Re-reading with Anne Sexton

The Centre recently hosted an extraordinary and unique event: an opportunity to hear the tapes of Anne Sexton’s last public reading, hosted at Goucher College four days before her seat in 1974. Thirty years later, these tapes were rediscovered, entirely degraded, and careful work has been done to transfer them to digital format.

This event was organised and led by Victoria Van Hyning, herself a graduate of Goucher College and now a post-doctoral fellow at Oxford. Van Hyning began the evening by introducing Sexton’s life and work. Sexton began writing poetry as a response to mental illness, probably postpartum depression, which led her to be institutionalised as a young wife and mother. Her therapist encouraged her to write as a way of understanding and coping with her situation, and she quickly become part of the literary scene in Boston in the late 1950s, first studying under John Holmes, and then Robert Lowell, where she became friends with Sylvia Plath. Her poetry is first person confessional and autobiographical, covering themes such as sex, love and anguish, and appealed to many while also appalling some. Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and was well known as a performer and entertainer as well as a poet, drawing inspiration from Dylan and Joplin. However, she could be ambivalent about performance and gave them up intermittently, alarmed at the ‘freak show’ aspect of public readings and arguing that she wanted to be a priest or prophet as much as a performer.

While it is easy to focus on the darkness and suicidal imagery of some of her poetry, Van Hyning cautioned against hearing the tapes as an intentional last reading, drawing attention to the human and sensuality in her poems. In the seven months before her death, Sexton had made two other suicide attempts, but had also undertaken twelve public readings, and there is nothing in the material to indicate Sexton never intended to perform again.

The reading began with Sexton quoting from JFK’s planned speech for his 1963 visit to Dallas: a speech which was never delivered because of his assassination. This was followed immediately by Her Kind with which Sexton always began her readings. Other poems chosen for this evening include The Little Peasant, Making a Living, and The Touch. This certainly was a performance, with Sexton commenting at one point ‘I’ve got to get my kicks too,’ smoking, and relishing the pronunciation of the repeated word ‘dingo-sweet’. Commenting on The Death Notebooks, Sexton alluded to Hemingway’s posthumous publications and suggesting that she had expected hers to be posthumous too; a bleak remark tempered by the aside that her dog had eaten the manuscript.

Van Hyning had assembled an impressive panel of speakers to respond to the readings. Jo Gill, a professor at Exeter, commented on the differences between Sexton’s formal recordings in the studio, and the theatricality of this event. Gill suggested that Sexton walked a narrow line between control and collapse. Erica McAlpine, from Keble College, commented that the performance was very stagey, making the work itself less intimate, but that Sexton’s approach to her readings invited new understandings and connotations of particular words and phrases. Leo Mercer, from Kellogg College, noted the differences between the spoken word and the word on the page, raising the broad question of which of these poetry ‘is’. He later reflected that when studying poetry, we are taught how to read and to analyse, but not how to listen: when perhaps the poet intended the poem to be heard.

McAlpine stated that she felt ‘annoyed’ with Sexton and Gill noted that Sexton’s friend Maxine Kumin also felt that Sexton ‘hammed it up’ too much in performance. Kumin was horrified by the person Sexton seemed to become on stage. Sexton’s ambivalence about performance was contrasted with Elizabeth Bishop’s reticence and refusal to participate in the circus of public readings. Sexton’s ambivalence about her position in the poetry world was also discussed: on the one hand, she wanted to be part of the scholarly world, with references to her editor and manuscript, and college performances; on the other hand, Sexton saw herself as part of a countercultural movement, and engaged in spectacle, particularly with her band.

There was some discussion of the sexuality of the event, again contrasting with Elizabeth Bishop, and whether this was a form of empowerment and self-assertion, a way of competing with other poets who were perhaps more intellectual and academic. This discussion was complicated by the fact that Gaucher College was then all-female and the audience would likely have been dominated by women.

Sexton’s biography recounts that she returned ‘triumphantly’ from this event, ‘regaling’ her students with tales of her success. Though metaphors of and allusions to death ran throughout Sexton’s readings, the reading did appear to end on a hopeful poem, and Sexton certainly did seem a vivid and vibrant presence, very much alive. As she herself commented, ‘I thought these poems woud be posthumous, but here I am.’

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