Pivotal Transformations: The Changing Voice in Anne Sexton's Poetry

Publication Year:
2003
Usage 407
Downloads 396
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Repository URL:
https://digitalcommons.longwood.edu/etd/119
Author(s):
Plate, Lara L.
Tags:
Anne Sexton (criticism and interpretation); Literature in English, North America
thesis / dissertation description
Critics such as Ralph Mills, Suzanne Juhasz, and Jane McCabe have generally focused on the confessional or feminist aspects of Anne Sexton's poetry, most especially in To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), All My Pretty Ones (1962), Live or Die (1966), and Love Poems (1969). Those who have examined Transformations (1971)-and its fairy-tale world-have also paid particular attention either to its feminist approach or its confessional connections. These critics suggest that Sexton exists in her poetry as a confessional poet striving to move beyond parental restrictions and childhood experiences or they reveal Sexton as either "Madonna or Witch." These and other critics, however, fail to discern that Sexton existed as both a confessional and a feminist poet throughout her career because she did not abandon either poetic root; she merely displayed a change in her poetic voice. Consequently, Transformations exists as a pivotal marker between the dissatisfied life that fed her 1960s confessional career and her post-transformation, angry and God-seeking stage wherein she attempted to take control and to accept life as mortal and imperfect. The poetry within Transformations pinpoints the shift of her poetic voice where Sexton no longer exists as a young victim of outside forces but as a sage witch-woman advising the upcoming generations. This experienced voice absorbs life's wisdom and final1y understands it. Thereby she attempts to transfer this knowledge to the naive and youthful through her protective, cautionary voice manifested in the collection of seemingly unthreatening fairy tales.In this study Sexton's voice is divided into three major stages. Chapter One details the emergence of her poetic voice in both To Bedlam and Part Way Back and All My Pretty Ones. Here, this voice is dependent because it remains "other-defined," vacillating between madness and loss. Similarly, Chapter Two describes Sexton as having made some steps in her poetic development, but again she fluctuates, this time between melancholy and passion, her voice and work remaining parochial and stunted. Both chapters analyze how Sexton's voice reflects her themes as well as gender and societal roles.Chapter Three, conversely, not only examines the expansion of Sexton's voice in Transforniations and its influence on themes, gender and societal roles but also explains the pivotal role it played in Sexton's poetic development. In Sexton's first four collections she utilizes a voice determined by biographical and social circumstances and incapable of self-definition; here in the fifth collection, however, she does not exist as powerless and malleable but as authoritative and steadfast. Transformations, moreover, anticipates and predetermines the new characteristics of her subsequent collections.Chapter Four discusses The Book of Folly (1972), The Death Notebooks (1974), and The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975), volumes which inevitably provide an unapologetic, accusatory voice, criticizing her therapist, her father, and her self-all this while Sexton finds herself again alone, once more courting and, finally, embracing death. This concluding section reveals a post-transformational voice with its themes and roles. The Epilogue specifies areas to be critically explored in order to understand more fully the development of Sexton's poetic voice.