Musicians and poets celebrate the artistic legacy of Anne Sexton, for whom no topic was off-limits
By Bliss Bowen
“Live or die, but don’t poison everything.”
That tart epigram introduces Anne Sexton’s poem “Live,” the capstone to her collection “Live or Die,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1967. Famously inspired to write by Boston psychiatrist Martin Orne, Sexton’s subject matter was neither polite nor coolly detached: marriage, children, abortion, sexual hunger, addiction and the depression that pushed her more than once into mental hospitals and finally, in 1975, to suicide at age 45. A student of Robert Lowell’s, Sexton has remained an icon of confessional poetry for generations of writers like Erica Jong and musicians such as Peter Gabriel, whose “Mercy Street” was directly inspired by her “45 Mercy Street.”
Less well known is her own musical curiosity. In the late 1960s, she collaborated with a jazz-rock band, Her Kind, who magnified the music within her language.
“Her poems seem to be written to be not only read aloud, but to be performed,” says singer-songwriter and KCSN “The Dylan Hour” radio host Lisa Finnie. “She provides you with so much to work with — images that range from fantastical to ethereal, combined with really domestic or everyday, mundane images and objects. She marries those things really well. I think she definitely writes musical verses or stanzas; they have a music and lend themselves to music.”
Black-and-white videos live online of Sexton reading her poems — including the chilling “Music Swims Back to Me,” which deploys musical imagery while describing a stay in a mental institution, and “Her Kind,” from her first book, 1960’s “To Bedlam and Part Way Back.” The onetime model’s voice is deep and smoky, like a Massachusetts Lauren Bacall after too many Camels. A glint in her eye haunts as she tilts her head and confides to the camera, “A woman like this is misunderstood. I have been her kind./ …A woman like that is not ashamed to die./ I have been her kind.”
Finnie will perform “Her Kind” with her trio this Saturday at Beyond Baroque for “Sexton to Sexton,” a celebration of Sexton’s legacy. A quarter of event proceeds benefit Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a cause dear to essayist and poet Susan Hayden, who will read Sexton’s poem “Eighteen Days Without You” at the event. The Library Girl doyenne says Sexton’s poetry made a dramatic impact on her as a teenager, and not just because of how she conveyed her emotions with “no filter” and raw honesty.
“I was introduced to Sexton’s poetry by a friend of mine who the next year would shoot herself in the heart,” Hayden recalls. “She had shared Sexton’s ‘Live or Die,’ and specifically a poem called ‘Wanting to Die.’ She was what people now call bipolar … she identified with the voice of Anne Sexton, and it was almost incomprehensible to read these poems. I didn’t get that this [suicide] would happen to her when she was sharing it with me, because I wouldn’t have been able to assess that at 14.
“But after she died, I immersed myself [in Sexton’s poetry] and then walked away from it. It took a long time to go back to it, but it absolutely created my style as a writer; the poetry of the personal would become my template in all forms, except for playwriting. I operate from the ‘I.’”
There’s no question that Sexton was profoundly troubled. But, as Finnie notes, “no topic is off limits” for Sexton, and in that “fearlessness” lies creative redemption that still feeds her influential legacy. And Sexton’s “sardonic way of telling these dark stories” gradually introduces a transcending “survivor spirit” that approaches something like defiant hope.
“The ‘hope’ is ours, not necessarily hers,” she acknowledges. “As she embraces the darkness, she also pushes back on it — rages against it — with a wry smile. She’s a truth teller. An advocate. A warrior.”
“Many poets disdain the word ‘confessional,’” Hayden observes, “but I would say that what’s misunderstood about it is that it’s so well crafted. It’s as intimate as a page of your journal, but it’s a crafted page. … I think with confessional poetry, and certainly with Sexton, the goal is healing of the self. I certainly was drawn to it as a writer for that same reason.”
Other Sexton admirers performing Saturday include musician/writer Azalia Snail, who co-curated the event with poet Brendan Constantine; Snail will co-host with King Missile frontman John S. Hall. The lineup will be filled out by poets Kim Dower, Mandy Kahn, Milo Martin, and Ben Trigg, writer/filmmaker Christian Elder, and musician/songwriters Jane Cantillon, Sarah Kramer, Dan West, and original Bangles bassist and Blood on the Saddle frontwoman Annette Zilinskas.
There’s no shortage of material for them to dig into, as Sexton was as manically creative as she was contradictory. In addition to detailing her personal therapy sessions in unsettling free verse, she also co-wrote four children’s books with Maxine Kumin. (It was after a work lunch with Kumin, revising the manuscript for her 1975 book “The Awful Rowing Toward God,” that she locked herself in her garage with the car running.)
“How can you measure someone who was a successful poet decades ago? How can you possibly measure their influence?” Finnie muses. “If you’re a female, if you are in the business of baring your soul, whether you realize it or not you’re probably influenced by her, because she changed the game … of women speaking honestly through art.”
“Sexton to Sexton” happens from 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday (June 29) at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Tickets are $5 to $15. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org.