Anne Sexton Sexton, Anne - Essay

Introduction

(Feminism in Literature)

Sexton is among the most celebrated poets of the confessional school. Her highly emotional, self-reflexive verse, characterized by preoccupations with childhood guilt, mental illness, motherhood, and female sexuality, is distinguished for its stunning imagery, artistry, and remarkable cadences. An unlikely latecomer to the literary scene, Sexton underwent a rapid metamorphosis from suburban housewife to major literary figure in the early 1960s. Sexton's art and life—culminating in her suicide—converged with the convictions of the contemporary feminist movement, drawing attention to the oppressive, circumscribed existence of women in middle-class American society.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts, Sexton was the youngest of three daughters raised in an upper-middle-class home near Boston. Her mother, a housewife and daughter of a published author, had aspired to be a poet in her own right, and Sexton struggled throughout her life with a sense of competition with her mother, a tension that routinely appears in Sexton's poetry. In 1947 Sexton graduated from Rogers Hall preparatory school for girls, where her first poetry appeared in the school yearbook. After a year at Garland Junior College, a finishing school in Boston, she eloped with Alfred Muller "Kayo" Sexton II. Following an impulsive marriage that endured separations and infidelities, the couple divorced in 1973. From 1949 to 1952 Sexton worked as a model—notably for the esteemed Hart modeling agency in Boston—as well as a lingerie salesperson and bookstore clerk while Kayo served in the Navy Reserve during the Korean War. Sexton gave birth to her first daughter, Linda Gray, in 1953, followed by a second daughter, Joyce Ladd, in 1955. After the arrival of Joyce, Sexton suffered from postpartum depression and attempted suicide for the first time in 1956. She was hospitalized and underwent psychiatric treatment, losing custody of her children after her release, when she was forced to return to her parents' home to live for a time. According to Sexton, these events precipitated her return to poetry writing after years of ignoring her interest and talent. Both her psychiatrist and a priest she went to for spiritual guidance supported her decision to write about her experiences. "God is in your typewriter," the priest reportedly told her. In 1957 Sexton joined a poetry workshop headed by John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education, where she befriended Maxine Kumin, who would also become a distinguished poet. The following year Sexton received a scholarship to attend the Antioch Writers' Conference to study under W. D. Snodgrass. Later that year, she enrolled in Robert Lowell's writing seminar at Boston University, where she was introduced to Sylvia Plath, and in 1959 she participated in the Bread Loaf Writers Conference with the assistance of a Robert Frost fellowship. Her first volume of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), received a National Book Award nomination, as did her second volume, All My Pretty Ones (1962), which also won the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine. After an appointment at the Radcliffe Institute from 1961 to 1963, Sexton received an American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowship and traveled to Europe. She received a Ford Foundation grant for residence with the Charles Playhouse in Boston in 1964. Sexton also collaborated with Kumin on a series of children's books. Her next major volume of poetry, Live or Die (1966), received a Pulitzer Prize and Shelley Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1967. Shortly after the publication of Love Poems (1969), she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to complete her only dramatic work, Mercy Street, produced off-Broadway by the American Place Theatre in 1969. The recipient of honorary degrees from Harvard and Radcliffe, Sexton gave frequent poetry readings and taught creative writing at Boston University from 1970 until her death. During the 1970s Sexton's mental and physical health deteriorated, exacerbated by addictions to alcohol and sleeping pills. She committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1974.

MAJOR WORKS

As a confessional poet, Sexton's writing is in many ways a candid autobiographic record of her struggle to overcome the feelings of guilt, loss, inadequacy, and suicidal despair that tormented her. Informed by years of psychotherapy, Sexton's carefully crafted poetry often addresses her uncertain self-identity as a daughter, wife, lover, mother, and psychiatric patient. Her first volume, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, consists of poems written shortly after her confinement in a mental hospital. "The Double Image," among the most accomplished works of the volume, is a sequence of seven poems describing Sexton's schism with her mother in the imagery of two portraits facing each other from opposite walls. "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward," which concerns an unwed mother who prepares to abandon her illegitimate child, alludes to Sexton's guilt over losing custody of her children. Another significant poem in the book, "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further," is Sexton's response to John Holmes's criticism of her transgressive subject matter, representing Sexton's defense of the confessional mode and her own poetic voice. The poems of All My Pretty Ones further illustrate Sexton's aptitude for invoking musical rhythms and arresting imagery. The volume contains the often-anthologized poems "The Truth the Dead Know," "All My Pretty Ones," "The Abortion," and "Letter Written on a Ferry while Crossing Long Island Sound," all of which concern feelings of loss. "With Mercy for the Greedy," also from this volume, anticipates Sexton's proclivity for Christian motifs in much of her subsequent work. The poems of Live or Die explore Sexton's ongoing vacillation between life and maternal responsibility and her attraction to suicide. Her obsession with death, a prominent recurring theme in all her work, is explicit in the poems "Sylvia's Death," about Sylvia Plath's suicide, and "Wanting to Die," countered by the life-affirming poem "Live" at the end of the volume. Also included are such well-known poems as "Flee on Your Donkey," "Menstruation at Forty," "The Addict," "Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman," a tender paean to her daughter, and "Somewhere in Africa," a eulogy on the death of Holmes. Less concerned with psychic trauma, Love Poems contains verse ranging from elegant depiction of erotic desire in "The Breast," "Song for a Lady," and "Eighteen Days Without You," praise for womanhood in "In Celebration of My Uterus," the pain of love's end in "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife," "You All Know the Story of the Other Woman," and "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator," and her relationship with her husband in "Loving the Killer." In Transformations (1971), a collection of loosely reinterpreted Grimms fairy tales, Sexton relied upon biting satire and dark humor to shatter the notion of happy or conventional endings. Sexton's late volumes reveal the poet's mounting anguish, coloring her work with an increasing morbidity and overriding religiosity. The themes of alienation, death, and deliverance are evident in "The Death of the Fathers" and "The Jesus Papers" in The Book of Folly (1972), "The Death Baby" and "O Ye Tongues," a sequence of psalms, in The Death Notebooks (1974), and "The Rowing Endeth," the final poem of the overtly religious volume The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975), in which the speaker arrives at "the island called God" to play a hand of cards with the deity himself. The balance of Sexton's poetry is collected in the posthumous volumes 45 Mercy Street (1976) and Words for Dr. Y (1978).

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Sexton is recognized as a significant American poet of the postwar era. Widely praised for the forceful imagery, compelling associations, affective elegiac tone, and meticulously arranged tonal patterns of her best verse, she is considered among the most talented representatives of the first generation of confessional poets, along with Lowell and Plath. Critics frequently comment on the dual nature of Sexton's poetry as a cathartic process and destructive urge. While many find courage in Sexton's willingness to transmute painful experience and taboo topics into art, others have condemned such themes as exhibitionist and inappropriate. James Dickey wrote of Sexton's poems in his now-famous review of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, "One feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of such naked suffering." Despite the limitations of Sexton's unabashed self-scrutiny, many critics discern profound archetypal motifs in her work, particularly allusions to the Oedipus myth in themes of incest and the relentless search for forbidden truth and her complex handling of her own search for spiritual meaning in The Awful Rowing Toward God. A celebrity and trenchant poet whose frank discussion of sexuality and mental illness offered liberating honesty for many, Sexton remains among the most important female poets of her generation.

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

To Bedlam and Part Way Back (poetry) 1960

All My Pretty Ones (poetry) 1962

Eggs of Things [with Maxine Kumin] (juvenilia) 1963

More Eggs of Things [with Kumin] (juvenilia) 1964

Selected Poems (poetry) 1964

Live or Die (poetry) 1966

Love Poems (poetry) 1969

Mercy Street (play) 1969

Joey and the Birthday Present [with Kumin] (juvenilia) 1971

Transformations (poetry) 1971

The Book of Folly (poetry) 1972

O Ye Tongues (poetry) 1973

The Death Notebooks (poetry) 1974

The Awful Rowing Toward God (poetry) 1975

The Wizard's Tears [with Kumin] (juvenilia) 1975

45 Mercy Street (poetry) 1976

Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (letters) 1977

Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (poetry and short stories) 1978

The Complete Poems (poetry) 1981

No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose (essays, interviews, and prose) 1985

Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (poetry) 1988

ANNE SEXTON (ESSAY DATE NOVEMBER 1973)

SOURCE: Sexton, Anne. “All God’s Children Need Radios.” In No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose, edited by Steven E. Colburn, pp. 23-32. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.

In the following essay, originally published as “A Small Journal” in Ms. magazine in November, 1973, Sexton chronicles her experiences during the months preceding and following her mother’s death.

Roses

NOV. 6, 1971

Thank you for the red roses. They were lovely. Listen, Skeezix, I know you didn’t give them to me, but I like to pretend you did because, as you know, when you give me something my heart faints on the pillow. Well, someone gave them to me, some official, some bureaucrat, it seems, gave me these one dozen. They lived a day and a half, little cups of blood, twelve baby fists. Dead today in their vase. They are a cold people. I don’t throw them out, I keep them as a memento of my first abortion. They smell like a Woolworth’s, half between the candy counter and the 99-cent perfume. Sorry they’re dead, but thanks anyhow. I wanted daisies. I never said, but I wanted daisies. I would have taken care of daisies, giving them an aspirin every hour and cutting their stems properly, but with roses I’m reckless. When they arrive in their long white box, they’re already in the death house.

Trout

SAME DAY

The trout (brook) are sitting in the green plastic garbage pail full of pond water. They are Dr. M’s trout, from his stocked pond. They are doomed. If I don’t hurry and get this down, we will have broken their necks (backs?) and fried them in the black skillet and eaten them with our silver forks and forgotten all about them. Doomed. There they are nose to nose, wiggling in their cell, awaiting their execution. I like trout, as you know, but that pail is too close and I keep peering into it. We want them fresh, don’t we? So be it. From the pond to the pail to the pan to the belly to the toilet. We’ll have broccoli with hollandaise. Does broccoli have a soul? The trout soil themselves. Fishing is not humane or good for business.

Some Things Around My Desk

SAME DAY

If you put your ear close to a book, you can hear it talking. A tin voice, very small, somewhat like a puppet, asexual. Yet all at once? Over my head JOHN BROWN’S BODY is dictating to EROTIC POETRY. And so forth. The postage scale sits like a pregnant secretary. I bought it thirteen years ago. It thinks a letter goes for 4 cents. So much for inflation, so much for secretaries. The calendar, upper left, is covered with psychiatrists. They are having a meeting on my November. Then there are some anonymous quotations Scotch-taped up. Poets and pigs are not appreciated until they are dead. And: The more I write, the more the silence seems to be eating away at me. And here is Pushkin, not quite anonymous: And reading my own life with loathing, I tremble and curse. And: Unhappiness is more beautiful when seen through a window than from within. And so forth. Sweeney’s telegram is also up there. You are lucky, he cables. Are you jealous? No, you are reading the Town Report, frequently you read something aloud and it almost mixes up my meditations. Now you’re looking at the trout. Doomed. My mother’s picture is on the right up above the desk. When that picture was taken, she too was doomed. You read aloud: Forty-five dog bites in town. Not us. Our dog bites frogs only. Five runaways and five stubborn children. Not us. Children stubborn but not reported. The phone, at my back and a little to the right, sits like a general (German) (SS). It holds the voices that I love as well as strangers, a platoon of beggars asking me to dress their wounds. The trout are getting peppier. My mother seems to be looking at them. Speaking of the phone, yesterday Sweeney called from Australia to wish me a happy birthday. (Wrong day. I’m November ninth.) I put my books on the line and they said, “Move along, Buster.” And why not? All things made lovely are doomed. Two cases of chancres, you read.

Eat and Sleep

NOV. 7, 1971

Today I threw the roses out, and before they died the trout spawned. We ate them anyhow with a wine bottled in the year I was born (1928). The meal was good, but I preferred them alive. So much for gourmet cooking. Today the funeral meats, out to Webster (you call it Ethan Frome country) for a wake. Eat and Sleep signs. World War II steel helmets for sale. There was a church with a statue of a mother in front of it. You know, one of those mothers. The corpse clutched his rosary and his cheek bumped the Stars and Stripes. A big man, he was somebody’s father. But what in hell was that red book? Was it a prayer book or a passport at his side? Passports are blue, but mine has a red case. I like to think it’s his passport, a union card for the final crossing. On the drive back, fields of burst milkweed and the sun setting against hog-black winter clouds. It was a nice drive. We saw many Eat and Sleep signs. Last night the eater, today the sleeper.

Mother’s Radio

NOV. 8, 1971

FM please and as few ads as possible. One beside my place in the kitchen where I sit in a doze in the winter sun, letting the warmth and music ooze through me. One at my bed too. I call them both: Mother’s Radio. As she lay dying her radio played, it played her to sleep, it played for my vigil, and then one day the nurse said, “Here, take it.” Mother was in her coma, never, never to say again, “This is the baby,” referring to me at any age. Coma that kept her under water, her gills pumping, her brain numb. I took the radio, my vigil keeper, and played it for my waking, sleeping ever since. In memoriam. It goes everywhere with me like a dog on a leash. Took it to a love affair, peopling the bare rented room. We drank wine and ate cheese and let it play. No ads please. FM only. When I go to a mental hospital I have it in my hand. I sign myself in (voluntary commitment papers) accompanied by cigarettes and mother’s radio. The hospital is suspicious of these things because they do not understand that I bring my mother with me, her cigarettes, her radio. Thus I am not alone. Generally speaking mental hospitals are lonely places, they are full of TV’s and medications. I have found a station that plays the hit tunes of the nineteen-forties, and I dance in the kitchen, snapping my fingers. My daughters laugh and talk about bobby socks. I will die with this radio playing-last sounds. My children will hold up my books and I will say good-bye to them. I wish I hadn’t taken it when she was in a coma. Maybe she regained consciousness for a moment and looked for that familiar black box. Maybe the nurse left the room for a moment and there was my mama looking for her familiars. Maybe she could hear the nurse tell me to take it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never seen anyone die before. I wish I hadn’t. Oh Mama, forgive. I keep it going; it never stops. They will say of me, “Describe her, please.” And you will answer, “She played the radio a lot.” When I go out it plays-to keep the puppy company. It is fetal. It is her heartbeat-oh my black sound box, I love you! Mama, mama, play on!

Little Girl, Big Doll

NOV. 10, 1971

Out my window, a...

(The entire section is 3720 words.)

Anne Sexton And Maxine Kumin, Elaine Showalter, And Carol Smith (Interview Date 15 April 1974)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Sexton, Anne, and Maxine Kumin, Elaine Showalter, and Carol Smith. "With Maxine Kumin, Elaine Showalter, and Carol Smith." In No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose, edited by Steven E. Colburn, pp. 158-79. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.

In the following interview, originally conducted on April 15, 1974, and first published in the journal Women's Studies in 1976, Sexton discusses her personal and professional friendship with Kumin with respect to the rise of the women's movement and the literary successes of both poets.

Max and I
two immoderate...

(The entire section is 5639 words.)

Maxine Kumin (Essay Date 1981)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Kumin, Maxine. “How It Was: Maxine Kumin on Anne Sexton.” In The Complete Poems, by Anne Sexton, pp. xix–xxxiv. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.

In the following essay, Kumin reminisces about her relationship with Sexton, providing an overview of Sexton’s life and career.

Anne Sexton as I remember her on our first meeting in the late winter of 1957, tall, blue-eyed, stunningly slim, her carefully coifed dark hair decorated with flowers, her face skillfully made up, looked every inch the fashion model. And indeed she had briefly modeled for the Hart Agency in Boston. Earrings and bracelets, French...

(The entire section is 5891 words.)

Diane Middlebrook (Essay Date Winter 1984)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Middlebrook, Diane. "Becoming Anne Sexton." Denver Quarterly 18, no. 4 (winter 1984): 23-34.

In the following essay, Middlebrook explores the significance of Sexton's first attempted suicide with respect to the direction of her literary career and her roles as mother, daughter, and writer.

Anne Gray Harvey became Mrs. Alfred Muller Sexton II on August 16, 1948, after eloping from the family home in Weston, Massachusetts, to be married before a justice of the peace in North Carolina. She was nineteen years old. According to her, an action equally precipitous and defiant changed her...

(The entire section is 5214 words.)

Title Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)

DERYN REES-JONES (ESSAY DATE WINTER 1999)

SOURCE: Rees-Jones, Deryn. “Consorting with Angels: Anne Sexton and the Art of Confession.” Women 10, no. 3 (winter 1999): 283-96.

In the following essay, Rees-Jones analyzes the authenticity and aesthetic “truth” of Sexton’s confessional poetry and role as feminist poet, discussing the boundaries and intersections between the private and public realms, the writer and reader, and male and female.

Structuralist and poststructuralist rethinking of the relationship between author, text and reader presents an interesting problem when it comes to...

(The entire section is 7257 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)

Bibliography

Northouse, Cameron, and Thomas P. Walsh. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: A Reference Guide. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall, 1974, 143 p.

Annotated checklist of publications about Sexton and her work, dated but valuable.

Biographies

Middlebrook, Diane. Anne Sexton: A Biography. London: Vintage, 1992, 528 p.

Reconstructs Sexton's life and interprets her works based on audiotapes of the poet's psychotherapy sessions, which has prompted controversy in some quarters.

Sexton, Linda...

(The entire section is 555 words.)