Excerpted Criticism

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Katha Pollitt on: "The Awful Rowing"

Like Sylvia Plath, with whom she is often paired, Anne Sexton arouses strong feelings of popular adulation and critical unease. How could it have been otherwise? At a time when American poetry was nearly as male-dominated as football, she wrote frankly, extravagantly and without apology about the experience of women. Scarcely less important, she was a democrat practicing the most snobbish of arts. While most of her colleagues were scholars and critics and translators with university affiliations, she was a junior-college dropout and suburban matron who began writing poetry after watching a television program called How to Write a Sonnet. With her recurrent bouts of madness, her suicide attempts (she finally succeeded in 1974), her flamboyant sexuality and her vibrant physical presence on the poetry-reading circuit, she fit as no poet since Dylan Thomas the popular stereotype of the self-destructive genius--beautiful, damned and oh-so-sensitive. It was a role she exploited to the hilt.

From "The Awful Rowing" The Nation (1981)

Helen Vendler on: "Malevolent Flippancy"

It was not the ethical parables of the Bible, or the fertile suggestiveness of Greek myth, but the grim tit-for-tat of fairy tales--where the unsuccessful suitors are murdered, or the witch is burned in her own oven, or the wicked wolf is himself sliced open--that appealed to Sexton's childlike and vengeful mind. The fairy tales and folktales put forth a child's black-and-white ethics, with none of the complexity of the Gospels, and none of the worldliness of the Greeks. It is characteristic of Sexton that she did use the myth of Prometheus--which reads like one of her folktales, with its rebel hero, its avenging father-god, and its grotesque evisceration by a vulture.

Sexton looked, usually in vain, for ways to stabilize her poems outside her increasingly precarious self. She based one sequence on horoscope readings, another on the remarks of her therapist "Doctor Y," another on the life of Jesus, another on the Psalms, another on beasts. The only group that succeeds more often than it falls is the group based on folktales, Transformations. The tales--Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, the Frog Prince, Briar Rose, Hansel and Gretel, and others--gave Sexton a structure of the sort she was usually unable to invent for herself, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Her poems tend, on the whole, to begin well, to repeat themselves, to sag in the middle, and to tail off. She had an instinct for reiteration; she wanted to say something five times instead of once. Her favorite figure of speech is anaphora, where many lines begin with the same phrase, a figure which causes, more often than not, diffuseness and spreading of effect rather than concentration of intensity:

... I will conquer myself. I will dig up the pride. I will take scissors

The tales, as I have said, matched her infantile fantasy; they gave her a clean trajectory; they turned her away from the morass of narcissism. But most of all, they enabled her as a satirist. . . . Sexton's aesthetically most realized tone is precisely a malevolently flippant one, however distasteful it might seem to others.


From "Malevolent Flippancy." The New Republic (1981)

Greg Johnson on: "The Achievement of Anne Sexton"

At the heart of Anne Sexton's poetry is a search for identity, and her well-known infatuation with death--the cause of her rather notorious fame, and the apparent reason her work is often dismissed as beneath serious consideration--has little to do with this search; in her best work, in fact, it is most often an annoying irrelevancy, however potent it seems in its occasional command of the poet's psyche.

From "The Achievement of Anne Sexton" The Hollins Critic (1984)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker on: "Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience"

To penetrate the invisible veil between us all was Anne Sexton's literary calling, much as the justification of God's ways to men was Milton's, the articulation of the true voice of feeling was Keats's, or the recovery of the tale of the tribe was Pound's. The poetic program Sexton announced in her first volume of poems continued to be hers throughout her career. She had committed herself to an erotic view of art and life and remained committed to it.

From "Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience" in Sexton: Selected Criticism. Ed. Diana Hume George. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Diana Hume George on: An Overview of Sexton's Canon

Anne Sexton would have been sixty years old in November 1988. When she died in 1974, her reputation as an important member of a misnamed and misapprehended movement in modem American poetry was secured. She had become almost entirely identified with the controversial "confessional school," and she was generally regarded as among that mode's most accomplished practitioners. In company with such poets as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and W. D. Snodgrass, she had risen to fame well beyond the boundaries of New England.

From Sexton: Selected Criticism. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reprinted by permission.

Diana Hume George on: Anne Sexton's Career

Anne Sexton's poetry tells stories that are immensely significant to mid-twentieth-century artistic and psychic life. Sexton understood her culture's malaise through her own, and her skill enabled her to deploy metaphorical structures at once synthetic and analytic, In other words, she assimilated the superficially opposing but deeply similar ways of thinking represented by poetry and psychoanalysis.

From Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the Unviersity of Illinois. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Diana Hume George on: "And One for My Dame"

The identification of a woman's husband with her father remains implicit in the first two volumes, where it is hinted at, leapt beyond, or discussed at one remove through mythology, anthropology, or the buffer of an extra generation. In Live or Die, Sexton's third volume, that identification is made explicit for the first time. The speaker's father was "a born salesman" who sold wool and a born talker "in love with maps," who "died on the road." Her husband also sells wool, also travels on the road:

And when you drive off, my darling, Yes, sir! Yes, sir! It's one for my dame, your sample cases branded with my father's name, your itinerary open, its tolls ticking and greedy, its highways built up like new loves, raw and speedy.

This is a world where women stand and wait—"I sit at my desk/each night with no place to go"--while men explore and conquer, "greedy" for the open road and all it represents: freedom, independence, possession, the familiarly "raw and speedy" litany. The salesman father and husband of Sexton's real life symbolize a cultural axiom she would later explore in Transformations,where the fairy-tale world is one of masculine and feminine principles meeting and conflicting. The man brings home "one for his dame," who sits and waits while he conquers a world in which the highway inflicted on the countryside is the equivalent of the penis entering the body of nature--always a woman's body. The "new loves" allude to the infidelity inherent not only literally in the salesman's life but figuratively in the desertion of the wife or daughter for that new love, the road that is always open, offering adventure.

In "Mother and Jack and the Rain," a child speaker becomes the daughter figure of "One for My Dame," in which the woman was both wife and daughter. The speaker

went to bed like a horse to its stall, . . . . and heard father kiss me through the wall  and heard mother's heart pump like the tides.  The fog horn flattened the sea into leather.  I made no voyages, I owned no passport. I was the daughter. Whiskey fortified  my father in the next room. He outlasted the weather,  counted his booty and brought  his ship into port.

Rain is here the replacement for the snow in "Letter Written." (The sexual encounters of Sexton's fathers and daughters take place in a medium of fluid or fire or music or flight.) Sexton continues the mercantile motif of "One for My Dame," this time in a portrayal of an unseen, but vicariously felt, primal scene. Identifying with the mother, the daughter feels the father's kiss and inhabits the mother's heart that pumps "like the tides," the final destiny of rain. Once again, woman is the medium for man's journeying, the water buoying his ship. The wry metaphor of shipping brings an unlikely note of humor to the scene of parental intercourse, in which the sailor's booty is the mother's body. The sexual act is one of conquering and possession, as "raw and speedy" as the highways of "One for My Dame."

Cecil Hemley on: "The Truth the Dead Know"

There is no doubt that the poet wants us to associate herself with the "I" of the poem; it is Anne Sexton who has not driven to the cemetery. This identification with the writer has the advantage of intensifying our feelings, but the disadvantage of embarrassing us slightly. There were good reasons why past eras were reticent on such matters. However, the poem rises above the confession and achieves great beauty. For one thing the serious tone of the verses shows that the refusal to mourn is not successful. The mourner does not escape her grief. She is haunted.

Mrs. Sexton has a fine gift for metaphor and in this poem she is at her best. "In another country people die," she tells us. It is not only forcefully said, but true. The death of the psyche, if indeed it does occur, is never witnessed. She goes on to ask:

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes  in their stone boats. They are more like stone  than the sea would be if it stopped.

These lines I think are an example of Mrs. Sexton's power of creating images that are amazingly suggestive. She is on the Cape looking out at the sea. The dead are in stone boats, and actually they are enclosed. Presumably then they are sailing. But not on the sea that she is watching. They are surely sailing away from her in time. And this in a sense is what she wants. But she remains haunted by their stillness and their unknowability. The sea that she is watching could become dead also but its calm would not be as frozen as the stone faces she has looked upon.

Anyone who has experienced the shock of bereavement will realize that Anne Sexton has captured the feelings of the recent mourner marvellously. The landscape becomes infected with death; death enters the brain. But yet the fact of death remains incomprehensible. The corpse that one viewed is not one's loved one. So Anne Sexton writes of ghosts, of the search for religious consolation which she rejects because "need is not quite belief " No wonder she suffers nervous collapse. She is the mourner who cannot stop mourning.

From The Hudson Review (Winter 1962-63).

Ralph J. Mills on: "The Truth the Dead Know"

In "The Truth the Dead Know," an elegy for both parents, she leaves the place of their death and burial in an attempt to regain, by geographical change and the play of the senses, her awareness of being alive:

We drive to the Cape. I cultivate myself where the sun gutters from the sky,  where the sea swings in like an iron gate  and we touch. In another country people die.

Nature seems barely to agree with human wishes in these lines: the guttering sun, the mechanical motion of the sea are, at best, indifferent; at worst, sinister. Human contact does, however, provide momentary relief before the final stanza puts us back where we began with the disquieting question, "And what of the dead?" That stanza ends with the poet's realization of her small comforts of the flesh that her mother and father, by dying, have relinquished: "They refuse / to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone."

The truth the dead know in the poem of that title contributes an integral part of the knowledge with which Mrs. Sexton tries to meet her experience. Such recognition of mortality colors the whole of her vision, even though she is still quite capable of salvaging images of beauty from the prospect of general destruction.

From Contemporary American Poetry (1965). Copyright © 1965 by Ralph J. Mills.