Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton believed that the most interesting poetry was written out of personal experience. Everything she had been through, her hospitalization, her affairs, her insanity, the loss of her parents, and great-aunt, gave her things to write about. She uses poetry as one of her outlet. She writes out her problems. Her writing was a part of her therapy.
As a child, Anne Sexton had to be the center of attention, a demanding child (Self-Portrait in Letter 3). When Anne was younger, she thought of herself as an outcast and unwanted (Hall 3). Annes great-aunt Nana died in July 1954. She thought the death of Nana was her fault. This was proved in some of the poetry that Anne wrote, I knew you forever and you were always old, / soft white lady of my heart (To Bedlam and Part Way Back 13).

Anne met and married Alfred Muller Sexton II in the summer of 1948. The Korean War just started in 1950, and Kayo (Alfred) joined the Naval Reserves. Kayos boat docked in 1952, and Anne drove to San Francisco to see him. She returned pregnant, and on July 21, 1953 she gave birth to Linda Gray Sexton.

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The next two years of Annes life became hard for her. She started to become emotionally unstable. She was hospitalized on and off due to suicide attempts.
August 4, 1955, Joyce Ladd Sexton was born. Anne was not ready to handle the responsibilities of an infant, toddler, husband, and a house. She checked herself in and out of mental institutions which she called summer hotel, and sealed hotel (Hall 6). She became angrier and more depressed. In March 1956, Anne was hospitalized. Linda was sent to Annes parents and Joyce was sent to Kayos parents. Anne returned home a few months later, and Joyce stayed at Kayos parents house, while Linda came back home. Again, on November 9th 1956, Anne attempted suicide. She then started to see Dr. Martin, who motivated her to start writing poetry.

During these years, Anne worked on her poetry in the hospital, Bedlam, and saw her new psychiatrist on a regular basis. The next two years of her life, Anne became a poet. In the early years of her career, she experienced personal suffering and professional achievements. She often admitted herself to hospitals for depression. Her poems were finally collected and called To Bedlam and Part Way Back.This volume was, as Sexton herself observed, all about my own madness (Self-Portrait in Letters 12).

The first poem if To Bedlam and Part Way Back, is You, Doctor Martin, sets the reader up for the poems to come. It explores the summer hotel, and explains the routine for the day. This poem also suggests a way back, or at least part of the way (Hall 16).
You, Doctor Martin, walk
from breakfast to madness. Late August,
I speed through the antiseptic tunnel
where the moving dead still talk
of pushing their bones against the thrust
of cure. And I am queen of this summer hotel
or the laughing bee on a stalk
of death.

(To Bedlam and Part Way Back 3)
The placement of the verb walk at the end of the first line, together with the following comparison of breakfast with madness, suggests both Doctor Martins involvement in this scene and his distance from it (Hall 17). Although not an inmate himself, he had breakfast first, in the normal world and then goes to work. The doctor is the one who takes control, who has a viewpoint, who is composed, sane, and in disciplined. The speaker, on the other hand, is portrayed by differences with Doctor Martin. The speaker is not given a name. Her motion is speeds a word that connects, by means of internal rhyme with queen in line six and bee in line seven, to suggest the brittle meaninglessness of her position in the antiseptic tunnel among the moving dead. The end rhymes walk, talk, and stalk contrast Doctor Martins purposeful action (walk) with the lassitude and immobility of the patients (talk) and with the frenetic but directionless activity of the speaker, who, speeding around, is a laughing bee on a stalk / of death. The enjambment emphasizes the word death (Hall 16-17).
In Music Swims Back to Me the speaker is child like, lost in the dark of the asylum, and trying to find the way home. She speaks in the vocabulary and cadences of a child:
Wait, Mister. Which way is home?

La la la, oh music swims back to me
and I can feel the tune they played
the night they left me
in this private institution on a hill.

(To Bedlam and Part Way Back 8)
The official person, who offers advice and viewpoints, is Mister. He is the one that can help the speaker find home. In this poem, music is more helpful than Mister is for it helps the speaker to remember. With the help of the music, she gains at least temporary perspective, for she can remember that everyone here was crazy when she first arrived (Hall 19-20).
Imagine it. A radio playing
and everyone here is crazy.

I liked it and danced in a circle.

Music pours over the sense
and in a funny way
music sees more than I.

I mean it remembers better;
(To Bedlam and Part Way Back 8)
We know how a sudden musical phrase, or sound, or smell, can remind us in a flash a childhood memory, of the way we felt, or of where we were, when we heard or smelled it sometime in the past (Hall 19-20).
The poem plays the importance on confusion and forgetfulness, and the poem has a circular structure. The word circle, line 31, is telling the speaker there will not be answer to the opening question, Wait Mister. Which way is home?
Her mother died March 10th 1959, due to cancer, and her father June 3rd due to cerebral hemorrhage. In March 1960, her father-in-law was killed in a car accident. Anne expressed her feeling of guilt in these events by writing. I am depressed, My mother is dying of cancer. My mother says I gave her cancer (Hall 6). Her father was ready to remarry, but he died before the marriage could happen. Anne remembers what happened in All My Pretty Ones:
This year, solvent out sick, you meant
to marry that pretty widow in a one-month rush.

But before you had that second chance, I cried
on your fat shoulder. Three days later you died.

(All The Pretty Ones 5)
The first volume of her poetry to be published was To Bedlam and part Way Back, in March 1960. Her second volume All My Pretty Ones was dedicated to the dead family members. It was nominated for National Book Award. Anne was starting to gain recognition as a poet by the fall of 1960. She got a job with a literary and a lecture agency. Anne was awarded grants, invited to appear on television, and give interviews.
M. L. Rosenthal, a critic, might be responsible for the labeling of Annes writing as confessional poetry. Whoever intended it, it was a term both helpful and too limited, and very possibly the conception of a confessional school has by now done a certain amount of damage (Hall 33). All the confessional poets suffered mental illness. Most spent time in mental hospitals. Some committed suicide (Hall 35). According to Rosenthal, breakdown and suicide are parts of the imaginative risk and have always been a necessary feature of personal poetry (Hall 35). One other critic reviewing Sextons Live or Die wrote that these are not poems. They are documents of modern psychiatry and their publication is a result of the confusion of critical standards in the general mind (Hall 33). A different critic, Ralph J. Mills Jr., wrote that he saw confessional poetry as that which deals with the more intimate aspects of life, areas of experience that most of us would instinctively keep from public sight (Hall 33-34). A. R. Jones defined the confessional poem as a dramatic monologue in which the persona is naked ego involved in a very personal world and with particular, private experiences (Hall 34).

Anne began reading her poetry to musical accompaniments, an activity that led to the formation of a rock group, Anne Sexton and Her Kind.She gained new confidence, and according to Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames, suicide ceased to be a daily threat between 1967 and 1970 (Self-Portrait in Letters 313).
Love Poems, was Annes fourth volume to be published. Anne observed in an interview that in her first two volumes, To Bedlam and Part Way and All My Pretty Ones, she had dealt with madness; in her third, Live or Die, she had become more poetically daring; and in Love Poems, I have not only lived but loved, that sometime miracle (Hall 73).
These themes, of male lover as both life-giver and destroyer, and of speaker as passive and acted upon, are either implied, realized imagistically, or stated openly in most of this volumes poems (Hall 75). Related themes are developed as well; love brings torment, anger, and even death as well as joyful life. In Barefoot, image of love and murder are linked: You do / drink me. The gulls kill fish (Love Poems 35).
The stuff I write is so controversial. NO ONE WILL LIKE IT. The whole trouble being that my writing has guts, but I do not (Self-Portrait in Letters 68). In exclaiming that my writing has guts, but I do not, Sexton expressed clearly the kind of culturally imposed insecurity that women have long felt and that feminist writers are now, through recognition, trying to explode (Hall 83).

In Double Image the speaker is talking to her daughter; Today my small child, Joyce, / love your selfs self where it lives. / There is no special God to refer to (To Bedlam and Part Way Part 54). Anne knows that this is the best advice she can give her daughter, yet it is advice that she cannot believe in for herself. In her early poems she constantly refers to other gods, almost always men, and, in doing so, continually seeks to validate herself in terms of male authority figures. We have already noted the observation of Annes friend, Maxine Kumin, that in Sextons poetry the reader can find the poet again and again identifying her self through her relationship with the male Other (Hall 83). In Sextons first four volumes of poetry, then, we find the poems speaker seeking childlike approval from her male psychiatrist What large children we are / here. All over I grow most tall / in the best ward (To Bedlam and Part Way Back 4), or childlike and lost, asking directions of a male stranger Wait Mister. Which way is home? (To Bedlam and Part Way Back 8)
In an interview with Patricia Marx, Anne said Sometimes I feel like another creature, hardly a woman . . . (Self-Portrait in Letters 78). This other creature appears in several of Sextons early poems. Alienated from her female self, this secret beatnik hiding in the suburbs, this boomy, flamboyant poet characterizes her true self as a witch (Hall 90). Witches (always female, of course) are by nature alienated, different, and shunned by society. More important, a witch possesses magic powers. Anne is 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.

(To Bedlam and Part Way Back 21)
The speaker may be socially accepted during the day, but at night she becomes what she wants to be. She transforms the ordinary domestic scene into something mad and nightmarish: I have found the warm caves in the woods, / filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves, / . . . / A woman like that is misunderstood. / I have been her kind (To Bedlam and Part Way Back 21).
In July of 1966, Anne attempted suicide while on a journey in an African safari with Kayo. This experience helped her write something new called Loving in Killer:
Though I only carried a camera
love came after the gun,
after the kill,

While Saedi, a former cannibal,
served from the left

I vomited behind the dining tent.

(Love Poems 18)
The last volume of poetry to be published was The Awful Rowing toward God. By Sextons own admission, the poetry in The Awful Rowing toward God is raw and unworked (Self- Portrait in Letters 390). The poems take after the name of the book. They are all about life, death, and God. These poems seem rather to be Sextons own, undisguised thoughts and responses, recorded as they occur. The Civil War: I am torn in two but I will conquer myself. / . . . / I will pry out the broken / pieces of God in me. / . . . / I will put Him together again (The Awful Rowing toward God 3).

During the time of Annes death, she was working on 45 Mercy Street. In July of 1974, a letter was written about 45 Mercy Street which is a kind of jumble of a book but does deal with my divorce and a deep love affair that ended in disaster (Self- Portrait in Letters 419-20).
Although the people who she wanted to support her did not, she took a lot of risks for herself. Through poetry Anne explored many subjects that she can relate to. She has put her life into her poetry, and that is why it was controversial. Many readers took Annes poems the wrong way; some were meant to be funny. One should add that Sextons aim seems also to explore the possibilities of meaning and value for her life and, by extension, for the lives of others. Her poetry documents not only a search for self, but also for God.
Anne Sexton spent the last year of her life single, having asked her husband for a divorce in February of 1973. She was admitted to McLean Hospital during this last year, suffering from depression. She ended her life October 4th 1974.
Anne ended her life due to all the problems she had to deal with. Poetry helped her hold on to her life for a little longer, but not long enough. She had first tried killing herself with barbiturates, but it didnt work. A little while later she used carbon monoxide poisoning.
Work Cited
1. Hall, Caroline, King, Barnard. Anne Sexton. Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

2. Sexton, Anne. All My Pretty Ones. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962.

3. —. A Self-Portrait in Letters. Ed. Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979.
4. —. The Awful Rowing toward God. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1975; London: Chatto and Windus, 1977.

5. —. The Death Notebooks. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974; London: Chatto and Windus, 1975.

6. —. 45 Mercy Street. Ed. Linda Gray Sexton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976; London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1977.

7. —. Live or Die. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1966; London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
8. —. Love Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1969; London Oxford University Press, 1969
9. —. To bedlam and Part Way Back. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960.