Anne Sexton Sexton, Anne (Vol. 8) - Essay

Sexton, Anne (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sexton, Anne 1928–1974

An American poet whose work is often termed "confessional," Sexton combines in her poetry self-realization with autobiography. Her first book of verse, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was highly acclaimed for its candid discussion of mental illness as well as its powerful imagery. Sexton was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for Live or Die. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 53-56.)

[Anne Sexton's] poems have a beleaguered and desperate honesty about them. Short on thought, long on sensation, they flog the reader into feeling. Many [in All My Pretty Ones] are manifestly autobiographical, and almost all sound so. If Denise Levertov's poems are obsessed with the present moment, Anne Sexton's cannot escape the vertical pronoun: the "I" is everywhere. Yet she is faithful as a poet, faithful to her own feelings, to the terrible ambiguities of imagination, to the grim joy to be taken in facts. She shows her worst habits when she goes overboard into hallucination without control; but when controlled, hallucination becomes in her hands a way of illuminating the dark recesses of existence.

Anne Sexton's first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was a loose series of poems describing a mental breakdown and recovery. The autobiographical poems in this second book continue the story yet reveal a greater breadth of style and mood, a diversity of imagination which in the end give the second book a stronger unity. One long poem, called "The Operation," is absolutely superb. Its unflinching candor, clarity, matter-of-factness set a standard which is almost unrivaled in contemporary verse. (p. 87)

Yet no other poem in the volume approaches this height, and many suffer from sheer excess, as though the poet were straining every sense to try to identify with her subject matter…. A poem … overshoots its mark when it slips beyond the purity of horror into the incongruity of self-consciousness. Too often, the author reaches so far for the striking simile that she makes the reader uncomfortably conscious of the "I" behind the poems—not the "I" of the sufferer but the "I" of the artificer. (p. 88)

Peter Davison, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1962 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), November, 1962.

There are no agreeable fantasies in Anne Sexton's Death Notebooks but only a remorselessly American earnestness which can all too easily set up counter-currents of exasperation in the reader. Where other members of this death-affirming Look-I-have-not-come-through school have had either the irony (Berryman) or the verbal brilliance (Plath) to make the reader want to come back and read again, Anne Sexton simply hands over her tribulations and bids for our sympathy. Sylvia Plath in her last extremity exposed herself to us without caring, but Sexton exhibits herself and her despair with a carefully judged hollow cheerfulness which reduces in the end to a kind of defiant self-pity. One feels—and experiences with her while reading—her crippling self-consciousness, her alienation from her own feelings and most of life's normalities, her inability to move beyond her own childhood, her life like a series of garments none of which fitted—and one hears the fast-talking desperation with which these deadnesses are catalogued, the only relief coming in moments of brittle and bitter wit: one feels these things, and it almost seems like knowing someone who has died; and one does sympathise. But one also feels that the story, when one finally gets to the end of it, is told, and that without some very special personal reason it would be almost unnatural to want to go back and read it again. (p. 62)

Colin Falck, in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London W1V, 5LE), August, 1975.

The irony of Sexton's poetry is often bathetically broad…. Also, as is often the case in Plath, Sexton will echo the language of children and children's games … in an attempt to suggest the broken world of childhood myth, a land where ego differentiation and fears of separation and dissolution are pervasively threatening. Sexton wrote a book, Transformations, that retold the Mother Goose stories with a coarse irony, and the cyclical, almost litany-like structure of much of Sexton's and Plath's poetry mimics the semi-hypnotic patter of children's rhymes and songs. (pp. 167-68)

But seldom is Sexton … successful in generating a childlike playful tone, and often the histrionic, prosaic language keeps her poetry from having the artistic "rightness" of Plath or Berryman, and her reliance on a flattening irony ("that/will be that") becomes increasingly less rigorous. In a sense she was from the first the most "confessional" of the four poets discussed here [W. D. Snodgrass, Plath, John Berryman, Sexton], if by that word we mean a commitment to recording as directly as possible the shape of private pain and intimate sickness, without regard to artifice or aesthetic transcendence. If Plath seems to exhaust the verbal possibilities of the exacerbated sensibility, Sexton bears witness, perhaps unwittingly, to the same exhaustion at the level of subject matter, as one more psychotic episode, one more terminally ill relative, one more horrendous familial crisis becomes just another trauma. On a shelf of such horrors as her books present, it becomes impossible to find a title or a line that will rivet us, and finally the poetry is read more out of a duty to listen to the maimed than out of a sense of discovery or artistic energy, let alone tragedy. The public clutching of her awkward language becomes its own reproach. (pp. 174-75)

Charles Molesworth, in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1976, Hofstra University Press), May, 1976.

However genuine the anguish [in "45 Mercy Street"], its rendition here raises large questions about the esthetic possibilities of raw confession in poetry. How, for instance, can one properly respond to lines as grotesquely uncontrolled as these?

            … having ripped the cross off Jesus
            and left only the nails,
            I hold up my hand and see
            only nails.

Or, in a different vein,

               The moth, grinning like a pear,
               or is it teeth
               clamping the iron maiden shut?

Sentimentalism, by a common handbook definition, means "an overindulgence in emotion, especially the conscious effort to induce emotion in order to analyze or enjoy it; also the failure to restrain or evaluate emotion through the exercise of the judgment." In Anne Sexton's earlier books, imagery and poetic action often served to restrain and evaluate … with a precision of observation and association that transcends simple self-pity. Some of the lyrics in ["To Bedlam and Part Way Back," 1960, her] first book remain undiminished in vigor and freshness, their material a kind of experience conventionally kept private, their technique demonstrating the author's awareness not only of such immediate and obvious precursors as Robert Lowell but of older poetic and religious traditions and of a world outside the self…. The second book too ("All My Pretty Ones," 1962) has its telling moments, particularly when the poet functions as observer ("Woman With Girdle," "Housewife") rather than self-devouring subject of the work. The title poem, accepting the discipline of rhyme and of closely-observed detail, keeps emotional extravagance in check; other pieces occasionally manage moments of epigrammatic economy.

But even these first volumes lapse frequently into bathos, betraying an apparent incapacity for self-criticism either moral or esthetic, and such lapses multiply as the career continues. In a sense, Anne Sexton can be seen as a victim of an era in which it has become easy to dramatize self-indulgence, stylish to invent unexpected imagery regardless of its relevance, fashionable to be a woman and as a woman to display one's misery. Her poetry became increasingly popular as it manifested increasing slovenliness…. Perhaps the mounting stress on self-loathing and self-punishment—also fashionable modes of grandiosity—helped to obscure the limitation of range, perception, accuracy, the effect of being trapped in a not-very-interesting mind with no capacity to see beyond its own insistent mirroring. Sentimentalism in both its definitions mars most of the lyrics in "Live or Die"; the conscious effort to induce emotion for its own sake, the failure to evaluate it by any rational standard.

This sentimentalism has increased, becoming painfully marked in the first posthumous volume, "The Awful Rowing Toward God" (1975), with its embarrassments of religious pretension…. The problem of internal division, the perception of divinity, the will to rebuild the soul: all alike register unconvincingly. The poetry through which these vast themes are rendered is simply not good enough.

Which brings us to "45 Mercy Street": definitively now, the poetry is not good enough. Inaccurate metaphors…. Vulgar imagery…. A disturbing repetitiousness of tone and technique pervades the book. Words like little and tiny recur again and again, part of the falsely deprecatory litany of self-pity…. [The] true and monotonous concern remains that self explicitly declared inadequate but nonetheless the speaker's only real interest…. [The] verse implicitly argues that anguish is self-justifying, neither permitting or demanding the further pain of balanced self-knowledge or the illuminations of controlled imagination and poetic technique. In life we forgive sufferers the necessities of their obsessions. In literature we must ask more: acknowledging the pain that produces such work as Anne Sexton's later poems, yet remembering that art requires more than emotional indulgence, requires a saving respect for disciplines and realities beyond the crying needs, the unrelenting appetites, of the self. (p. 6)

Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 30, 1976.

Though Anne Sexton unwittingly spawned hosts of execrable student imitators, though she was often an uneven poet, though we have certainly had too much foolish cult worship of suicide, still I think it unfair, uncharitable and untrue to lump Sexton with her untalented imitators and to see her excesses to the exclusion of her strengths….

Let's be fair about Sexton's poetry. She was uneven and excessive, but that was because she dared to be a fool and dared to explore the dark side of the unconscious. Sometimes she seemed to be imitating her own mannerisms, but this has happened to many American innovators—from Hemingway to Berryman. No one calls them "shrill" and "narcissistic" because they are men, and what is called "narcissism" in a woman writer is called "existential dread" in a man. The same charges of narcissism could be leveled at Whitman, at Neruda, at Ginsberg, at Lowell, at Berryman. Ours is a self-regarding age—for men writers as well as women. (p. 25)

Erica Jong, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 25, 1976.