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Anne Sexton in Search of “an Accident of Hope”

From: New England Review
Volume 34, Number 1, 2013
pp. 20-31 | 10.1353/ner.2013.0051

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The writing in Anne Sexton’s few journals reveals the eternal nay-saying of the internal critic. “I am too dramatic,” she lamented, wishing instead to take “words in hand and speak out in unprecedented honesty.” If Sexton was going to venture into contemplative journal writing, she wanted to strike deep and draw blood. No messing around, she insisted. In the first entry in her notebooks (May 25, 1960), Sexton declared “Rule one” for writing in the journal. “I must not imitate,” she wrote. “For once, Anne, do not lie. Dare to be yourself.” In her next entry, made a year later, Sexton laid down the same kind of law anew: “That must be my first rule, to dare to be trite with myself.” Sexton saw herself as trying too hard to be like Stendhal, Rilke, and other writers and thinkers whom she respected; posing was a weakness, she felt, even when she was only doing it for herself. She wanted to be Anne the poet, but she found it difficult to tolerate the floundering and false steps that were part of the process of becoming that Anne.

That Sexton suffered from insecurity and doubt about the originality of her work is no wonder: when she began to write poetry, she was twenty-seven and recovering from a mental breakdown. She had no education beyond finishing school and, aside from a short modeling stint, had never worked. Even as she progressed in her literary career, Sexton continued to rely heavily on tranquilizers, alcohol, and frequent love affairs to temper the pain of life as she experienced it. She was in constant search of closeness and security in her relationships, yet she harbored terrible fears of public interactions: “Somebody sees me, and I see myself through them. Then it’s all gone, the whole world falls apart.”

The powerful voice of her poems led many readers to envision a flamboyant, self-possessed (if suffering) woman. In some situations—readings, parties, and writing workshops, for example—Sexton played this role beautifully. Peter Davison, an editor at the Atlantic Monthly and a poet himself, described Sexton as he saw her at a party. She had “a combination of awkwardness and grace, long legs and long arms, and smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke—always smoking. Intense blue eyes with big pupils; blue-black hair; slightly crooked nose.” Like many others meeting Sexton for the first time, he also noted that she carried herself like a model. Throughout her life, articles and interviews described Sexton as a slender beauty, but by 1967 she was carrying an extra thirty pounds on her once lean frame. Although she laughingly claimed, “I have just plain grown,” the weight gain was the vexing consequence of a serious hip injury, her lifelong aversion to exercise, and the side-effects of the tranquilizer and antipsychotic medication Thorazine, which she took for many years.

Whereas she managed to finesse her way through many public events, Sexton had less success concealing her anxiety in the classroom. To students, she seemed more like a fragile and overmedicated creature than the powerful poet they had expected. At Wayland High School, Massachusetts, where Sexton co-taught her first formal class in 1967, several students described Sexton as “the little lady that writes poems.” In 1972, a student of Sexton’s at Colgate College wrote of her first impression, “I thought MY GOD! this person, this poor girl, she’s as scared as I would be.” The descriptions of Sexton as that “little lady” and “poor girl” had nothing to do with her height; after all, Sexton was 5’8”. Her fear of interacting with her students showed, but she persevered and in time found ways to manage this anxiety. Once she did, she became an excellent, if unconventional, teacher. Teaching, like writing, was a kind of magic to Sexton, and she believed that there was no magic without courage.

Sexton often cited her alignment with Franz Kafka’s description of literature as “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Poetry had certainly shattered the ice in her. She began her adult life as a suicidal mother who believed that her only abilities...

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