December 17, 2017

Anne Sexton, "Her Kind," Suicide

On this day in 1960, "confessional" American poet Anne Sexton published her first book of poems, To Bedlam and Part Way Back. One of the poems in the Bedlam collection was "Her Kind," a poem which eventually became something of a signature piece. She would usually begin her readings with it, and when those readings became poetry-musical performances accompanied by a chamber rock group, she was billed as "Anne Sexton and Her Kind":
    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.

    I have found the warm caves in the woods,
    filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
    closets, silks, innumerable goods;
    fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
    whining, rearranging the disaligned.
    A woman like that is misunderstood.
    I have been her kind.

    I have ridden in your cart, driver,
    waved my nude arms at villages going by,
    learning the last bright routes, survivor
    where your flames still bite my thigh
    and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
    A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
    I have been her kind.
Sexton began to write poetry in 1957 after watching a half-hour show on educational television entitled "How to Write a Sonnet." Her first encouragements came from her psychiatrist -- Sexton had just made another of her many suicide attempts -- and from Robert Lowell, who taught both her and Sylvia Plath in his Boston University poetry workshop. Sexton and Plath would often discuss the ideal suicide -- when Plath took her life in 1963 Sexton complained to her psychiatrist, "That death was mine!" -- and her "Wanting to Die," from the 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Live or Die, is among many which attempt to puzzle out the obsession:
    But suicides have a special language.
    Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
    They never ask why build....
The impulse to suicide would lead to death by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1974, on her forty-sixth birthday. Sexton's other compulsions -- alcohol, cigarettes, pills, and men -- made life for her and her family a harrowing experience, if her daughter's memoir (Searching For Mercy Street, Linda Grey Sexton, 1994) is any measure. Still, they could cause a laugh: Sexton once discovered that her purse was so heavy because it contained 55 Bic lighters.

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