Saturday, December 19, 2009
Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are often paired as the female ur-confessional poets. This impulse is understandable. Both had long involvement with mental health systems, to put it mildly; both wrote extremely personal and revealing poetry in which the “I” seems, generally speaking, to be located within the author; and both were eventual suicides. The women were contemporaries, knew one another, and apparently discussed ways and means of accomplishing their deaths years before either of them took the final step.
All the same, I feel this pairing is often used to devalue both women’s literary contributions. The narrative is familiar, at least to those of us who keep up with literary gossip. Sylvia was the more brilliant and accomplished poet. Anne was a poorly educated, dilettante-ish housewife who pulled off the occasional compelling turn of phrase. Both fed upon the energies, societal and personal, of their times; neither should be taken too, too seriously because they were, at the end of the day, hysterics. Hysterics must be taken with a grain of salt. Contemporary male confessional poets such as Lowell and Berryman don’t come in for nearly as much derision, despite similarly turbulent mental health histories and, in Berryman’s case, eventual suicide.
I’m fine with grouping poets together for the purpose of studying literary history, and it doesn’t bother me to place them in “schools” or “movements,” though such categorization seems generally to obscure more than it illuminates. For whatever reason, Anne Sexton’s inclusion in the confessional group has always irked me. It’s not that she wasn’t a confessional poet; rather, it’s the way her inclusion is characterized as an act of condescension – as if her status as a member of the club diminishes its exclusivity and demands apology.
All of the confessional poets have been charged with being exhibitionist one-trick ponies, incapable of producing work that isn’t inextricably linked to their personal experiences and neuroses. They are perceived as precursors and ancestors of today’s memoirists, who can’t even be bothered with the limited rigor of loose poetic form.
Anne Sexton may well have been a one-trick pony, but it was a hell of a trick. At her best, she matches Plath’s brilliance for image with a frankly better ear and a willingness to make, and write, the explicit connection to her lived experience. How you feel about this exhibitionism probably determines whether you consider her work merely narcissistic or daring and compelling.
The Truth the Dead Know
For my mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my father, born February 1900, died June 1959
Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.
We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.
My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one's alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.
Anne Sexton on Wikipedia
Anne Sexton on Poets.org