Anne Sexton, Confessional Poet, Reads “Wanting to Die” in Ominous 1966 Video

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.


Relat­ed Con­tent

For Sylvia Plath’s 80th Birth­day, Hear Her Read ‘A Birth­day Present’

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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