Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A few biographical notes on Anne Sexton

The following is from the foreword to The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, written by Maxine Kumin who collaborated Sexton on a number of things:

"Though the reviewers [and not just them] were not always kind to Anne's work, honors and awards mounted piggyback on one another almost from the moment of publication in 1960 of her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back. [I remember buying that book] The American Academy of Letters Traveling Fellowship in 1963, which she was awarded shortly after All My Pretty Ones was published and nominated for the National Book Award, was followed by a Ford Foundation grant as resident playwright at the Charles Playhouse in Boston. In 1965, Anne Sexton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in Great Britain. Live or Die won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1967. She was named Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard in 1968 and accorded a number of honorary doctoral degrees. . . ."

"But between the publication of new books and the bestowal of honors fell all too frequently the shadow of mental illness. One psychiatrist left. His successor at first succumbed to Sexton's charm, then terminated his treatment of her. She promptly fell downstairs and broke her hip -- on her birthday. With the next doctor her hostility grew. Intermediary psychiatrists and psychologists came and went. There seemed to be no standard for dealing with this gifted, ghosted woman. On Thorazine, she gained weight became intensely sun-sensitive, and complained that she was so overwhelmed with lassitude that she could not write. Without medication, the voices returned. As she grew increasingly dependent on alcohol, sedatives, and sleeping pills, her depressive bouts grew more frequent. Convinced that her marriage was beyond salvage, she demanded and won a divorce, only to learn that living alone created an unbearable level of anxiety. She returned to Westwood Lodge, later spent time at McLean's Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, and finally went to Human Resources Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. But none of these interludes stemmed her downward course. In the spring of 1974, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and later remonstrated bitterly with me for aborting this suicide attempt. On that occasion she vowed that when she next undertook to die, she would telegraph her intent to no one. A little more than six months later, this indeed proved to be the case. . . ."

"Women poets in particular owe a debt to Anne Sexton, who broke new ground, shattered taboos, and endured a barrage of attacks along the way because of the flamboyance of her subject matter, which, twenty years later, seems far less daring. She wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction at a time when the proprieties embraced none of these as proper topics for poetry. Today, the remonstrances seem almost quaint. Anne delineated the problematic position of women -- the neurotic reality of the time -- though she was not able to cope in her own life with the personal trouble it created. . . ."

Comment: Having read Freud at a very early age I have never been willing to dismiss the idea that if one is raised with a standard of morality, one can not violate that standard without paying a price. Freud's answer was to dismiss the standard, overcome it with therapy. I don't know if the psychiatrists Sexton went to tried that but Kumin tells us they gave up on her -- and then she on herself -- or maybe she gave up on herself before she went to them.

Kumin tells of Sexton claiming (during the time she was producing one poem after the other, sometimes as many as four a day) to be God -- always a risky business if part of that moral standard included Sunday School teachings about Nebuchadnezzar.

Kumin's assessment is the one sentence "Anne delineated the problematic position of women -- the neurotic reality of the time -- though she was not able to cope in her own life with the personal trouble it created." I doubt that Kumin would agree with what I've written here and instead would blame it on the backward times and the verbal abuse directed at her by reviewers and others for what struck them as her excessiveness in bizarre directions. Truman once said that if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. He was speaking about politics, but the same thing would apply to any of us, and in the case of Anne Sexton how could she know she couldn't stand the heat until she had actually entered the kitchen?

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