Many a writer has said they write to save their lives. And many a writer has died by suicide. In few cases has the connection been so direct as in that of the poet Anne Sexton. Encouraged in 1957 by her therapist to write poetry to stave off her suicidal ideation, she eventually joined a group of mid-century “confessional” poets based in Boston—including Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath—whose personal pathos, family pain, and severe bouts of depression provided much of the material for their work. Despite Sexton’s tremendous career success at what began, more-or-less, as a hobby, she became overwhelmed by her illness and committed suicide in 1974.
There are those who wish to debate whether so-called “confessional poets” were truly tormented individuals or navel-gazing narcissists. This seems fair enough given the willing self-exposure of poets like Plath, Lowell, and Sexton, but it kind of misses the point; their losses and transgressions were as real, or not, as anyone’s, but we remember them, or should, for their writing. Instead I find it interesting to see their public selves as performances, whatever the autobiographical connections in the work. A former fashion model, Anne Sexton was particularly adept at self-presentation, and as her fame as a writer increased—she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 and a succession of grants and awards throughout the sixties—her poetry became less focused on the strictly personal, more on the cultural (she has become well-known, for example, for a sardonic, feminist perspective in such poems as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”). A good deal of her work was pure invention, despite the illusion of intimacy.
Nonetheless, the short, 1966 film “Anne Sexton at Home” (top, with Spanish subtitles, continued below) lets us engage in some voyeurism. It begins with Sexton’s irritation, as she’s interrupted by the dog. Then the film cuts away, the scene has changed, and she frankly acknowledges the poet’s voice as a “persona” (from the Greek for mask); her poems are “monsters,” into which she has “projected herself.” When we cut back again to the first scene, Sexton confidently reads her “Menstruation at Forty.” And we cut away again, and Sexton, her familiar cigarette never far away, riffs on “family & poetry” as her husband Alfred tries to avoid the camera. We see the poet with her daughter, their interactions playful (and also a little disturbing). Throughout it all Sexton performs, seemingly pleased and enjoying the camera’s attention.
In the last part of “Anne Sexton at Home” (above), the poet reads perhaps her most explicit work about her many suicide attempts, “Wanting to Die.” In a brief introduction, she says, “I can explain sex in a minute, but death, I can’t explain.” But the playfulness drains from her demeanor, as she comes to the final two stanzas:
Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,
raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon,
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,
leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love, whatever it was, an infection.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician. Follow him @jdmagness