Today is the birthday of poet Anne Sexton.
When you read The Complete Poems, you can feel her sliding off the rails at the end (I’m not talking about mentally, I’m talking about the quality of her work, although the two are probably related). Some of those late poems are embarrassing. Robert Lowell’s thoughts on that are very interesting to me:
For a book or two, she grew more powerful. Then writing was too easy or too hard for her. She became meager and exaggerated. Many of her most embarrassing poems would have been fascinating if someone had put them in quotes, as the presentation of some character, not the author.
But she was all about revealing her truth, as it was in whatever moment she found herself in. The clarity and almost frightening pure expression of much of her work is gone at the end, and some of it sounds like a bad imitation of Jack Kerouac, a riff with no purpose, no cleverness … like this, from one of her last poems:
I love you the way the oboe plays.
I love you the way skinny dipping makes my body feels.
I love you the way a ripe artichoke tastes.
Yet I fear you,
as one in the desert fears the sun.
This is terrible stuff, the voice of a sentimental untalented undergraduate in a beginning poetry class, not a celebrated prize-winning American poet. David Trinidad has some very interesting words on that score:
My own struggle with Anne Sexton, for twenty years now, has not been about her subject matter (she is the one who taught me that you can write a poem about anything), but about the blatant deterioration of her talent. Sexton’s Complete Poems appeared in 1981, edited by her daughter/literary executor Linda Gray Sexton. This volume includes the eight books Anne Sexton sent to press during her lifetime, as well as one hundred and thirty pages of posthumously published poems. Though fascinating as Sexton documents, the latter are shockingly sloppy and full of over-the-top, bad-trip imagery. This, coupled with the fact that the last three books she did publish (The Book of Folly, The Death Notebooks, and That Awful Rowing Toward God) saw an obvious decline in quality, has made it difficult to come to grips with her complete body of work. It also didn’t help that, after her death, her former mentor Robert Lowell wrote that her writing had become “meager and exaggerated.” I jokingly refer to Sexton’s late period as “Bad Anne.” How else to reconcile such slipshod lines as “I flee. I flee. / I block my ears and eat salami” with her amazing early metaphors (“leaves . . . born in their own green blood / like the hands of mermaids”) and admissions (“Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself”)? It’s too painful to think of her simply as a brilliant poet who got bad. And too easy, somehow, to blame it on pills, alcohol, insanity, fame. Better, I recently decided, to think of her as a genius with demons, writing to beat the clock.
You can watch the regression in her gift, because her first poems are spectacular (it is Sylvia Plath in reverse).
Sexton was a housewife and mother who had spent time in mental institutions, and a psychiatrist suggested that maybe she “should write” as a way to get through the darker moments. Longtime friend Maxine Kumin tells the story:
Nevertheless, seven months after her second child, Joyce Ladd Sexton, was born in 1955, Anne suffered a second crisis and was hospitalized. The children were sent to live with her husband’s parents; and while they were separated from her, she attempted suicide on her birthday, November 9, 1956. This was the first of several episodes, or at least the first that was openly acknowledged. Frequently, these attempts occurred around Anne’s birthday, a time of year she came increasingly to dread. Dr. Martin Orne, Brunner-Orne’s son, was the young psychiatrist at Glenside Hospital who attended Anne during this siege and treated her for the next seven years. After administering a series of diagnostic tests, he presented his patient with her scores, objective evidence that, despite the disapproving naysayers from her past, she was highly intelligent. Her associative gifts suggested that she ought to return to the writing of poetry, something she had shown a deft talent for during secondary school. It was at Orne’s insistence that Anne enrolled in the Holmes workshop.
“You, Dr. Martin” came directly out of that experience, as did so many of the poems in her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back.
Here is “You, Dr. Martin”, and you can see how gifted she was, immediately:
You, Doctor Martin, walk
from breakfast to madness. Late August,
I speed through the antiseptic tunnel
where the moving dead still talk
of pushing their bones against the thrust
of cure. And I am queen of this summer hotel
or the laughing bee on a stalk
of death. We stand in broken
lines and wait while they unlock
the doors and count us at the frozen gates
of dinner. The shibboleth is spoken
and we move to gravy in our smock
of smiles. We chew in rows, our plates
scratch and whine like chalk
in school. There are no knives
for cutting your throat. I make
moccasins all morning. At first my hands
kept empty, unraveled for the lives
they used to work. Now I learn to take
them back, each angry finger that demands
I mend what another will break
tomorrow. Of course, I love you;
you lean above the plastic sky,
god of our block, prince of all the foxes.
The breaking crowns are new
that Jack wore.
Your third eye
moves among us and lights the separate boxes
where we sleep or cry.
What large children we are
here. All over I grow most tall
in the best ward. Your business is people,
you call at the madhouse, an oracular
eye in our nest. Out in the hall
the intercom pages you. You twist in the pull
of the foxy children who fall
like floods of life in frost.
And we are magic talking to itself,
noisy and alone. I am queen of all my sins
forgotten. Am I still lost?
Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself,
counting this row and that row of moccasins
waiting on the silent shelf.
Her first poem. Extraordinary.
Whether or not you “like this sort of stuff” (and that is the main complaint you hear about Sexton and the other “confessional” poets) is not the point. The point is that the VOICE we meet in “You, Dr. Martin” is confident, strong, and unselfconscious. We know we are meeting the POET, not a smokescreen of words and metaphors and poetic devices. It’s not clever. Straight out of the gate, there was nothing between Anne Sexton and her expression of herself. Sylvia Plath’s early poems suffer from precocity, they can come off as coy, sometimes arch. It wouldn’t be until 1962, years into her career, when Plath would burst out with her original voice. Sexton STARTED at that point. Sylvia recognized this, writing in her journal in April of 1959, while editing her own book:
Have rejected the Electra poem from my book. Too forced and rhetorical. A leaf from Anne Sexton’s book would do here. She has none of my clenches and an ease of phrase, and an honesty. I have my 40 unattackable poems.
Sexton’s voice didn’t need to be developed. It came out fully-formed. There was much jealousy between the two poets (Plath and Sexton), although they were also good friends. Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal on March 20, 1959 (the two were taking a poetry class together in Boston with Robert Lowell):
“Criticism of 4 of my poems in Lowell’s class: criticism of rhetoric. He sets me up with Ann Sexton, an honor, I suppose. Well, about time. She has very good things, and they get better, though there is a lot of loose stuff.”
The two poets had similar journeys, were from similar backgrounds, even from the same state, and had both spent time in McLean’s (the mental institution known for its famous artistic clientele). Michael Schmidt, in his wonderful Lives of the Poets has this to say about the influence Sexton had on Plath:
What Sexton suggested to Plath was the force of simple rhyme and simple rhythm, the magic of nursery rhyme darkened by time, of fairy tale where the happy ending somehow doesn’t happen. Sexton showed Plath the way, and then Plath died first, stealing a march on her friend, which Sexton resented and envied. Four years Plath’s senior, Anne Sexton survived her by twelve years, committing suicide in 1974. But Plath keeps hold of the laurels. There are wonderful things in the Complete Poems of Sexton, published in 1981, but many of them are things we associate, whatever their original source, with Plath, and Sexton’s work seems but a footnote to hers.
Sadly, this is true. Sexton’s body of work is much larger, but because of the dropoff in quality in her final years, the work doesn’t have the overall “oomph” that Plath does, who went out in a blaze of genius, stopping at her very highest point.
Sexton wrote a rather extraordinary poem when she heard of Sylvia Plath’s suicide. You can see here Sexton’s fearlessness in how she presented herself. She is not interested in coming off “looking good”. She doesn’t care. She is jealous of Sylvia stealing that suicide, the suicide she had dreamt of so often. Sylvia had actually done it!
Sylvia’s Death – by Anne Sexton
for Sylvia Plath
O Sylvia, Sylvia,
with a dead box of stones and spoons,
with two children, two meteors
wandering loose in a tiny playroom,
with your mouth into the sheet,
into the roofbeam, into the dumb prayer,
where did you go
after you wrote me
about rasing potatoes
and keeping bees?)
what did you stand by,
just how did you lie down into?
how did you crawl into,
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,
the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,
the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,
the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,
the death we drank to,
the motives and the quiet deed?
ride in cabs,
yes death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)
O Sylvia, I remember the sleepy drummer
who beat on our eyes with an old story,
how we wanted to let him come
like a sadist or a New York fairy
to do his job,
a necessity, a window in a wall or a crib,
and since that time he waited
under our heart, our cupboard,
and I see now that we store him up
year after year, old suicides
and I know at the news of your death
a terrible taste for it, like salt,
And now, Sylvia,
with death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)
And I say only
with my arms stretched out into that stone place,
what is your death
but an old belonging,
a mole that fell out
of one of your poems?
while the moon’s bad,
and the king’s gone,
and the queen’s at her wit’s end
the bar fly ought to sing!)
O tiny mother,
O funny duchess!
O blonde thing!
Sexton’s life was not easy, and she made life hell for her husband, her kids, and anyone who really loved her. She said:
“All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children…. I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.”
A mixture of drink, drugs, and a lifetime battle with mental illness took its toll on her relationships, certainly, but it also took its toll on her writing gift, which you can see in those later poems.
Regardless: A remarkable journey. With some WONDERFUL poems.
Maxine Kumin wrote about Sexton’s freshness of approach. She didn’t grow up with a classical education, she wasn’t being groomed for anything, she was a simple girl who got married young, and then, one day, discovered she was a poet. She was free of associations.
Untrammeled by a traditional education in Donne, Milton, Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, Anne was able to strike out alone, like Conrad’s secret sharer, for a new destiny. She was grim about her lost years, her lack of a college degree; she read omnivorously and quite innocently whatever came to hand and enticed her, forming her own independent, quirky, and incisive judgments. Searching for solutions to the depressive episodes that beset her with dismaying periodicty, Anne read widely in the popular psychiatric texts of the time: interpretations of Freud, Theodore Reik, Philip Reiff, Helena Deutsch, Erik Erikson, Bruno Bettelheim. During a summer-school course with Philip Rahv, she encountered the works of Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Thomas Mann. These were succeeded by the novels of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Kurt Vonnegut. But above all else, she was attracted to the fairy tales of Andersen and Grimm, which her beloved Nana had read to her when she was a child. They were for her, perhaps, what Bible stories and Greek myths had been for other writers. At the same time that she was being entertained and drawn into closer contact with a kind of collective unconscious, she was searching the fairy tales for psychological parallels.
Erica Jong describes some advice that Sexton once gave to her:
Once, when I wrote to her about my terror of publishing a second book of poems, she answered: ‘Don’t dwell on the book’s reception. The point is to get on with it–you have a life’s work ahead of you–no point in dallying around waiting for approval. We all want it, I know, but the point is to reach out honestly–that’s the whole point. I keep feeling that there isn’t one poem being written by any of us–or a book or anything like that. The whole life of us writers, the whole product I guess I mean, is the one long poem–a community effort if you will. It’s all the same poem. It doesn’t belong to any one writer–it’s God’s poem perhaps. Or God’s people’s poem. You have the gift– and with it comes responsibility–you mustn’t neglect or be mean to that gift–you must let it do its work. It has more rights than the ego that wants approval.’
Sexton’s most famous poem, perhaps, is “Her Kind”. It has a directness of expression that puts a chill on one’s spine.
by Anne Sexton
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved 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.
Greg Johnson, in analyzing, “Her Kind”, writes:
The poem is a serious attempt to understand such a woman–her sense of estrangement, her impulse toward death–by internalizing evil and giving it a voice: a chortling, self-satisfied, altogether amiable voice which suggests that ‘evil’ is perhaps the wrong word after all. Sexton’s witch, waving her ‘nude arms at villages going by,’ becomes something of value to the community, performing the function Kurt Vonnegut has called the ‘domestication of terror.’ Unlike Plath’s madwoman in ‘Lady Lazarus’–a woman at the service of a private, unyielding anger, a red-haired demon whose revenge is to ‘eat men like air’–Sexton’s witch is essentially harmless. Although she remains vulnerable–‘A woman like that is not afraid to die’–she rejects anger in favor of humor, flamboyance, self-mockery. She is a kind of perverse entertainer, and if she seems cast in the role of a martyr, embracing madness in order to domesticate it for the rest of the community–making it seem less threatening, perhaps even enjoyable–it is nevertheless a martyrdom which this aspect of Sexton accepts with a peculiar zest.
Many people find her poems distasteful, with its openness about her body and its functions, and the messiness of life. People really wondered “Is this poetry? Or … a documentary? What is it?” There is definitely some sexism in the response to her. James Dickey (a poet and writer I love) had some mean things to say about her:
One feels tempted to drop [Sexton’s poems] furtively in the nearest ashcan, rather than to be caught with them in the presence of so much naked suffering… It would be hard to find a writer who dwells more insistently on the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience.
This from the man who wrote “Deliverance”, a book that had, if I recall, quite a few “disgusting aspects” to it as well. But I suppose women’s bodies are grosser to men, because men want to retain their sexual fantasies intact and don’t want to hear about menstruation and menopause and anything that isn’t a “turnon”. Those things are not “poetic”. Men’s bodily functions are somehow noble and human and “universal”, while women’s are better not talked about. I probably don’t need to go into how despicable I find that attitude, which is still alive and well in our culture today. Her stuff is confrontational, however. I love much of it, and much of it I find gross. But should “gross” things not be included in poetry? Do men only write about beautiful things? No. They write about gross things, too. It is the assumption that women should be more “ladylike” that keeps women out of the canon, sidelining them. Women have problems with Sexton’s work, too. She tells our secrets. She reveals things maybe we ourselves don’t want others to know. Mona Van Duyn observed:
“Her delineation of femaleness [is] so fanatical that it makes one wonder, even after many years of being one, what a woman is.”
There are valid reasons to balk at Sexton’s work, it is not for everyone. Hayden Carruth wrote:
“[Sexton’s poems] raise the never-solved problem of what literature really is, where you draw the line between art and documentary.”
That conversation continues. It’s a great conversation.
My father saw her read her poetry in Cambridge, Massachusetts when he was in college. Her poetry readings were more like underground rock shows, with handmade posters, and an electric buzz of excitement running through the mostly-young crowd. They weren’t poetry readings, they were events. Anne Sexton was gorgeous, and she would dress the part. When my dad saw her, she wore a bright red dress, slinked her legs around each other (so many of the photos of her have her twining those legs about), and chain-smoked. My dad said she was great, really exciting, he remembers it well.
Anne Sexton said:
“I’m hunting for the truth. It might be a kind of poetic truth, and not just a factual one, because behind everything that happens to you, there is another truth, a secret life.”
My favorite of hers is this one:
Live or die, but don’t poison everything…
Well, death’s been here
for a long time —
it has a hell of a lot
to do with hell
and suspicion of the eye
and the religious objects
and how I mourned them
when they were made obscene
by my dwarf-heart’s doodle.
The chief ingredient
And mud, day after day,
mud like a ritual,
and the baby on the platter,
cooked but still human,
cooked also with little maggots,
sewn onto it maybe by somebody’s mother,
the damn bitch!
I kept right on going on,
a sort of human statement,
lugging myself as if
I were a sawed-off body
in the trunk, the steamer trunk.
This became perjury of the soul.
It became an outright lie
and even though I dressed the body
it was still naked, still killed.
It was caught
in the first place at birth,
like a fish.
But I play it, dressed it up,
dressed it up like somebody’s doll.
Is life something you play?
And all the time wanting to get rid of it?
And further, everyone yelling at you
to shut up. And no wonder!
People don’t like to be told
that you’re sick
and then be forced
down with the hammer.
Today life opened inside me like an egg
and there inside
after considerable digging
I found the answer.
What a bargain!
There was the sun,
her yolk moving feverishly,
tumbling her prize —
and you realize she does this daily!
I’d known she was a purifier
but I hadn’t thought
she was solid,
hadn’t known she was an answer.
God! It’s a dream,
lovers sprouting in the yard
like celery stalks
a husband straight as a redwood,
two daughters, two sea urchings,
picking roses off my hackles.
If I’m on fire they dance around it
and cook marshmallows.
And if I’m ice
they simply skate on me
in little ballet costumes.
thinking I was a killer,
anointing myself daily
with my little poisons.
I’m an empress.
I wear an apron.
My typewriter writes.
It didn’t break the way it warned.
Even crazy, I’m as nice
as a chocolate bar.
Even with the witches’ gymnastics
they trust my incalculable city,
my corruptible bed.
O dearest three,
I make a soft reply.
The witch comes on
and you paint her pink.
I come with kisses in my hood
and the sun, the smart one,
rolling in my arms.
So I say Live
and turn my shadow three times round
to feed our puppies as they come,
the eight Dalmatians we didn’t drown,
despite the warnings: The abort! The destroy!
Despite the pails of water that waited,
to drown them, to pull them down like stones,
they came, each one headfirst, blowing bubbles the color of cataract-blue
and fumbling for the tiny tits.
Just last week, eight Dalmatians,
3/4 of a lb., lined up like cord wood
I promise to love more if they come,
because in spite of cruelty
and the stuffed railroad cars for the ovens,
I am not what I expected. Not an Eichmann.
The poison just didn’t take.
So I won’t hang around in my hospital shift,
repeating The Black Mass and all of it.
I say Live, Live because of the sun,
the dream, the excitable gift.