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Summary Article: Sexton, Anne
from Encyclopedia of Motherhood

Born to a wealthy family in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1928, Anne Sexton's early life looked—from the outside—like a version of the American dream. She attended a private high school, then married and settled down to take care of her house and to have children. After the birth of her second daughter, though, the illusion started to crack; Sexton became increasingly depressed, and on the day before her 28th birthday, attempted suicide. Soon after, at the suggestion of her therapist, Sexton began to write poetry. Years before other women poets would discuss the topic, Sexton's poetry presents a reading of motherhood that is at once spiritual, psychological, and historical.

From Degraded to a Larger Understanding

In Sexton's first two books, published in 1960 and 1962, the mother is degraded, something to avoid: “to sink from the eyes of the mother”; an object of fear: “I cannot forgive your suicide, my mother said”; or an absence to mourn: “as if it were normal / to be a mother and be gone.” The endless loop of this mother as object is summed up in the final lines of Sexton's well-known poem, “The Housewife”: “A woman is her mother. / That's the main thing.”

By 1966, the poems in Live or Die bear witness to the histories of mothers who have betrayed, abandoned, and failed their daughters, but in so doing, the poems also claim these histories and reclaim these mothers: “Judas had a mother / just as I had a mother.” The later poems in this book move the speaker from the position of daughter to mother, as she writes poems addressed to her own daughters. In these poems, the mother figure is no longer simply an object, but becomes a human mother whose greatest functions are to hold and give milk to the infant.

Then in Love Poems, published in 1969, Sexton begins to move beyond this conception of motherhood into a larger understanding. As she writes in “The Breast,” “This is the key to it … Now I am your mother, your daughter, / your brand new thing—a snail, a nest.” This mother is more than human—she is circle and symbol, body and house—a source of life. This is the book that includes such poems as “In Celebration of My Uterus, You All Know the Story of the Other Woman,” and “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator,” poems that marked Sexton as a groundbreaking confessional poet but that also show her evolving sense of the mother-self as both sexual and spiritual. Sexton attempts in these poems to portray the great mother or ancient goddess as a great expanse, a source of life, or a lifeworld, and much of Sexton's poetry after this was also concerned with this search for the Great Mother.

What makes Sexton's last poems particularly remarkable is that she manages to bring sexuality and spirituality together. In poems such as “Mary's Song,” “The Fierceness of Female,” “The Consecrating Mother,” and “In Excelsis,” she shows how women's bodies, spirits, and oppression exist together, and presents a vision of the possibility for healing at all levels. While Sexton's own life ended in suicide in 1974, her later poems show an almost prophetic sense of what was to come in the work of the generations of poets after her. To claim her body as her own, Sexton's poetry teaches, a mother must learn to acknowledge her own feelings, desires, and pains as her own. This means turning from the other (either child or partner) as agent of action or desire, and toward a sense of self within the wider context of nature and spirit. In so doing, Sexton's poetry has been acclaimed as opening the way for a new generation of mother-poets who provide fuller visions of being for mothers in Western society.

See Also:

Daughters and Mothers, Maternal Desire, Mother Goddess, Motherhood Poets, Mother Nature, Plath, Sylvia, Poetry, Mothers in, Sexuality and Mothering, Spirituality and Mothering

Bibliography
  • Gill, Jo. Anne Sexton's Confessional Poetics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.
  • McGowan, Philip. Anne Sexton & Middle Generation Poetry: The Geography of Grief. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
  • Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. New York: Vintage, 1992.
  • Salvio, Paula M. Anne Sexton: Teacher of Weird Abundance. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.
  • Sexton, Linda Gray. Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother. New York: Little, Brown, 1994.
  • Steele, Cassie Premo
    University of South Carolina
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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