American Poets of the 20th Century The Poets Anne Sexton (1928-1974)

About the Poet

A college dropout turned housewife, fashion model, and jazz singer, Anne Gray Harvey Sexton is an unusual source of self-revelatory verse that prefaced an era of modernist confessional. An ambivalent feminist, she spoke for the turmoil in women who despised the housewife's boring fate, yet she suffered guilt over ventures into angry complaint and personal freedom. A relentlessly honest observer capable of springing from disillusion to flashes of perception, she celebrated physical details of womanhood, naming menstruation, masturbation, incest, adultery, illegitimacy, and abortion, and pondered drug dependence, madness, and suicide. Long parted from religion, she retained the fault-consciousness and self-loathing of Roman Catholicism. Her freedom of expression engaged female literary figures at the same time that it distressed poet James Dickey.

Sexton was born on November 9, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts, to a prominent family. She grew up strong-willed, outstandingly attractive, and confident, a surface poise that masked misgiving. She attended Wellesley public schools and Rogers Hall, an exclusive boarding school.

After a year at Garland Junior College, an elite Boston finishing school, Sexton eloped to North Carolina at age 19 with Alfred Mueller "Kayo" Sexton II, whom she had dated for a month. He dropped out of premedical courses at Colgate to work in his father-in-law's business; Anne clerked in a bookshop. During their tumultuous marriage, the couple lived in Massachusetts, Baltimore, and San Francisco. They produced daughters Linda Gray and Joyce Ladd.

While Kayo fought in the Korean War, Linda's birth precipitated Sexton's depression, exacerbated by ambivalence toward motherhood and voices compelling her to die. Unsuited to domesticity and infant care, she required intermittent hospitalization at Westwood Lodge. At her doctor's direction, she relieved anguish through confessional writing. Her earliest efforts focus on conflict between housekeeping and creative expression.

Writing verse helped stabilize Sexton's mind after a 1956 suicide attempt and earned her a scholarship to the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. After forming a professional friendship with Maxine Kumin at a poetry workshop at Boston Center for Adult Education, Sexton developed into a major talent, characterizing psychiatric analysis and grief for her dead parents in verse. Her literary growth was swift and intense. In 1961, she became the first poetry scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study.

Central to Sexton's themes are the exasperating self-study, frank admissions of personal fault, and death urges that lace the writings of her idols, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, and Sylvia Plath. Sexton's initial collections — To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) and All My Pretty Ones (1962), nominated for a National Book Award and winner of the Helen Haire Levinson Prize — preceded a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, nomination for a National Book Award, and multiple invitations for readings. In the wake of a European tour and publication of the children's books Eggs of Things (1963) and More Eggs of Things (1964), coauthored with Maxine Kumin, and Selected Poems (1964), Sexton achieved a Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die (1966), containing personal and aesthetic ponderings over unresolved grief.

During a three-year reprieve from suicidal fantasies, Sexton pursued mature, darkly humorous verse in Poems by Thomas Kinsella, Douglas Livingstone and Anne Sexton (1968) and Love Songs (1969) and saw the production of a play, Mercy Street (1963). While teaching at Boston University and Colgate, she exposed social fraud by restating Grimm's fairy tales in Transformations (1971) and issued a third children's title, Joey and the Birthday Present (1971), also coauthored by Kumin. Newly turned to interest in religion, she wrote The Book of Folly (1972), filled with themes of antiwoman violence, incest, abortion, drug addiction, neurosis, and insanity.

Following an appointment to the Pulitzer Prize jury in 1973, Sexton completed The Death Notebooks (1974), a vivid statement of a death urge. Addicted to alcohol and tranquilizers, she despised her torpid, bloated body. She divorced Kayo with some hesitance, even though he was physically and emotionally abusive to her and their daughters. She entered McLean Hospital for treatment but left the hospital disheveled, ashen, and thin, and survived less than eleven months.

At the time of her suicide by carbon monoxide gas on October 4, 1974, in the garage of her home in Weston, Massachusetts, Sexton, wrapped in her mother's fur coat and clutching a glass of vodka, ended a troubled, chaotic life. She died just as she was emerging as a champion of self-fulfillment. At a memorial service, Adrienne Rich decried the self-indulgence of suicidal personalities; Denise Levertov noted in an obituary that Sexton had confused creativity with self-annihilation.

Sexton's personal, many-sided poems and intimate writings appeared in posthumous editions — The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975), a juvenile title, The Wizard's Tears (1975), the play 45 Mercy Street (1976), Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters (1977), and Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (1978). A compendium, Complete Poems, was issued in 1981, and another, No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose, in 1985.

Chief Works

In 1960, at the beginning of her rise to prominence, Sexton wrote "Her Kind," a controlled three-stanza confessional that concluded To Bedlam and Part Way Back. The poem illustrates the author's immersion in a New England tradition, the roundup of hapless females to be tormented and executed during the Salem witch persecutions. In one of the poet's characteristic split personalities, through a double first-person presentation, she merges consciousness with a subversive, energized woman shunned by the pious as she is hunted for witchcraft. The loosely structured four-beat lines follow a rhyme scheme of ababcdc, linked by mostly monosyllabic end words. Each stanza concludes with the markedly forthright three-beat iambic refrain, "I have been her kind," which names her jazz ensemble, Anne Sexton and Her Kind. Images of darkness and freakishness dominate the first stanza, which stresses a compulsion to roam outside the confines of civility. The dual-natured character is both witch and violator of the domestic womanhood that inhabits the "plain houses" below.

Lonely and driven, the speaker ranges beyond civilization to surprisingly inviting caverns, where she fills the warm emptiness with a rat pack of possessions. Arranged on orderly shelves are oddments derived from past episodes of eccentricity and madness. Like good children, her companions, worms and elves, eat her suppers. Innately "disaligned," they submit to reshaping, a personal reference to Sexton's organic poetry and failed attempts of psychological analysis and treatment with Thorazine. At the end of the stanza, she defends the speaker as "misunderstood," a defense of her own erratic behaviors.

The poem returns to well-lighted places as an unidentified carter drives the speaker toward execution. Wracked by flames and the wheel, an allusion to a medieval torture device on which victims were simultaneously rotated, pierced, and stretched, the speaker appears to greet villagers, who reside in the bright houses she once soared above in her flight from conventionality. Although her arms are nude and vulnerable, in her last moments, she is boldly unashamed of previous deeds and attitudes. Eagerly, proudly, the witch-poet embraces the identity of other brave, possessed women. Like them, she yields to torment for violating polite womanhood.

An equally fantastic view of womanhood appears in "Housewife." A ten-line free verse poem composed in 1962, its tight imagery depicts a house as a physical entity with heart, mouth, liver, and intestines. The woman, a self-sacrificing drone imprisoned in flesh-toned walls, kneels as she performs daily drudgery, scrubbing the house that has devoured her. The poet characterizes male authority figures as rapists, the intrusive cripplers who shatter woman's wholeness. Like Jonah, the Old Testament sailor swallowed and disgorged by a whale, the male householder penetrates a woman-centered home like an incestuous son returning to his mother's womb. The speaker stresses the oneness of all women, in particular, mother and daughter. The poet's matrophilia is a positive impulse that allows Sexton to love her mother and herself, the producer of two daughters.

Written in the same time period, "The Truth the Dead Know" commemorates Sexton's grief for her parents, who died in 1959 within three months of each other — her mother from breast cancer, her father from cerebral hemorrhage. The speaker recalls her father's funeral in June, when she left the formal funeral to walk alone from the church as though turning her back on God and ritual. Later, at the shore, the poet recalls sunlight that glitters like a candle and the surf, which swings to land like an iron gate. The wind, as impersonal as falling stones, drives inland from "whitehearted water," a suggestion of bloodlessness and diminished passion. Simultaneously with nature's functions, the speaker touches a loved one and affirms life.

The final quatrain bears out an alternating rhyme scheme, which links perfect and imperfect rhymes of church/hearse, grave/brave, cultivate/gate, sky/die, stones/alone, and touch/much. In the concluding lines, Sexton allies shoes/refuse with stone/knucklebone, a hard-edged conclusion that jars like a fist to the eye. The impertinence of her tone in "And what of the dead?" loses its initial sassiness as she subsides to death images. She envisions the dead lying shoeless in tombs as rigid as "stone boats." However, the brief flicker of sobriety is a boxer's sucker punch, a feint that precedes a right hook in her defiance of mortality.

Perhaps her most read work on mortality, "Sylvia's Death," scrolls out like a long, emotion-charged farewell. It was written on February 17, 1963, six days after the suicide of poet Sylvia Plath, and published in 1966. Sexton had assisted the Unitarian minister in selecting lines to read at a memorial service. In retrospect of Plath's need for closure, Sexton determined that her friend had chosen an appropriate homecoming. The comment weighs heavy in light of her own choice of self-destruction.

Speaking intimately of the addictive yearning for death, Sexton calls to her friend, asking how she could crawl into an oven to die, abandoning Sexton for a liberating death that they had both foresworn as though giving up cigarettes or chocolate. Personal memories of a cab ride in Boston obscure events that the two shared as they debated the issue of suicide. Personifications of death, "our boy," the "sleepy drummer," hammer at the poet's consciousness with a lust for death. The news that Sylvia has at last committed the long-contemplated act leaves a taste of salt, no doubt generated by tears. Critics debate whether the source of Sexton's weeping is grief or self-pity or a blend of the two.

The poet reaches out to the "stone place" in which Sylvia is buried and acknowledges that they once shared death like membership in a club. Sexton identifies the yearning for release from undisclosed pain as a mole that permeates Plath's verse, a perky underground being whose blind vitality contrasts the stillness of the buried corpse. The poem closes with three addresses to Sylvia — startling images that glimpse her as mother, duchess, and "blonde thing."

Discussion and Research Topics

1. What does Sexton's ambivalence toward self-study share with Emily Dickinson's "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant"?

2. Contrast the loss of self in violence and martyrdom in "Her Kind" with similar scenarios in Richard Wright's narrative poem "Between the World and Me" or Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale.

3. What does the repeated phrase "I have been her kind" in "Her Kind" mean? Does the phrase have universal significance for Sexton?

4. In "Her Kind," how does Sexton characterize loneliness? Is being lonely a positive or wholly negative quality?

5. Discuss Sexton's image of womanhood in "Housewife."

6. Discuss the speaker's relationship to her parents in "The Truth the Dead Know." Does the speaker seem overly saddened by her parents' deaths?

7. Compare the tone and imagery of "The Truth the Dead Know" with Sexton's "A Curse Against Elegies" or "The Touch." Determine which poem is the more powerful and universal and which is more personal.

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