Anne Sexton, |
The Complete Poems
While I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Anne Sexton's work in the past, returning to it now, years later, I find that she took the "confessional" mode to such a straightforwardly autobiographical degree that she undermined her own, quite obvious talent.
Redundant and explicit references to "Bedlam" and "the asylum" make many poems read and sound more like melodramatic diary entries than poetry. There is far more emotion and tumult in the nuanced, obsessive and precise imagery of yellow moths sagging against locked screens on a languid summer evening than in that of a "TV parlor/in the best ward in Bedlam." She overdramatizes where she ought to invigorate, and assumes that the basic, cold facts of her own widely publicized struggle with manic-depressive illness sufficed for poetry, an assumption that tends to enervate even her best poems.
Such is the case with the otherwise gorgeous and stirring "Lullaby" and "Flee on Your Donkey," which begins with such promise: "Because there was no other place/to flee to/I came back to the scene of the disordered senses," but descends into a kind of Go Ask Alice passage: "Keeping only a pack of Salem cigarettes/The way a child holds on to a toy/I signed myself in where a stranger/puts the inked-in X's--/for this is a mental hospital/not a child's game" and "In here/the same old crowd/the same ruined scene." This as close to the border of doggerel as I've ever seen an acclaimed poet come.
Sexton's decision to abandon the taut, structured and compact stanzas of her intense early work in favor of the casual, conversational and wooden free verse of her later years stifled her imagination, and blurred the distinction between genuine poetry and mere mystique.
Reading over these poems a second time convinced me that it is not Sexton's work itself that contributes most to her repute but, unfortunately, her now-legendary illness and suicide. Her attempts to convert this legend into poetry were, for the most part, just as "embarrassing" as Robert Lowell suggests in the quote from Maxime Kumin's foreword. I find that Sexton's work is most powerful when not explicitly confessing the circumstances of her mental illness, but exploring one torn human being's conflict and engagement with the immediately surrounding world, as in the beautiful, terrifying and non-confessional "The Moss of His Skin," a persona poem of considerable power.
That Sexton seemed more impressed with her own illness than her talent is a doleful misfortune for the greater world of poetry. Reading through her complete poems reveals that the full promise of her talent was never realized.