Anne Sexton’s poetry presents a search for self and meaning beyond the limits of conventional expression and form. Although viewing her work autobiographically limits critical understanding of it, readers discover in her work a chronicle of experience that is intensely personal and genuine. Her poems are confessional in that they present statements about impulses formerly unknown or forbidden. Begun for self-revelation in therapy and initially sustained for the possible benefit of other troubled patients, Sexton’s poems speak with penetrating honesty about the experience of mental illness, the temptation of suicide, and the dynamics of womanhood. Although less strident in tone than the work ofSylvia Plath, Sexton’s work occasionally alienates readers who, like James Dickey, find her work too personal for literary evaluation. At its best, however, Sexton’s poetry develops the confessional lyric into an effective modern form.
To Bedlam and Part Way Back
In her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, scenes from an asylum are set against those of life before and after the speaker’s hospitalization. The perspective of these early poems is a daring interior one, underscored by the book’s epigraph taken from a letter of Arthur Schopenhauer to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, including the phrase “But most of us carry in our heart the Jocasta who begs Oedipus for God’s sake not to inquire further.” Sexton’s poems pursue the inquiry into the mental hospital and the mind of the patient as well. In the chantlike poem “Ringing the Bells,” for example, Sexton projects the senseless rhythm of institutional life through the consciousness of a patient in the bell choir of a mental ward. The troubled women who “mind by instinct” assemble, smile, ring their bells when pointed to, and disperse, no better for their weekly music lesson. Another well-known portrayal of institutional life, “Lullaby,” shows the figure of the night nurse arriving with the sleeping pills that, like splendid pearls, provide a momentary escape for the patients who receive them. Observing the moths which cling to window screen, the patient of “Lullaby” imagines that he will become like them after taking the sedative. “You, Doctor Martin” presents other figures in the mental hospital, including the large children who wait in lines to be counted at dinner before returning to the labor of making moccasins all day long. Although the portrayal of the mental hospital from an insider’s perspective provides a fresh subject for experimental lyrics, Sexton’s poems of the journey and return (suggested by the volumes title) are among her most complex and effective.
“The Double Image,” for example, is a composite of experiences parallel to Sexton’s own biography. In the poem, the speaker’s hospitalization brings about a separation from her young daughter; the speaker’s return to live in the home of her childhood coincides with the final illness of her own mother. Weaving together the present moment of her return home for a reunion with her daughter and events of the past, the speaker reflects on the guilt bounded by past and present sorrow. The three autumns explain her trouble better than any medical theories, and she finds that despair and guilt transform attempts at ordinary life into artifice. Portrait painting becomes a metaphor for control of time and emotions through the rest of the poem. Unable to adjust to the awkward period spent as a grown child in her parents’ home, the speaker states repeatedly, “I had my portrait done instead.” The same response belongs to her mother, who cannot forgive the speaker’s attempt at suicide and so chooses to have the daughter painted as a measure of control. A double image forms when the mother learns of her own incurable illness and has her portrait done “instead.” The portraits, facing each other in the parental home, serve as a mirror reflection with the figure of the speaker’s child moving between them. As the speaker had been “an awkward guest” returning to her mother’s home, so the young daughter arrives “an awkward guest” for the reunion with her recovering mother. The child provides both a measure of final identity and guilt.
In “The Division of Parts,” the bitterness of inheritance replaces grief as a response to the death of the speaker’s mother. As in “The Double Image,” the coincidence of the speaker’s recovery with her mother’s suffering suggests an apparent exchange of death for life. Equipped with the lost one’s “garments” but not with grief, the speaker recalls the suffering of her mother, overshadowed now by the ceremonies of the Lenten season. Division of property replaces the concerns of the Christ who waits on the crucifix for the speaker. Her dreams recall only the division of ways: the separation of death and inevitable division of property.
Other poems in the first volume experiment with the voices of those whose experiences differ from those of the poet. “The Farmer’s Wife,” for example, reveals the isolation and loneliness of a young wife on an Illinois farm. The poem presents the ambivalence of the woman toward her husband, whose work and bed are her lifelong habit. “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward” attempts to voice the feelings of an unmarried girl who has just given birth. The emotions and imagery are generalized and undefined in presenting the setting of an urban hospital and the typical unmarried girl in trouble. According to Sexton, the poem marks a pivotal moment in her career, for after reading it, Robert Lowell advised her to develop the more personal voice that gives her finest poetry its power. A poem reflecting conflicting advice is “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further.” John Holmes, Sexton’s teacher for a Boston University poetry workshop, recommended that she avoid the self-revelation becoming characteristic of her work. The directly personal voice won out, not only in this poem of apology to Holmes but also throughout her career. Another early poem, “Kind Sir: These Woods,” indicates an awareness that readers in general may disapprove her probing of the psyche, “this inward look that society scorns.” The speaker finds in her inward search, however, nothing worse than herself, “caught between the grapes and the thorns,” and the search for herself continued to the end of her life.
All My Pretty Ones
An epigraph for Sexton’s second collection, All My Pretty Ones, suggests a reason for the...
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