Anne Sexton was born on the 9th November, 1928, and spent most of her life near Boston. Boarding school educated, she suffered from mental illness for much of her life, her first manic episode occurring in 1954. After her second breakdown the following year, her therapist, Dr Martin Orne, suggested she take up poetry. With the blue touch paper duly ignited, all that was required was to stand back and watch the rocket of her imagination take flight. She wasn`t interested in taking it easy on herself or the world around her; tackling the themes of insanity, suicide, incest and marital discord head on without flinching. These were the themes which ruled the storm drenched battlefield of her mind like an unending salvo of psychological mortar shells. For her, domesticity depressed the character, encircling her in chains – because she felt used by her husband and children……….“a husband, straight as a redwood, two daughters, two urchins, picking roses off my hackles. If I`m on fire they dance around it and cook marshmellows.”
Almost like no other poet before her, she got down to the nitty gritty of how a woman`s body works in such poems such as “The Operation”, which involved frank confessions on the emotional and bodily functions of women. Such forthright information on how her mind and body operated led to her being dubbed a “confessional poet”, a title she didn`t like, but came to accept as being a cross she had to bear because society does love to pigeon hole everyone, and everything, into little convenient nooks and crannies. There is some debate as to the truthfulness of her writings, or whether they were an artistic devise to create the right emotional world, to make her poems reflect an intense internal `reality`. This ability to conjure up a corporeal, three dimensional image from the smoke and mirrors of the imagination, is something which divides artistic genius from the very good. Whether she actually suffered from childhood abuse is neither here nor there, when she possessed the ability to write as if it had actually happened to her. Although her therapist believed that it was a false memory, incest is a subject to which she returns time and again: her poetry does seem to suggest an unusual relationship with her mother to say the least, who apparently undertook regular genital inspections on Anne, which left her feeling ashamed and humiliated, and she does show hostility towards her mother in some of her poems.
Anne Sexton was an extremely complicated personality who did admit to committing “truth crimes” during her therapy sessions in order to enable her very colourful and flexible imagination a full head of steam to create; even so far as referring to a brother she didn`t have………..I remember Ralph Mills talking about my dead brother whom I`ve written about. And I met Ralph and I said, ” Ralph, I had no brother, but then, didn`t we all have brothers who died in that war?”…..But I write my brother, and of course he believes it……I should say”Excuse me folks, but no brother,” but that would ruin the poem.
So a good deal of artistic license is allowed and assumed here when dealing with what did, and didn`t happen in Anne Sexton`s life. We all to a certain degree invent, and reinvent ourselves on a daily basis; to be otherwise would make it a very boring life. Anne Sexton merely allowed her highly intelligent, sophisticated, brittle and mentally unstable imagination, carte blanche to cherry pick from a life which may not have happened in quite the way she wrote about, but which her artistic genius turned into a grand opera of words and feelings. But of course, her mental demons eventually whispered in her ear once too often, and so, after having lunch with poet Maxine Kumin on October 4th, 1974, she went home, put on her mother`s old fur coat, locked herself in her garage, started the car engine, and ended her life by carbon monoxide poisoning. That torrent of words gifted her many years of purposeful life which she probably would never have had; they kept her alive, and gave us one of our most unique voices to hear and enjoy.