The Writing Allstars – Anne Sexton

Cinderella and the prince / lived, they say, happily ever after, / like two dolls in a museum case / never bothered by diapers or dust, / never arguing over the timing of an egg, / never telling the same story twice, / never getting a middle-aged spread, / their darling smiles pasted on for eternity. (Transformations)

When I first read the poems of Anne Sexton I was undone. Her dark, sensual use of language, her open discussion of taboo subject matter, her ability to mingle perfectly the feelings of pleasure and pain, delight and despair, captivated me. I loved her idea of approaching traditional fairy tales and adding her own special twist, her Transformations. She could write a tale to rival the darkness of the Grimm brothers but infused it with a sense of hope for something better that was almost tangible. Here was a woman who felt fully the heartbeat of the world; who struggled to understand it in all its terrible, wonderful magnitude; who used language as her tether to reality when she felt as if she were being swallowed up by the weight of it all.

… a hundred years passed and a prince got through. The briars parted as if for Moses and the prince found the tableau intact. He kissed Briar Rose and she woke up crying: Daddy! Daddy! Presto! She’s out of prison! She married the prince and all went well except for the fear — the fear of sleep. Briar Rose was an insomniac . . . She could not nap or lie in sleep without the court chemist mixing her some knock-out drops and never in the prince’s presence. (Transformations)

Sexton’s poetry speaks of a broken heart and a wounded mind. Her struggle against madness laid out for the world to see, scribbled moments of clarity. Her sarcasm seemed more about coping than confessionialism, an attempt to bring humor to horror, to comment on the scenes no one saw, to beg for forgiveness and absolution. She wrote about what it means to be a woman, in all its facets, nothing was off-limits for her. Her anguish fueled her poetry and gave her, for a time, some relief from the madness. She struggled to make the shift from an internal to an external view, her writing becoming more erratic, more scattered. It was as if she could see the inevitable looming in front of her, taunting her, tainting her writing, an omen of things to come.

when you face old age and its natural conclusion / your courage will still be shown in the little ways, / each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen, / those you love will live in a fever of love, / and you’ll bargain with the calendar / and at the last moment / when death opens the back door / you’ll put on your carpet slippers / and stride out. (The Awful Rowing Toward God)

Sexton reads like a gasp. A beg, a cry, a sharp pain, a breathlessness. Her raw edges, her heat, her pain all seep from the pages into your heart, your mind. She holds nothing back and you can’t help but weep for her, to wish better for her. Sexton paved the way for writers to tackle the idea of mental illness and how it affects creativity, how that affects life. In some ways, to be creative is to struggle to balance a world of our own making against that of the “real” world. Sexton inspired me with her bravery; to open up Pandora’s box and take on all the specters that reside there takes great courage. She made me understand that writing can be a form of catharsis, a way of processing and dealing with memories and realities that are too hard to talk about. She made me want to write about truth, deep, messy truth, in the hope that it would make me free.

I cannot promise very much. / I give you the images I know. / Lie still with me and watch. / A pheasant moves / by like a seal, pulled through the mulch / by his thick white collar. He’s on show / like a clown. He drags a beige feather that he removed, / one time, from an old lady’s hat. / We laugh and we touch. / I promise you love. Time will not take away that.” (All My Pretty Ones)

Because of Sexton I realized that nothing is too taboo to write about. Because of Sexton, I was able to transform my demons into make-believe monsters, trapped in cages made of words, relegated to the realm of story. Because of Sexton I found Edna St. Vincent Millay and understood Plath on a deeper level. Because of Anne Sexton I am the writer I am today.

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