Anne Sexton’S Rowing Toward God

Since 1967, when she won the Pulitzer Prize, Anne Sexton has been recognized as a major American poet. She began to write almost by accident in her late twenties, after an early marriage, two children, and a psychotic break during which she tried to kill herself. Her short career has followed the pattern of a shooting star flashing against the backdrop of a dark universe. Her first volume, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), was followed by All My Pretty Ones (1962), Live or Die (1966), Love Poems (1969), Transformations (1971), The Book of Folly (1972), and The Death Notebooks (1974)—all published by Houghton Mifflin. Mercy Street, a play, was produced in New York in 1969.

At first, poetry was only therapy for Sexton as she attempted to relieve her psychic pain. In time she could claim that “poetic truth is not necessarily autobiographical. It is truth that goes beyond the immediate self.” She seemed to choose creation over destruction or poetry over suicide: “Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem.” Poetry thus became a vehicle to find, to reclaim—to save the self. “When I’m writing,” she told an interviewer, “I know I’m doing the thing I was born to do.” (Prose quotes are from an interview published in the Paris Review, 1971.) “There is something there/ I’ve got to get and I dig/ down … / … and because/ of this I am a hoarder of words” (The Book of Folly, p. 34).

But in the end, even poetry could not rescue her from the death that beckoned her. “It is snowing and death bugs me/ as stubborn as insomnia./ … I hear the filaments/ of alabaster. I would lie down/ with them and lift my madness/ off like a wig. I would lie/ outside in a room of wool/ and let the snow cover me” (Folly, p. ...

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