Sexton's depression, did have the benefit of turning Sexton to poetry. In 1957 she followed her doctors suggestion to write as a form of therapy. A year later she enrolled in Lowell's seminar at Boston University, where she met Plath and Starbuck. Houghton Mifflin accepted her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back in 1960. In the mid-1960s Sexton became a poet celebrity, accumulating literary awards and academic positions—Live or Die (1967) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize—and drawing media attention as a tormented, and attractive, artist. The lines between therapy, art, and personal life were constantly blurred in her work, as they were in her life. Affairs with her teachers, her therapist, and her friends made their way into her poetry, and the public sensation of her poetry stimulated the daring and flamboyance of her life. In what has become a cliché of American celebrity culture, she became more isolated and vulnerable as she became more famous. Divorce, alcoholism, and a gradual loss of self-confidence as a poet left Sexton with few resources to continue her struggle with mental illness. She died by carbon monoxide asphyxiation. In professional terms her career, though fairly short, had been remarkably distinguished. Among her many other honors, she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1965.
Sexton's verse is characterized by childlike rhyme schemes to suggest regressive states, resourceful use of simile and metaphor, and a reliance on lists, anaphora (the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of lines), and parallel constructions. Her early poetry is formally constrained; her later work typically is in free verse (see prosody and free verse). The first stanza of the much-anthologized "You, Doctor Martin" (1960) shows her facility with compressed, associative metaphor and her indebtedness to other poets, in this case, T. S. eliot and Lowell: "You, Doctor Martin, walk / from breakfast to madness," she writes, the image fusing the impatient swiftness of his march through the underground tunnel of the hospital with the manic swiftness of her own thought processes. Her vision of the hospital as an underworld of living dead patients "thrusting against / cure" pays homage to Eliot's the waste land while adroitly stepping over the line of good taste to a mad vulgarity.
Lowell, however, is the more important influence on her writing; it would not be entirely unfair to characterize Sexton as his disciple. The narrative line in To Bedlam and Part Way Back is clearly indebted to his depictions of hospitalization and recovery in Life Studies (1959), as it is to his discursive, colloquial line. Even the geography of her early work is derivative; railing at her "bachelor therapist / who sat on Boston's Marlborough Street" ("Flee on Your Donkey" ), she poaches on her teacher's Beacon Hill terrain. In some respects, however, her work differs importantly from that of Lowell. Her scathing humor and preference for shock over personal examination distinguish her work from the start. One can indulge in the wicked pleasure of her sarcastic characterization of her lover's wife—"She is the sum of yourself and your dream / Climb her like a monument step after step" ("For My Lover, Returning to His Wife" )—or one can withdraw from it, but the brilliance remains. Hers is the brash, wounded voice at the back of the confessional congregation, drawing attention to herself, her pain, and not, as Lowell did so famously, to political and social anguish concentrated in the personal. As critic David Perkins has noted, "Sexton's aim as a poet was to uncover painful, repressed emotions" (595), much in the mode of psychotherapy. This constant focus on the self had its strengths and its drawbacks. Her willingness to explore such highly intimate subject matter as masturbation, incest, menstruation, and child abuse made her something of a pioneer in marking out new subject matter. As a rule, however, Sexton stops short of personal reconciliation or insight: "In this place everyone talks to his own mouth" ("Flee on Your Donkey"), she writes. She refers to a mental hospital, but her despair was more general, haunted by a lapsed Catholic's sense of lost redemption.
Of all the confessional poets, including the Catholic convert (later lapsed as well) Lowell, Sexton comes closest to practicing confession in its primary sense of a public baring of one's faults. She was "born / doing reference work in sin, and born / confessing it" ("With Mercy for the Greedy" ), she writes, but in the absence of God or, just as important to her, a therapeutic authority she could fully believe and respect, her confessions became repetitive dead ends. Sexton
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was susceptible to criticism for self-indulgence and narcissism as a poet, but in this regard events were in her favor. Plath's suicide in 1963 and the publication soon after of her Ariel poems validated the subject matter of women's rage and self-destruction through the undeniable achievement of her expression. Sexton, a more glamorous public figure was left to explore this bleak terrain on her own. Her celebrity increased in the absence of her friend, as did feminist interest in the abject and self-destructive domestic lives of women.
Helen Vendler characterized Sexton's work as "cartoons, malicious and often off target" (301), yet praised the occasional inventiveness of her satire and phrasing. It is generally agreed that Sexton's control of her materials was uneven, and her rhetorical and technical resources narrowly defined. In her sensibility and technical repertoire she may be closer to BEAT poetry than to the rigorous intelligence of Plath, the poet with whom she is often associated. In any case, for the reading public, her celebrity as an attractive and publicly self-destructive artist has outweighed the negative assessments of her work, and she remains widely read and consistently anthologized. She was daring, humorous, and brutally honest. Her politically informed and highly personal awareness of the body has grown only more pertinent with the passage of time. Sexton's poetry, like the best popular fiction, reads with swiftness, invention, and sensuality. Hers is an adult and courageous body of work, all the more liberating for its flaws.
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