Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

This Business of Words: Reassessing Anne Sexton

By Amanda Golden, Editor

Reviewed By Patrick James Dunagan

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A mythic glamor envelops and sustains the longstanding legacy of poet Anne Sexton. Cemented in place by the accessibly upfront self-exposure of her poetry and her reading performance of poems, always with cigarettes, booze, and pill dependency in tow—which long ago enshrined her alongside fellow verse-cobblers, including the likes of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman, in the upper tiers of the so-called “Confessional School” of American poetry. It was only further embellished when combined with her daunting and haunted beauty, abundantly documented in photographs and film, and her tragic if not surprising suicide (her writing began under the direction of her therapist and death was a near constant trope). Hers is a literary reputation generally acknowledged as built at the borderlands where poetry and popular culture as a rule rarely meet. This Business of Words: Reassessing Anne Sexton, while not completely refusing this legacybegins the work of directly challenging its severe limitations and calling into question its many assumptions.

As editor Amanda Golden contends, in comparison to many of Sexton’s contemporaries, “there has not been a book that fully engages the scope of Sexton’s creative and critical legacy.” This then aims to be that book. Successfully throwing much-needed fresh light from new perspectives, This Business opens a path for fuller appreciation as well as greater critical discernment of the poet’s work, thereby filling out the heretofore absent assessment of her legacy. Acknowledging “Sexton’s words exist in material contexts, including manuscripts, archives, and workspaces,” Golden brings together a fresh mixture of critical evaluations by scholars and poets alike, gauging Sexton’s achievement on all fronts.

There’s clear consensus among all contributors that, for Sexton, “becoming a successful poet meant skillfully approaching various forms of media and developing strategies for teaching, critiquing poems, delivering poetry readings, and giving interviews.” Although nowhere near the level of today’s social media craze, a significant level of media attention was present in Sexton’s time and she confronted it with a savviness unusual among poets. Evidence of Sexton’s consistent awareness for self-promotion, which arrives clearly intertwined with her near-always model-like appearance for the camera, receives due criticism from a variety of angles. This is, however, not to say it is always cast in a negative light. In the end, Sexton is rightfully seen as the powerful proponent she was of her own wares.

Anita Helle’s “Anne Sexton’s Photographic Self-Fashioning” thoroughly extols how “Sexton, unlike many of her contemporaries, accepted the fractured nature of the modern media sphere and the inevitability of misrecognition—and she managed it.” Helle confronts the problematic nature of Sexton’s “legacy” head-on:

The judgmental legacy continues to center on Sexton’s reputed celebrity glamour, raising affective, ethical, and aesthetic questions about her management of the business of images as well as words: it was or was not admirable of Sexton to have contributed to her own celebrity by posing in this or that way; it is or is not proper to or valid to equate literary celebrity with artistic achievement.

In the eyes of posterity, Sexton is continually held accountable. Yet there’s little reason to hope or expect she will be released from this judgment. How could she be? There’s no possibility of separating her poetry from her celebrity. Whether merely “reputed” or not, the received perception of Sexton as always fashionable, often downright gimmick-leaning in terms of self-presentation, is inextricably a piece of her overall poetic output and one of the central means of its reception. As Kathleen Ossip attests, “The wrapped package of Sexton’s poems, both sparkling and rotten, her life story, her letters, and her comments on her poems, as well as captivating glimpses via photos and video, form her work: her myth. We can’t know the poems except as part of that oeuvre. Why should we?” These not-at-all-rigorously contrary contentions of Helle and Ossip are the hinge upon which Sexton’s legacy sways.

For any reader of Sexton, both fan and non-fan alike, this gets to the crux of what will remain fascinating about her work. The value of her poetry is to be found wrapped up within her public persona as much as if not more than in the work itself. The scale by which Sexton extends the territory she covers as a poet, practicing her art while always having a firm eye upon appealing to as massive an audience as possible, call to mind the pop-synthesis self-marketing of later musical figures such as Madonna and Lady Gaga (Sexton herself also had her own band, Her Kind). Consider Dorothea Lasky’s description of Sexton’s importance to what it means to her to be a poet:

Sexton has taught me so much about how to be wild when writing my own poetry, to think of the poem as not a place to display what I know, but as a place to become something else entirely, to get to the dark vortex that surrounds us all. During the times when I have wondered if I should keep writing, it is Sexton’s urgency that rises to the defense of the poem, telling me we poets do what we do to sum up the so many voices into voice, to bring voice to the weak, the forgotten and maligned, the lost animal in us all.

The line between adolescent angst and mature reactionary response are as hopelessly blurred here as Sexton’s public personification of herself as poet is with her poetry itself. Lasky’s appreciation for Sexton is couched in language (“wild,” “dark vortex,” “lost animal”) that calls to mind the referencing of Lady Gaga fans as “Little Monsters.”

Things gets messy. The work, in Sexton’s case, is broadly recognized to have suffered as a result of her increasing notoriety. The later work is recognized as uneven as Sexton increasingly pushes the role of her public persona into the lines of her work—the poetry appearing as if written-to-order, filling out the figure of the poet now expected by the public. Walt Whitman arguably wrote his own fair share of bad poetry for similar reasons. Having poured his work into the scraped out mold of Walt Whitman the Poet, he was forced to continue filling out that same mold, year after year. Yet Whitman is destined to remain one of the most inspiring, hopeful and energetic poets for any time and place. Creation doesn’t come without risk. The bad is inextricable from the good; there are no sparkling stars without the stray black hole. Jeffery Conway affirms:

Whitman’s “badness,” like Sexton’s, lives on. How many good poets enjoy this sort of dubious legacy? Maybe the bad is really the good? Nah. Sexton turned into a mess, but what an interesting mess! . . . Bad Anne lived by my golden rule for poets: never be boring. If ultimately you have to be a failure, isn’t it better to be a magnificent one?

Why should readers of poetry (or poets! themselves) be any less drawn by the glitziness of stardom than the average teenager? Yes, with age comes appreciation and awareness of the hazards and dubious pitfalls involved, but who doesn’t enjoy a little glamor now and then? What reader of Sexton is not in agreement with David Trinidad’s confession: “When I saw the 2003 movie Sylvia, I was disappointed that the filmmakers failed to include a scene of Plath, Sexton, and [George] Starbuck drinking martinis at the Ritz bar.” How in hell was that scene not included?!

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His essays and book reviews appear frequently with a wide number of both online and print publications. His recent books include “There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn’t Talk”: A Gustonbook (Post-Apollo), Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling), from Book of Kings (Bird & Beckett Books), and Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil).