Sunday, April 23, 2017

For National Poetry Month: 30 Poets, #23


Anne Gray Harvey Sexton (1928-1974)
Recipient, The Pulitzer Prize
Recipient, Guggenheim and Ford Foundation Fellowships
Recipient, The Levinson Prize; The Shelley Memorial Prize
Fellow, The Royal Society of Literature

One of the most tortured of a generation of tortured American poets, Anne Sexton grew up in Massachusetts and, after finishing finishing school, married in 1948. While her husband was serving in Korea, she made a living as a fashion model.

She had her first manic episode in 1954, and the rest of her life was punctuated by hospitalizations and suicide attempts. Her first therapist suggested she write poetry; she did, she liked it, and she proved to be good at it. Early works found places in The New Yorker, Harper’s and Saturday Review. She studied with Robert Lowell at Boston University and began collecting fellowship and grants to free her time to write. She quickly emerged as one of America’s leading mid-century poets.

Sexton developed a close, collaborative friendship with the poet Maxine Kumin; they wrote four children’s books together. A 1969 play, Mercy Street, was a critical success for the author and actress Marian Seldes, too. Writing kept her going; after one attempt to kill herself, a priest declined to give her last rites, telling her “God is in your typewriter.” She rallied.

There seemed to be little Sexton would not write about; her work was classified as “confessional,” like that of John Berryman, Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass and Sylvia Plath. It was not to every taste. James Dickey- only five years her elder- sniffed, “Miss Sexton’s work seems to me very little more than a kind of terribly serious and determinedly outspoken soap-opera.”

As one account has it, “Contrary to her seemingly confident public manner, however, Sexton was heavily dependent on therapists, medications, close friends--particularly Maxine Kumin and, later, Lois Ames--and lovers. Continual depressive bouts, unexpected trance states, and comparatively frequent suicide attempts kept her family and friends watchful and unnerved. Finally, in 1973, Sexton told Kayo she wanted a divorce, and from that time on a noticeable decline in her health and stability occurred as loneliness, alcoholism, and depression took their toll.

“Estranged from many of her former friends, Sexton became difficult for her maturing daughters to deal with. Aware that many of her readers did not like the religious poetry that she had recently begun writing with her more personal themes, Sexton became nervous about her poetry. Readings had always terrified her, but now she employed a rock group to back up her performances. She forced herself to be an entertainer, while her poems grew more and more privately sacral. Divorced and living by herself, Sexton was lonely and seemed to be searching for compassion through love affairs. She continued to be in psychotherapy, from which she evidently gained little solace.”

She won the Pulitzer in 1966 because of a disagreement among the judges over whether to give it to the work of Theodore Roethke or Sylvia Plath, both recently dead. In 1974 Sexton carried out her last suicide attempt.

After her death, Sexton’s reputation suffered from a scandalous biography in which a daughter claimed she had been sexually abused; Sexton’s first therapist gave the biographer most of his tapes of their therapy sessions; and there were claims she had an affair with her next therapist. Sexton’s daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, became a writer and has published two memoirs about her own struggles with mental illness and life with her larger-than life mother. Her work continues to be studied and debated by scholars as a rich lode of insight into human nature.

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. I have found the warm caves in the woods, filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves, closets, silks, innumerable goods; fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves: whining, rearranging the disaligned. A woman like that is misunderstood. I have been her kind. I have ridden in your cart, driver, waved my nude arms at villages going by, learning the last bright routes, survivor where your flames still bite my thigh and my ribs crack where your wheels wind. A woman like that is not ashamed to die. I have been her kind.

To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph
Consider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on, testing that strange little tug at his shoulder blade, and think of that first flawless moment over the lawn of the labyrinth. Think of the difference it made! There below are the trees, as awkward as camels; and here are the shocked starlings pumping past and think of innocent Icarus who is doing quite well. Larger than a sail, over the fog and the blast of the plushy ocean, he goes. Admire his wings! Feel the fire at his neck and see how casually he glances up and is caught, wondrously tunneling into that hot eye. Who cares that he fell back to the sea? See him acclaiming the sun and come plunging down while his sensible daddy goes straight into town.

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