After the poet dies, people like to argue about the relevance of their work. Was it innovative? Did it do something new for form, for formality, for fluency. Does it deserve to be reread in schools or university seminars?
Sometimes this discussion is valid. Sometimes the poetry in question is perhaps only marginally relevant. Other times the discussion becomes ridiculous, as it does when it concerns a poet like Anne Sexton.
Sexton, often linked to the Confessional poets, which includes writers like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and John Berryman, is unequivocally relevant because she did something new. She put her body and intimate life on display in a way that predates performance art. Sure, Plath spilled her heart and soul, but it was coded in lovely metaphor. Sexton’s poetry is crude, crude in a way that was new.
Indeed, Sexton’s legacy bears the mark of all torchbearers — harsh, almost juvenile, criticism. James Dickey, one of America’s mid-century greats, wrote: “Miss Sexton’s work seems to me very little more than a kind of terribly serious and determinedly outspoken soap-opera.” To be sure, Sexton’s decidedly Feminist thematic also lumps her with a movement that falls in and out of grace.
Since so much of contemporary art and literature accosts us with our bodies, we are trained to both digest the shame this confrontation elicits as well as to dig for further meaning, if such meaning is to be found.
But, when Sexton was writing, she faced a virgin audience. What she did required talent, but even more so, courage. Here she is, as quoted by her biographer Diane Middlebrook: “I can invade my own privacy. That’s my right. It’s embarrassing for someone to expose their body to you. You don’t learn anything from it. But if they expose their soul, you learn something. That’s true of great writers. They expose their souls; then suddenly I am moved, and I understand my life better.”
Below is Sexton at her best, so in your face, so above it all:
The Ballad of the Lonely MasturbatorThe end of the affair is always death.She’s my workshop. Slippery eye,out of the tribe of myself my breathfinds you gone. I horrifythose who stand by. I am fed.At night, alone, I marry the bed.
Finger to finger, now she’s mine.She’s not too far. She’s my encounter.I beat her like a bell. I reclinein the bower where you used to mount her.You borrowed me on the flowered spread.At night, alone, I marry the bed.
Take for instance this night, my love,that every single couple puts togetherwith a joint overturning, beneath, above,the abundant two on sponge and feather,kneeling and pushing, head to head.At night alone, I marry the bed.
I break out of my body this way,an annoying miracle. Could Iput the dream market on display?I am spread out. I crucify.My little plum is what you said.At night, alone, I marry the bed.
Then my black-eyed rival came.The lady of water, rising on the beach,a piano at her fingertips, shameon her lips and a flute’s speech.And I was the knock-kneed broom instead.At night, alone, I marry the bed.
She took you the way a woman takesa bargain dress off the rackand I broke the way a stone breaks.I give back your books and fishing tack.Today’s paper says that you are wed.At night, alone, I marry the bed.
The boys and girls are one tonight.They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies.They take off shoes. They turn off the light.The glimmering creatures are full of lies.They are eating each other. They are overfed.At night, alone, I marry the bed.