Thursday, September 24, 2009

Anne Sexton – Her Whispers of Inspiration

There was an urgency of somebody or something trying to get my attention. I kept hearing Van Morrison’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart in my head. Well that and various other song lyrics about pain, love and the search of redemptive peace. Finally, I heard Anne Sexton’s name. I had not thought of her for years. I loved her poetry when I was a teen. I remembered how Anne used words that were her tethers to her world.  A world where madness dominated her life and yet she created solid, beautifully crafted poems.

Who Was This Woman?

Anne had been a fashion model. She was a wife and mother. And a poet. This woman advanced what could be thought of as topics for poems. Topics that were profoundly personal. Her work moved the reader, not stylized structures or academic approval; although she had that too. 

For every box they searched to constrict her value she found a way to express herself. Her poetry were confessional in the sense that she didn’t necessarily clean it up for public consumption. She was not vulgar. There was craftsmanship in her work. Anne wrote her poems as she experienced her life. Engaging and painful.

Trying to explaining her importance is complicated. Anne Sexton had a mental illness. There is no dispute about that fact. The illness has been described as manic-depression in some of the biographical summaries I’ve read. There may have been early family based abuse. I’d guess that there is a possibility that she might have also experienced undiagnosed post-partum depression.

Anne had a great deal of needs that couldn’t possibly be filled or properly treated at the time. Yet, in the middle of all her chaos, Anne created a fine body of work.

Musician Crystal Cheatham has also heard the whispers from Anne:

Most of all I think I understand how much she truly needed her husband and later told him she had exchanged that neediness for what she thought it was in the first place, love. You see what I’ve discovered is that Anne’s writing is not brilliant because she was crazy. It was brilliant because she was honest.

Another thing to consider is the environment of the late 1950s-1960s with specific defined roles for men and women. When she was was not writing, teaching, performing she was creating the source material for her work. Anne burned through friends, love affairs and hospitalizations.  It was not an easy life.

At the Eleventh Stack. Don writes about what Anne faced as a poet and a woman:

I can’t begin to imagine the courage it took for this lone woman to stand up and confront her madness in a public way at a time when most did not want to hear.  The cusp of change was rapidly approaching and perhaps the single greatest accomplishment of Sexton’s life was to bring these issues, with the help of psychoanalysis, into the public forum to be engaged, debated, and addressed.

Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974. Suicide has many surviving victims trying to make sense of what seems to be a senseless act. At Louisey's blog Letting Go, Recovery in the Sunset, she remembers the anniversary of her own mother’s death. She posted a copy of Anne’s poem, Why Death? maybe as a way of saying she will never understand but Anne did and this is how it was articulated.

Why Is Anne Sexton Important?

I have always remembered the feeling of being stunned reading her poem “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife.” It wasn’t just the topic but the honesty of admitting that the character in the poem knew she was a transitory value. It was painfully lyrical.  It was honest and made me a part of an unspoken understandable depth of loneliness.

At The Unfolding Moment MoonRabbit gives us a glimpse into her creative process in creating art. The example she displays incorporates poems into the the mixed media pieces:

…Other poems have been burning in my consciousness. I search my journals for lines that connect…With colored pencils in various shades of brown and olive, I begin to add text to the diptych. Text becomes texture as I use the words to fill in a space here, to visually extend a line there. If Mary Oliver’s key ideas are the centerpiece of this work, then Adrienne Rich provides the anchor—I carve a slice from her lines and lay it repeatedly across the shape that encloses “breath,” so that breath/spirit and words/communion are intertwined and interdependent.

So Anne and other poets can help mixed media artists find new mediums to incorporate into their work? Yes, I guess they can.

SummerPoet speaks to separations and beginning again with Anne also slipping into her thoughts:

I wondered about Anne Sexton today and Woolf and Plath. The strong women, well not so strong. The beautiful women who wrote, who were brave and in the end stumbled. They felt they weren't loved enough, weren't understood and they couldn't take one more bit of bad news. The sky opened, it start to rain and for woolf, she just let herself go in the river after sitting down to write her husband a note that she didn't wish to be his burden. His heartache maybe but not a burden. I understand that. 67 days later I get it.

For More Information About Anne Sexton and Her Work

This is one time I’d like to suggest you go low tech and visit a public library to get one of her books. If you can download an e-book version that will work as well.

Having said that, for a quick biographic sketch you can’t do wrong visiting Anne Sexton's page at The Poetry Foundation. There you will find not only biographical information but links to some of her poems and a listing of her work.

You should also check out the Modern American Poetry site with a section that contains Anne’s biography, cultural influences and essays about her career.

Do you have a favorite poem of Anne’s or a memory she invoked?

Gena Haskett is a Contributing Editor at BlogHer where this post originally appeared.

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