The Complete Poems
In reading through the entire work of any writer, one inevitably has the feeling that one is reading an autobiography. In reading through The Complete Poems, the sensation is all the more intense, for in these poems art and autobiography often seem inseparable. As a result, the poems feature both the fascinations and the failings of most autobiographies. Among their fascinations is the wealth of intimate detail: a look at childhood traumas, family skeletons, illicit love affairs, suicide attempts, episodes of madness; at the female matrix of experience, including childbirth, nursing, menstruation, hysterectomy. Among the poems’ failings are a lack of self-criticism and a lack of detachment which degenerates, at times, into histrionics, self-pity, and self-aggrandizement. The poetry demands—and often gets—the intense involvement of the reader, almost to the point of collusion. The temptation is great to applaud Sexton’s bravery rather than her artistic achievement, but it would be wrong to succumb to this temptation, for sometimes, from an apparent hodgepodge of sensations, Sexton creates ordered, beautiful poetry of transcendent clarity. This poetry—of life transmuted into art—provides the best standard by which to judge all her work.
Like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, with whom she has often been compared, Sexton is a confessional poet. The most recent in the long line of Romantics, they explore feelings and sensations and favor the private over the public, almost to the point of solipsism. Their poetry is intensely personal, centered in small, immediate experience. Perhaps their distinguishing feature is that they explore, more fully than ever before, the world of psychic disturbance, of madness, of disintegration. They also lift all remaining taboos on subject matter, dealing unsparingly with sexuality and with the dark underside of human relationships. Just as the Protestant movement inevitably ends in private revelation, the church with only one member, so the Romantic movement, as it culminates in these writers, seems to end in a complete loss of community, of a grief so terrible and personal that it cannot be fully shared. Thus, at times, their suffering seems a special instance rather than a universal anguish.
In Sexton, the autobiographical nature of the art is reinforced by the fact that her writing of poetry began during a period of extreme depression after the birth of her first child. Encouraged by her psychiatrist to cultivate her gift for metaphor, Sexton wrote many of the brilliant poems which formed her first volume, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960).
The externals of Sexton’s life are prosaic. She was born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1928, to a well-to-do, old New England family, the father a successful businessman, the mother a housewife with three daughters, of whom Anne was the youngest. Anne grew up in a spacious home in Weston, Massachusetts, and went to school in Wellesley but was a rebellious, inattentive student. At nineteen, she met Alfred (“Kayo”) Sexton at the Longwood Cricket Club and soon after eloped with him. The early marriage was happy enough, but with the birth of their first child in 1953, Sexton began a pattern of bouts of depression, successive suicide attempts, and periods of hospitalization, culminating in her suicide in 1974.
From the outlines of her early life, it is hard to account for the darkening shadows of her later years, but, as Sexton reveals in her poetry, under the apparently normal childhood and upbringing lurked horrors: her parents’ not wanting her, her mother’s unsuccessful effort to abort her, her father’s alcoholism, her traumatic toilet training, her mother’s locking her in her room when she was naughty. The poems are a way of dredging up this material with the hope of finally knowing the truth, finding its meaning, giving it order, and at last putting the terrors to rest. The purpose of these poems is to be successful therapy as well as successful art.
Anne Sexton published eight volumes of poetry in her lifetime. These are assembled in The Complete Poems, along with two volumes of posthumously published poems and some individual, previously uncollected poems. The poems have been carefully edited by Sexton’s older daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, and they are prefaced by a most interesting, tender yet candid reminiscence by Sexton’s dear friend and fellow poet, Maxine Kumin. The Foreward relates the almost sacramental importance of poetry in Sexton’s life and details Sexton’s self-driving perfectionism and obsessive self-exploration.
Sexton’s early poetic development was rapid; some of the poems in To Bedlam and Part Way Back are as good as any she was ever to write: “Her Kind,” “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” and “The Farmer’s Wife.” These early poems use traditional techniques: they are metrically even, carefully rhymed (full rhymes, not slant), with some flexibility in line length and many run-on lines. The poem “Her Kind” displays many of the strengths of this early work. Adopting the persona of “a possessed witch,” Sexton expresses ambiguous attitudes toward her own madness: she notes her fear and isolation as she is carried away to be burned at the stake, but boasts that she has domesticated the dark woods she has inhabited. In the last stanza, she defiantly declares,
I have ridden in your car, driver,waved my nude arms at villages going by,learning the last bright routes, survivorwhere your flames still bite my thighand my...
(The entire section is 2344 words.)