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Sexton, Anne 1928–1974
Ms Sexton, an American poet, wrote frank and forceful "confessional" poems. Her principal themes were motherhood and love, life, death, and madness. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Anne Sexton is a very talented poet whose honesty may be her undoing. Normally, candor is a virtue in art: the poet is not afraid to look at things as they are and is not afraid to speak out, even at the risk of displeasing his audience. But confession, while good for the soul, may become tiresome for the reader if not accompanied by the suggestion that something is being held back, that there is an interior life, too costly and rare to be hawked in the market-place. In [Live or Die] Miss Sexton's toughness approaches affectation. Like a drunk at a party who corners us with the story of his life, or an exhibitionist who undresses in Times Square, the performance is less interesting the third time, despite the poet's high level of technical competence. The flyleaf of "Live or Die" speaks of "total frankness," and indeed Miss Sexton gives us an almost day-by-day account of her intimate life: one poem dated November 7, 1963, is called "Menstruation at Forty." One thinks of all that Emily Dickinson didn't tell and recalls Heraclitus' aphorism: "The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives signs."
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Winter, 1967), p. xvii.
Anne Sexton's Love Poems are like choppy-surfaced puddles and she has no qualms about offering them exactly as they are. Sometimes the wind blowing on them has considerable force, which makes this volume more readable than her last, Live or Die, but most of the poems seem to have been written far too quickly, as if she were rather nervous of overcooking the emotional raw material. Some of them are like slightly abbreviated transcripts of a patient's free associations during a session with an analyst….
In her first two volumes, To Bedlam and Half Way Back and All My Pretty Ones, Anne Sexton worked a "confessional" mode to considerable effect. The Love Poems are no less honest—often they seem too honest—and the emotional pressure behind them may be no less urgent, but the tension is no longer captured in the verse itself, which is thin-textured and rhythmically flaccid. Nothing is left of the breakneck movement from one tight cluster of images and ideas to the next. We get more clarity, but at the cost of a pedestrian pace.
Ronald Hayman, in Encounter, December, 1970, p. 77.
Transformations are retellings, in jokey, prosaic language, of seventeen tales by the Brothers Grimm. I have tried but I cannot take any interest in them, any more than I'd want to drive a Chrysler 'Imperial' or live in Weston, Massachusetts. I fear Miss Sexton and I would not be entertaining to each other. I am so deaf and blind to her possible virtues that I surely cannot give them to you. (And, to say it just one more time, that is one of the dangers of one poet writing about another poet.) Anyway, I have vague memories of Uncle Milty doing cute revisions of fairy tales on tv that seemed better than these.
Jonathan Williams, in Parnassus, Fall/Winter, 1972, p. 101.
Although Anne Sexton has been intensely aware of herself as a woman and a woman poet, there is a new militancy here [in The Book of Folly] that I have never detected in her previous work. At best, it is part of a larger impulse in the book which would challenge not just what are male and female worlds, but what constitutes sane and insane, prosaic and poetic, sacred and secular domain.
A concern with breakthrough, as much as breakdown, continues to distinguish Anne Sexton's work in this book; and, since literary influences are quirky, tricky matters, I kept having to remind myself that if I found some bad, unfortunate debts to Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath in these pieces, that it was Anne Sexton who was also important in influencing Plath and possibly even Lowell. What I am more worried over, however, is how this new book raises the same problems that have marked her books—an unevenness that often derives from the inclusion of unmistakably bad poems and even entire, unsuccessful sequences; an overuse of apostrophe and appositives to conceal some terrible failures of language and imagination, feeling and thought; recurrent metaphor and simile that are either too banal or not outrageous enough to work. These may seem like harsh criticisms, but I say them because I also find here important poems by an important poet, and a poet whose best poems ought not to run the risk of being dwarfed by lesser things. At its best, The Book of Folly has poems and prose poems—"The Ambition Bird," "The Doctor of the Heart," "Oh," "The Wifebeater," "The One-Legged Man," "The Red Shoes," "The Death of the Fathers," "Three Stories"—that can stand up to the stronger pieces in what for me are her best books, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, All My Pretty Ones, and Love Poems, this last book a book that never received the kind of attention it deserved….
What moves me most in this book is a relentless vision and weird abundance which marked the best of Anne Sexton's earlier work, a hard-earned knowing that need is not quite belief.
Arthur Oberg, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1973, pp. 87-8.
When Hawthorne rewrote Greek myths for children, he removed the gore, the deaths, the tragedies and the sex, rendering that gritty material into an insubstantial stew of false bliss considered suitable for the children of the time. Anne Sexton certainly couldn't be accused of siding too much with the angels in her versions [Transformations], not at first glance anyway. Whom she sides with, finally, are the live ones, the survivors who stay intact, partaking of a vitality neither moral nor immoral. In the process, she ruthlessly attacks the fairy tales which have sprung from the original Grimm tales and simultaneously attacks the aspects of our culture which have used those fairy tales "to banquet/at behest of usura."…
Anne Sexton … [keeps] her eye on the movement of each tale, although one could hardly fail to notice the spice she dashes into it. Above all, the tales do entertain. There are moments when they strain a bit to entertain ("her secret was as safe / as a fly in an outhouse"), but these moments are overwhelmed by the main force of a dark and often direly sympathetic laughter. The voice, primarily witty and knowing, frequently is possessed by a lyricism that is stunning.
William Pitt Root, in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1973, p. 50.
Whenever Anne Sexton's poems are mentioned, the term "confessional poetry" is not far behind. It has always seemed a silly and unilluminating term to me; one of those pigeonholing categories critics invent so as not to talk about poetry as poetry. I think it's an especially unfortunate term because it implies that the raw sexy truth is finally being told—as in True Confessions. It also implies that poetry (or any other literary form) can be utterly revealing of autobiographical truth. In fact, this is impossible….
If any term is needed, I think it would be fairer to call Anne Sexton a psychological poet. She has always dared to explore areas of the human psyche which lesser poets shrank back from….
She is an important poet not only because of her courage in dealing with previously forbidden subjects, but because she can make the language sing….
This newest collection, The Death Notebooks, contains all that is best about Anne Sexton and all that is worst. Best: her honesty, her vulnerability, her splendid ear for language, her psychological insight. Worst: her repetitiveness, her excess.
The Death Notebooks contains (according to the publisher's press release) poems that Anne Sexton had originally planned to save for posthumous publication, and one of the main themes of the book is the curious fate of the poet: to make a living out of her death. This is a rich and fascinating paradox. The writer's death provides her with both her raison d'être and her livelihood….
[In] Anne Sexton's case, poetry is the reincarnation, the regurgitation, the living she is making out of the jaws of death.
Erica Jong, "Giving Birth to Death," in Ms., March, 1974, pp. 36-7.
[Anne Sexton] is already an established "confessional" poet…. The Death Notebooks continues in the confessional mode and speaks through her characteristically exhibitionist, iconoclastic "I." The major change in Notebooks is its underlying religious metaphor. Consequently, the predicament of Woman, with her awful knowledge of "water breaking," blood and creation, now leads her to the temple. With prosodic roar, Sexton finds her deity [for example] in the mysteries of the toilet….
After sharing in Sexton's epiphanies, one cannot help feeling that perhaps the lady doth protest too much. All the irreverence begins to resemble old-fashioned Puritan repression. The further paradox lies in the coy and very unliberated way Sexton pursues God, her ultimate seduction!
Norma Procopiow, "The Ladies Do Protest Too Much," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 26, 1974, p. 3.
When Wordsworth went looking for God, he walked into the woods of his childhood and there He was. In [the poems in The Death Notebooks] Anne Sexton looks in many strange places for God (oddly, she doesn't try the woods); she apparently finds him in the lavatory. This excremental view of religion and life (buttocks, backsides, enemas, crappers abound in the poems) is a central strand of The Death Notebooks….
However it's not necessary to compare her to Wordsworth to feel that she writes from a narrow and insecure base, making a virtue (and a subject) of her weakness. I was surprised that many of my best female students were infuriated at her seeming dependence (in Love Poems, 1969) on male love and sex, as if without them she was worthless, a nothing (by "she," of course, I mean the persona of her poems, not Sexton herself). In The Death Notebooks this insecurity, this feeling of abandonment, is transferred from men to God…. I'm not looking for happy poetry, but for poetry with balance, a center of gravity. The fear of death, of growing old, very strong here, is universal, but there are many ways to face it. One sometimes—not always—gets the feeling that Sexton is asking too heavily for our sympathy: the poet as loser.
For a major poet with a strong voice of her own, she often lapses into definite echoes of other poets, particularly Sylvia Plath or … Berryman … or Ginsberg…. But … Sexton's weaknesses are general and vague, her strengths specific and clear: a lean energetic line, a technical and formal virtuosity, a sharp visual talent applied to psychological states and human situations that we all can recognize.
Peter Meinke, "Poet as Loser," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 22, 1974, pp. 27-8.
In Anne Sexton's The Death Notebooks there is a good deal of the same chic diction and glib irony that to my mind vitiated the energy of many of her earlier poems. Indeed I have always thought it a great pity that she could not break through this self-consciousness more often, because her energy was clearly there to be tapped, along with intelligence and humane concern, though at the same time her self-consciousness was understandable—and more!—to those of us who have shared her topic: the experience of emotional illness. The important point is that in all her books at least a few poems have made it; they have broken through. Sometimes she has succeeded by converting self-consciousness of style to a genuine formal attribute, at other times by smashing artifice in the heat of feeling. Her new book is no exception, and is well worth having for its few real poems.
Hayden Carruth, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1974, p. 315.
No matter what else you think about Anne Sexton's poetry, you have to concede its extraordinary and persistent vitality. Like that awful child with the curl, when she's good Anne Sexton is very, very good, and when she's bad she sometimes really is rather horrid—but, nonetheless, vital. Always energetic, brimful of her own pains and passions, as if she, whoever and whatever she is (and that's an issue which continually concerns her) is about to leap out of her own skin in her ironic/demonic quest for Love, Life, Art, Intensity.
All of which may seem, at first, particularly odd in view of the brooding, apparently "neurotic" preoccupation with death which her poetry has displayed from To Bedlam and Part Way Back onwards, and which now comes fully to the surface in The Death Notebooks. Yet even in her earliest books, Sexton's thoughts of death were expressed with a breathless and often comic vitality that lightened what might otherwise have been unmitigated gloom….
Vital as her early volumes were, however, The Death Notebooks goes far beyond them in making luminous art out of the night thoughts that have haunted this poet for so long. The book's epigraph is a line from Hemingway's A Moveable Feast—"Look, you con man, make a living out of your death"—which succinctly summarizes the poet's goal, a goal both shrewdly ironic (at least she can write, and thus make a living out of her obsession) and ambitiously metaphysical (what is there to make a living from except death?). But if irony and shrewdness have always characterized Anne Sexton's work, the largeness of her metaphysical ambition is what is newly notable about The Death Notebooks.
Sandra M. Gilbert, "Jubilate Anne," in The Nation, September 14, 1974, pp. 214-15.
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