This week on the radio show I’m going to be looking at the work of Anne Sexton.
Sexton, although a Pulitzer Prize winner, the most commonly cited example of a confessional poet, and an incredibly accomplished children’s writer, is no longer as well-known as her contemporaries such as Robert Lowell, George Starbuck or Sylvia Plath.
To some extent this is understandable. Common themes in Sexton’s work include depression, suicide, isolation and death. Even when she writes about masturbation, she makes the process sound like a grim and almost bitter experience. These two stanzas are taken from Sexton’s ‘The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator.’
Finger to finger, now she’s mine.
She’s not too far. She’s my encounter.
I beat her like a bell. I recline
in the bower where you used to mount her.
You borrowed me on the flowered spread.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
Take for instance this night, my love,
that every single couple puts together
with a joint overturning, beneath, above,
the abundant two on sponge and feather,
kneeling and pushing, head to head.
At night alone, I marry the bed.
Perhaps it’s her reliance on inarguable bleakness that adds gravitas to her message? Perhaps there’s something else going on beneath the surface that I’m not sufficiently astute to perceive. Regardless of what makes her writing resonate with power, it’s worth enjoying more of her work because the material is so remarkable.
The full text of ‘The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator’ can be found here
The following stanzas are taken from the opening of a poem she wrote on the suicide of Sylvia Plath.
Wanting to Die
By Anne Sexton
Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.
Then the almost unnameable lust returns.
Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun.
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.
The full text for ‘Wanting to Die’ can be found here
Sexton argued against the label ‘confessional poet.’ Writers such as Erica Jong have noted that this term is nothing more than labelling or genre-pigeonholing in an attempt to put Sexton in a convenient category. Personally, I don’t think any poet should be dumped into a single convenient category when they produce something as powerful as this:
Again and Again and Again
By Anne Sexton
You said the anger would come back
just as the love did.
I have a black look I do not
like. It is a mask I try on.
I migrate toward it and its frog
sits on my lips and defecates.
It is old. It is also a pauper.
I have tried to keep it on a diet.
I give it no unction.
There is a good look that I wear
like a blood clot. I have
sewn it over my left breast.
I have made a vocation of it.
Lust has taken plant in it
and I have placed you and your
child at its milk tip.
Oh the blackness is murderous
and the milk tip is brimming
and each machine is working
and I will kiss you when
I cut up one dozen new men
and you will die somewhat,
again and again.