By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The poems of Anne Sexton (1928-74) have not, perhaps, received their full due. As Michael Schmidt notes in his compendious Lives of the Poets, Sexton’s work has come to be viewed as a ‘footnote’ to the work of the much better-known Sylvia Plath, who was influenced by Sexton’s work. Sexton, like Plath, would die by her own hand, in 1974.
This is unfair, however. Sexton was the first to develop the distinctive rhythms which Plath would later make her own, and in Sexton’s poetry we find a raw honesty we associate with confessional poetry, as well as a commitment to expanding the range of women’s poetry to encompass such themes as child-reading, the menstrual cycle, and sexual violence.
In other words, Anne Sexton’s poems are at once confessional and feminist, and her work is worth exploring on its own terms. She has been a considerable influence on later poets, including Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds. Below, we select and introduce ten of Sexton’s finest poems.
1. ‘You, Doctor Martin’.
This 1960 poem draws on Sexton’s experiences of being treated by psychiatrists. Indeed, this poem is addressed to Dr Martin Orne, who treated Sexton. In irregular stanzas, the poet describes his regular routine, which contrasts sharply with the inner turmoil and chaos of his patients.
Sexton and the other patients speak their own private shibboleths, wait at the ‘frozen gates’ for their dinner, and have no control over their own lives, unlike the doctor, who controls everything. Some of the rhymes – ‘sins’ and ‘moccasins’, for instance – are inspired, and neatly capture the erratic state of the patients’ minds.
One of the things Plath learned from Anne Sexton was how to take the nursery-rhyme rhythms we associate with our childhoods and give them a dark, even sinister twist. And Sexton did this with that other staple of childhood reading: fairy tales. One of her other poems, for instance, is about Briar Rose, better known as Sleeping Beauty.
In ‘Cinderella’, Sexton begins with some modern examples of ‘rags to riches’ stories: the sort of thing we might read about in the newspapers. Then she turns to the tale of Cinderella, whose mother dies, leaving her to contend with her two stepsisters with ‘hearts like blackjacks’. Although the story ends happily, as in the original, there’s a cloud hanging over Sexton’s retelling of this timeless tale, and the happiness seems empty, even artificial.
3. ‘Flee on Your Donkey’.
Sexton wrote this poem in 1962 while she was incarcerated for her mental health. She spent the next few years rewriting the poem until it was eventually published in 1966 in the New Yorker (not because they were ‘good’, Sexton wrote in one of her letters, but because ‘they pay’).
The poem begins with the speaker fleeing to a mental institution without any luggage ‘or defenses’. All she has, aside from something to smoke, is her muse: ‘that good nurse’. The rest of the long poem describes the experience of being inside the institution, where, in a memorable image, brains rot ‘like black bananas’.
4. ‘A Curse against Elegies’.
Sexton’s poetry is unsentimental, even brusque in its directness and refusal to shy away from addressing the sordid and unpleasant realities of life. And so writing an elegy, a poem of mourning for the dead, is not something she ever embraced.
In this poem, then, we get a sort of anti-elegy, which refuses to idealise the dead. The dead refuse to listen, so why disturb their peace? They are even ‘bored’ with the whole idea of being dead, and of being elegised by the living. Sexton’s speaker regards those who engage in ‘pious’ talk to the dead as really doing so for their own benefit: they are talking back to their ‘old bad dreams’.
5. ‘Wanting to Die’.
Written in unrhymed tercets, this poem is more metrically regular than many of Anne Sexton’s poems. The poem might be compared with Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’, which addresses the same topic.
Sexton similarly does so unflinchingly, describing the feeling of wanting to ‘thrust all that life under your tongue’ (as ever, Sexton has an arresting image for the thing she wishes to describe).
6. ‘After Auschwitz’.
Like Plath, Sexton wrote about the horrors of the Holocaust, news of which had reached the US when she was still a teenager. In this poem, death looks on with a ‘casual eye’ at the unthinking barbarity and cruelty of the Nazis.
For Sexton, man is not a ‘temple’ but an ‘outhouse’, and scatological imagery of dirt and waste pervade this angry, powerful poem about the atrocities that were perpetrated in living memory. The five-times-repeated ‘Never’ in the poem’s penultimate line recall King Lear’s anguished cry over the body of his dead daughter.
7. ‘The Fury of Sunsets’.
Even the Romantic poet’s stock-in-trade, the sunset, gets the Sexton treatment, here being brought into a landscape whose aura comprises ‘ice’ and ‘phlegm’. The horizon doesn’t just bleed (an old trope that goes back to Shakespeare): it sucks its thumb like a toddler.
The passing of the day encourages the poem’s speaker to ask the big questions. Why is she here? And who is responsible?
8. ‘The Double Image’.
This is one of the earliest poems on this list, begun in 1958 following Sexton’s enrolment at a poetry-writing workshop run by John Holmes. Discussing the poem with fellow confessional poet W. D. Snodgrass, who led a workshop Sexton attended shortly afterwards, Sexton revised it for publication, and it appeared in the Hudson Review at the end of the year.
An honest and unflinching account of Sexton’s own struggles with depression, ‘The Double Image’ is also a poem about mothers, detailing both Sexton’s own troubled relationship with her mother, and her own difficulty at being a good mother to her four-year-old daughter, Joyce.
9. ‘45 Mercy Street’.
Perhaps the best-known of Sexton’s late poems, this poem arose from the events of the last three years of Sexton’s life, between 1971 and 1974. The poem was published posthumously.
This poem uses the journey motif – the speaker is walking the streets in search of the symbolically named Mercy Street – to explore Sexton’s troubled final years. In 1986, Peter Gabriel, inspired by Sexton’s poem, wrote the song ‘Mercy Street’, included on his finest solo album, So.
10. ‘The Starry Night’.
Let’s conclude this pick of Anne Sexton’s greatest poems with a beautiful tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, another troubled artist whom Sexton quotes in her poem’s epigraph: ‘That does not keep me from having a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.’
Once again, death is the prominent theme of ‘The Starry Night’, but here it is treated in more placid and accepting terms. The Romantic symbol of the moon, typically, is restrained by a ‘classical’ image: bulging in its ‘orange irons’, those rays of dying sunlight which act as its shackles. An oddly tender poem from a poet who remained frank and direct in her poetry to the end.