Anne Sexton : Life into Art
A story, a story!
(Let it go. Let it come.)
I was stamped out like a Plymouth fender
into this world.
First came the crib
with its glacial bars.
and the devotion to their plastic mouths.
Then there was school,
the little straight rows of chairs,
blotting my name over and over,
but undersea all the time,
a stranger whose elbows wouldn't work.
Then there was life
with its cruel houses
and people who seldom touched -
though touch is all-
but I grew,
like a pig in a trenchcoat I grew,
and then there were many strange apparitions,
the nagging rain, the sun turning into poison
and all of that, saws working through my heart,
but I grew, I grew,
and God was there like an island I had not rowed to,
still ignorant of Him, my arms and my legs worked,
and I grew, I grew,
I wore rubies and bought tomatoes
and now, in my middle age,
about nineteen in the head I'd say,
I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyeball,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside of me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it was his two hands
and embrace it.
As the African says:
This is my tale which I have told,
if it be sweet, if it be not sweet,
take somewhere else and let some return to me.
This story ends with me still rowing.
- "Rowing" by Anne Sexton, from The Awful Rowing Towards God
I chose to start this paper by quoting an entire poem of Anne Sexton's.
Why? Because no one told the story of Anne Sexton's life as often or as
well as Anne Sexton herself. Over and over she wrote, recounted, and recast
her struggles with madness, her love affairs, her joys and griefs in parenting,
and her religious quests. For example, "Rowing" touches upon
the need for Anne to tell stories about herself, her longing for connection
with others, her mental problems, and her searching for God - one could
not ask for a better introduction to the world of Anne Sexton.
Sexton was a pioneer. As member of the "confessional school"
of poetry that arose in America in the early '60s, she helped put an emphasis
in American culture on revelation that continues today. Her poetry was
often groundbreaking, daring to grapple with issues such as suicide, madness,
abortion, lesbianism, and family secrets. Because of her, an entire generation
of poets is freer to write about what they please. (Sexton, Anne, xix-xxxiv)
In this paper, I shall write about Anne Sexton's life before becoming
an author, then write about her work and her influence. I shall then address
her marginality and her Faustian bargain, as they pertain to her work.
Finally, I shall see how she fits into Gardener's model of being creativity.
Her Background and Life Before Poetry
Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey on November 9, 1928 to Mary Gray
Staples Harvey and Ralph Churchill Harvey in Boston. (McClatchy, xiii)
Her father owned a successful woolen business, and her mother had attended
Wellsely College and had at one point harbored dreams herself of being
a writer. Both of Anne's parents' families had been prominent in New England
for generations, with state representatives, newspaper editor-in-chiefs,
and bank presidents in her ancestry.
Anne grew up in various posh Boston suburbs with two younger sisters. A demanding child, she continually defied authority by eating cake in her bedroom, throwing fruit at the ceiling, rummaging through her sister's drawers, and other trivial infractions. She constantly wanted to be the center of attention, yet had developed a concept of herself as an unwanted outcast. (Hall, 1-3)
Her closest friend and confidante for much of her young life was her
great-aunt Anna Dingley, for whom Anne was named. Dingley was known by
Anne as "Nana" and can be found in many of Sexton's poems. Nana
died at age eighty-six in 1954, when Anne was twenty-six. Anne was crushed,
and there are several poems which tell of her grief. Nana had suffered
from some sort of dementia in her last years, possibly senility, and Anne
often interpreted that as madness in her poetry. (ibid , 3) Anne
also labored under guilt for Nana's death, believing that Nana's shock
on coming upon thirteen-year old Anne kissing a boy caused Nana's dementia.
(Sexton, Linda Gray, p.141) This, too, would later play out in her poetry.
Anne went to public school until she was seventeen; at that point, she
was sent to Rogers Hall, a girls' boarding school in Lowell, Massachusetts.
She graduated in May 1947 and went on in the fall to enter The Garland
School in Boston, which was a finishing school for women. Throughout her
school years she was a popular, vivacious girl, with striking looks and
inner gnawing pain that led her to act as the class rouge at times. Her
teachers said that Anne was careless and paid too little attention in class,
but also praised her on her writing skills and intelligence. (Ames and
Sexton, 6) At Rogers Hall, she began to write poetry, but dropped it after
her mother saw some of her work and accused Anne of plagiarizing Sara Teasdale.
(This accusation was later proved wrong.) (Hall, 4)
In the summer of 1948, Anne was nineteen and found the man she married.
She met Alfred "Kayo" Muller Sexton II, a sophomore pre-med student
at Colgate University, in July; by the middle of August, they had eloped.
The Sextons moved around frequently in their first few years of marriage
because of money problems; Kayo dropped out of school because of his reluctance
to continue being financially dependent on his parents. After moving to
Hamilton, New York so that Kayo could continue school, the couple moved
back to Massachusetts where Anne worked in a bookstore and Kayo worked
for Anne's father. In 1950, Kayo joined the naval reserve and was sent
to Baltimore; Anne went there to be with him but returned home to Massachusetts
in May 1951 when Kayo shipped out for the Korean War. There, she divided
her time between living with her parents, her parents-in-law, and modeling
at the Hart Agency in Boston to support herself. In 1952, Kayo's ship docked
for repairs in San Francisco and Anne drove across the country to join
him. When his ship left, she returned to Weston to live with her parents
- now pregnant. (ibid , 4)
On July 21, 1953, Anne gave birth to her first daughter, Linda Gray
Sexton, at the Newton-Wellesly Hospital the same hospital where Anne had
been born. Kayo was waiting for his discharge papers in San Francisco.
Anne found childbirth terrifying, and motherhood was overwhelming. (Ames
and Sexton, 22) Kayo returned home and in August the couple moved into
a suburban house in Newton Lower Falls, where they would live for eleven
years. Kayo went back to working for Anne's father. (Hall, 5-6)
Things were unstable for the next two years. Anne had severe emotional problems and was hospitalized several times for attempted suicide at Westwood Lodge in Westwood, Massachusetts; her mother-in-law took care of Linda. (Ames and Sexton, 22) Also, her Nana died in July 1954. Then her second daughter, Joyce Ladd Sexton, was born on August 4, 1955. Anne wasn't ready for the additional burden of an infant in addition to an energetic two-year old and a husband; her anger and depression deepened. (ibid., 22-3)
Anne went to the hospital again in March 1956. Linda went to stay with
Anne's parents, and Joyce went to Kayo's parents. Anne returned home after
a few months and so did Linda, but Joyce ended up staying at her grandparents'
house for three years. On November 9, 1963, Anne attempted suicide again,
and in December, she began seeing a new psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orne (referred
to in her poems as Dr. Sidney Martin). (Hall, 5)
Anne Discovers Poetry
One cannot underestimate Anne Sexton's artistic debt to Dr. Orne. He
was the one who suggested that she started writing, and so at age twenty-eight,
she began to become a poet. In this quote from a 1968 interview, she reflects
on her late start at poetry and tells how it began:
Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn't know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies. I didn't know I had any creative depths. I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream... I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down. I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can't build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out. The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself... I said to my doctor at the beginning [of therapy], "I'm no good; I can't do anything; I'm dumb." He suggest I try educating myself by listening to Boston's educational TV station...I protested but I followed his suggestion. One night I saw I.A. Richards on educational television reading a sonnet and explaining its form. I thought to myself, "I could do that, maybe; I could try." So I sat down and wrote a sonnet. The next day I wrote another one, and so forth. My doctor encouraged me to write more. "Don't kill yourself," he said. "Your poems might mean something to someone else someday." That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life, no matter how rotten I was. (McClatchy, 3-4)
She wrote a sonnet a day for a while, and in September of 1957, she enrolled in a poetry workshop at Boston University taught by John Holmes. There she found a sense of belonging, and found a lifelong friend and creative partner, the poet Maxine Kumin. She worked on her poetry incredibly hard, willing to push her poems through twenty or more drafts. Maxine Kumin actually lived in the same suburb that Anne did, and they got second phone lines installed in their homes so that they could conduct poetry workshopping sessions while attending to housework. She got some poems printed in literary magazines and began hanging out with other Boston-area poets. This did not always go over well with her family, who would prefer that she not be so frank in her poetry. There was also concern that her poetry was taking her away from her family. (It was a valid concern; Linda Gray Sexton in her memoir Searching for Mercy Street writes movingly of desperately wanting her mother's attention when Anne was writing.)
Her Career - some high points, some influence, her significance
Anne's poetry career took off very quickly. To Bedlam and Part Way
Back (1959) and All My Pretty Ones (1962) received very good
reviews, with All My Pretty Ones being nominated for the National
Book Award. This is amazing, considering the fact that Anne started writing
in 1957, and shows that once Anne began to write seriously her talent matured
very, very quickly. In winter of 1963 she was given the American Academy
of Arts and Letter's first traveling fellowship, and she used it to travel
to Europe. In 1964, the best poems from her first poems were published
as Selected Poems in London, and she was elected a Fellow of the
Royal Society of Literature in 1964. In 1966 she published Live or Die
, which won the Pulitzer. Love Poems followed in 1969, and then
Transformations was published in 1971. Transformations was
an enormous popular success; the book consisted of "transformations"
of Grimm's fairy tales that considered contemporary societal issues as
well as Anne's personal concerns. Funny, sardonic, filled with wry modernisms,
Transformations was like nothing out there at the time.
After Transformations , she began to broaden her concerns and
wrote more about her religious quests and the meaning of death in The
Book of Folly (1972), The Death Notebooks (1974), and The
Awful Rowing Toward God (1975). In 1974, she committed suicide after
having completed the galleys for The Awful Rowing Toward God . Two
posthumous volumes followed; 45 Mercy Street was published in 1976
from poems that she had left behind with some notes as to a possible publication
order. Words for Dr. Y was released in 1978, and was the first volume
of her poetry published that she had not had some hand in establishing
its order or content. Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems was released
Through it all, Anne's style changed. Her first two books mostly utilized some sort of form (rhythm and rhyme scheme) while dealing most directly with her personal life. Live or Die began to be more free-form, and Love Poems was about affairs that she had had. As previously noted, Transformations was a major change for her, and her poetry after that grew to be more free-form and concerned with more universal aspects such as God and death.
Anne was a major influence on other poets working at the time. She was
in a writing workshop with Sylvia Plath taught by Robert Lowell in 1959
and influenced both of them. Lowell's Life Studies , which came
out in 1959 (before Bedlam ) was heralded as the first work of the
"confessional school" of poetry, yet Anne's unpublished work
influenced his. Plath's Ariel , which came out in 1965, was definitely
influenced by Sexton's openness; Plath had started out as a very formal,
cerebral poet but by Ariel wrote furiously and with passion. (McClatchy
9-13) Maxine Kumin wonderfully sums up Anne's importance in her introduction
to Sexton's The Collected Poems :
Women poets in particular owe a debt to Anne Sexton, who broke new
ground, shattered taboos, and endured a barrage of attacks along the way
because of the flamboyance of her subject matter, which twenty years later,
seems far less daring. She wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, incest,
adultery, and drug addiction at a time when the proprieties embraced none
of these as proper topics for poetry. Today, the remonstrances seem almost
quaint. Anne delineated the problematic position of women - the neurotic
reality of the time - though she was not able to cope in her own life with
the personal trouble it created... Anne Sexton has earned her place in
the canon. (Sexton, Anne, xxxiv)
Anne Sexton opened every reading by reading the poem "Her Kind"
from To Bedlam and Part Way Back . In the first stanza, she says:
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. (Sexton, Anne, 15)
In the poem she creates several model of the outcast woman and identifies herself explicitly with each one by ending each stanza with "I have been her kind." Obviously, Anne saw herself as being marginal. And she was: she was a woman poet who wrote about her experiences, and she was a person who struggled with mental illness.
And yet, there is an irony to her marginality. Anne in a way was marginal
among the marginal, because while she was a poet, she was also a housewife
and mother in suburbia. This would lead to weird juxtapositions such as
Anne having rehearsal with Anne Sexton and Her Kind, her poetry-rock group,
in the sunken living room of her own middle-class suburban house. (Sexton,
Linda Gray, 147) Though she certainly didn't fit the image of the perfect
housewife, Anne also didn't quite fit into the image of the struggling,
angry artist who casts off all rules of society.
Anne's marginality clearly informed her poetry to a great degree. At
the time when she was writing, there was a noted tendency of male critics
to look down their noses at writing that was too "female". Rather
than choose to write to please sexist critics, Anne chose to write poems
directly about her experience as a woman, with such poems as "Menstruation
at Forty" and "In Celebration of My Uterus." Poems such
as these sometimes caused the critics to excoriate her; for example, James
Dickey in a review of All My Pretty Ones in The New York Times
Book Review blasted the book, declaring that "It would be hard
to find a writer who dwells more insistently on the pathetic and disgusting
aspects of bodily experience." (Sexton, Anne, xx) And of course, Anne's
experience of mental illness greatly impacted her work, particularly To
Bedlam and Part Way Back and All My Pretty Ones . In sum, Anne's
marginality is pretty central to her work.
Her Faustian Bargain
Anne Sexton is perhaps one of the clearest example of the Faustian Bargain
that I have seen. So much of Sexton's poetry came out of her life and her
struggles within it. She did caution people against romanticizing her mental
illness, as seen in this quote from a 1965 interview when she responds
to the notion that creative genius is close to insanity:
Well, their [artists'] genius is more important than their disease. I think there are so many people who are mentally disturbed who are not writers, or artists, or painters or whatever, that I don't think genius and insanity grow in the same bed. I think the artist must have a heightened awareness. It is only seldom this sprouts from mental illness alone. However, there is this great feeling of heightened awareness that all artists must have. (McClatchy, 31)
But at the same time, Anne seemed to be celebrating it herself, making
her struggles seem epic, larger than life. Her readings were supremely
dramatic affairs, as revealed in this quote from Maxine Kumin's introduction
to Anne's Collected Poems :
"Her presence on the platform dazzled with its staginess, its props of water glass, cigarettes, and ashtray. She used pregnant pauses, husky whispers, pseudoshouts to calculated effect. A Sexton audience might hiss its displeasure or deliver a standing ovation. It did not doze off during a reading." (Sexton, Anne, xxi)
Anne had a terrible time in keeping her relationships stable. She was
both commanding and demanding, yet hated running a household, and both
her and her husband's families criticized her for it. (Sexton, Linda Gray,
30-2) She and Kayo constantly fought, Anne provoking him and taunting him
to hit her until he finally did. (ibid , 44-5) She ended up divorcing
Kayo in 1973, against the advice of her friends, her daughters, and her
therapist. (Hall, 10) Anne had an especially tumultuous relationship with
her daughter Linda, with whom Anne over-identified. Anne could not draw
appropriate boundaries between herself and Linda, constantly needing Linda
to be around, confiding in Linda about her lovers and asking to be informed
about Linda's love life. This inability to distinguish between Anne and
Linda came to a horrible culmination in Linda's middle school years, when
several times Anne initiated sexual activities with Linda, and Linda, terrified
of displeasing her unstable mother, went along with it. (Sexton, Linda
Gray, 265-7) Anne had numerous affairs with men and at least one with a
woman and there were many suicide attempts over the years as well.
Although her tumultuous life gave her plenty to write about, it also
hindered her volumes of poetry. As many of the poems were dealing with
intensely personal matters, and each book of hers usually charted out her
working out and growing with several ideas and themes, she found it difficult
to cut weaker poems from the books because then parts of her experience
would be missing. And of course, her life led, in the end, to suicide.
Her fit into Gardener's model
Anne fits in some ways, but in other ways doesn't. Like the geniuses
portrayed in Creating Minds , she had a very rapid rise to recognition
in her field. She had her first book published only two years after beginning
writing, and she went from writing her first real poetry in 1957 to winning
the Pulitzer in 1967 for Live or Die . One can also see a rough
ten-year rule at work; To Bedlam and Part Way Back came out in 1959.
Transformations, her fifth book, came out in 1971 and represented
a definite shift for her. She was still writing about herself, but in a
more universal and accessible way. And her method of transforming fairy
tales to do so was a stroke of genius that cleared the way for artists
such as Angela Carter, who wrote many revisions of fairy tales with new
darkness added. She also had a chief confidant and partner, Maxine Kumin,
who was simultaneously her best friend and an acclaimed poet herself who
was Anne's most helpful editor and critic. Anne also had aspects of marginality
in her life which were a central part of her work. She also had a very
difficult life because of her Faustian bargain.
Anne also does not fit into Gardener's model in several ways. She did
not start being a writer until twenty-eight, whereas most of Gardener's
geniuses showed signs of their talent from an early age. Also, she lived
in middle-class suburbs all her life instead of migrating to a major city
center. In addition, Sexton never had a period where her work was wholly
accepted; from the beginning, she had critics who disparaged her for writing
about "improper" subjects for poetry or who objected to her dramatic
nature. (Sexton, Anne, xxxiii-iv)
In other words, Gardener's work is somewhat helpful in thinking about
Sexton, but it is certainly not perfect.
In sum, Anne Sexton was a groundbreaking poet who made her marginalities
into a creative asset. Although she was not able to, in the end, make herself
well through her writing, she did leave behind her a significantly altered
poetry landscape. American poetry would have been much poorer without her.
Ames, Lois, and Sexton, Linda Gray, eds. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait
in Letters 1977. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Gardner, Howard. Creating Minds. 1993. New York: BasicBooks.
Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Anne Sexton . 1989. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
McClatchy, J.D., ed. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. 1978. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sexton, Anne. The Complete Poems . 1981. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Sexton, Linda Gray. Searching For Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton. 1994. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.