"Drowning is not so pitiful as the attempt to rise." This proclamation was posted in a correspondence to Felicia Geffen [The American Academy of Arts and Letters] from the poet Anne Sexton in November 1963. Although offered in reference to a particular situation in her life, I celebrate this phrase as the embodiment of Sexton's struggle with the nuances of balancing the "betweens": between "living" and "dying," between "the absurd" and "the ordinary," between "sane" and "insane," between literary "popularity" and "importance."
I think it is partly a fascination into the depths of her creative madness that lures me to Anne Sexton's superbly haunting poetry. As if a siren singing on great, jagged rocks, Sexton seduces the reader using the guise of orderly chaos illustrating the paradox within all things. Her words speak of ordinary things, of the conflicts between the simplistic and the complicated ... all viewed from the seat of a disconcerting "sane-insanity" of sorts.
She dove headlong into territory considered taboo in her era: incest, addiction, mental illness, and abortion, to touch on a few. With cutting candor, Sexton paraded through the consciousness of those sectors of "ordinary" life that flourish on the other side of Alice's looking glass. This "cuttingly candid" work shocked a number of poets and critics, who took offense and formed opposing factions that dueled in print. She bleeds across volumes of pages, never whining for bandages, and more often infuses sheer existence with the very fiber of agony. Anne Sexton's work is categorized into the "confessional" school of poetry, initiated by Robert Lowell, and includes the company of other notable poets such as John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and W.D. Snodgrass.
Reviewer Louise Bogan (referring to All My Pretty Ones) wrote, "She assumes the difficult and dangerous task of putting down the primary horrors of life, along with a good many of those secondary horrors which the imagination is able and willing to conjure up. Her realism deals with so many shocking secrets that her moderate use of Surrealistic language and method hardly counts; and these are almost always women's secrets that do not, in the ordinary way of things, get told. To outline personal relationships always at a high pitch of emotion requires courage; to describe fully the dark conflicts of the self without slipping over into the shrill voice of confession or the sobbing note of self-pity requires high control at every conscious and unconscious level."
Out of everyday objects, in the midst of the absurdity of everyday life, Sexton has managed to weave a quilt of words that wrap around the senses, as if in a desperate attempt to warm you from an icy winter outing. Born on November 9, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts, she flirted dangerously with suicide attempts several times throughout her life. She attended Garland Junior College for one year. Marrying Alfred Muller Sexton II at the age of nineteen, gave birth to a daughter, Linda, in 1953. Her first breakdown was diagnosed as postpartum depression and resulted in hospitalization. Her second child, Joy, was born in 1955, and Sexton suffered another breakdown and was again hospitalized. On her birthday that same year, she attempted suicide.
Her doctor was instrumental in encouraging her to continue to write poetry, which she initially began in high school. To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), Sexton's first book of poetry, illustrates her journey into madness and suicidal thought with sharp, biting clarity.
At the age of 46, Anne Sexton succumbed to her years-long battle with mental illness and committed suicide. In Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, daughter Linda Gray Sexton, and friend Lois Ames wrote, "At home in Weston on Friday, October 4, 1974, she took herself quickly and quietly ... The weather that Friday was particularly invigorating the "black" oaks and swamp maples were turning color. Anne shared lunch with Maxine Kumin in Newton, and proofread the galley sheets for The Awful Rowing Toward God with her as they had done with her previous books.
She had planned an evening out with one of the men she was currently seeing. But despite these signs of renewal and strength, she returned home to her death with no dramatics, no warning, no telephone calls."
I start with her death, and work backward with appreciation of the crafted lucidity of her early work, as well as transformations in her later pieces which, under critical scrutiny, have not always met with kindness from reviewers attributing some stylistic choices to her deficit of an intense college background.
The intent here is not to dissect Sexton, splaying her wide across the smeared slide under the microscope but to breathe her, share her, and fill up with her. It is not in one piece that the reader can learn about Sexton's journey, but through the accumulated study of her collections. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote, "How do I explain these poems? Not at all. I quit teaching in colleges because it seemed so criminal to explain works of art." I defer to Vonnegut.
Sexton is a master of poetic marrow. Her work embraces a purifying expose of self, social issues, daily living, death, and the haunting journey through the whirlwind of madness and beyond. She paved the road for what is now considered the basis of "feminist" poetry. Sexton, with startling topics that hit the literary world in a time when "these things were not discussed", has proven herself as a solid writer and a notable poet whose work will endure. A poet who balanced the ridiculous challenges of domesticity and chaos verses creative obsession, Anne Sexton will leave her mark in the consciousness of all who read her words.
Sharon M. McCartan