by Julie Kane
nne Sexton was a leading figure in the Confessional Poets movement of the 1960s. She became an inspiration to many women because of her honesty in writing about mental illness and family dysfunction, and because she progressed from being a "1950s housewife" with no college degree to winning the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Anne Gray Harvey was born on November 9, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts, to Ralph Churchill Harvey, a wool merchant, and Mary Gray Staples Harvey, a homemaker. Mary Harvey's father and grandfather had been newspaper editors in Maine. The household included two older sisters, Jane and Blanche, and the children's Great-Aunt Anna Ladd Dingley ("Nana"). When Anne was thirteen, her great-aunt suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized; Anne blamed herself for Nana's illness, thinking that her sudden interest in boys had driven a wedge between their formerly close relationship (Middlebrook 15).
Anne was sent to boarding school at Rogers Hall in Lowell. She published poems in the school's little magazine but was not otherwise serious about her studies. Following her graduation, she entered "finishing school" at the Garland School in Boston. But she eloped with Alfred Muller "Kayo" Sexton II after her first year. Kayo tried to resume his studies at Colgate University for a while but dropped out and eventually joined the Naval Reserve; he was activated and shipped overseas during the Korean War. Sexton modeled for the Hart Agency in Boston, worked as a shopgirl, and began having extramarital affairs. When Kayo returned home from active military duty, Sexton's father found him a sales job with his wool company. The couple's first child, Linda Gray Sexton, was born in July 1953, and Sexton's beloved Nana died a year later. In August 1954, a second daughter, Joyce Ladd Sexton, was born, but Sexton fell into a suicidal post-partum depression and was hospitalized. The children were boarded with relatives. Released but under psychiatric care, Sexton attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills and was re-hospitalized.
Released once again, Sexton happened to watch a TV program featuring New Critic I. A. Richards lecturing on how to write a sonnet. She promptly wrote two of them and showed them to her psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orne, who told her she had a gift that could help others and encouraged her to continue. In 1957, Sexton signed up for a poetry writing course with John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education. Holmes made no secret of his disdain for the intimate content of Sexton's poems, but Sexton struck up a friendship with her fellow student Maxine Kumin, and the two of them began critiquing each other's poems; in later years, they would phone each other every morning to chat and share new work. Sexton started sending poems out to journals and frequenting poetry readings in the Boston area. During the summer of 1958 she studied under W. D. Snodgrass at the Antioch Writer's Conference. Snodgrass's poetic sequence "Heart's Needle," about his divorce and sadness over losing custody of his daughter, made a strong impression upon Sexton; it is now recognized as the poem that launched the Confessional School of poetry, of which Sexton herself is considered a key member.
That fall, Sexton enrolled in a poetry writing course at Boston University taught by Robert Lowell. Lowell had achieved fame with an academic style of poetry, but was in the process of shifting to a looser, more confessional style under the influence of Snodgrass. He was then working on the poems of Life Studies (1959), about his hospitalization for mental illness--the same content being explored by Sexton as she worked on the manuscript of her first book. Early in 1959 Sylvia Plath joined the class, and she and Sexton acknowledged each other's talent, becoming friends; Plath's style, too, would shift from academic and formal to confessional as the result of her exposure to Lowell and Sexton. After class, Sexton, Plath, their classmate George Starbuck, and Lowell would famously go out for martinis at the Ritz Hotel in Boston.
To Bedlam and Part Way Back, Sexton's first book, came out in 1960 with an endorsement from Lowell on its cover. Critics were warm in their praise of Sexton's frank treatment of her mental illness, as well as her technical skill. In 1962, following a term as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, Sexton followed with
All My Pretty Ones, centering upon the deaths of her parents just three months apart a few years before. Once again Sexton broke taboos with her poetry, this time with her open approach to female sexuality. Poet James Dickey was nearly alone in attacking the book for "dwell[ing] . . . insistently on the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience, as though this made the writing more real" (50).
All My Pretty Ones
was short-listed for the National Book Award, and Sexton received a Ford Foundation grant and a traveling fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
But news of Plath's suicide in early 1963 triggered not grief, but envy in Sexton: envy that Plath had beaten her to it first, as expressed in the poem "Sylvia's Death." Sexton broke down and was institutionalized in November of 1963, then again in July 1964. The continuing battle between her suicidal impulses and her resolve to "Live, Live because of the sun, / the dream, the excitable gift" ("Live") fueled the poems in
Live Or Die
(1966), her third collection. Containing such classic poems as "Sylvia's Death" and "Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman," the volume captured the 1967 Pulitzer Prize. By then Sexton had become a popular reader of her own poetry. In 1968 she formed the "chamber rock" group Anne Sexton and Her Kind, performing her poems to the accompaniment of a guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, and flute. In keeping with this newer, more theatrical public persona, Sexton was also writing plays. One of them, Mercy Street, garnered good reviews off Broadway in 1969, the same year that Sexton's Love Poems was published. Breaking taboos once more, the book chronicled the course of an adulterous love affair.
Sexton's style, which had transitioned from formal to free verse over the course of her previous collections, now took another new direction. The poems of
(1971) were not lyric and confessional, based upon Sexton's life experiences, but narrative and fictional, based upon Grimms' fairy tales. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote the book's foreword, and Barbara Swan furnished the illustrations. Critic Suzanne Juhasz has remarked upon the hidden feminist agenda of the poems, calling them "revisions of patriarchal myths to reveal the truths that women know." Later made into a successful opera with music by Conrad Susa, the book was a critical and commercial success; but it would be Sexton's last.
By then addicted to pills and alcohol, Sexton was hospitalized in 1969, 1970, and 1971. Helping to stabilize her during this period was a teaching position at Boston University, where her former poetry classmate and lover George Starbuck directed the creative writing program and her students would include Ellen Bass, Celia Gilbert, and Julie Kane. Hired as a lecturer in 1970, Sexton was promoted to full professor in 1972, taking one semester off to teach at Colgate University. But The Book of Folly came out in 1972 to unenthusiastic reviews. Once a perfectionist who revised her poems mercilessly before publishing them, Sexton was now content to release first drafts that were attacked for being rambling, repetitive, and self-indulgent (Pollitt). Sexton's marriage fell apart, and she and Kayo separated. In the span of only twenty days in January 1973, Sexton poured out the poems that would become The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975); but with that book still in manuscript, she issued
The Death Notebooks
in February 1974, another critical disappointment. On October 4, 1974, after a lunch with her old friend Maxine Kumin to help correct the proofs of The Awful Rowing Toward God, Sexton drove back home and committed suicide by letting her car's engine run in a closed garage. She was forty-five years old.
Following Sexton's death, her daughter Linda edited a second posthumous volume of poems, 45 Mercy Street (1976), then (with Lois Ames) a collection of her mother's letters (1977). The Complete Poems came out in 1981. Even in death, Sexton has continued to spawn controversies. In 1991, Middlebrook created a furor by revealing that she had drawn upon tapes of Sexton's sessions with her psychiatrist in researching Anne Sexton: A Biography. Countering accusations that Sexton's psychiatrist had committed a breach of ethics by releasing the tapes, Linda Sexton insisted that her mother had intended them to be accessible to future researchers. Three years later, Linda revealed in a memoir (Searching for Mercy Street, 1994) that her mother had displayed inappropriate sexual behavior toward her when Linda was a child.
One poem stands out above all others as emblematic of Sexton's work: "Her Kind." Sexton began drafting it in 1957, the year that she started writing poems as a form of therapy, although it took her almost two years to revise it to her standards. She included it in the manuscript of her first book,
To Bedlam and Part Way Back
(1960); Middlebrook has called it the "ideal keynote poem" to that collection (115). According to Middlebrook, Sexton would begin every poetry reading by reciting it, "telling the audience that it would show them what kind of woman she was, and what kind of poet" (114-15). Sexton also alluded to the poem in the name she gave her rock band: "Anne Sexton and Her Kind." Clearly serving as a signature poem for Sexton during her lifetime, "Her Kind" has gone on to be canonized in many anthologies.
The original title for the poem was "Night Voice on a Broomstick," then "Witch," before Sexton finally settled on "Her Kind." Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts--less than twenty miles from the center of the Salem witch trials--Sexton would certainly have been steeped in that region's Gothic history. Additionally, Arthur Miller's award-winning play The Crucible, which employed the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for the McCarthy communist "witch hunts" of the 1950s, had premiered just three years before Sexton began writing the poem, reviving that era in public consciousness. Sexton had attempted suicide twice in the year before she began writing the poem; she had quite literally been "possessed" and "out of mind," like the witch figures in her poem. She had turned to writing poetry in the hopes that it would help cure her: this was the age that believed in the "talking cure" of psychotherapy for mental illness. In a sense, then, the right combination of words--whether ordered in a witch's spell, a poem, or a psychiatric session--could, indeed, possess magic to alter reality, from Sexton's imaginative perspective. Yet Sexton was also conscious of the fact that the woman writer's power over words marked her as a witchlike deviant from the fifties "norm" of the passive housewife. In a 1965 interview with Patricia Marx, Sexton remarked that "[Women are] part of the earth, and perhaps it's my own peculiar trait that I feel not part of the earth . . . . I feel a little more outcast, and it perhaps makes me more of a writer." The same cluster of associations found in "Her Kind"--mad housewife = witch = woman writer--also shows up elsewhere in Sexton's work. The speaker of "The Black Art" exclaims that "A woman who writes feels too much, / those trances and portents!" and laments her failure at domesticity, as "the children leave in disgust" (All My Pretty Ones
65). "Live," the life-affirming poem that closes
Live Or Die
(1966), links these motifs, as well: "I wear an apron. / My typewriter writes. / It didn't break the way it warned. / Even crazy, I'm as nice / as a chocolate bar. / Even with the witches' gymnastics" (89). In
(1971), Sexton's revisionist rewriting of Grimms' fairy tales, the first poem opens with the words: "The speaker in this case / is a middle-aged witch, me" (1).
Together with its autobiographical context, the form of "Her Kind" also provides an essential lens through which to read it. It is crafted in three stanzas of seven lines each--three and seven both being numbers that (unlike any of the others in the sequence one to ten) carry heavy connotations of magic. Sexton's early poems are strictly formalist in their structures, and this one follows an interlocking rhyme scheme of "ababcbC" except in the penultimate line of the second stanza, where she braids in a third "a" rhyme, instead. The meter, however, is accentual rather than orderly, with four strong beats to each line. Conscious or not on Sexton's part, this unbridled rhythm evokes English-language poetry of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when belief in witchcraft was at its peak in western Europe. The rollicking rhythms also contribute to the "lively, almost gleeful tone of the poem," as Greg Johnson has noted. Finally, each stanza ends with the words "I have been her kind," the poet's device of the refrain mimicking the witch's device of the repetitive incantation.
In the first stanza of the poem, Sexton's speaker is a witch who goes out flying at night, when she is "braver" than she is by day. Her immediate neighborhood seems to be suburbia, given that she rides "over the plain houses," each with a porch light shining. One can assume, as well, that she is riding on a domestic broomstick, reinforcing the idea that she leads a dual existence: housewife by day, witch by night. Tellingly, Sexton confessed to Barbara Kevles in a 1968 interview that when she felt a poem coming on, "It's as though I could fly, almost," (21). The sixth finger on each hand betrays this witch's identity to others, and she is a "lonely thing," an outcast, on account of her difference from the "normal" women who are merely sweeping dust with their brooms in the plain houses below her. Not only is she "out of mind" in the sense of madness, but also in the sense of "out of sight, out of mind": invisible to others, shunned. In the penultimate line of the stanza, the speaker comments on her own situation with a tinge of regret: "A woman like that is not a woman, quite." A real woman, one presumes, would conform to social norms. But then the speaker declares her kinship to the mad housewife/possessed witch figure: "I have been her kind." The present perfect verb tense suggests either that she has lived many previous lives before this one, or that she is identifying with multiple recurrences of this archetype throughout history.
Some critics read stanzas two and three as voiced by a "housewife" and an "adulteress," respectively, but it seems clear from the poem's original titles and from evidence within the stanzas themselves that Sexton intended the witch figure to persist throughout the poem. In the second stanza, the speaker tells how she has brought domestic order to "warm caves in the woods," cooking supper for "the worms and the elves." Her experience seems to mirror that of the Grimm/Transformations
Snow White, who flees the household of her evil stepmother/Queen and stumbles upon the cottage of the seven dwarves. Disney's version of Snow White, the first feature-length American animated film and a huge hit, was released the year Sexton turned ten; it is almost certain that she must have seen it at that impressionable age. And Sexton's own poetic "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" occupies a place of importance as the first fairy tale appearing in
Transformations. The Grimm/Transformations
(and Disney) dwarves are associated with caves through their profession of mining in the earth for gold and copper. Additionally, Sexton herself could use "cave" as a casual synonym for "house," as evidenced by the poem "The Fury of Rain Storms": "and I would do better to make / some soup and light up the cave" (The Death Notebooks
43). Like the speaker in stanza two of "Her Kind" who fills those caves with consumer goods that are signs for domesticity, the Grimm/Transformations
Snow White is allowed to reside with the dwarves only after she strikes a bargain to cook and clean for them.
By "whining," the speaker in the second stanza seemingly conforms to the patriarchal stereotype of the shrill-voiced female whose voice need not be listened to: "Terms like shrill, shriek, screech, and bitchy are reserved principally for description of the way women speak, negative, critical terms used by men or women writers unaware of linguistic sexist bias," Caroline Hall has written in relation to Sexton (11). Yet the speaker is also "rearranging the disaligned," which can mean ordering her poetic lines to gain back power, as well as putting a chaotic household and its "deformed" or disaligned inhabitants back in order. The dominating witch figure of the Grimm/Transformations
Snow White is the evil Queen with her magic mirror and hag disguises, but Snow White herself magically returns to life after having been dead for many months, when a chunk of poisoned apple is dislodged from her throat. Furthermore, the evil Queen dies at the end of the tale and Snow White marries a prince, suggesting that she will become "the Queen." The "outcast housewife" figure is thus conflated with the witch, and with the woman who has power over words (and lines), once again. Interestingly, too, Sexton's
Queen burns to death in the manner of a witch, "fry[ing] upward like a frog" from the heat of red-hot iron shoes, while the Grimm Queen merely dances to death in her superheated footwear.
In stanza three of "Her Kind," the speaker addresses the driver of the cart that has paraded her past rural villages to the site where she was to be burned at the stake. Some critics assume this speaker to be an adulteress rather than a witch, and it is certainly true that, like the speaker who "waved [her] nude arms at villages going by," adulterous women in 17th-century England could be paraded naked through town in a wooden cart. But adultery was not punishable by death, and burning at the stake was a sentence reserved for women or men convicted or heresy or witchcraft, women convicted of treason, and homosexuals. According to historian Shulamith Shahar, this method of execution signified that its victims had deviated from society's norms so grievously that they had to be not just killed, but erased from existence, leaving no remains: "sentenced to a method of execution normally intended for women only, whereby the evil was not only eradicated from the living community, but totally annihilated" (118-19).
Certainly Sexton intended the speaker of her third stanza to be flaunting her sexuality even as she was being driven to her death. Witches in Europe and America have always been portrayed as sexualized creatures, reputed to engage in sex with the Devil. In contrast, the sexuality of the "normal" fifties housewife could not be acknowledged publicly; one thinks of the twin beds occupied by married couples in early TV sitcoms. What seems clear is that the woman in the third stanza is a "dual figure" like those in the first and second stanzas. She is connected on an "ordinary woman" level to the villages that she passes, acquainted enough with their residents to wave at them, and/or sufficiently attractive to their menfolk to be able to taunt them (like the women they marry and turn into housewives) with her withheld body. Yet she also rises above that human level and that patriarchal social structure by being powerful enough to survive death. The speaker says that she has "ridden" in the driver's cart, the verb tense signaling past actions that continue up to the present; her "ribs crack" where the driver's "wheels wind"--perhaps from the jolting action of a rough cart ride, or perhaps in an allusion to the Catherine wheel, a medieval instrument of torture named for another female outcast/martyr. The word "survivor" is poised, grammatically, so that it could refer to either the driver, being addressed, or the speaker. But the following line, in which the speaker remembers routes "where your flames still bite my thigh," suggests the latter interpretation: she is speaking after having been burned at the stake, meaning that she either escaped death at the last possible minute or died and was resurrected. "A woman like that is not ashamed to die," wrote Sexton, who had shown fearlessness in the face of death so many times herself: "I have been her kind."
Like the witch figure in her poem, Sexton continues to speak to us, through the medium of the poem, after her death. "Rather than an expression of mental illness and alienation," Jeanne Lombardo has observed, "the poem speaks of the reclamation of female power and the idea that women can rightly claim a different identity for themselves than the one patriarchal western society imposes on them."
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