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Anne Sexton and Poetic Atavism


Rereading the Collected Poems of Anne Sexton, she seems to me to have become, over her career, the least “Confessional” of the poets given that label. Apparently she suffered from what we would today call bipolar disorder, took up poetry on the advice of her psychologist, and began with poems that treated of personal material frankly and overtly; this much is the expected, almost cliche narrative for that kind of poet from that era.

In the later work, however—over half of her Collected—we find a striking shift to religious and mythic material. References to “God” proliferate rapidly; there’s an entire sequence about Jesus; she begins retelling fairy tales. Crucially, the sense of the personal, of self exploration, never leaves this poetry. It is all quite of a piece with the earlier work, and not just formally (unlike the oeuvres of Adrienne Rich, Ted Hughes, and W. S. Merwin, contemporaries or near-contemporaries whose earliest poetry and latter poetry show a sharp rupture). Sexton begins in the “Confessional” school (itself a religious metaphor, incidentally) and the cultural centrality of psychotherapy (very much in vogue back then, among those who could afford a shrink); over time, she crosses out of this into a poetry I think of as Jungian. We would be hard pressed to find a poet who more thoroughly, and perhaps unconsciously, enacted the ideas of Carl Gustav Jung in poetry. Jung’s central insight—initiated by not developed by Freud’s use of the Oedipus and Electra myths—related to the intersection of mythic or folkloric culture-dreams and the psychopathology of the individual: The basic relationship of the collective unconscious, or what the culture doesn’t know it’s thinking, and the personal unconscious, or what the patient doesn’t know she’s thinking. Sexton’s later poetry bodies forth this sense of a connection, diffracting everything from Rumpelstiltskin to the Gospels through her own, inner life. The shock of the personal in poetry has completely dissipated at this point in American poetry; it is all par for the course now. Fortunately, Sexton’s earlier, more overtly personal poems hold up because of their verbal power and depth; they didn’t need shock then, and they don’t need them now.

Her later poetry, which I admire equally, totally transcends the 21st century notion of what a typical “confessional” poem is. In Love Poems (1969), she pens precisely those kinds of poem quite well, both the standard too-much-information Scandalous Monologue (“For my Lover, Returning to his Wife”) and your run-of-the-mill Sordid Topic poem (“The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator”). Then she develops very abruptly, with Transformations (1971), into a full-blown narrative poet, and from there into a poet obsessed with religious themes. Her development is one of the more interesting ones in American literature because she starts out very much a prime representative of a movement, and then begins expressing all sorts of atavistic poetic traits while still remaining utterly contemporary. This is a very difficult thing to do; when T. S. Eliot turned to unrhymed verse drama, he by no means maintained the edgy timeliness of The Waste Land. With Sexton, even when she turns to narrative forms, this doesn’t happen. Quite the development, though the hectic ride lasted only fifteen years from her first book, To Bedlam and Back (1960) to the last one published during her lifetime, The Awful Rowing toward God (1975).