Saturday, February 16, 2013

Anne Sexton, Visible and Invisible

A while ago I spent some time in Austin doing research at the divine Harry Ransom Center. I held in my hands a number of extraordinary items, including letters and journals from some of the most interesting writers of 20th Century literary history. I read a letter of Richard Hugo's in which he lamented being overlooked for a major prize. He signs off: "I am going to see The Birds now, and feed my gruesome nature." Among Anne Sexton's papers were keepsakes from early in her marriage: a program from The Ice Follies; a souvenir of a night out at The Copley; a playbill for the Old Howard Theater when Sally Rand performed. "An unusual nite," Sexton wrote on the page.

I had also arranged a private viewing of Sexton's original oil paintings, including "Still life with white penguins and deer figurines." It's hard to say with precision what it felt like to observe this painting, which had many so problems with representation, but in part it was a revelation. I didn't expect to shift from on-the job research to compassion and to a kind of reverse empathy. I was not inside the scholarship of the poet, but inside a condition. To imagine that Sexton, like me, wanted to try various things even though she wasn't all that great at them and would likely never be; to imagine that she spent therapeutic time attempting perspective in oil—she'd probably, the morning she'd begun, arranged a purple velvet fabric on a side table, and placed the penguin figure just so, aiming for something evocative of a vision—and that she had pretty much failed: that's perhaps the moment I fell more deeply into Sexton. The life of any artist is of great importance to the work, though even as the watershed Confessionals did much to wear away Eliot's barrier, his influence hangs a shroud above poetry still. But we have to bring biography back. Of Eliot's theory of the impersonal, which had come to be a tremendous influence on poetry before the mid-century, Stanley Kunitz has said, "Overnight, subjective poetry fell out of fashion.  I couldn't understand why a theory so obviously false could be taken so seriously."

Once inside the work, you are, of course, inside a life; even persona can't avoid this; even Stevens admits this: It is the poet's sense of the world that is the poet's world.  Eliot instructs us (and he does instruct, always) not to read "The Waste Land" through biography, and he then includes, annoyingly,  Margate Sands. I see what you did there, Eliot.

Because of its immensity and its trivia, its flux and beauty and terror, a life is nearly incomprehensible, really, because it is so much. And yet, poetry aims for just this comprehension of experience. What a large, confounding art.

One afternoon, I came across this note of Sexton's:
"This [ ] is just an exile from God—"

Loneliness? Loveliness? I have read Sexton for years, and I know which one I immediately choose. But coming to know her life and work means I am never sure.

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