Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson on: "The Achievement of Anne Sexton"

At the heart of Anne Sexton's poetry is a search for identity, and her well-known infatuation with death--the cause of her rather notorious fame, and the apparent reason her work is often dismissed as beneath serious consideration--has little to do with this search; in her best work, in fact, it is most often an annoying irrelevancy, however potent it seems in its occasional command of the poet's psyche.

From "The Achievement of Anne Sexton" The Hollins Critic (1984)

Greg Johnson on: "The Truth the Dead Know"

In that strange, bitter elegy, "The Truth the Dead Know," Sexton seems to eschew the common rituals of mourning: "Gone, I say and walk from church, / refusing the stiff procession to the grave"; she prefers, instead to "cultivate myself" and to avoid such a powerful intimation of mortality as the death of both parents within a few months. The poem ends, however, by emphasizing not her own refusals but those of the dead, and into her voice creeps something like envy. . . .

From "The Achievement of Anne Sexton." The Hollins Critics (1984)

Greg Johnson on: "Her Kind"

Does Sexton imagine any way out of this impasse, any way to escape the debilitating terrors of a consciousness plagued by a conviction of its own evil? One possibility is to replace self-loathing with an open acceptance of evil—even admitting the likelihood that she is "not a woman. " What is remarkable, however, is not this admission itself but the lively, almost gleeful tone in which it is uttered:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,  haunting the black air, braver at night;  dreaming of 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.

"A woman like that is misunderstood," Sexton adds wryly, but the poem is a serious attempt to understand such a woman--her sense of estrangement, her impulse toward death--by internalizing evil and giving it a voice: a chortling, self-satisfied, altogether amiable voice which suggests that "evil" is perhaps the wrong word after all. Sexton's witch, waving her "nude arms at villages going by," becomes something of value to the community, performing the function Kurt Vonnegut has called the "domestication of terror." Unlike Plath's madwoman in "Lady Lazarus"--a woman at the service of a private, unyielding anger, a red-haired demon whose revenge is to "eat men like air"--Sexton's witch is essentially harmless. Although she remains vulnerable--"A woman like that is not afraid to die"--she rejects anger in favor of humor, flamboyance, self-mockery. She is a kind of perverse entertainer, and if she seems cast in the role of a martyr, embracing madness in order to domesticate it for the rest of the community--making it seem less threatening, perhaps even enjoyable--it is nevertheless a martyrdom which this aspect of Sexton accepts with a peculiar zest.

From "The Achievement of Anne Sexton." The Hollins Critic (1984)