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The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton (1981)

by Anne Sexton

Other authors: Maxine Kumin (Foreword), Linda Gray Sexton (Editor)

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2,000198,158 (4.31)19
From the joy and anguish of her own experience, Sexton fashioned poems that told truths about the inner lives of men and women. This book comprises Sexton's ten volumes of verse, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Live or Die, as well as seven poems form her last years.
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» See also 19 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Y’all. Poetry is just not for me. Do not use this review to determine the read-worthiness of this collection. ( )
  RochelleJones | Apr 5, 2024 |
I really wanted to replace this book with a selection of her poetry which I could get for free somehow, which I wouldn’t feel bad doing as I’ve paid before and anyway I suppose that the dead are in it for fame, right. But I guess it’s not something that I needed—along with everything else today, ha—so I don’t know. But I do remember how Anne made me feel, and I know how I feel about that now. She wasn’t Anne Bradstreet, which is where the critics were midcentury, and where as a body they still probably are now, even if they wear the masque of the practitioners of poetry today who probably think Anne is—well, I mean, she is dead. But she did live, and although Anne is both The Girl Herself, and you know, some psycho white girl, I do think that we all know what it’s like, even if generally we successfully try not to know, right.

I don’t know. “My uncontrolled thoughts are not to be feared.” (Esther Hicks). I never wanted to be Midcentury Marcellus, you know, but I didn’t get that when I actually read Anne, which is why I’d almost like to read her again, even though I can’t really afford the time & money investment of “school”-y books anymore, and don’t quite place the same value as I once did on that stage in the life cycle, right….

(sigh, rattling around in a disturbed way inside the robot) We live; we die; we’re happy; we get angry; we’re subtle; we’re emotional…. We’re not robots….

We’re ducks.
  goosecap | Aug 15, 2023 |
Anne Sexton had an extraordinary impact on me when I was first introduced to her poetry in my teenage years. Although she differs greatly from Emily Dickinson, the subject matter of death is one that transfixed them both, as well as me. Sexton may seem an odd next transition after Dickinson, but it SO worked for me. To this day, her poetry still hits me viscerally and I'm stunned by her intimacy. "Her Kind" is still my favorite poem of all. ( )
  Andy5185 | Jul 9, 2023 |
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review and I got so much more than I bargained for.

As an English major I read more than my fair share of poetry. Mostly by guys, really. Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Milton, Wordsworth, William Carlos Williams. They were all showing me the nature of God, or perhaps god in nature. Beauty is Truth and Truth is Beauty---Keats was telling me what he thought I needed to know. While beautiful, It was all rather Didactic, I felt, and to a large extent, left me cold.

I was not prepared for Anne Sexton. She scares the crap out of me. I read the reviews of other reviewers who were familiar with her work, who already had their own favorite poems or lines. I am the newby. It makes me wonder how in the world did I major in English at a major university and not read her poetry. Is it because I (and almost all of my teachers) are men? Seriously, how can any survey of modern poetry not include Sexton’s work? Especially for the young. If I would have read her in my late teens or early 20’s I would have continued to read and re-read her all my life, just as these other reviewers have. I envy them having read and re-read her work.

If you haven’t read her and are willing to open your mind (and especially your heart) you need to get this collection. Reading it is like reading an autobiography of a brilliant, tortured yet often joyful, self aware genius, and as I said earlier, I was not prepared for her. From the very beginning I felt my heart in my throat. Her poetry is so different from what I have read before. I found myself thinking of the sheer pain some of these poems must have caused in their creation. I have never felt such suffering combined with such beauty. Yet through it all was, like Keats would have said, a beauty and truth---and the beauty was IN the truth. Whether she was telling the stories of her ancestors crossing to the new world, eulogizing a lost loved one, either a beloved aunt or an aborted child, or painfully working her way back from Bedlam to sanity, there is truth in these poems. Truth that makes your hair stand on end as she performs an autopsy on her body and soul. Her poems are so devastatingly personal that I was uncomfortable. It was hard knowing that much, seeing that deeply into another’s suffering and most embarrassing thoughts, or her fears, or her anguish---she is the most honest writer I have ever read. Is there anything held back? I never felt that there was an author hiding behind a veil. Anne Sexton opens up herself to the reader and to read her poetry changes you, I think.

This book stays near at hand and should be read over and over again.
( )
  ChrisMcCaffrey | Apr 6, 2021 |
There was a period of my life where I was like, "OOH NO POETRY!", convinced I didn't like the stuff at all. Very slowly I emerged from this state of mind, and one of the poems that got me out of it was Anne Sexton's "The Truth the Dead Know," which I read in a 20th-century American literature survey class as an undergraduate. A semester later, when I had to read a poem aloud in an English education class, it was the one I picked, and my professor praised me for the feeling of my reading. It continues to be in my top five favorite poems, a great poem about grief and human isolation. So sometime around then I went out and bought a copy of Sexton's Complete Poems, but it wasn't until over ten years later that I finally read through the whole thing. Sexton's poetry is still top-notch (my habit when I read a book of poetry is to fold over the corner of pages of poems I particularly like, and there are dozens of such folds in my book now). It was interesting to see her transformation; without knowing much about her actual life, you can see a lot of youthful poems about romance and sex, which give way to ones that feel less overtly personal, religious poems and transformations of fairy tales, before circling back around to the personal again, but in a more retrospective way. I could probably write lots about this book, but to focus myself, I'll pick three of my favorites at random (excerpting from each), and then conclude with my second-favorite.

"The Gold Key" from Transformations (1971)

He turns the key.
Presto!
It opens this book of odd tales
which transform the Brothers Grimm.
Transform?
As if an enlarged paper clip
could be a piece of sculpture.
(And it could.)


Transformations is Sexton's book of fairy tale adaptations, and there's a lot to like in it: her takes on Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, "One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes," Hansel and Gretel, and Sleeping Beauty were all highlights for me. I was also really struck, though, by the last few lines of the book's opening poem, which sets up the book's whole project of twisting fairy tales. There's something really captivating in that final image of adaptation as taking a large paper clip and claiming it's a sculpture, which the poem simultaneously disparages ("As if") and affirms ("it could") the truth of.

"Rats Live on No Evil Star" from The Death Notebooks (1974)

Thus Eve gave birth.
In this unnatural act
she gave birth to a rat.
It slid from her like a pearl.
It was ugly, of course,
but Eve did not know that
and when it died before its time
she placed its tiny body
on that piece of kindergarten called STAR.


To be honest, I don't entirely know what to make of this one, which fuses Garden of Eden imagery with ideas inspired by a "palindrome seen on the side of a barn in Ireland." What is Sexton saying about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge here, about humanity, about human happiness? I'm not sure, but I'm on the edges of understanding, something about the ugliness of humanity and our need to overlook it (as in the poem below, I guess) if we're ever going to be happy. But who knows what kindergarten has got to do with it.

"After Auschwitz" from The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975)

Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say these things aloud.

I beg the Lord not to hear.


There's something about how the speaker confronts the enormity of the Holocaust in this poem that I found very striking. The Holocaust is, of course, indefensible. But Sexton finds the whole human race indefensible after the Holocaust, even in great actions like writing a book or in minor actions like putting on a shoe, and the poem ends (as I've excerpted) essentially without resolution. There is no and can be no defense of humankind, and so the most the speaker can do is ask God not pass judgment, for if He did we would all be found guilty.

"The Boat" from The Book of Folly (1972)

Suddenly
a wave that we go under.
Under. Under. Under.
We are daring the sea.
We have parted it.
We are scissors.
Here in the green room
the dead are very close.
Here in the pitiless green
where there are no keepsakes
or cathedrals an angel spoke:
You have no business.
No business here.
Give me a sign,
cries Father,
and the sky breaks over us.


This is from a cycle of six poems called "The Death of the Fathers," and it's about a speaker riding in her father's speedboat with her mother off the coast of Maine. On one level it's always resonated with me because around the time I first read it was when my own father was becoming obsessed with boating, and I can see something of his pride in the way the speaker describes her own father: "Father / (he calls himself / 'old sea dog'), / in his yachting cap..." My father would never wear a yachting cap or call himself a "sea dog," but the sentiment is similar, the idea that when you drive a boat you command the world.

But pride leads to humbling, and that's the bit I really like (even though this bears no resemblance to any of my boating experiences): the Go Too III plunges beneath the waves and enters another world entirely hostile to humanity, one full of "the dead" and "pitiless" and without monuments built by humans. The ocean is inimical to human life, and will forever remain so on some level-- the poem reminds us that no matter what we might think we command, there are some things in nature that will always hold dominion over us, and if we survive them, it is only a temporary reprieve.
  Stevil2001 | Apr 20, 2019 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Anne Sextonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kumin, MaxineForewordsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sexton, Linda GrayEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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From the joy and anguish of her own experience, Sexton fashioned poems that told truths about the inner lives of men and women. This book comprises Sexton's ten volumes of verse, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Live or Die, as well as seven poems form her last years.

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From the joy and anguish of her own experience, Sexton fashioned poems that told truths about the inner lives of men and women. This book comprises Sexton's ten volumes of verse, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Live or Die, as well as seven poems form her last years. (Houghton Mifflin)
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