A year after she joined a writing course at the Boston Center for Adult Education, Anne Sexton addressed a letter to W.D. Snodgrass concerning her poem “The Double Image.” As a close confidante and writing partner to Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass was privy to details concerning the poet’s personal and literary life. In her letter to Snodgrass in November of 1958, Sexton literalizes a struggle that her poetry and her personal life continued to grapple with – finding a voice, “You told me I hadn’t found my voice. But this poem has a voice. A changing, lame, but real voice, I think…whether it is my best voice, I am not sure. It is the voice I HAD to use” (Sexton 43). In another letter to Nolan Miller, Sexton reaffirms her difficulty with the concept of finding a singular voice, “I have spent considerable time fishing around in my desk drawers and under old ms. and have found no new notable sound” (Sexton 45). Through her deeply personal letters and confessional poems, Sexton’s struggle to find a personal “I” or individual voice is partially resolved by her newfound belief that confessional poetry should be both extremely private and completely public in its ability to transform and critique the reader’s own perceptions of truth. As a female poet writing in the starkly gendered society of 1960s America, Sexton moved her poetry from the personal to the public to critique social systems in place, embodying the feminist principle that the “personal is political.” In “Unknown Girl in The Maternity Ward,” Sexton posits an anonymous speaker who refuses to fulfill calculating, patriarchal understandings of childbirth and motherhood and in “In Celebration of My Uterus,” Sexton shapes the concept of womanhood through different characters around the world. By bringing traditionally interpersonal experiences of womanhood to a broader, shapeshifting, social experience, Sexton questions deeply held, limiting beliefs concerning womanhood and confessional poetry.
The struggle that women during the 1960s felt between social perceptions of the womanly self and personal understandings of their identity is reaffirmed in this poem, bringing Sexton’s personal battle with the multiple versions of herself as a woman writer to the universal experience of fighting gendered social expectations, “I tried NOT to act suave (as you said) but this was difficult because part of my well-worn mask is being suave…I tried to tone down the mask and, as you said, ‘be myself.’ If there had been time I would have written back, ‘which self???’” (Sexton 50). Battling the Self that should be and the Self that is remained a constant struggle for female poets, who were criticized for including certain topics in confessional poetry. John Holmes, a usual supporter of Sexton, did not approve of her poetry that dealt with more serious, gendered issues “I distrust the very source and subject of a great many of your poems, namely, all those that describe and dwell on your time in the hospital. […] It bothers me that you use poetry this way. It’s all a release for you, but what is it for anyone else except a spectacle of someone experiencing release? […] Don’t publish it in a book. You’ll certainly outgrow it, and become another person” (Middlebrook 98). At the same time that supporters and critics urged Sexton to find her “voice,” they also encouraged her to silence other parts of her personal experience.
In both “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” and “In Celebration of My Uterus,” Sexton detaches the metaphorical meaning of her body from the limiting confines of her corporeal body, resisting the notion of the intimate, privatized female body while also challenging the masculine, patriarchal value system inherent in the genre of poetry. According to Elizabeth Gregory, confessional poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath have received backlash for their deeply personal poems, a critique that other poets make of confessional poetry as a genre, a form that is too “‘real’ – an outpouring of unedited data from the world of experience…it has been disparaged as too feminine. Though the mode first appeared in the works of male poets, it is often associated with its female practitioners, and condemned as trivial and self indulgent” (34). Confessional poetry has faced parallel struggles to female writers of any genre, discredited for being too emotional and personal to be considered a valuable poetic art form. This perception of confessional poetry has allowed female poets such as Plath and Sexton to find a footing in the overlooked tradition, exchanging their subordinate position as inferior women writers to leaders in the field, “at one time I hated being called confessional and denied it, but mea culpa. Now I say that I’m the only confessional poet” (Sexton 372). Confessional poetry reworks a woman’s space in the poetic tradition, allowing her to reclaim qualities that are seen as inferior in a patriarchal realm while also providing her with the ability to make her personal, gendered experience known to the social world, “The dynamics of [the poetic] tradition have been patterned on a gendered, familial model – the poetic family romance described by Bloom (1973), which historically has followed a patriarchal model in which authority circulates among fathers and sons [confessional poetry]…offers a means to transform those dynamics or to explore what transformation might involve” (Gregory 35). Both “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward.” and “In Celebration of My Uterus” exemplify the power that Sexton is able to reclaim as a woman, allowing her to address issues such as motherhood, childbirth, and depression that are traditionally silenced in the male-dominated poetic genre.
The less confining, feminine nature of confessional poetry allowed Sexton to broaden her personal experience to connect with women around the world, providing a new understanding of a woman’s body as dynamic and ever shifting. Betty Friedan’s seminal book The Feminine MystiqueisatestamenttotheurgencyofSexton’spoetry,ashousewivesandmothersfound themselves struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. By reclaiming the feminine body through confessional poetry, Sexton brings her intimate personal experience to the public arena, detracting from male-crafted stories concerning women and their assigned place in the world. As Gilbert has noted, “While the male poet, even at his most wretched and alienated, can at least solace himself with his open or secret creativity, his myth making power, the female poet must come to terms with the fact that as a female she is that which is mythologized, the incarnation of otherness (to use de Beauvoir’s terminology) and hence the object of anthologies full of male metaphor” (Gilbert 448). The otherness that Sexton felt as a female poet and as a woman in a patriarchal world can be understood in context with the mythologized Self that the male gaze and authors have created.
In “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” Sexton deromanticizes the notion of childbirth by constructing a narrative of loss and separation through an anonymous woman and her child. The anonymous speaker, who recognizes no face but her child represents a universal, female experience of suffering; particularly the experience of women prescribed and forced into the sterile and socially crafted roles of motherhood. The mother in the poem has a deep connection with her child, “bone at my bone, you drink my answers in,” (Sexton 24) but it is her inability to
speak, to name the identity of her child and label her experience with her child, that makes her unfit to be a mother. Her refusal to recognize a connection between herself and the man that left her is a resistance to a system that sees her value only when contextualized in domestic harmony. This poem questions the concept of motherhood and womanhood that is identified in relation to marriage and instead emphasizes the more spiritual and natural connection forged between the creator and her creation. The start of the poem aligns the experience of motherhood with the potential of God, “Child, the current of your breath is six days long,” (Sexton 24) as Sexton parallels the time frame of earth’s creation to that of the anonymous child. The poem continues to use Biblical allegory to liken the process of childbirth to that of divine creation, as the child is described as a sheep, “the nurses nod their caps; you are shepherded / down starch halls with the other unnested throng / in wheeling baskets” (Sexton 24). As a God-like character, the narrator likens the separation of the child and the mother to a grievous sin enacted by cruel, morally incorrect outsiders. By characterizing the narrator as an anonymous, spiritual being who resists the structured, prescribed notions of motherhood, Sexton questions the gendered patriarchal systems that pressure women into acting in ways that feel unfamiliar and foreign to their nature.
This socially crafted role of motherhood, along with marginalizing those deemed unfit by society, created great anxiety for women, who feared that their inability to keep up with social expectations would cause their child to suffer or sicken. The poem explores how these regulations and expectations concerning motherhood causes separation and grief between the child and the mother and detracts from the natural, powerful nature of true motherhood. By refusing to provide her name to the doctors and legitimize the relationship with a man, Sexton creates a character that does not validate any single sense of womanhood and instead remains in power of her self definition, “They thought I was strange, although / I never spoke a word…The doctors chart the riddle they ask of me / and I turn my head away. I do not know” (Sexton 24). The narrator resists the notion that her identity, and her role as a mother, is limited to something that can be measured, labeled and confined to a form and instead finds herself in the deep connection that she has with her child. In this way, she condemns formulaic understandings of motherhood that are limited to origin and data, to “the facts, the man who left me” (Sexton 24). This poem is related to Sexton’s own personal struggles with motherhood, an experience that triggered her depressive episodes. Although the narrator in this poem seems powerless, her power lies in resisting a limited construction of herself and holding dear to the natural connection forged between herself and her child, an experience lost to Sexton.
The anonymous narrator of the poem embodies not only the general experience of women struggling with motherhood during the 1960s, but can also be understood in context with the patriarchal value systems that limit female poets to their prescribed role as sentimental, a notion that Sexton and Plath resisted. The woman in the poem mirrors the struggle of Sexton and other female poets to define their true Self in a patriarchal world, “as she struggles to define herself, to reconcile male myths about her with her own sense of herself, to find some connection between the name the world has given her and the secret name she has given herself, the woman poet inevitably postulates that perhaps she has not one but two (or more) selves, making her task of self-definition bewilderingly complex” (Gilbert 451). The anonymous nature of the narrator makes her personal self undefined, and her emotional struggle throughout the poem arises from the friction she feels between her natural feelings towards motherhood, “my arms fit you like a sleeve” (Sexton 24) and the mechanic, patriarchal understanding of motherhood as a categorized, fix identity. The conflict that the narrator faces in fighting with the different versions of her Self can be related to Sexton’s own personal life and the anxieties that many women felt in their need to perform a type of womanhood. This dual nature of womanhood is seen in many of Sexton’s poems, but is especially apparent in “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” as the narrator reclaims her voice only when she holds her child, “you trouble my silence. I am a shelter of lies. / Should I learn to speak again, or hopeless in / such sanity will I touch some face I recognize?” (Sexton 25). The understanding that women have of “the mother figure” in society is understood as a more complete version of their Self, leading to inner turmoil and distress when their personal selves do not live up to the potential that society has crafted for them. By relating her personal experience with institutionalization to the universal experience of women and female poets, Sexton brings her individual experience to the social world, critiquing the limited notions of womanhood that the patriarchy has created in the 20th century.
In “In Celebration of My Uterus,” Sexton brings her extremely gendered, intimate body to the social world of economy and universal experience, once again highlighting the omnipresent power of womanhood and resisting performative expectations that limit women to a prescribed role. A more positive encapsulation of female experience, “In Celebration of My Uterus,” begins with addressing the critics of the narrator with the repetition of “they,” the doubter of her power and ability, “They wanted to cut you out / but they will not / They said you were immeasurably empty / but you are not / They said you were sick unto dying / but they were wrong. / You are singing like a schoolgirl. / You are not torn” (Sexton 182). The repetition of the actions that “they” took to silence and remove the women in the poem shows the persistence of women in their ability to survive, to reclaim their voice even though the world tries to silence them. The narrator carries the experience of womanhood with her in her uterus, a part of her body that is usually only valued for its child rearing abilities. Instead, Sexton prizes the uterus for allowing the narrator to connect with her true Self, “Sweet weight / in celebration of the woman I am / and of the soul of the woman I am / and of the central creature and its delight / I sing for you. I dare to live” (Sexton 182). Unlike “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” the poet does not feel a loss for the presence of her many selves, but rather celebrates that her identity can be understood in context with women around the world, “Each cell has a life. / There is enough here to please a nation” (Sexton 182). The poem moves from focusing on those who condemn women to silence, to the general “you” to the personal “I,” refocusing the poem in it’s confessional genre while also providing power to the narrator. Like “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” this poem focuses on the many versions of her Self that she must understand and negotiate. Instead of portraying these split selves as a loss, Sexton instead encapsulates it as an abundance of life, a blessing that has created a “harvest” and “cast out” a blight.
By transitioning the poem from the personal “I” to the collective experience of women around the world, Sexton engages with the feminist perspective of communal struggle and the notion that the personal is inherently political. Writing during a time period where women were assigned to the domestic sphere, Sexton resisted the notion that femininity is inherently private and thus weaker than the social, public, masculine world. In this poem, Sexton brings the cells of the uterus to the “nation,” to the “populace” and broadens her individual experience as a woman, so personal it is tied to her uterus, to the worldwide phenomena and strength of women around the world. In this way, Sexton resists the fragmentation of feminist movements and instead emphasizes collective identity. The voice that she has reclaimed at the start of the poem, “I sing for you,” is continued and shared around the world, “Many women are singing together of this: / one is in a shoe factory cursing the machine / one is at the aquarium tending a seal… one is stretching on her mat in Thailand / one is wiping the ass of her child… / some are everywhere and all / seem to be singing, although some can not / sing a note” (Sexton 182). Sexton’s struggle to find her individual voice is finally resolved through this poem by stretching her voice to other women, even those who cannot sing. In this way, this poem, like “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” criticizes a patriarchal society that limits women into a singular identity, that forces women to fulfill a role that is unnatural and manmade. By uniting women around the universal yet personal experience of their womanhood, Sexton connects the personal, private, feminine world with that of the public, male-oriented one and thus deconstructs hierarchies that suggest a woman belong at home. Women are no longer required to connect their identity with a man who has left them barren in order to be a true woman, but can instead find their voice through their connected spirit, “let me study the cardiovascular tissue / let me examine the angular distance of meteors / let me suck on the stems of flowers / (if that is my part) / let me sing” (Sexton 183).
In bringing her personal experience to the forefront of her poems, Sexton pushes against expectations of womanhood and confessional poetry. Criticized for being too personal and not universal enough, Sexton’s poem points to the potential and power of confessional poetry; the ability to showcase marginalized voices, provide a song for those who “can not sing a note” while also creating an atmosphere of community in a gendered, fragmented world.
Both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are criticized by 21st century feminists for being non-intersectional and limiting their poetry to the personal experience of white, middle class women. However, it is clear that by capitalizing on the personal nature of confessional poetry, Sexton was able to politicize and socialize her personal experience to bring an empowering collective identity for women battling with the anxiety of their identity and place in the world.
Both “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward” and “In Celebration of My Uterus,” deconstruct seemingly stable notions of womanhood by positing an anonymous character of split selves. Sexton’s reclamation of womanhood is important in both her personal life and in the canon of male-centered poets, who traditionally mythologize and mystify the reality of womanhood. Sexton takes pride in her position as a confessional poet, reconstructing the feminine poetic genre to resist harmful patriarchal ideologies. In this way, the private nature of feminine writing steps into the social world, using the personal to critique the political. At the time of Sexton’s poetry, “most female poets accepted the notion that to write well and be recognized as a writer required adopting standard poetic forms and acceptable themes that had already been determined by their male predecessors. By making women’s issues acceptable within the context of mainstream literature…Sexton’s writing questioned the role of the poet as ‘the masculine chief of state in charge of dispensing universal spiritual truths’ that apply to men and women alike” (Mehrpouyan 201). Sexton’s resistance is more than just personal, but speaks to the experience of women in the poetic tradition. In this way, Sexton finds herself as both an individual and an activist for women writers and women in the home. In a letter to Snodgrass, Sexton writes about a recent compliment given to her by Rose Morgan, “‘Thank you, Anne, for writing that poem’…it meant something quite real to her tho I don’t actually know what. Something about being a woman and a mother” (Sexton 63). Years after her death, Sexton’s impact remains relevant to the struggles of women around the world. In the search for her own singular voice, Sexton found, and amplified, many.
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