Alicia Suskin Ostriker on: "Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience"

To penetrate the invisible veil between us all was Anne Sexton's literary calling, much as the justification of God's ways to men was Milton's, the articulation of the true voice of feeling was Keats's, or the recovery of the tale of the tribe was Pound's. The poetic program Sexton announced in her first volume of poems continued to be hers throughout her career. She had committed herself to an erotic view of art and life and remained committed to it. Having grown up in a family and society that resisted reading her and each other, among "people who seldom touched-- / though touch is all" ("Rowing," CP, 417), she places the issue of human intimacy at the center of her writing, both thematically and as the source of poetic language itself.

[. . . .]

When she began taking classes in poetry and meeting poets, Sexton discovered another group who spoke "language." "I found I belonged to the poets, that I was real there." As Diane Middlebrook remarks, what Sexton means by "language" is something compressed, elliptical, metaphoric. "Schizophrenics use language this way, and so do poets: 'figurative language' is the term Sexton might have used here, except she meant to indicate that the crucible of formation was urgent need." Clearly, too, "language" in Sexton's account is what people speak when they are free of the censor's invisible veil of ordinary intercourse; "language" is intimacy, authenticity, love in a loveless world; it is what the inner self uses to communicate with other inner selves.

[. . . .]

That opening the self to intimacy means leaving oneself open to pain and guilt continues to be a deep assumption in Sexton's late work as in her early. The same poem that advises stripping ourselves for God also describes us as earthworms underground, who, were Christ to come in the form of a plow, "would be blinded by the sudden light / and writhe in our distress. / As I write these lines," she adds, "I too writhe."

[. . . .]

From the beginning Sexton saw readers and audiences as potential intimates, and consequently potential sources of pain, much as she sees the other beings who populate her poems. Indeed the condition of her poetry is the presence of an audience, whom she needs to need her; Sexton's vocation as a poet was determined to an extraordinary degree by an assumption of and dependence on readerly empathy.

We may easily find Sexton's addiction to love, her insistence on need, infantile and repellent. She clearly finds it repellent herself, thereby somewhat outflanking us. What must mitigate our judgment is the recognition that we, too, are such addicts, were truth told. Imagine the veil lifted, "language" spoken. Hence the centrality of a strategy of seduction.

The single most crucial device whereby Sexton pursues a seductive poetics is her use of "you," a pronoun she employs, I would not be surprised to learn, more than any other poet in English. Over and over the poems address a "you" who may be mother, father, daughter, husband, lover, friend, psychoanalyst, or God, and who is always also the reader. More powerfully than any other poet in English (only D. H. Lawrence comes close) she renders the complexity of intimate relationships--the way they involve the desire to merge with the other and the desire to resist merger; the way the other can be seen both as antagonist and as lover-beloved; the way joy, sympathy, affection, admiration, resentment, fear, anger, and guilt may (must?) coexist at any moment in a relationship of sufficient nearness and dearness. When we include the inevitable actuality of the readerly "you" within the dynamic of these poems, their potential meaning increases several fold, for the reader may at any moment be identifying/resisting identification with both the "I" and the "you" of the poet's text. Further, those Sexton poems that deal most self-referentially with language gestures of various kinds are often, precisely, addresses to "you" that, in effect, invite "you" to reconsider the meaning of language, of poetry.

From "Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience" in Sexton: Selected Criticism. Ed. Diana Hume George. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.


Title Alicia Suskin Ostriker on: "Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience" Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Alicia Suskin Ostriker Criticism Target Anne Sexton
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Mar 2016
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Sexton: Selected Criticism
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