Anne Sexton Sexton, Anne (Vol. 2) - Essay

Sexton, Anne (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sexton, Anne 1928–

An American poet of the "confessional" school, Mrs. Sexton is the author of To Bedlam and Part Way Back and Live or Die. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Anne Sexton's poems [in To Bedlam and Part Way Back] so obviously come out of deep, painful sections of the author's life that one's literary opinions scarcely seem to matter; one feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of so much naked suffering. The experiences she recounts are among the most harrowing that human beings can undergo: those of madness and near-madness, of the pathetic, well-meaning, necessarily tentative and perilous attempts at cure, and of the patient's slow coming back into the human associations and responsibilities which the old, previous self still demands. In addition to being an extremely painful subject, this is perhaps a major one for poetry, with a sickeningly frightening appropriateness to our time. But I am afraid that in my opinion the poems fail to do their subject the kind of justice which I should like to see done. Perhaps no poems could. Yet I am sure that Mrs. Sexton herself could come closer than she does here, did she not make entirely unnecessary concessions to the conventions of her literary generation and the one just before it.

James Dickey, "Anne Sexton" (1961), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 133-34.

The literary quality of Anne Sexton's new poems, in Live or Die, is impossible to judge, at least in the brief time given a reviewer; they raise the never-solved problem of what literature really is, where you draw the line between art and documentary. Certainly her book is one of the most moving I have read in a long time. It is the record of four years of emotional illness, the turns of fear and despair and suicidal depression, a heartbreaking account. The wonder is that she was able to write any poetry at all. What she has written is strong, clear, rather simple, never repressed and yet never out of hand. Some of the poems wander a little; they are unstructured, they start up, flag, then start again, or slip into references too private for us to understand. But I do not want to give the impression that they are jottings or notes, that they are merely documentary. They are poems. They are the work of a gifted, intelligent, woman almost in control of her material. Ultimately the question is, I suppose: how well can the imagination function in a condition of stress? I have the feeling that in the future—and the last poem in her book speaks confidently of the future—these poems will serve as "starters" for further work, giving the poet ideas, images, snatches of language that may be strengthened and consolidated in more fully objectified, imagined poems.

Hayden Carruth, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1966–67, p. 698.

Any Anne Sexton poem should begin with a warning: Enter At Your Own Risk. Like her earlier books …, Live or Die is a disturbing collection of personal nightmares and intimate "confessions."… [The] truth is that in mining the dark places of her own private hell [Mrs.] Sexton illuminates our own as well, and while this can be exhilarating, it can also be very painful….

The quest preceding this hard won affirmation is, though, a tortuous one. Like Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and other confessional poets, [Mrs.] Sexton is an interior voyager, describing in sharp images the difficultly discovered landmarks of her own inner landscape. There is no attempt to mask her profoundly personal responses and perceptions. Poem after poem focuses on the nightmare obsessions of the damned: suicide, crucifixion, the death of others (John Holmes, Sylvia Plath, mother), fear, the humiliations of childhood, the boy-child she never had. Nearly every poem, explicitly or implicitly, deals with death or dying. The imagery, predictably, is brutal and awful…. It is, though, through facing up to the reality (and implications) of these things that the poet, with her tough honesty, is able to gain a series of victories over them. And even if temporary, such victories are essential, both for sanity and for life. All in all, this is a fierce, terrible, beautiful book, well deserving its Pulitzer award.

Joel O. Conarroe, in Shenandoah, Summer, 1967, pp. 82-5.

The poetry of Anne Sexton expresses a number of symbolic themes which have been read as literal autobiography. Because her work is difficult, the biographical approach to the poems has been a temptation; but while there are elements of autobiography in it, the poetry cannot always be interpreted in this way. It seems more profitable to credit her with a degree of esthetic distance and to consider some of the recurrent themes that create relationships among the individual poems….

There are no new seasons in hell, but the old ones from time to time toughen up new visitors who are able to describe in verse the climate of descent. Anne Sexton's hell is more like Dante's than like Milton's; her images clarify rather than veil the ineffable.

Beverly Fields, "The Poetry of Anne Sexton," in Poets in Progress, edited by Edward Hungerford, Northwestern University Press, 2nd edition, 1967.

A good many of the poems in [Anne Sexton's] first book—as the title, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, implies—are explicitly about her experience in mental asylums. They are distinguished by an unambiguous presentation in each of the basic situations, and at the same time by the discovery of an appropriate music for each. At her most successful, as in 'Ringing the Bells,' the harmony of situation and formal embodiment is perfect….

The relationships, in the poems of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, between the tones of mockery and of childlike vulnerability, with appropriate rhythms, and those of rhapsodic realization bring Anne Sexton close to the spirit of Sylvia Plath. These two young women may well have affected one another's styles, for they were certainly aware not only of each other's work but also of their common indebtedness to Lowell. Some of Anne Sexton's images and effects could easily have influenced 'Lady Lazarus' and other poems of Ariel.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 132-38.

Love Poems is not sentimental, not trivial, it is simply not believable. The poems have little to do with believable love, having none of love's privacy and therefore too frequently repelling the reader; they have as little to do with believable sexuality as an act of intercourse performed onstage for an audience. Because neither revulsion nor amusement is a fair response to a poet with this much talent, one must, for the sake of the poet and the poems, totally suppress the word "confessional" and substitute the word "fictional". Only then, when the "I" is a character separate from the author, does the woman become as innocent of exhibitionism as Molly Bloom in her soliloquy. One would not, even then, return and return to these poems as one does to other love poems of past and present, because their self-absorption is too great to allow an empathic entrance….

However, it is clear, I think, that it is from [Mrs.] Sexton's almost incredible feats of "indiscretion" in attitude and image, her grotesque, near-comic concentration on her every emotional and physical pore, and her delineation of femaleness, so fanatical that it makes one wonder, even after many years of being one, what a woman is, that her poems derive their originality and their power, as well as their limitations. To her admirers (among them, if I may pick and choose among all her poems I can include myself), I can say that the poetry is as good as ever.

Mona Van Duyn, "Seven Women," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1970, pp. 430-39.

[Anne] Sexton's way of fighting is instructive. We have here a kind of lady-verse that by Femlib injection and manic therapy has turned the old sentimentality inside out and shows that under the circumstances the weather inside is about the same as out. The poems have a formula: versions of Grimm's tales, each with a kind of preamble which is by turns anecdotal, personal, anagogical-allegorical. The poet speaks in her own voice and also in the voice of "us"—the now people. All the tales skirt the edge of the fanciful-psychoanalytical but never fall over; with considerable tact and some humor the poet keeps her exemplary tales low-keyed, ironic, almost witty. The confessional vein in which she worked in her previous books has temporarily run out, but one still finds many tics and tricks of the confessional manner. Sylvia Plath haunts these pages, I think, in certain tricks of expression … as well as in the dominating presence of a sick soul. Everything here is ugly, particularly beauty.

One of Mrs. Sexton's most conscious and at once most tedious and inventive devices is the strained comparison. In this she again takes a cue from Sylvia Plath, but Sexton's use of the device is incessant and finally, in my opinion, betrays the poet into mere fancifulness….

[Yet, if] we have come to expect of Mrs. Sexton a large dose of self-pity and sessions in the confessional, we might be surprised by what [Transformations] offers. I consider it a growth of the poet's mind and strength, in that she has attempted not just something new which of course everyone does, but something that seems difficult for her, one would have thought. Though the old angst and terror are still there, a new (I think) objectivity—a distancing—has made another kind of writing available to her. What has supervened is a sense of poetry as "the supreme fiction."…

Louis Coxe, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), October 16, 1971, pp. 29-30.

With unrelenting psychic exposure and self-diagnosis the evident motive power behind the work, Anne Sexton has published six books of poems in only 12 years. This one ["The Book of Folly"] has a section of prose parables and a sonnet sequence along with her new batch of expert free forms, the content often mordant, visceral, recklessly revealing, the technique very deft and exhilarating. Begun as a cure, her art turned into a spur, became addictive….

Key persons from her former books reappear—Father, Doctor, Mother, Nurse, Baby, Husband, Lover, Daughter—and as symbols they have evolved, grown more complex, multireferential; the poet makes them project fresh facets and shocks of insight. In some of the poems horror turns humor, then flips back again.

May Swenson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1972, pp. 7, 26.