Thoughts on Anne Sexton

I need to revisit this, as it is blasted with tautological verbiage, yet will paste in hope that it comes right back at me.

I’m Talking to Myself Again: Anne Sexton and her Anne Sexton

“For me each poem has its own sound or its own voice or its own form, whatever you want to call it. Until I find it I’m crawling in the dark or through mud.”—Anne Sexton, No Evil Star

This is movement with an impulse rooted in knowingness: in the particular exalt the poetic tongue trills into, in its gut response to the art of emotion. Anne Sexton is a poet whose work has been safely lodged into the definable pantheon of confesssionalism, but whose charge, within these critical guidelines, is much overlooked in its sensitivity to and eruption from the delicate but diligent appropriation of self-dialogics. For simplicity, one can say that the poet is fully aware of speaking to and sometimes through the self, and that inasmuch as a writer may attempt a shucking of the personal, the veins that tinker in the fingertips are forever grounded in the emotionally empowered self.
Emotion is one of a few scalawags whose multifaceted definitions become misused within the poetic world. Its direct relation to poetic output is one solely reliant on delegating an objective task for something that can only exist subjectively. Without much consideration, the application of emotion in the discussion world of poetry becomes an easily recycled and discordant topic. When a poet offers up a personal tone, turn, or tide, critics too often delegate the writer a figurine position in the arena of embellished emotions. Suddenly, content squeezes the pulp from intent and rides a high line into the scrappy and droll consumption of the populace. With this said, I’d like to fully investigate the process of Anne Sexton’s poetry, and therefore the poetry as a process in which a marveling, self-attuned (at times hysteric and entranced) voice confronts its own ear, lifting and hearing itself into a feeling, thus authenticating a poetic place within the context of reality.
By focusing mostly on the early poems, those residing in To Bedlam and Part Way Back and All My Pretty Ones, one can shed light on how Sexton’s remarkably heightened ability to speak to herself in the construction of a poem is directly correlated to her pen-in-hand emotions. In speaking of emotion, I note the plucking of one loose wanderer in the entire bevy of the personal lot. As Sexton notes in the construction of “All My Pretty Ones”—“I began badly, with raw emotion and bitterness, with no good lines at all and no form, nothing but the need to give reality to feeling.” In this sense, the reality of the moment lives in that it becomes the poem as reality, as having arisen from a feeling that, incidentally, is guided by the emotions flickering in the stencil of the poet’s pen. Here it is not the raw emotion that Sexton began with, but the need to give reality that benchmarks Sexton’s poetic emotion.
In terms of creation, “All My Pretty Ones” is undoubtedly one of Sexton’s most electrifying examples of sustaining and manipulating feeling. Having six pages of beginning worksheets for the poem, all of which were reactions, sometimes small, sometimes monstrous, to the unswerving contribution of previous lines, Sexton reveals how grueling yet empowering the reworking of a piece can be during an acknowledged “emotional” state. By emotional, let us lend a comment from Sexton’s therapist Martin Orne—“the sheer existence of the task of writing poetry, through which she could describe her pain, her confusion, and her observations, provided the basis for a critical sense of self-esteem.” The term emotional hereby becomes the conjoining of both the poetic line and the allowance given from its self-aware arranger—Sexton.
As for content, the poem “All My Pretty Ones” deals with the death of Sexton’s parents in a series of strikingly sharp and often mysterious interpolations. Yet what is most compelling is the process underwent in its construction. “All My Pretty Ones” went through a gripping waver of scribble before arriving at a state Sexton was content with. In a moving interview conducted by phone with Harry Moore, Sexton unveils her entire mode of revision within the making of the poem. She begins with the line
Somehow, God knows why, you died
last week.

She then moves down a few spaces,

Somehow, God knows how,
I’m the only parent now.

This space adjustment, this tweaking of tone, continues on for pages and pages of revision, in which Sexton not only makes note that she didn’t like this, that, and felt that the priors were no good, but also explains why, in the moment the lines were springing their riches, she was apt to prod certain areas while patting others on the proverbial back. A key comment herein arrives—“I’m still talking to myself, which is what you do when you write a poem, I’m afraid.” The seemingly docile interjection this remark holds is much more than an offhanded admittance of the poet as self-puppeteer. Her lines are literally talking to one another, correcting into their intent as they arrive on the page. For instance, as seen above, Sexton quickly removes the ‘you,’ sweeping back with self-proclamation—“I’m the only parent now.”
It can easily be argued that this poem had been with Sexton for a long time, and even that the discovered lines from Macbeth were augmenting her progression of poetic thought. Yet what holds stalwart here is the moment Sexton decides to nix the scraps that weren’t hers to begin with, such as the use of whereas—the moment her feelings wing from their resting place to spread wisely into a poetic space that is, wonderfully so, the reality Sexton so dutifully drove herself toward.
In terms of noticeable reality, one cannot help but recall the dazzling and prophetic lines from “You, Doctor Martin,” in which the narrator’s voice leaps equally inward and outward toward a self-admittance that is often returned to in Sexton’s work as the most appropriate but mysterious of mantras—“And we are magic talking to itself/noisy and alone.” The concept of talking to oneself is reiterated throughout the works of Sexton, but most alluringly in “All My Pretty Ones.” Let us examine part of the second stanza:

I Stop here, where a small boy
waits in a in a ruffled dress for someone to come…
for this soldier who holds his bugle like a toy
or for this velvet lady who cannot smile.
Is this your father’s father, this commodore
in a mailman suit? My father, time meanwhile
has made it unimportant who you are looking for.
I’ll never know what these faces are all about.
I’ll lock them into their book and throw them out.

Content aside, or in only allowing it a backseat in this discussion, one must cling specifically to how finely crafted the tension is here. The “I” is in a motion that, aside from its tough and purposeful placement within the poem’s form, becomes sustained in self-avowal, in a pause that directly mimics the pause Sexton herself took in constructing the poem; she is parking the importance of herself in the front lot, so that, upon being known by the reader, the car and its guiding voice are always the awaited guest. Her presence never masquerades. Instead, it admits to its own placement. Certain blame or knowledge can be placed upon and known about the father, yet the line’s place in the train of its splendor suggests a voice overlapping its own voice—shelling the reverberating incantations of the self-to-self sense-making. Here the divesting of the self, as in the act of its own trangression, releases the other into the cortex of its confession.

“There was no more determined reviser than Sexton, who would willingly push a poem through twenty or more drafts. She had an unparalleled tenacity in those early days and only abandoned a “failed” poem with regret, if not downright anger, after dozens of attempts to make it come right.”

For Sexton, pushing a poem to completion meant pushing emotions into clarity. What consistently sticks is Sexton’s ability to revise in an almost continuous spectrum of self-generated and cyclical pulses. At no point, at least in the earlier poems, is there a sense of disconnect between her revisits to a particular piece. She rides with the poem, the emotion, until fruition, or until she no longer needs to argue with herself in terms of its potency: the line itself must spark from the page as closely as possible to the spark it jolted internally. This is why Sexton often started a whole stanza over, to “get the feeling.”
In “All My Pretty Ones,” Sexton slips the feeling down like a fresh sheet. After battling with the ways in which she must lay certain heaviness down, she succeeds in producing a poem that is truly alive, harnessed by its soft threading of tone, a poem that is, especially after hearing Sexton read it, inextricably linked to her being in-the-moment, a poet who is speaking from the heart’s tongue. The reality surfaces—“One must make a logic out of suffering or one is mad…all writing of poems is sanity, because one makes a reality, a sane world, out of insane happenings.”
So what is the insanity that Sexton translates into sanity and reality? Let us now summon the notion of the unsayable: Sexton wrote poetry not only but mostly from the suggestion of her therapist. What drove her to be institutionalized could easily have been part of that which was unsaid, or unsayable. Now, without fully ascribing her poems the anthologized and near self-deprecating traits of confessionalism, one must note how focused Sexton was on form. Her first two books succeed in channeling form and juxtaposing the personal moments against internal rhyme schemes. She occasionally wrote traditional forms like sonnets that, without one’s intent glance or perfect angling of an eavesdropped ear, would not be noticed as such. “To a Friend Whose Work has Come to Triumph” is a marvelous example of a sonnet. It reads without an overflowing punch of recognizable rhyme.

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!

The poem that reads so determinedly upon its calculated sentence structure that one is not only with the thought, but also completely within it. To a certain point, form is held as less important. Within six lines we have two exclamation points, three commas, one semi-colon, one colon, and one period, each extremely well used and meticulously stationed in the push. Not only are each of these pauses executed correctly, but they are also drawn from the very breath of Sexton’s unhinged unsayables. The “blast” drives readers right to the plushy ocean, which gives permission for the exclaimed admiring of wings. The sway of each line and the catch of each stop highlight the mood of the poem as it arrived in the act of being written. Readers are thus given reality in its most perfected form of poetic urgency. Looking back on the poem, this language could no longer exist in the undefined and electrically lost flippancies of internal dialogue, it needed to place into a page; the lines were the result of Sexton speaking to herself.
“Poetry mediates the experience of our immediate relation to language, in both its pre-vocal and vocalized moments. It is the space oscillating between the saying and the said that links and identifies the two. It is the operation of language about its own work, the creation and transmission of the previously unsayable and unrepresentable in words.”

Philip McGowan’s collection of essays, The Geography of Grief, is wise to focus on the coded intricacies and fragile amplifications of Sexton’s voice from self to poem. Quoting the poet John Berryman, “poetry provides its readers, then, with what may be called a language of experience, an idiom, of which the unit may be an entire complicated emotion or incident.” Without a doubt, Sexton’s early work is most striking in its full employment of one emotion that is then offered into the vast particulars of language—as it falls into space. As a motivated reviser, Sexton knew her space before she even jolted the words from their cage; she took to writing out of an insurmountable necessity for unnerving the otherwise unsaid. In talking to herself, she straightened out the insane mumblings of the stilled poet. She broke from the corpulent disdain an artist is forced to plod unwanted terrain with, thus learning (in the magic talk-to-talk) how to necessitate her reality in the public world. “The Sexton poetic is one that situates meaning within frameworks of codified lines and verses which function in controlled tensions.”
The tension Sexton learned to control is also the act of controlling her own emotions. Poetry, therefore, becomes the active midwife. Given the lofty and grueling pain she endured, it is key to note that each poem must speak to itself in order to transform the particles of insanity into sometimes coded but admittedly sane sentences. Forming these thoughts, in form, became a way of framing the intentions that sprung the content into a mediated resting place. McGowan draws us toward the unpublished and what I believe to be most revealing and markedly charged poems of and even for Sexton, “An Obsessive Combination of Ontological Inscape, Trickery, and Love.” Albeit back-staged, this poem is pinpointedly referential and prominent in the undercurrent of Sexton’s work as a whole. Here we have a twelve-line poem that, without quoting in its entirety, would suffer upon reference.

Busy, with an idea for a code, I write
signals hurrying from left to right,
or right to left, by obscure routes,
for my own reasons; taking a word like “writes”
down tiers of tries until its secret rites
make sense; or until, suddenly, RATS
can amazingly and funnily become STAR
and right to left that small star
is mine, for my own liking, to stare
its five lucky pins inside out, to store
forever kindly, as if it were a star
I touched and a miracle I really wrote.

Sexton’s unflinching confidence puts itself forward in these lines. Doffing both a secured and informative voice, she allows readers to uncomplicate the otherwise stirring excess of unfamiliar emotion. The idea for a code becomes a very code in itself. Sexton couldn’t force codification in her work because its very arrival was the decoding of the self. Without the willingness to accept insanity as magic and talking to oneself as the pen behind the pad, Sexton would have suffered through the fancies of form and the annoying tone of confession such topics might imbue. In “An Obsessive Combination of Ontological Inscape, Trickery, and Love” she could not have been more honest with both herself and the reader. The title itself connotes the intricacies of poetic construction. It also gives itself away, almost to a station of uninterruptible prose. Readers are allowed the trickery and the inscape, but less as a way for Sexton to distance a reader and more of a way for her to release that which makes her write—refocusing the lens, refilling the ink. The “secret rites” Sexton notes are an acknowledgment of obsession and an obsessive element that will continue to guide her work.

“The elasticity that she locates within and between words produces an awareness of the supple, duplicitous, and elusive nature of language, and this will direct Sexton’s relationship with the word throughout her poetic career.”

Although McGowan refers to this work as a buffer between Sexton and her poetry, I’d argue that the poem instead becomes the silence in between the breaths—the breaths poems themselves. Despite its interconnectedness in the space of critically shared despondency/depression/confession/suffering, Sexton’s earlier work was hers for her own liking as well. It simply couldn’t be in any form of the otherwise. She began to understand the rites of language in the act of writing. The reality surfaced like a promenade on her poetic tongue, aligned with heavy emotions, characters, and the brief intervals of insane-to-sane transmogrification.
There is no doubt that Ann Sexton’s awareness of her own writing as speaking-to-the-self helped launch a type of poetry that not only unhinged its unsayables, but also became a comfortable meeting place for her internal suffering and the outside world. Before this theory gets UFO’d into its seemingly aesthetic associations with confessionalism, I will clean the air by saying that, simply, the emotions circulating Sexton while she wrote were, through the act of writing, not only becoming a reality, but also, as lines, replicas of the emotions that guided that reality. Just as she speaks to herself, her lines speak to the emotions that birthed them.
Sexton’s ability to listen to herself as she crawled through the mud became the magic she spoke of. In the transferring of emotional pulse directly into the pulse of the poem, her early work, especially the poems “All My Pretty Ones” and “To a Friend Whose Work has Come to Triumph” struck the awe of this magic. In her laboratory of language, the molecules of the unsaid were allowed a mixing into the public’s understanding of a shared suffering. Each poem was a new emotion, each sound was a different jolt from a pulse that desired an open space. Sexton’s inscape, her meticulous sketching of rhythm is, ultimately, the undressing of a trance and the fortification of a self-attuned voice.


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