Staff Reviews: The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton, forward by Maxine Kumin (Mariner Books)

Here we are presented with an unflinching account of one of the great, highly original confessionals, illuminated in no small part by Maxine Kumin’s introduction. This is a practical tome, a Sexton survey that is best read in twenty-page doses. It’s also a striking concordance of her poetics; the ability to track the devices which constitute Sexton’s sensibility may prove its most useful aspect. We follow her wary sojourn towards God—“God is in your typewriter,” she was told—where her most scathing surrealism emerges: “Jesus was fasting. / He ate His celibate life. / The ground shuddered like an ocean, / a great sexual swell under His feet.” We follow her rhyming as it develops from a decorative stand-in for gravitas to a resonant, architectonic feature; in Love Poems(1969), this utterly conversational musicality reaches its culmination in tandem with gripping lineation. Sexton then turned to the mythic, reworking all manner of fable and fairy-tale in preparation for her later poems, which tackle her Christian mythology with a taut, peculiar faith. Her poetry is particularly suited to the frenzied asymptote between the cerebral and the carnal, piety and appetite: “For they fling together against hardness and somewhere, in another room, a light is clicked on by gentle fingers.”  She finds curious objects which fulfill the dual role of holy symbols and meals, arranging them in absurd litanies as befits her taste for the liturgical cadence, if not the precise content.

To be sure, there are many clunkers once everything is considered. There are times when Plath’s rigor might have benefitted Sexton’s lines a great deal: “Angel of hopes and calendars, do you know despair?” Her fierce dedication to the actuals of the body (genitalia and all), while necessary, will not always be appreciated. She also has a tendency to wring a certain turn of phrase dry if it works once—her catalogue of sea-actions ages quickly, as does her taste for possessives. These, however, can’t touch the resplendence of the greater portion of her output, characterized mostly by successful poem-cycles. While she championed the self as an inexhaustible reservoir, meanwhile asserting the female voice with formidable creative energies, it is clear that her genius rests on neither confessionalism nor feminism alone. To borrow Kumin’s phrase, Sexton has earned her place in the canon by advancing the frontiers of the English language’s unique poetic territory: diction both brutal and sinuous, ritualization, mythmaking, and the talent for extrapolating Place from Self.

-- Peter Longofono, International Editor

Washington Square