I spent my formative years reading the works of Sylvia Plath, convinced that there was no one in the world that could topple that high priestess of verse from her throne of poetic supremacy. Until, that is, I discovered Anne Sexton. I was awestruck and startled by her words, her choice of subject matter and its reverberating resonance, by her ability to deploy metaphorical structures at once synthetic and analytical, her unerring descriptive powers, extemporaneous wit and muscular rhythms. Her poetry, antithetical to that of the previous generation, was often characterised by multiplicity and simplicity, the sacred and the profane as she strived to illuminate the uttermost struggle of human experience. And there is little doubt that Sexton shone an edifying light on human nature from the beginning of her career until her death which she “wanted so badly and for so long”.
On October 4th 1974, Anne Sexton had lunch with friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin to revise her manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God. Upon her return home she donned her mother’s vintage fur coat, poured herself a large vodka, locked herself in the garage and ignited her car engine thus committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. And just like that, the woman who’d been courting death for the last three decades had finally seized it. Martin Heidegger once said that human beings live toward and for death; this could not have been more true of Sexton. Her work canonised the connection between extremist art and suicide as a form of poetic destiny, most notably in Her Kind where she asserts that a woman like herself “is not afraid to die”. Similarly, Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn ends with the line “there is no safe place,” a belief which haunted her throughout her life, and in Wanting to Die the poetess admits that even when she has “nothing against life” the “almost unnameable lust returns” because despite all reason “to die whole/riddled with nothing/ but desire for it/is like breakfast/ after love”.
It is difficult to write of her posthumous royal shadow, her imprecating confrontations, her insolent righteousness and the reflective truths she exposed by breaking boundaries and violating taboos. The largely critical response to her poetry stems, in part, from the fact that she wrote about the unspeakable – death, suicide, sexual anxiety, madness, familial wounds, adultery, lust – discarding her well-bred prudence in favour of candour and a personal, prejudiced and plaintive manner, thereby carving herself out a role as the creatrix of the confessional. In turn, she was often rebuked for the intensity of her artistic preoccupation with the self and her unashamedly self-reflective, auto-referential rodomontade innate in her linguistic identity. But while many find these qualities inherently repellent, I think they constitute the virtues of her craft. Though often disparaged, Sexton managed to maintain an admirably impervious disposition toward the critic, highlighted quite auspiciously in Alan Dugan’s poem called Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton when the poetess declares with hardened conviction: “I don’t care what you think,” an attitude which Sexton seemed to have maintain throughout her career.
But it was her poetry that was her real strength, a calling, and one she saw as her vocation, once saying in an interview: “When I’m writing, I know I’m doing the thing I was born to do.” Her concentration on human relationships produced masterly, virile portraits of those who’d crossed her path. Her take on love and all its particulars comprises some of my favourite works, as well as those poems about and to her lovers, including Admonitions to a Special Person where she declares that, “to love another is something/like prayer and can’t be planned, you just fall/ into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief,” before warning that special someone to “watch out for intellect/ because it knows so much it knows nothing/and leaves you hanging upside down,/mouthing knowledge as your heart/falls out of your mouth.” And the ever-so-brilliant For My Lover Returning to His Wife where she bids her paramour to go back to his connubial stead saying: “I give you back your heart/ I give you permission” after all “I have been momentary/She is more than that” for “she is the sum of yourself and your dream/ Climb her like a monument/ step after step/She is solid/ As for me, I am a watercolour/I wash off.” And one of my all-time favourite openings, in The Kiss which commences with a masterfully vivid illustration of emotional emptiness when she says:“My mouth blooms like a cut/ I’ve been wronged all year, tedious/nights, nothing but rough elbows in them/and delicate boxes of Kleenex calling crybaby/crybaby, you fool!”
Sexton exercised not only formidable control in her work but also a remarkable visceral fortitude. Although her style and approach shifted, she continued to deal with the subjects that had concerned her from the start: personal transformations from wife to poet, from sanity to madness, from love to loss, from life to death. Her knack for autology remains in principal unmatched. Prompted to write by her long-term psychiatrist, Dr Martin Orne, she sought to make her art a salvation, an exercise which was only in part a success as her work attests to the continuous backslides from struggles with destruction to affirmation of life. In As It Was Written she expresses a deep cynicism when she says, “all in all, I’d say/ the world is strangling/ And I, in my bed each night/ listen to my twenty shoes/converse about it/And the moon/ under its dark hood/ falls out of the sky each night/ with its hungry red mouth/ to suck at my scars.” This fatalistic attitude is later supplanted by a sense of contented acceptance in The Truth the Dead Know when the poetess exclaims: “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.” But then the foreboding returns in Despair when Sexton once again begins to question the purpose of life, asking is it “The love that goes down the drain like spit?/The love that said forever, forever/ and then runs you over like a truck?” before addressing Despair itself by saying: “I don’t like you very well/You don’t suit my clothes or my cigarettes/ Why do you locate here/ as large as a tank/aiming at one half of a lifetime?” And again in All My Pretty Ones a poem about her father whom she forgives all his wrongs in the closing lines, “Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you/ bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you,” yet later she renegades on that forgiveness. The backward and forward shift and the presence of vacillation is a continuous theme in Sexton’s work. And while hope is never far away neither is hopelessness.
The extent to which Anne Sexton connected art and self-destruction may have been symptomatic of her illness and later her addiction to pills and alcohol. For all her efforts to purge her innermost demons, her anger remained turned inward albeit she fought against it with spectacular might. Her work dares to defy convention and carries the capacity to linger in the reader’s memory with a complex unease. It makes for difficult, sometimes uncomfortable reading but it also demands to be read. And as I sit here, over three decades after her death, contemplating her work, I realise that Sexton was an embodiment of something that’s in all of us, a reminder that while we can change, a part of us never does. But beyond that, I will always think of her as a “walking miracle” in her elegant shift dress, her smouldering aristocratic face framed by a shag of liberated hair, reading her verses in her coarse patrician burr, pausing to take a drag on her cigarette before exclaiming: “A woman who writes feels too much.” I have been her kind.