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Anne Sexton: Patient or Poet?

One of the coolest parts of being in the arts is that they are more open to people with psychiatric disabilities than other professions. While admitting experience with psychiatric treatment could kill the career of a young politician or engineer as a writer if you can write about it well then it's an asset.

One example of this dichotomy is the different attitudes towards Anne Sexton from the psychiatric and literary communities. First, Sexton won just about every major award a writer can win. She won a Pulitzer Prize, was nominated for a National Book Award, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the Ford Foundation.

Her poetry is phenomenal, although sometimes termed confessional. A few reviews did criticize her work as too personal and implied she placed unreasonable demands on her readers by being too "needy" or "emotional."

To me this criticism seems mild compared to such articles published in the Psychosomatic Medicine Journal as "Cognitive distortions in the poetry of Anne Sexton" that explore her work as pathology. This kind of dissection frightens me as a writer who writes primarily about mental illness.

The fact that Sexton did die of suicide seems to leave her at least partly in the province of psychologists. However, the part of her life that I choose to focus on is both the professionalism and rigor with which she approached her work. Furthermore, I think as writers it is much more profitable to focus on the accolades Sexton received from the literary community than the furor her work creates in the psychiatric one.

I'll leave you with links to a few of her poems: In Celebration of My Uterus, and Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward.

I'll be performing a piece from my memoir at Patrick's Cabaret in Minneapolis on November 20th and 21st, 2009 at 8pm. For more information about my writing, teaching or performance please visit my website.


Adelaide Dupont said...

Thank you for sharing Sexton the writer and the worker with us.

Maud said...

I love Sexton's work. And that "too personal" and "needy" stuff? In my experience that's code for "women don't create the sort of lofty work the menfolks do". I think one sees that less than one used to; at least I hope so.

Maud said...

I hit enter too soon :) There's no question that Sexton's mental illness informed her work. It's part of how she experienced the world; how could it not? But I think the kind of thing you describe i.e., treating the work itself as a function of pathology rather than as art, is a good illustration of the tendency of too many who study or treat mental illness to pathologize the person who has the illness, and to view them solely through that lens. That diminishes us, as persons, as well as that which we may create.

I'm glad to have discovered your blog through the Carnival of Disability.

Leaper said...

...."putting unreasonable demands on her readers"? What the fuck? It's not like people were/are FORCED to read it.

Alison Bergblom Johnson said...

Thanks Adelaide.

Maud, I completely agree. Viewing someone solely through the lens of say, heart disease, would simply never happen, so why does it happen with mental illnesses?

Leaper, how true.