April was National Poetry Month, and as I have done for the last few years, I marked it by posting a poem a day on Facebook. This year, subconsciously or otherwise, I posted mostly works by women poets, Anne Sexton among them.
I don't know which poets, if any, are in today's high school literature texts. (Poetry has fallen out of favor because it doesn't lend itself to standardized testing.) When I was in high school, back in the 70s, the poetry curriculum was very much the white male canon, English and American poets only. No works in translation, only token writers of color (yes, Gwendolyn Brooks, but only if it was "we real cool;" no Langston Hughes), and few women except Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who I found monotonous (and still do) and Emily Dickinson, who was still decades away from being reexamined and was still very much presented as a troubled agoraphobe who quaintly used string to bind her poetry around marmalade jars.
I discovered Anne Sexton by wandering in the library, as I was wont to do, sniffing around the 811 (Dewey Decimal System) aisles. It may have been All My Pretty Ones I cam across first. At some point, I discovered Transformations, her wonderful adaptation of Grimm fairy tales. No matter, I was hooked.
Sexton was a revelation. For one thing, she was a contemporary poet. High school lit texts, the process being what it was to get one approved and to market, let along adopted, ran decades behind contemporary writers, especially in poetry. All the poetry I'd been exposed to in school to date was by poets now dead.
For another, Sexton wrote with a loud voice. For an aspiring writer, for an aspiring female writer, I was thrilled to find that the whispery lines of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson (as she was then portrayed) were not my only options.
In the poetry world, Sexton was in the vanguard of the confessional poetry movement. Sylvia Plath, George Starbuck, Robert Lowell, William Snodgrass, Anne Sexton—these were poets who wrote of intimate, intense themes—mental illness, body, divorce, family, sex—that the academic and critical poetry world did not recognize. Confessional poets were willing to take their own lives, their own triumphs, failures, and shortcomings, and shape them into poetry in the first person voice. It was that first person voice that delineated confessional poetry from the impersonality and universality of the then standard canon.
And maybe that's what drew me to Sexton (and then to Plath, hard on the heels of Sexton): that sudden realization that poetry did not have to be written in the third person, did not have to be removed from the poet, but could be immediate and personal. Poetry could be about messy topics, about hurtful topics, about real topics, about anything. As I commented to Warren as I talked about this post, I observed that if you looked at what little poetry from my past still remains, you could see the shift from the impersonal remote to the first person. That was Sexton's influence on me.
Anne Sexton committed suicide in October, 1974. I was in college in Chicago when it happened; I read the news in The Maroon, the school newspaper. It shook me up enough that I remember having to find a place to sit down and reread the brief article. I would like to think I was conscientious enough to have headed to the library to find a volume of her poems, but I doubt it. But the realization that this poet, this bold, audacious writer, was dead, stayed with me for days.
I stumbled backwards into this recent immersion. Too pressed for time to get to the library for new reading material, I resorted to what was at hand on my shelves and Sexton came to the top. I don't know yet if I will tackle her collected letters (which are well worth the read), although I hear their siren call as I type these lines. At this point, Sexton has been dead for almost as long as she lived and I have outlived her by a decade and a half. But the power of what she wrote, and the impact of that power on my own writing—that is still with me all these decades later.