To Bedlam and Part Way Back was Anne Sexton’s auspicious beginning in book publication. She found the publisher that would serve her throughout her life and would respect her wishes after her death. These poems show the influences of most of the important poets with whom she studied, either as teacher or fellow student, including W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and George Starbuck.
Sexton, Lowell, and Plath are the poets most associated with the confessional school of poetry. This poetry invites the reader behind the scenes and into the poet’s life. At times, it seemed there was a competition among these poets for revealing the most, or the most extremity. Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour,” which mentions his flirtations with madness, is an example. Sexton’s collection goes further; the poet reveals what it is like to live in a mental hospital, with the tedium of therapy, meals, and walking the grounds. Her “Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn” ends “There is no safe place,” a conviction she held throughout her life. This also contains the first book publication of her famous poem “Her Kind,” with the refrain “A woman like that is not afraid to die.”
Some of the poems utilize classical myth; a few investigate biblical history and stories. The last section of the book contains a long poem dedicated to her daughter Joy, four years old at the time, and the mother does not spare the details of her life, mentioning that by that time she had tried suicide twice. That number seems low. Sexton shows that although she genuinely cared for her children and for her husband, her new responsibility was her poetry, by which she was consumed.
The last poem in the book, “The Division of Parts,” is to and about her mother, Mary Gray, ostensibly about dividing up her estate, but really about the ambivalent relationship that Sexton had with her mother. Reading this book and remembering that the year in which it appeared was 1960, one easily recognizes why readers and critics immediately paid attention. No one had written poetry this candid before; few have written it since.