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Journal of Modern Literature 27.1 (2003) 36-56

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"My Sweeney, Mr. Eliot":

Anne Sexton and the "Impersonal theory of Poetry"1

University of Exeter, England

The American poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974), although routinely categorized as a "confessional" poet — indeed as the "mother" or "High-Priestess" of the mode — infrequently used the epithet, preferring the term "personal."2 As she explains: "my poetry is very personal. I don't think I write public poems. I write very personal poems" and "I was writing personal poetry, often about the subject of madness." 3

Sexton's appropriation of the adjective "personal" in preference to the more usual "confessional" sends a number of important messages. It signals her unease with the confessional mode as then defined, and her sense that the label is an inadequate descriptor of her own complex and sophisticated poetics. In identifying her work as "personal," Sexton stakes an ambitious claim to a particular position in wider contemporary debates about the nature and purpose of poetry. Specifically, she defines her writing in terms of its difference from — which is also, as we shall see, its relationship with — the poetry of impersonality championed by T.S. Eliot and still, arguably, dominant in American literature in the period when she was writing. Sexton's defiant defense of the "personal" and the private invokes and challenges Eliot's persistently influential dictum: his advocacy of the "process of depersonalization" and his admonition that there should be a complete separation between "the man who suffers and the mind which creates."4 Her choice of adjective signals her willingness to engage with Eliot's writing, to examine the barriers which are thought to [End Page 36] divide the two modes, and to explore areas of potential contiguity — the points at which the public and the private, the personal and the impersonal, may meet.5

In this article, I examine Sexton's sustained, and hitherto unrecognized, engagement with Eliot's writing, exploring the ways in which debates about the function of poetry are played out in her subtle revision of some of his work.6 I consider a number of texts, including two unpublished Sexton manuscripts, and focus in particular on Sexton's long poem "Hurry Up Please It's Time."7 This complex and allusive piece borrows more than simply its title from Eliot's work, representing, I will argue, a sophisticated response to and reinterpretation of The Waste Land. 8 The commonality of interests which Sexton asserts in her self-reflexive revision of Eliot's metapoem is an indication that our understanding of the relationship between the "personal" and the "impersonal" and our assessment of Sexton's place in modern poetry require reappraisal.

"Tradition and the Individual Talent," the essay in which Eliot developed his theories about impersonality in poetry, was first published in The Egoist in 1919 and was reprinted in Eliot's collection The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism the following year. The essay was greeted with some dissent at the time; the Times Literary Supplement identified a contradiction at the heart of the piece whereby although scientific rather than artistic procedures are used, "certain perversities, instinctive rather than rational" are expressed.9

However, "Tradition" has come to be acknowledged as the "most celebrated" of Eliot's critical essays.10 This is a reputation about which Eliot expressed some ambivalence. In his "Preface" to the 1964 edition of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism he regrets the frequency with which the essay is anthologized and apologizes for its "juvenile" tone, although he explicitly refuses to "repudiate" it.11 Certainly the essay has been hugely influential and is widely regarded as having paved the way for the rise of New Criticism, with its attempt at detached, objective appraisal of the literary text.12

Eliot's subject in "Tradition" is the "relation of the poem to its author" (p. 44). He rethinks Romantic notions of the necessary and direct relationship between individual artist, experience, and poem, arguing instead...


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