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Mrs. Sexton's body of work evinces a definite progress in personalization. This progress made a giant leap when, in 1971, appeared Transformations, a rich collection of seventeen long poems. Each begins with a contemporary observation or application of the "moral" of some fairy tale, then segues into a contemporary recasting of the fairy tale itself. These "transformations" of Grimm's tales into grim parables for our time are deftly done, and in them Mrs. Sexton continues her practice of transforming the dross of commonplace experience into pure poetic gold—and vice versa, for shocking effect. The ancient is remythologized into the modern…. (pp. 89-90)
By transforming the stories into the language and symbols of our own time, she has managed to offer us understandable images for the world around us. The tales focus on the psychological crises of living, from childhood dependence through adolescent trauma, adult frustrations through the deathbed. (p. 90)
While technically not "confessional" poetry, these verses of Transformations do at times strip the poet bare, as when she uses the wolf's deceptions in "Red Riding Hood" as occasion to reveal that she, too, practices such masquerades:
Quite collected at cocktail parties,
mean while in my head
I'm undergoing open-heart surgery.
In her fifth book then, as in her first, Anne Sexton is domesticating our terrors. With outstanding artistic proficiency, she renders the particular pain of her life into universal truths. (p. 91)
Robert Phillips, "Anne Sexton: The Blooming Mouth and the Bleeding Rose," in his The Confessional Poets (copyright © 1973 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1973, pp. 73-91.
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In her poetry, Anne Sexton plunges into the abyss and touches the source of regeneration. In the first 3 volumes, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, All My Pretty Ones and Live or Die, she explores the depths of her own consciousness. In the later three books, Love Poems, Transformations and The Book of Folly, she experiments with various mythopoeia providing possibilities of rebirth.
The movement of Sexton's poetic is dual: centripetal as well as centrifugal. The inturning Therapeutic mode analyzes the "cracked mirror" of the self in search of the origins of dissolution. A second, more visionary mode allows the resurrection of the true self and its reunification with others.
Anne Sexton's early poetry takes place in Bedlam, the realm of extremity and madness…. Evidences of her own fragmented psyche, that blasted identity, are scattered through the poetry in synecdochic images. Her very life is a burden: "lugging myself as if/I were a sawed-off body/in the trunk."… Not only is her body irrevocably severed from her mind by a strictly enforced Cartesian dualism, but it is in revolt. (pp. 6-7)
Imagery of the eye and seeing is therefore pervasive in Sexton's poetry. Blindness suggests death: it is a playful confrontation with the void…. This sense of extremity, of consciousness adrift in Nothingness, is characteristic of existential anxiety…. (p. 9)
"The only way to defeat death and abstraction, then, is through the liberation of vision, or true seeing…. A visionary poet like William Blake, Anne Sexton seeks to break through the "walls" of abstraction which enclose and pervert the creative life force, Eros, or the Blakean equivalent, Los. Mythology and ritual, which should ideally protect Eros, serving as a second womb for the emergent self, have now become repressive systems of moral, religious and philosophical dogma. Therefore, instead of fulfilling the traditional role of witness and midwife of ritual rebirth, the modern seer must create new and viable myths of the self. The Confessional poetic is an attempt to extend the role of the visionary poet. By regarding the self an archetype, the poet becomes a participant in, as well as herald of, rebirth. Sexton's early poetry creates a "mythology of the lost self;" her more recent volumes explore other archetypal realms of human experience: the myth of the estranged self, the body (Love Poems), the mythology of sexual maturity (Transformations), and the myth of the alien other (The Book of Folly).
In Love Poems, the Cartesian separation of mind and body is tentatively bridged by liberation of Eros, the uniting force of love. Sexton acknowledges the internal conflict between the death and love impulse, between Thanatos and Eros…. Sexton is affirmative in the midst of contradiction, advising acceptance of the self in all its multiplicity and wholeness…. Through this joyful reunion of the self, Sexton transcends the boundaries of time and space and individual separateness.
In love, wholeness has finally become realizable for Sexton, but she is very aware of the difficulty of sustaining love relationships. (pp. 9-11)
The cultural mechanism responsible for directing and easing the difficult rebirth into sexual selfhood is the rite of passage. In her volume of adaptations of Grimm fairy tales, Transformations, Sexton makes explicit the mythology of maturation and satirically criticizes the repressiveness of modern society….
In Sexton's vision, neither the ending of the fairy tale nor the American Dream which the ending represents indicates happiness. Rather, the maturation signalled in the culmination of courtship, the institution of marriage, is really a deathly stasis…. (p. 11)
Finally Anne Sexton explodes the myth of the alien other and successfully breaks free of the narrow prison of self-consciousness. Through the visionary medium of personae, the poet actually embodies another individual and in dramatic narrative re-enacts that person's life experience, which though evocative of Sexton's own remains unique. Similar to William Butler Yeats's use of mask, Sexton's assumption of personae is an expression of Eros, creative life that "is a re-birth as something not oneself, something which has no memory and is created in a moment and perpetually renewed." This demonstration of poetic reincarnation in effect conquers death and human alienation. The protagonists of Sexton's dramatic poems fall into three categories: strangers whose suffering parallels the poet's (lonely women, soldiers facing death, mothers renouncing children); dead relatives, particularly a great-grandfather who symbolizes her New England Gothic origins and a great-aunt whose madness duplicates her own; and Jesus Christ, whom the poet is finally able to accept as a model.
In poems which celebrate the human experience of Christ, Sexton is able to balance her earlier despairing vision of the grotesque suffering of the crucifixion. By identifying with Christ in his essential humanity, the poet can escape the dead-end of the religious fable. The Resurrection has finally become a realistic and viable concept for Anne Sexton, when executed through the vision of poetry, that divine folly.
Anne Sexton is a survivor. Beginning with the courage to seek the self's dark truth, deep within she discovered a wellspring of poetic power. Her insight makes outsight possible; her poetry becomes both an interior and exterior quest for meaning. The poet undergoes a continually recurring process of death and rebirth. Like a Phoenix she can rise out of the ashes of her own selves, forever creating herself and the world anew. In this act of imaginative creation, Anne Sexton ultimately fulfills E. M. Forster's prescription for our modern Cartesian dilemma: "Only Connect." (p. 12)
Rise B. Axelrod, "The Transforming Art of Anne Sexton," in Concerning Poetry (copyright © 1974, Western Washington State College), Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 1974, pp. 6-13.
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[Anne Sexton] has described herself as "a primitive," yet is master of intricate formal techniques. Her voice has steadily evolved and varied and, at times, sought to escape speaking of the self, but her strongest poems consistently return to her narrow thematic range and the open voice of familiar feelings…. For the source of her first fame is still the focus of her work: she is the most persistent and daring of the confessionalists. Her peers have their covers: Lowell's allusiveness, Snodgrass's lyricism, Berryman's dazzle, Plath's expressionism. More than the others, Sexton has resisted the temptations to dodge or distort, and the continuity and strength of her achievement remain the primary witness to the ability of confessional art to render a life into poems with all the intimacy and complexity of feeling and response with which that life has been endured.
Endurance has always been her concern: why must we? how can we? why we must, how we do: "to endure,//somehow to endure." It is a theme which re-enacts not only the continuing source of her poetry but its original impulse as well. (pp. 1-2)
Sexton's business with words—the ordering of statement and instinct—is the adjustment of their demands to her experience: in her figure, to made a tree out of used furniture. Though her attitudes towards form have evolved, from the beginning there has been an uneasy ambivalence: the poet insisting on control, the person pleading "Take out rules and leave the instant," as she says in one interview. Her solution has been to use the metaphor of deceit, but to reverse it into a very personally inflected version of form…. Though her early work occasionally forces itself with inversions and stolid High Style, her concern for the precisions of voice and pace reveal her care in indulging a lyric impulse only to heighten the dramatic…. For the poet, form functions to articulate the details and thrust of her actual experience, while for the reader it guides his dramatic involvement in the recreation: both convictions converging on authenticity, on realization. And so the voice is kept conversational, understated by plain-speech slang or homely detail—its imagery drawn from the same sources it counterpoints, its force centered in the pressure of ovents it contours, the states of mind it maps. This is clearly the case with the poems of madness in the first section of To Bedlam and Part Way Back. (pp. 4-5)
[The confessions in All My Pretty Ones] converge towards the present, and the chronicle begins to include more immediate and intimate events. Previously worked aspects of and approaches to her experience are here retried: "The Operation" clearly derives from "The Double Image," "The House" expands "Some Foreign Letters." The greater assurance of her verse likewise allows Sexton to experiment successfully with open forms and new voices. (pp. 13-14)
The oneiric organization of "The House" looks forward to the important changes that her next, and decisive, book Live or Die (1966) announces. With its longer poems in open forms which more subtly accommodate a greater range of experience, and with a voice pitched higher to intensify that experience, Live or Die represents not a departure from her earlier strengths but the breakthrough into her distinctive style. Perhaps the most immediate aspect of that style is its use of imagery…. This is the sort of imagery that will be exploited even more extremely in later books where "like" becomes the most frequently encountered word. It is a technique that risks arbitrary excesses and embarrassing crudities, that at its best can seem but a slangy American equivalent of Apollinaire's surrealism…. Sexton's use of images is primarily psychotropic—used less for literary effect than as a means to pry deeper into her psychic history, to float her findings and model her experience…. Sexton's commitment to honest realization is thus only carried to a deeper level, the final source of memory. And if Rimbaud was right to demand of such associative poetry a "dérèglement de tous les sens," it can be seen as Sexton's necessary road of excess through her experiences of madness and the disorientation of her past so that her metaphors are a method not to display similarities but to discover identities. (pp. 17-18)
The survival achieved, the rebirth delivered, is then praised in Love Poems (1969), in many ways her weakest collection since most of it is sustained by language alone. Its self-celebration tends either to avoid or invent the experience behind it, or revolves on minimal events…. Secure in her use of free verse, Sexton crafts these poems with equivalents: litanies of images which are more often additional than accumulative. (p. 22)
The masks she wears in Love Poems do not hide Sexton's confessional impulse, they avoid it. Her motive may well have been to search out new voices. Certainly this is the case with her next work, Transformations (1971)…. Like Love Poems, it seems content to present women in their roles, from princess to witch, with the poet merely presiding as "Dame Sexton."… [Her] "transformations" [of various tales] exaggerate and so distort the originals to create contemporary camp. And indeed the tales are blown up like pop-art posters by means of an irreverently zippy style, slangy allusions, and a strongly Freudian slant to her stories. But what draws Transformations into this discussion is Sexton's inability to keep her characteristic concerns from seeping into what would otherwise seem her most distanced work. (pp. 22-3)
[The] psychoanalytical uses of the word "transformations" bear on Sexton's work. It can refer both to the variations of the same thematic material represented in a patient's dreams or experience, and to the process by which unconscious material is brought to consciousness. So too Sexton's poems are variations on themes familiar from her earlier work …, transformed into fantasies or dreams discovered in the Grimm tales which are anyone's first "literature" and become bound up with the child's psyche. (p. 24)
[The] most significant and successful poem in The Death Notebooks is "Hurry Up Please It's Time," a sort of long, hallucinatory diary-entry: "Today is November 14th, 1972./I live in Weston, Mass., Middlesex County,/U.S.A., and it rains steadily/in the pond like white puppy eyes." The style is pure pastiche, mixing dialect and dialogue, nursery rhymes and New Testament, references ranging from Goethe to Thurber, attitudes veering between arrogance and abasement. At times she is "Anne," at times "Ms. Dog"—becoming her own mock-God. She can sneer at herself ("Middleclass lady,/you make me smile"), or shiver at what "my heart, that witness" remembers. The recaptured spots of time—say, a quiet summer interlude with her husband and friends—are run into projected blotches spread towards the death to come. And though its expansive free-form dilutes all but its cumulative force, the poem is an advance on the way "The Death of the Fathers" had whispered its confessions. It may even prefigure the manner which confessional poetry generally may later assume. But whatever it may predict, it remains as evidence of Sexton's steady boldness, her readiness to risk new experiments in verse to record renewed perceptions of her experience in life…. Her courage in coming true has not only made Sexton one of the most distinctive voices in this generation's poetry, but has revealed in its art and its honesty a life in which we can discover our own. (p. 33)
J. D. McClatchy, "Anne Sexton: Somehow to Endure," in The Centennial Review (© 1975 by The Centennial Review), Vol. XIX, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 1-36.
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After her death Anne Sexton's poetry continues to push against the boundaries of loss, to embody the daily nature of a despair that is as quiet as a lit fuse. Imminent explosion, the air tense before a storm—this is the energy of her last poems: a sensibility leaning over the edge of control, knowing that loss is final and inevitable. Sexton's poems have always come from the frontiers of the personal. In fact, her work scouted vast unknown regions of emotion for poetry and brought back word…. (p. 87)
45 Mercy Street is her ninth book. It is brought out posthumously, edited by her daughter and literary executor, Linda Gray Sexton. In her introduction Linda Sexton writes that the book was "complete" at the time of Sexton's suicide in 1974 but that the manuscript was still in the process of revision. "Each line appears exactly as she wrote it," Linda Sexton says, "… although ultimately she did not find time for that final perfection." This accounts for the unevenness of the book; it lacks editing. Had she chosen to stay alive, Anne Sexton and her editors may have cleared out certain poems and lines which seem inaccessible, not fully surfaced out of the poet's internal mythology. Sexton knew well how to invite the reader into a private poem, but several of these poems seem closed, like a code, though full of energy. The language emanates from an inner place that stammers and does not articulate. Many poems, though, are terribly clear. They are powerful and focused like mirrors one can not turn from. Cutting the clouded poems would have strengthened the book; yet I am sure it was difficult to cut any of the manuscript knowing there would be no more poems.
45 Mercy Street is divided into four sections. The first contains the weakest poems but also includes the title poem in which Sexton begins to speak about her writing, the effect of the public life on the private, the intensely personal poems which left her naked and exposed. These are poems about the poet as poet. Some of them do not take flight; they're like phone conversations. But some, like "Leaves That Talk," gather into journeys of their own…. (p. 88)
The third part, "The Divorce Papers," is the heart of the book, cut open. Here Sexton continues the surgery of her life which is the poems. She opens herself relentlessly, abundantly, perhaps excessively. Sometimes I cringe at what I recognize in that slicing. The poems are past being mere private cries. They begin to sing a mythology of separation, of the divorce not only of a man and a woman but also of life and spirit. These poems dive inward until, at times, the deepest internal state has become what we all know, "Drilling into the marrow of my entire bone." The poems unfold around Sexton's divorce. They have a terrifying momentum and ought to be read in sequence. We can not fail to recognize our own losses in these poems. Her imagery, at its best, is brilliant, full of speed and wings…. (pp. 88-9)
The language sounds sharp. It clicks like a knife against ice, yet the images are hot. Energy is strung across this circle of opposites—erotic and frightening…. (p. 89)
45 Mercy Street continues a vision that is sculpted by all of Sexton's work—the violence of the world turned in upon the body, upon the self: "The flesh itself had become mad." If there is excess, it is not in the personal nature of the poems but in the images themselves, which seem, at times, to spill out of control. When Sexton is criticized for being too painful, for not lifting both herself and her audience out of despair, I can not help thinking that the violence of the outer world has been internalized in her poems. It is under the skin, under the ground, daily as bodily functions, daily as the blue light of a television. By living so close to that fire in her, indeed by entering it, she gave us a look straight into our planet's eye: "The house of my body has spoken."
Those who have been moved by Sexton's vision, though it be one of irrevocable loss, will find a journey through loss in these poems. Like most journeys, however, there is no final arrival. The tension remains, humming in the air after the poems, as the poems themselves remain after her death. (p. 90)
Kate Green, "Inventory of Loss," in Moons and Lion Tailes (copyright © 1976 by The Permanent Press), Vol. II, No. 2, 1976, pp. 87-90.
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[Anne Sexton's] "self-portrait in letters" is very powerful publicity. There is something to be learned from it about the American poetry scene over the past twenty years; though just what may be learned from contemplating the life of Anne Sexton isn't quite so clear.
To read [the letters collected in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters] one must banish complicated thoughts about the appropriateness of peering into privacies, secrets, intimacies. Anne Sexton was never loath to put herself on display (she speaks at one point of "doing" a Sexton) and would not I think have been disturbed if she were confronted with the present book. The editorial commentary is first rate, extensive, and largely avoids caressing sentimentality towards its subject … But it should be clear at the outset that there's no point in defending perusal of the letters on the grounds that they will help us better understand the poems, or some such piously fraudulent claim. The poems are perfectly understandable without them and feel no better or worse than they did before we had the letters. There is no figure in the poetry's carpet to worry about discovering—it's all smack on the surface. (p. 389)
Compared to Lowell, Snodgrass, and even Plath, Sexton's poetry lacked humor, exploited in a darkly romantic vein the grim disparities in things. In the late 1960's as her poems grew to my eyes more shapeless, distended and surreal, they also became dirtier and more infantile, but not more humorous. Yet humor is the saving grace of many of these letters, as when she refers to her first published work as "My (fucking) book," or gives herself two points ("Haven't killed myself for a year or over")…. Or a brilliant tour de force of a letter catalogues all the disasters which might happen to a person, and the inventive means she takes to avoid each one: "Lightning? wear sneakers, stay off phone. Tornado? retire to cellar to look at washing machine and interesting junk in cellar. How's that? Neurotic? You bet." This is the person one would like to have known. (pp. 390-91)
It would be nice to say that at least we can turn to the poetry and see in it a triumphant vindication of the messy chaos—perfection of the work rather than of the life…. The collected poems are due to appear next year, but my own sense is that she is already being and will come to be read less and less, her main audience a few unhappy college students, probably female ones. Except for some moments in Love Poems (1969) her best work comes in the metrically conservative first volume. Later on she seemed to throw away whatever modest technical accomplishment she possessed in favor of getting down the excitingly grotesque meanings. The lines have no rhythm, just lie flat on the page. (p. 391)
In one of her earliest poems, long before the notion became a fashionable scare-tactic for women to dress up dangerous in, she called herself "a possessed witch,/haunting the black air, braver at night" in a poem which concluded thus:
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
wave my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
If it looked like an exaggeration in 1959, she went on to turn it into a way of life: all in all, quite an act. (pp. 391-92)
William H. Pritchard, "The Anne Sexton Show," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 387-92.