pp. 4-5)
[The confessions in All My Pretty Ones] converge towards the present, and the chronicle begins to include more immediate and intimate events. Previously worked aspects of and approaches to her experience are here retried: "The Operation" clearly derives from "The Double Image," "The House" expands "Some Foreign Letters." The greater assurance of her verse likewise allows Sexton to experiment successfully with open forms and new voices. (pp. 13-14)
The oneiric organization of "The House" looks forward to the important changes that her next, and decisive, book Live...
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After her death Anne Sexton's poetry continues to push against the boundaries of loss, to embody the daily nature of a despair that is as quiet as a lit fuse. Imminent explosion, the air tense before a storm—this is the energy of her last poems: a sensibility leaning over the edge of control, knowing that loss is final and inevitable. Sexton's poems have always come from the frontiers of the personal. In fact, her work scouted vast unknown regions of emotion for poetry and brought back word…. (p. 87)
45 Mercy Street is her ninth book. It is brought out posthumously, edited by her daughter and literary executor, Linda Gray Sexton. In her introduction Linda Sexton writes that the book was "complete" at the time of Sexton's suicide in 1974 but that the manuscript was still in the process of revision. "Each line appears exactly as she wrote it," Linda Sexton says, "… although ultimately she did not find time for that final perfection." This accounts for the unevenness of the book; it lacks editing. Had she chosen to stay alive, Anne Sexton and her editors may have cleared out certain poems and lines which seem inaccessible, not fully surfaced out of the poet's internal mythology. Sexton knew well how to invite the reader into a private poem, but several of these poems seem closed, like a code, though full of energy. The language emanates from an inner place that stammers and does not articulate. Many poems, though, are terribly clear. They are powerful and focused like mirrors one can not turn from. Cutting the clouded poems would have strengthened the book; yet I am sure it was difficult to cut any of the manuscript knowing there would be no more poems.
45 Mercy Street is divided into four sections. The first contains the weakest poems but also includes the title poem in which Sexton begins to...
(The entire section is 760 words.)
William H. Pritchard
[Anne Sexton's] "self-portrait in letters" is very powerful publicity. There is something to be learned from it about the American poetry scene over the past twenty years; though just what may be learned from contemplating the life of Anne Sexton isn't quite so clear.
To read [the letters collected in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters] one must banish complicated thoughts about the appropriateness of peering into privacies, secrets, intimacies. Anne Sexton was never loath to put herself on display (she speaks at one point of "doing" a Sexton) and would not I think have been disturbed if she were confronted with the present book. The editorial commentary is first rate, extensive, and...
(The entire section is 615 words.)