The Excitable Gift: The Poetry of Anne Sexton, by Suzanne Juhasz
Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition, New York: Octagon Books, 1976: 117-143.

Reviewed by Nicole Lake

Suzanne Juhaszs book Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry By Women, A New Tradition was published in 1976 during the second wave of the feminist movement, as part of a larger effort to define the burgeoning body of literature by women. Although she begins the book with studies of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore as foremothers of womens poetry, Juhasz deals primarily with very contemporary material, and as the title implies, her project is essentially to map recent developments in what she sees as an emerging tradition, and to describe the ways in which womens poetry has departed from the masculine conventions that have come to define the scope and criteria of the genre as a whole. Her chapter on Anne Sexton, then, does not aim at a comprehensive analysis of a single poets work, but rather, by following the trajectory of her poetic career and illuminating her transformative use of specific formal techniques, Juhasz outlines Sextons solution to the problem of writing female experience into a masculine literary tradition.
Perhaps Juhaszs greatest contribution to a reading of Sextons work is her lucid articulation of the relationship between the poets mental illness and her writing. While many other contemporary (and predominantly male) critics viewed Sexton as a hysterical woman who wrote improper poems about mental institutions and sexual experience merely to bare and shock and confess, Juhasz acknowledges her mental illness without using it to discredit her work. Indeed, she recognizes that Sextons confessionalism grew out of the therapy situation, but that the therapy was occasioned by her womanhood itself, by the very real strains and conflicts that Sexton experienced while attempting to exist in her world as a woman (Juhasz, 118). Such an approach offers a very useful way into the poems themselves, for the overwhelming majority take womens experience as their subject matter. The chapter does not stop to offer the reader an adequate appreciation of the wide range of issues that her work explores, but Sextons topics include material realities that structure womens experience, such as the performance of housework and the institution of marriage; the physical phenomena of life in a female body, including menstruation, pregnancy, abortion, and sex; and the many and simultaneous social and interpersonal roles that women play wife, mother, daughter, housekeeper, angel, witch, and perhaps most radical of all, poet. Understanding her problematic relationship to gender as a cause and not a symptom of mental illness forces the reader to look beyond the surface of the poems to their transgressive claims for female agency and literary power. Furthermore, as we learn in the prefatory remarks, this chapter was written before Anne Sextons suicide in October of 1974. Yet instead of allowing Sextons death to minimize her poetic accomplishments, Juhasz asserts that [f]or the years in which she wrote, she held death at bay (Juhasz, 117), engaging in poetry as a life-preserving activity.
Having established Sextons authority as a speaker of female experience, Juhasz goes on to outline the trajectory of her career. She characterizes the early poetry as Sextons essentially psychoanalytic effort to understand her mental illness and establish her identity in terms of personal relationships (Juhasz, 120). Her creative use of conventional poetic technique plays an important role in this process, for as Sexton explores the roles that others have played in her life, she relies heavily on the power of naming itself to define and to exorcise the roots of her illness (Juhasz, 119). She often overloads her lines with figurative language describing loved ones and relationships, as if to pinpoint the exact nature of their effects on her own psyche; Juhasz calls these formulations epithet-metaphors (Juhasz, 119), and in coining a new composite term she correctly emphasizes the particularity of the metaphoric function in Sexton's work. The most powerful example offered in the chapter is the following passage from The Division of Parts, when Sexton calls her mother:
old love, old circus knitting, god-in-her-moon, all fairest in my lang syne verse, the gauzy bride among the children, the fancy amid the absurd and awkward, that horn for hounds, that museum keeper of stiff starfish. (4, ll.20-27)
Another example from our anthology is the moment in All My Pretty Ones when the poet designates her father, my drunkard, my navigator,/ my first lost keeper (ll.39-40). In these early poems, Sexton spends a lot of time detailing the harm done by her own attempts to embody traditional feminine gender roles as a mother, and her own mothers disappointment in her failure to do so (Juhasz, 120). Yet if femininity posed grave problems for Sexton, Juhasz argues that it also formed the basis of the poetic strategies that moved towards its solution (Juhasz, 124). At the end of her collection Live or Die, the poet chooses life when she wakes up to find that Today life opened inside me like an egg/ and there inside/ after considerable digging/ I found the answer (Live, ll.45-48). Juhasz reads these lines as a location of meaning within womanhood itself, the recognition that [l]ife comes from inside herself spiritually as well as physically (Juhasz, 125). With her next book, Transformations, Sexton starts to re-examine cultural stories about womens lives through her re-telling of Grimms fairy tales, working through the possible roles that currently exist for women and beginning to imagine other options. For Juhasz, this collection represents a move forward, an exten[sion of Sextons] original themes that coincides with a shift toward an archetypal rather than a purely personal emphasis (Juhasz, 127); yet she is quick to point out that Sextons injection of a narrator, a middle- aged witch, me into her tales maintains the ethos of connection established in her earlier work. By the publication of The Book of Folly and The Death Notebooks in 1972 and 1974 respectively, Juhasz claims that Sextons poetry is no longer confessional, explicating the past, but rather creates its own myths. She points to a change in the use of figurative language as epithet-metaphors give way to a more visionary aesthetic in which the comparisons become more direct, more literal (135). Indeed, Juhasz offers a wonderful reading of The Death Baby, a poem in which Sextons earlier guilt over failing her own daughters with their jelly bean cheeks (The Double Image, and cited in Juhasz, 119) gives way to a preoccupation with a symbolic ice blue baby that represents her own death. Juhasz associates this visionary state with greater power on the part of the poet and celebrates her development from a de-constructor of social images into a creator of alternatives.
While I appreciate the subtle close readings and the intelligent sympathy that Juhasz brings to her study of Anne Sextons poetry, I find her overarching account of Sextons work unsatisfactory in several ways. Throughout her essay, Juhasz sets up an opposition between the use of abstract generalizations from the particular to the universal, a poetic strategy she labels as masculine, and an insistence upon the specificity of personal experiences, which characterizes the emerging tradition of womens poetry (Juhasz, 140). Although she argues that Sextons work matters in part because of its honesty, its willingness to reveal private details in a public medium and thus speak previously unarticulated female experiences, she eventually writes that Sextons later work goes beyond confessionalism to a more visionary state, a move which Juhasz valorizes as a step toward power (Juhasz, 133). While she commends the poets continuing commitment to particularity and womanhood in poems such as Mother and Daughter, Juhasz nevertheless seems to rely on a masculine model of poetic maturity even as she explicitly rejects it. By associating confessionalism with an early stage of poetic development and proclaiming Sextons growing strength as woman and writer when she steps beyond the more idiosyncratic details of her life to a more archetypal, widely applicable set of images, Juhasz undermines her own assertion of the radical importance of Sextons use of the personal, and the personal- is-political doctrine of the feminist moment in which both poet and critic write.
Furthermore, Juhasz suggests that Sextons attempts to define an identity through analysis of relationships with others is a typically feminine gesture, and although she clearly acknowledges that such a tendency represents a social rather than a biologically- based gender phenomenon (Juhasz, 140), her emphasis on Sextons womanhood entirely ignores the poets own ambivalence to her gender identity. Sexton did not uncritically accept her femininity while arguing for a more equal participation in literature and society, as did many other poets and as Juhaszs essay might casually suggest. Rather, her own suffering from the practical and psychic demands of feminine roles led her to question the very notion of gender difference itself. In poems such as Consorting With Angels, she expresses the desire for a world without gender, a world in which each one [is] like a poem obeying itself (l.21) instead of preconceived notions of appropriate behavior, and she can los[e her] common gender (l.28) to become not a woman anymore,/ not one thing or the other (11;34-35). Although Juhasz is correct in claiming that Sexton insisted upon rooting her role as poet in her experiences as a woman, I think a more nuanced reading must consider Sextons poetry and her life as complementary performances of the pain as well as the values that defined her. Of course, it would be completely impoverishing to read Sexton as a genderless person rather than as a woman, since gender formed so large a part of her own experience; but her insistence on connection to her children and her continuous decision to write as a mother should not be read as an affirmation or mystification of womanhood, but as an expression of the ethics of love, forgiveness, and particularity the very particularity that lies behind Sextons wish to dismiss gender constructions altogether.
Finally, throughout her essay, Juhasz stresses the power of Sextons language, both for readers and for the poet herself. Over and over again she insists on its magical abilities (Juhasz, 138) and on its power to enact Sextons desires (Juhasz, 129), but she never quite takes this point far enough. While she connects Sextons poetic process to her growing insight, and the expression of that insight to making connections with readers (Juhasz, 125), she never quite articulates the stunning performative work accomplished by the poems themselves. For example, The Addict, a poem that describes a patients dependence on and desire for sleeping pills, ends with the speaker swallowing them:
What a lay me down this is with two pink, two orange, two green, two white goodnights. Fee-fi-fo-fum Now Im borrowed. Now Im numb.
The speaker uses the deictic this to emphasize that the events to be recounted are occurring in the present moment, in the space of time during which we read the poem. The linguistic enumeration of the pills counts them out before our eyes, making them a material presence in the poem rather than just abstract objects of desire. By including the magic formula fee-fi-fo-fum from Jack and the Beanstalk, the poet reminds us of the absolute power inherent in language itself to accomplish real effects in its environment. After the spell has been recited, the speaker actually is borrowed and numb now, as the poem ends, as a result of the reading-through of the poem that performs the necessary conditions. I would argue that an appropriate emphasis on the sheer performative power of Sextons verse is necessary if we are to understand why poetry was able to keep her from death so long, as Juhasz suggests (Juhasz, 117). If her tender words and her recreation of the act of mothering in poems such as Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman and Praying to Big Jack can be seen as having real effects in the real world of the reader, then poetry can make up for her guilt at being unable to adequately perform her assigned gender roles. It can even allow her to escape them. At least for a little while.
In sum, while Juhasz provides some extremely important concepts for understanding Sexton as a woman and a poet, more work is required to push those concepts further to fully realize the extraordinary power and scope of Anne Sexton, and her importance to the potential of American poetry as a whole, both in her time and ours.
The quote is by John Holmes, a poetry teacher and friend of Anne Sexton, and is cited in Diane Wood Middlebrook's excellent biography of the poet, Anne Sexton: A Biography, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1991.