Wednesday, April 2, 2008

National Poetry Month


1928-1974






I first discovered the poetry of Anne Sexton when I was in college,, five years after her death. When I mentioned my attraction to her poetry to an English professor I had at the time, he scoffed and rattled off suggested names of "real poets". I never allowed his opinion to cloud my passion for the work of Anne Sexton. All of these years I have kept my tattered copies of To Bedlam And Partway Back, Live or Die and The Awful Rowing Toward God. I think she's an amazing poet; brutally honest and a person whose humanity was both flinching and accessible.

I'll provide an informal bio based on what I know about her. She was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1928 to affluent parents. Married at nineteen, she was diagnosed with postpartum depression after the birth of her first child. While raising her children, Sexton suffered many mental breakdowns and was hospitalized on several occasions, experiences she wrote about in several poems.

On the advice of her psychiatrist, Sexton began to write poetry as therapy. She was a poetry workshop student of Robert Lowell and became a close friend of the poet Maxine Kumin but otherwise had no academic training as a writer or poet. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poems Live or Die and enjoyed several other poetry awards. Despite achieving these successes as a poet, Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974, at the age of 46.

Despite her troubled life, Sexton was known as irreverent and funny. She struggled with marriage and parenting and had many extramarital affairs. During her career she fronted a chamber rock band called Anne Sexton And Her Kind, who played musical backdrops to Sexton's poems. She also wrote a play called 45 Mercy Street.

Anne Sexton's poetic themes often centered around womanhood and touched upon topics that were considered controversial in her time: masturbation, abortion, infidelity and, of course, mental illness and death. Her style of self-revelatory poetry was often referred to as confessional and lumped into the category of feminist poetry, though Sexton was not a self-described feminist. About her work, Sexton stated, I hold back nothing.

In 1992, Diane Middlebrook published a controversial biography of Anne Sexton that included transcripts of over three hundred taped therapy sessions released by Sexton's psychotherapist. The Sexton estate claims that Anne Sexton would have wanted the tapes released but critics have pointed to the lack of ethics both of the psychotherapist and the biographer.



Her Kind

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.

Anne Sexton

7 comments:

  1. This so gives me shivers - I think I see what attracted you to her work, her brilliance, her voice.

    How she could have been dismissed by her predecessors confounds me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. English professor I had at the time, he scoffed and rattled off suggested names of "real poets".

    He was just bitter. Should have asked the professor if you could read some of his work. Maybe he was rejected and maybe for reasons that went beyond his grasp of poetry. Maybe he saw himself a Gibran minus the soul or a Patchen minus the audacity...

    Either way, when professors discourage thier students enthusiasm for whatever reason without actually proving or highlighting the differences between poets, or what have you, they do a great disservice to the art form and to education in general.

    You should have told him to blow it out his pie hole! And followed that with, "What do you think of that poem? Too short? Not enough irony? Pathos? Idiot!:>)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've read a little of her work, having encountered her via Lowell. How can anybody say she's not a real poet? One of my English professors claimed there was only ONE novel worth reading ('Ulysses' by Joyce)...what do they know? I supsect thepeotryman is right.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Damn! I've missed something in not knowing her work better. Thanks for the nudge.

    ReplyDelete
  5. CR: Her actual voice as she reads her poems is one of my favorites. She's been compared to Burroughs in terms of her readings. Unlike Burroughs, her poetry can both be easily read as well as listened to. In my humble opinion, that's what makes a Burroughs poem work - when he reads it aloud. Remember that LP we had with W.B.'s readings and that crazy man John
    Giorno?

    Thanks for taking the time to stop by my blog, my friend.

    Poetryman: He was certainly cynical, arrogant and bored with his job.

    I so agree with you that teachers should be less opinionated and more inclined to help students make intelligent comparisons and contrasts.

    singbear: Perhaps because I was discussing her only a few years after her death? Still, the Pulitzer people recognized her genius, so why could't the Prof?

    Dcup: I think you would like her stuff. The earlier stuff is the best, IMHO. Later, she started to get into writing her own depictions of fairytales and they were very extragavant. I think she was at a very manic phase of her mental illness toward the end of her life and it affected the writing.

    Thanks for stopping. I liked the last parenting piece you wrote a lot. I didn't comment because so many others had and other than to compliment you on how good it was, I had nothing to further to say. My favorite of your writing is about your family. I'm sure I'm not the first to say this, but you should try to publish something!

    Peace and love and all groovy things to you all!
    Pagan

    ReplyDelete
  6. this is also one of my favorite poets. I started reading her works at age 16. I thought she was radical because she told of her experience in as truthful a manner as she could. really quite radical at the time. that she was depressed and a woman and longing for union spiritually also appealed to me. she reflected my own experience moreso than other more "official" poets ever did.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Poetry isn't my bag, really, I'm more into the visual arts.

    That said, I love the photo you posted. I LOVE those B&W photos from the 30's - 50's. Men and women seems so much more elegant then, even if it were a down-to-earth photo as you've posted.

    And while I don't smoke, a cig makes a great prop, as does a pipe.

    ReplyDelete

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