It’s Throwback Thursday. For those of you who aren’t on social media, that means we all post Polaroids of ourselves in the ‘80s, or something like that. I wasn’t very interesting in the ’80s, since I mostly just ate fruit rollups and watched cartoons. So today I’m throwing way back to 2003, when I was a freshman in college—but also to the ‘60s.
News recently made the rounds that Anne Sexton won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry basically by default. According to David Trinidad, Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry reveals that while she wasn’t at the top of any of the judges’ lists, she was the only one on whom they could all agree. Plath was also in the running, though she was dead by then. Of the comparison between the two, one of the judges, Phyllis McGinley, wrote “Both women are neurotics and their poetry is based on the fact.”
Confessional poetry gets a lot of flak for this very reason, and it’s often worse for female poets. It used to irk me that Plath and Sexton frequently got lumped together as “the suicide girls,” when they clearly had different styles and distinct voices. In the classroom, I saw their biographies too often overshadow their work. Why didn’t the same thing happen to John Berryman, who also committed suicide? Why didn’t W. D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle get put down as simply neurosis in book form?
I was troubled mostly because I thought this biographical focus belittled these women’s work—and certainly biography can be used that way—but in truth, it was both Plath’s and Sexton’s reputations as suicide girls that initially appealed to me as a beginning poetry student. The first collection of poetry I bought was Plath’s Collected Poems. Sexton’s Selected was the second or third. Until I discovered them, I had some vague, unfortunate notion of poetry as a highfalutin genre of bald white men lecturing to me in rhymes about nature and the true meaning of life.
Whose life? Not mine, it seemed. I was a freshman in college, and I was in the middle of an emotional crisis (as most college freshman are). I felt like a failure for wanting to give up on my dream of becoming a painter. Everybody around me looked talented and happy. I was depressed, drinking a lot, and thinking about death often—not just practically, but also conceptually, which is important creative work. I didn’t want to be comforted (and when it comes to poetry, I still don’t). I wanted the dark, the dramatic, and the feminine.
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
(from Plath's "Tulips")
O little mother,
I am in my own mind.
I am locked in the wrong house.
(from Sexton's "For the Year of the Insane")
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
(from Sexton's "Her Kind")
When I read lines like these, I felt I had a stake in poetry. There was palpable frustration in these poems, and brashness channeled into imagery and music. Furthermore, these were women who had found success through their art not by ignoring their personal experiences, but by tapping into them. For me, that represented a new possibility for my own (troubled, female) voice.
I wanted the literary equivalent of PJ Harvey
I didn’t devote myself to Confessional poetry, but it was my entry point, and I think this is true for many young girls.That’s certainly not to say that one must be an angsty teen to appreciate Plath or Sexton, or that their work is immature, or that they should be grouped together as a matter of course. (Most poets would agree that Plath is a master of craft and language and should be studied as such.) I only mean to suggest that, while we shouldn’t always be reading poetry as memoir, thinking about poets’ biographies (including neuroses, suicides, etc.) is OK, and perhaps even beneficial for beginning poets—if it leads to further consideration of the work. Why avoid talking about these things (or anything) in art?
Furthermore, I think it would be a terrible thing to impress upon young poets the idea that any initial identification with a poet’s “neurosis” is amateurish or shallow. People identify with poets as people (rather than simply poets) for a number of reasons: race, class, gender, sexuality, culture, region. There’s nothing wrong with that, because of course, poets are people. Many students will get to know these poets’ work through stories of their lives (and yes, their deaths), and that's not always a bad thing.
For this reason, I also think it’s okay for beginning poetry students to write about their personal lives. Some instructors discourage this, but often there is rich material in students’ experiences that can be mined in a number of ways not limited to confessional poetry. (I understand the reluctance to read yet another cliché-laden breakup poem, but this is really a problem with form, not content). Remember what the second-wave taught us about the personal being political? Sexton’s Transformations poems blend childhood trauma (not limited to her own) with fairy tales to question cultural values and gender stereotypes. In “Lady Lazarus,” Plath uses the event of her suicide attempts to challenge readers’ notions of the confessional mode and provoke questions about the relationship of tragedy, poetry, gender, and exhibitionism. Using one’s personal experiences doesn’t preclude engagement with the world.
Tomorrow: My last post--an interview with poet Cori Winrock!