Friday, September 10, 2010

ANNE SEXTON: Landscapes of Grief 

Today The Poetry Foundation published a taped conversation I had with Curtis Fox on the poem "Portrait of an Old Woman on the College Tavern Wall" by Anne Sexton.

The podcast is HERE.

This much edited talk does not include the excerpt I read from Sexton's 1967 interview with The Paris Review which explains much of what was going on with her life when writing this and other poems from her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back. (By the way it is VERY IMPORTANT that I say that I am IN NO WAY upset with The Poetry Foundation or Curtis Fox for the editing, as I'm well aware, and was made aware prior to taping that it would be edited. I simply want to share a little more now, that's all.)

Here is that excerpt from The Paris Review interview:

Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn't know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies. I didn't know I had any creative depths. I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream. All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children. I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down. I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can't build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out. The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.

It was THIS moment in her life -- in my opinion -- where Sexton was suddenly THRUST -- for better or worse -- outside the world which was suffocating her. She was stigmatized from this moment forward. And I say forward because lucky for her she entered a world of poetry which embraced her wholeheartedly. Not quite so lucky as many other patients, or inmates of the mental wards, I prefer to call them inmates. But it was at this point where Sexton found a part of herself which had been dormant.

The other thing that I mentioned soon after reading this excerpt (also edited out) was that this psychotic break occurred when she turned 28. 28 is known by scholars of astrology as "Saturn Return," and it is the time when the planet Saturn appears where it was when we were born. There are 4 quarters to the cycle which roughly work out (give or take a day or two) to 7 years each. The human body sheds and refurbishes the cellular tissues with new cells, completed after 7 years. So at 28 we have had -- roughly speaking -- a total of 4 cellular replacements. Saturn is the old god planet, which rules Capricorn, and demands to see what we have learned by this point in our lives. 28 is known to be a very hard year for many people, it's sort of a sink-or-swim year, and if sinking is what occurs than ages 29 through 32 often become worse. Luckily though she lived for some years following this initial psychotic break, thanks to poetry I believe.

One other thing edited out (and once again I'm well aware that editing was in the picture from the start) was my mentioning that Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris chose Sexton to represent the Confessional Poets in the anthology Poems for the Millennium Volume Two. In other words NOT Lowell, Plath, Berryman. And those anthologies by Rothenberg and Joris were built around poets who shifted the paradigm of their time for poetry or for their school of poetry. For them SEXTON was the shaker of conventions. And they chose to reprint in the anthology "The Jesus Papers," which I must say was the first time I had read this particular Sexton poetry in years, and certainly for me the first time reading it on its own, outside her collections. It stands firm, clearly, go check it out.

Many thanks to Curtis Fox and The Poetry Foundation, I enjoyed this talk tremendously,

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