Anne Sexton’s Complete Poems – Andy knows dross when he sees it…

August 16, 2012

… (and this ain’t it.)

(In case you were worried.)

I can’t remember which island it was. Samos, I suspect, although it might’ve been Lipsi.  Ikaria even. Anyway, I was reading the Complete Poems of Anne Sexton while island-hopping in Greece and I came across the words “the last cargo of boys”, in an early poem called Water. And I immediately thought Wow, that is totally the best name for a book, a collection of short stories maybe, that is a totally awesome name for a book.

And seven weeks later the only idea I can come up with, still, is gay steampunk pirate porn.


“Time will sort out the dross among these poems and burnish the gold.” Thus says Maxine Kumin, a poet I’ve never heard of though a very close friend of Sexton’s, in the foreword to this volume. Having read, in the not too distant past, the “selected” poems of Allen Ginsberg, and having spent a few weeks with Sexton in the Greek islands (did I mention I’ve been to Greece?) I know who needs to trim the dross. Sadly he’s not around to do it.

Even more sadly – tragically, in fact – Sexton hasn’t been around for a hell of a lot longer. After a long battle with mental illness Sexton killed herself in 1974. She left a handful of published collections and a large amount of unpublished work, most (thought not all – so that “complete” in the title is actually a wee fib) of which is included here. Anne’s literary executor, daughter Linda Gray Sexton, chose to omit certain poems from the posthumous collections for personal reasons. Given the intensely personal nature of what Sexton published herself during her life, this seems a little odd. Nevermind. It’s sad that, unlike Ginsberg, Sexton didn’t get a chance to decide what her best work was. As collections of poetry to be treasured and revisited, Sexont’s “complete” trounces Ginsberg’s “selected” by a country mile. It’s not a competition but still, having read both within weeks of one another you make the comparison. Or at least I did. Ironically, Ginsberg gets a guernsey in Kumin’s foreword. Ironically also, the ludicrously sexy James Franco plays Ginsberg in the movie Howl, which includes swaths (not sure if all of it’s there) of the poem, incorporating recreated interviews with Ginsberg and the obscenity trial that resulted from Howl’s publication. Awesome film, average poem, and I’m slightly disturbed by the fact that Franco manages to make Ginsberg hot. That’s just wrong. Also did I mention James Franco’s in the next Big Issue fiction edition? With me? And a bunch of other people?

Ahem. Anyway. Back to Sexton.

I’m not going to pretend I thought all of this was unbelievably awesome, But a lot of it was, and most of it was very good, and almost none of it, that I can remember, was dross. The Transformations poems – reimagined fairytales that flirt and mock the sexism of the original stories rather than condemning it outright – where immediate standouts for me. The “religious” poetry of her later life also resonated, although it’s strange to think that she was – apparently – a believer of some sort (“My faith/is a great weight/hung on a small wire”) at the time that she wrote much of this. There’s a lot of brutal mockery in these poems, an acknowledgment of the many absurdities of religious belief (baby Jesus to mother Mary: “I’m a jellybaby and you’re my wife”). Some of it’s even unintentional – when Anne wrote a poem called The God Monger she used the word “monger” as it’s used in “fishmonger” – so the God Monger is the seller of God. These days a God monger is something rather different.

Sexton’s subjects are legion – her childhood and her parents, her mother in particular although her alcoholic father as well. She believed her parents didn’t want her. The collection opens with a poem about mental illness (“You, Doctor Martin, walk/from breakfast to madness” would have to be one of the great opening lines of any book, ever) but her state of mind does not dominate the poem’s subject matter, although no doubt it dominated the context in which they were created. There’s a lot about her family life, her daughters, her husband and the failure of her marriage, affairs, plenty of sex, menstruation, abortion… And religion, of course. But also a lot of humour. Dark humour, to be sure, but humour nonetheless. I’m reasonably certain I laughed out loud on a least one Greek ferry. (Did I mention….? Oh, yeah, I did.)

It’s a pity it’s so long since I finished this. I wanted to do her so much more justic because she deserves it. I lost count of the number of phrases that jumped out at me as ludicrously awesome and I kept meaning to write them down and of course I didn’t. The only one I remember is “the last cargo of boys” and the only reason I remember that is because I want to use it as the title of  a gay porn novel. I don’t remember a single phrase of Ginsberg jumping out at me. Make of that what you will. Anyhoo. This is a collection of poetry that will almost certainly fall to pieces before its time, and that has to be a good thing.

Dross, Ms Kumin? No. You sold your friend short. Although you probably knew that at the time.


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