Anne Sexton: Inside Her Poetry

Anne Sexton’s work is intensely personal poetry, rich with shocking imagery, deep, eerie melancholia, and constant, insistent explorations into language and life.

Jun 12, 2022By Thea Baldrick, BS Biology w/ Molecular & Cellular Biology Concentration, BA Comparative Literature
anne sexton poetry book covers and portrait

 

Labeled a confessional poet, Anne Sexton’s poetry contained a cacophony of voices which Sexton used to explore, with apparent uncompromising honesty, a concept, a relationship, or an identity. In addition, some of the poems have a purgative tone, as if through a cathartic recitation, the voice had hopes of being cleansed, forgiven, or saved from itself.

 

Anne Sexton’s Poetry: Her Kind

 

Her Kind” is the iconic Sexton poem. Written early in her career and published in her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, she often read it in her poetry readings. Sexton even named her chamber music band “Her Kind.” The poem carries elements that recur throughout her work: the confessional “I,” her identity as a woman, the struggle between the norm of the day, and the freedom she exercised to write outside the acceptable boundaries of her time.

 

The first line is full of ambivalence: “I have gone out, a possessed witch.” She has released herself, but the self is a “possessed witch.” Possessed is an intriguing word; it can mean not sane, controlled by evil spirits, or even uncontrollable. But possessed also means owned, as perhaps by a husband, a lover, or her role as a woman in society, directly opposing the “gone out.” “Possessed” also presages her containment in the last stanza as she rides to her execution.

 

arresting witch 17th century
An Arrest of a Witch illustration, via the New Haven Register

 

Finally, she is a witch, three varieties, each holding sway as a stanza in the poem. A convincing analytical paper points out that women confessional poets like Sexton felt eccentric, not representational, in their search for identity, in contrast to male confessional poets. “Her Kind” is a perfect example of that hypothesis.

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The poem references the pain and the punishment of writing poetry like hers, in which she “waved my nude arms,” defiantly baring herself, which results in flames and the wheel. Indeed, the metaphors are apt, for she was heavily criticized for the raw, immoderate intimacies in her poetry.

 

The struggle with all these factors and the role of the housewife in the 1950s and 1960s, as referenced by the accouterments of a suburban housewife, “skillets, carvings, shelves, / closets, silks, innumerable goods;” found in her cave. The last two lines suggest the courage required in this role because “A woman like that is not afraid to die.”  

 

The poem ends with “I have been her kind,” referring to a community, a sisterhood that includes the witches, herself, and perhaps even the reader. The speaker of the poem, by writing the poem, is suggesting, although not asking, for a connection.

 

The First-Person Voices in Anne Sexton’s Poetry

 

As Anne began giving lectures, interviews, and poetry readings, she would usually make a point to explain that the first-person perspective used in her work was a tool. She donned masks as she wrote. This is obvious in such poems as “Portrait of an Old Woman on the College Tavern Wall,” “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” and “In the Deep Museum.”

 

cover to bedlam and part way back
Cover from Anne Sexton’s First Book of Poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston 1960, via Between the Covers

 

In each of these works, the characters who used the first person were people that Sexton was not. But many other poems which could more closely be identified with her biography were also not Anne Sexton. They were voices, characters she inhabited for a time to create the poem. That this is even disputed is astonishing and perhaps attests to her skill in making the characters sound so authentic. Poetry is usually not nonfiction, not even confessional poetry, despite the definition with which confessional poetry has been burdened.

 

Initially, the three main characteristics of a confessional poem were first, a cathartic quality, second, an autobiographical base, and third, complete honesty. Anne directly refutes that this applies to her work. Her Crawshaw lectures provide clever roadmaps for exploring the first-person persona in her poems. She had her students read her work, ask questions, and imagine the answers that she might give. By doing this, an emphasis was placed on the poem and clarified that the poem’s speaker was a construction. The “Anne” became a creation of the class.

 

Distinguishing between the poet and his voice does not lessen the impact of a poem. In considering the interplay between the poet, the persona, and the poetry, the reader can reach a deeper understanding of the poem’s meaning. The most profound insights come, not from cut-and-dried definitions but, as Emily Dickinson points out, from telling the truth but telling it slant. Anne Sexton was masterful in using the technique, not only in her poetry but even in her teaching.



Feminism & Suburban Discontent in the 1950s & 1960s

arsenic old lace doll
Arsenic and Old Lace from Creepy Doll Exhibit, photo by Nate DeBoer, from Minnesota Museum, via mpr news.

 

Sexton often instilled a rebellious or satirical tone in referring to her role as a housewife. She attacked the artifice in “Self in 1958,” in which the poem’s voice perceives herself as a doll living in a dollhouse.

 

“What is reality?

I am a plaster doll; I pose

with eyes that cut open without landfall or nightfall.”

 

The poem ends with an attempt at denial that insists on her existence as a biological being, at least initially, before birth.

 

“But I would cry,

rooted into the wall that

was once my mother.”

 

This poem is one of her most famous, and she often read it at her poetry readings. When she wrote it, second-wave feminism had yet to take hold. Advertisements and mainstream culture in 1958 pushed the concepts of materialism and the stay-at-home mom to the point of caricature.

 

In “Funnel,” Sexton diagrammed the increasing constriction of suburban conventions from her grandfather’s time to her own, “to question this diminishing and feed a minimum/ of children their careful slice of suburban cake.” Nevertheless, she did not reject modern culture; Anne often inserted it into her work, even while lacing it with subtle satire. She often used modern references, making the poem immediate to the time. Particularly in Transformations, a book of poetry based on fairy tales, she used phrases like “Her blood began to boil up like Coca-Cola,” “listening on his transistor/ to Long John Nebel arguing from New York,” and “buying her Duz and Chuck Wagon dog food.”

 

Courage

anne sexton at work on poetry
Anne Sexton at Work, via Boise State Public Radio

 

Sexton brought several new previously taboo topics to public view: menstruation, abortion, masturbation, and incest, thereby opening the door for poetic discourse on abuse and female physicality. It came across as shocking and inappropriate to many readers at the time. Some critics were especially harsh. John Dickey wrote that she “dwelt insistently on the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience.” Sexton was not immune to the criticism. She carried a copy of Dickey’s review with her until the day of her death.

 

In “Cripples and Other Stories,” she wrote,

 

“My cheeks blossomed with maggots

I picked at them like pearls

I covered them in pancake

I wound my hair in curls.”

 

With grotesque imagery, Sexton draws attention to the culture’s tendency to encourage women to “make nice,” to present as attractive and youthful even if the reality is anything but nice. The poet participates in this performance. On the other hand, with characteristic ambiguity, “I picked at them like pearls” is also what she is doing with her poetry, taking the larvae, usually indicating morbidity, and treating them as beautiful objects, pearls, poems, art.

 

Illness

all my pretty ones book cover
Cover of All My Pretty Ones, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1962, via Abe Books

 

Today, Anne Sexton would be diagnosed with bipolar syndrome, but at the time, her illness was considered depression. Overshadowing her life were several suicide attempts resulting in stays in hospitals and asylums. She used these episodes as material for many of her poems, which were often met with rejection like her other topics.

 

For several years at the beginning of her career, Sexton took a seminar course from John Holmes, an experienced poet who taught at Tufts University. Although admitting Sexton’s gift with imagery, he tried to dissuade her from writing about her illness. Her response was the poem “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Inquire Further.” This poem explains the hope she had that the impact of her special brand of poetry, seemingly so personal and embarrassing, would reach people when nothing else could.

 

“And if you turn away

because there is no lesson here

I will hold my awkward bowl,

with all its cracked stars shining

. . .

Not that it was beautiful,

but that I found some order there.

There ought to be something special

for someone

in this kind of hope.”



Live Or Die: Anne Sexton’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poem

anne sexton live or die pultizer prize
Anne Sexton at Home After Winning the Pulitzer Prize, via pulitzer.org

 

In 1967, Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Live or Die. At the beginning of the book, she wrote that the poems “read like a fever chart for a bad case of melancholy.” As usual, she was apt in her metaphors if disingenuous to their literary value.

 

In the second poem in the book, “The Sun,” the persona cries,

 

“O yellow eye,

let me be sick with your heat

let me be feverish and frowning.

Now I am utterly given.”

 

This is repeated with an opposite slant in the last poem in the book, “Live.” The poem brings a longed-for release since many of the poems leading up to it create a feeling that she is slipping towards death. Sometimes she seems to be trying to stop or slow the slide, but with a feeble strength. Yet finally, as she invokes her husband and daughters, she writes, “Today life opened inside me like an egg,” and “I am not what I expected. Not an Eichmann.” The last two lines cry, “I say Live, Live because of the sun,/the dream, the excitable gift.”

 

Sexton herself lost the battle with her illness, but she left us her art into which she breathed life due to her astonishing imagery, her unsparing self-analysis, and her courage.



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By Thea BaldrickBS Biology w/ Molecular & Cellular Biology Concentration, BA Comparative LiteratureD. Thea is a contributing science writer with a B.S. Biology with a Concentration in Molecular and Cellular Biology and a B.A. Comparative Literature from the University of Cincinnati. For fun, she spends time inhabiting the world of dinosaurs with family members. She prefers to be the Brachiosaurus.