Last month, the New York Public Library hosted this roundtable discussion featuring contributors to This Business of Words: Reassessing Anne Sexton and moderated by editor Amanda Golden. One of America’s most influential women writers, Anne Sexton has long been overshadowed by fellow confessional poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell and is seldom featured in literary criticism. This Business of Words reassesses Sexton and her poetry for the first time in two decades and offers directions for future Sexton scholarship. Contributors reveal Sexton’s efforts to build a successful career without a university education, consider her relationships with peers and various media, and interpret her strategies for teaching, critiquing poems, and delivering readings.
In the following excerpt, contributor Christopher Grobe discusses Anne Sexton’s readings:
Though Sexton was famed for her readings, they were rarely understood as performance (in the way that, say, Allen Ginsberg’s were). Fans and friends may have praised her as “a splendid actress,” but they were usually careful to assure her that this “acting” was extraneous to her work as poet—let alone her identity. “You in your role of lovely and exciting actress-persona were the perfect complement to Miss Sexton, the poet,” wrote one fan, cutting “Miss Sexton” neatly in two. Suppose they had praised her performance as something integral to her poems; unless they phrased it just right, Sexton would only have shuddered in response. “I have a certain guilt about the ham in me,” Sexton confessed to the woman who called her “a splendid actress”—though it might help to know that the woman in question was one of her former therapists. Even when such compliments weren’t coming from Freudians, though, Sexton occasionally treated them as accusations of fakery. “I don’t think I’m a fraud onstage,” she protested in one letter to a fan, “but the theatricality does creep in, not to entertain but to emphasize.” Amid the fog of such anti-theatrical terror, who could see—who would waste any time to describe—her performance?
Back then, though, as Sexton would surely have known, the loudest preachers of such “anti-theatricalism” were, in fact, the theater-makers themselves. With ample encouragement from TDR—the theater journal that, remember, Sexton was reading—they were practicing the Method, staging environmental theater, orchestrating happenings, and making performance art. No more imitation; we want action; we want life!—no more fakery; we want something real onstage! (This must have sounded awfully agreeable to Sexton: her copy of Stanislavsky on the Art of the Stage is emphatically dog-eared where it tells of Stanislavsky’s hatred for “arts of imitation” and his advocacy for the “art of direct experience” .) And though her friends and fans didn’t quite have the language to say it, they placed Sexton’s readings in this tradition. She gave audiences, they said, an “experience” at a reading, unlike “so many ‘performances’” did. She was an “actress,” sure, but one who “live[d her] poems”—a Method actor of the self. Sexton—who was troubled, not jazzed by the thought that her poems were fictions; her readings, masquerades—must have thrilled at such sensitive praise. After all, she spoke often of “the strain of being what [she] wrote” at poetry readings, and all she wanted from her audience (as she confessed to a therapist) was to know that she had succeeded: “I wish sometime you’d come see me read and figure out if that’s me,” she once begged Dr. Orne. (Her red-faced reaction to Dr. Brunner—Orne’s mother—should make a little more sense in this context: Sexton wanted a therapist’s okay, but “splendid actress” was precisely the wrong compliment.)
Sexton’s readings deserve to be remembered as performance, at least in this more-than-theatrical sense, and (assured of this caveat) Sexton herself would have argued the point. “For me poems are verbal happenings,” she once said—meaning, I guess, that they are events in themselves, even on the page. Poetry readings, in turn, were “a reliving of the experience, that is, they are happening all over again”. So, if what’s “happening” in performance is what’s “happening” in the poem—and if it’s hard to tell the difference between these and what’s happening in real life—well, this, for Sexton, was a mark of her performative success. “I . . . become the private poet who wrote the poem,” she once said, describing her favorite moment at a reading. And “the private poet who wrote” was, in turn, always teetering on the brink of real life, real emotion. “Emotion recollected in tranquility is nonsense,” she once scrawled, “I write in a frenzy of recreated experience”. Combine this frenzied vision of writing with the idea that, in performance, she becomes the “poet who wrote the poem,” and Sexton’s readings must have seemed doubly saturated with “experience” in all its vitality—its volatility.
If we are looking for new evidence of poetry performed, I can hardly think of a better place to start than with Anne Sexton: not only because of her successful performance career but also because of her unusual faith in the archive. She had a feel for old paper; in her poems, she is always rifling through the remains of her family history. It was her passion to hoard such scraps and “breathe [them] back.” This passion would guide not only her choice of subject matter but also her attitude toward finished poems. When Sweet Briar College, for instance, asked Sexton to discuss her poetry with their students, she didn’t prepare a lecture or suggest a Q-and-A; instead, she stood there and read verbatim from the worksheets and drafts of one poem (then another), complete with cross-outs, false starts, loose ends, and a line-by-line narration of what she was up to. No wonder that Sexton was so relentless a historian of herself, so indiscriminate an archivist. She saw the past as something restorable from its paper trail, and so she kept in triplicate what other poets might have trashed. Her papers, as a result, exceed the limits of prejudice: including the one against poetry readings.
There is so much in Sexton’s papers to spark a performance historian’s imagination. Many books and typescripts of her poems are annotated for performance; she carefully preserved and arranged hundreds of the letters and contracts in which she conducted the business of her career on the circuit et cetera. But because poetry readings were, at the time, such unserious objects of attention, I always knew I’d find the best material in the least reputable wing of Sexton’s papers: her fan mail, a dozen fat folders quarantined from the rest of her correspondence. Poring through this mail, I found plenty of what I expected: breathless accounts of her readings, sensitive descriptions of her manner, detailed reports on audience response. But I also found a new genre of document I never imagined might exist: poems by Sexton’s fans about the experience of seeing her read. (I came to call them “reading poems”.) How all of them hit upon the same idea we will never know, but, unaware of each other, these writers gravitated toward the same habits, feelings, and forms. In the process, they captured something hard to see and harder still to preserve: the precise quality of Sexton’s presence, the social and emotional charge these readings held, and the way this charge electrified the minimal affordances of the reading.
To find out more about Anne Sexton, listen to the New York Public Library Scholar Roundtable discussion, moderated by This Business of Words editor Amanda Golden.