Saturday, December 19, 2009

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton was troubled. Good-looking in an intense, nervy, raw-edged way, she worked briefly as a model before marrying young and quickly having two daughters. She began writing poetry at the suggestion of her therapist. I suppose posterity should thank him, but her case rather illustrates the shortcomings of poetry-as-therapy: after repeated bipolar breakdowns and progressive alcoholism, she killed herself at the age of 46 through carbon monoxide poisoning in her garage.

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


  1. Anne Sexton-- an edgy choice, Becky! Good, dysfunctional wasp families know these woman well...the 'hysterics' and the gold in their cold streams of mad words. They run at their most torrential (and alcoholic) at the holidays. Thanks for the post!

  2. There's a revealing two-part 'interview' (with foreign subtitles) of Anne Sexton on YouTube. She was a natural performer; not only inclined to perform, but clearly gifted theatrically. She playfully chides her husband for being camera-shy.

    I read Diane Middlebrook's biography of Anne and found it very engaging. Sexton, Plath and Diane Arbus are my Tragic Female Triumvirate. I'm a photographer who's also written poems and attempted suicide.

    I love your last paragraph before "The Truth the Dead Know," Becky. Excellent comment. To me, the people who would label Sexton narcissistic are those who only wish that they themselves had something to be narcissistic about...and I bet Anne would agree.

  3. I feel like my commenters have more interesting things to say than I do ... I seem to exhaust my insights with the posts themselves. Welcome and thanks for reading. :)

    I've been wanting to read the Middlebrook bio myself, but it's always checked out. I suppose that's a positive thing!

  4. Hi Again Becky,

    There might be people who don't realize that Anne Sexton can be heard reading twenty of her poems on the Harper Audio site. Here's the link:

    Anne finally killed herself rather than be pulled further into the maelstrom of psychiatric confinement. You can hear the depth of her self-awareness in her voice.