Final Draft

December 19th, 2010

“The fragmentation of Anne Sexton’s confessional self”

In confessional poetry, the self is never unified and/or absolute.The poetic “I” confesses what it needs- a moment of deep emotion, delivers its mea culpa, and then it goes on to the next confession. The poetic ‘I” is represented inconclusively, or fragmented, as it adheres to many identities without committing to a single one. Michel Foucault wrote on confession that it is “a technique for producing truth”, and that “the person who articulates it: it exonerates, redeems, and purifies him; it unburdens him of his wrongs, liberates him, and promises him salvation.” I respectfully disagree.The self in confessional poetry, specifically that of Anne Sexton’s, tells us that it is not exonerated but haunted, nor redeemed but lost, neither purified but tormented. It is fragmented, inconclusive, and also multi-faceted.

Sexton morphs her identity from poem to poem in order to attest and respond to feelings about herself and others. Critic Jo Gill noticed that “far from being the apotheosis of confessionalism, as is usually asserted, Sexton’s writing is engaged in a process of negotiation and contestation”. For Sexton, to confess is not only to confide and tell secrets, she first engages in “coming to terms” with her confession, and renders a response thereafter. These processes (negotiation and contestation), create an array of characters within Sexton’s poetic “I” because each negotiation involves a unique contestation, which requires specific representation, and that is how characters emerge. Fragmentation of Sexton’s confessional self is the overall observance of various characters as they contest to confessions, furthermore, sometimes the same character would in itself be fragmented by means of the specific qualities she chooses to demonstrate. For instance, when Sexton plays the character of the mother, she chooses to be the “candid mother” of “ Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward” in order to convey a very specific message: I’m feeling “maternal”. In “Elizabeth Gone”, Sexton morphs into the “mourning mother”, which leads the reader down a very different path because here we are in the presence of a mother that is disturbed by loss. Furthermore, “The Double Image” presents us with the character of the “estranged mother”, one that is incompetent to care for her children and we feel, as we did not for the previous two, a sense of pity.

To Bedlam and Part Way Back captures the journey of the poetic “I” as it tries to depict itself, through stylistic choices, as a unified subject. Critic Adam Beardsworth describes this journey as a volatile and uncontrolled process when looking at the pathological poetics of confessional writers like Robert Lowell.  Beardsworth finds that: “The notion of a unified ego, like the notion of a stable, logo-centric cultural referent, is exposed as an empty container subject to the same volatile chain reaction and free play of signifiers that comprise the relationship between the casing of the bomb and the unstable atoms inside.” As it applies to Sexton, the self may look to be unified but is exposed as an “empty container”- a fake- due to the “free play” or unpredictable reactions caused by the processes of negotiation and contestation.  Furthermore, stylistic choices – composed of punctuation, rhyme structure, and stanza formation- mediate the relationship between what Sexton’s poetic “I” wants- a unified ego-, and what it is- an empty container-.

Stylistic choices also part take in the creation of the poetic voice in ways that content alone will never be able to. By pausing unexpectedly, shifting rhythmic structures, and abruptly ending a stanza, this voice catches our attention without having to ask for it. Sexton’s poetic voice is capable of evoking emotion while in “mute”: in the presence of digressions we feel hesitation, in the absence of commas we feel overwhelmed, etc. Thus, negotiation and contestation happen equally at all levels of Sexton’s poetry, the spoken and the unspoken.

Let us focus on the “spoken” first. By choosing the title To Bedlam and Partway Back, Sexton literally says that she did not fully return from Bedlam. It is up to me, the reader, to assume that Bedlam is not a place, but a state of mind. This assumption gains support in the “unspoken” evidence, where the poetic voice uses erratic punctuation to expose the madness of the mind behind it. In “The Achievement of Anne Sexton”, Greg Johnson contends that: “ To Bedlam and Partway Back comprises an ordering of specific, urgent experience- the descent into madness and a partial return”. Here Johnson speaks of madness as a general theme in Sexton’s confessions, focusing primarily on the “urgent experience” narrated in the content. However, it is important to look at the “unspoken” and not limit Sexton’s madness to its most obvious existence: let us remember that form not only follows content, but it is as important in exposing the fragmentation of Sexton’s poetic “I”. What does the equation of Bedlam to madness, as noted by form and/or content, do for the fragmented self? It ultimately explains why the poetic “I” is often disoriented, conflicted, and turbulent as it descends into madness. A partial return confirms that the poetic “I”  never fully returns to its initial point, because this would infer a conclusion, an “all the way back”, which is, as noted previously by Beardsworth, an “empty container” notion. Along the way, the poetic “I” confesses what it can, describes events and the people affected by them, and digresses when it has had enough.

The “unspoken” as it pertains to the creation of Sexton’s poetic voice is far more subtle. In To Bedlam and Partway Back. The processes of negotiation and contestation can be seen taking the physical form of stanzas, where one can gather a tremendous amount of information by noticing how they are conceived individually and in relation to one another. For instance, one can easily suspect that Sexton’s poetic “I” has had enough when one stanza shows little connection to its predecessor, clearly, this is a deliberate attempt to change the subject. Furthermore, if a stanza is cut “short”, meaning that it is comparatively shorter than the rest, it is also a clue that the poetic “I” is not interested in pursuing the confession any further. However, it is worth noting that a short stanza may also serve as a literary bridge to transition us from one confession to the next.

The goal of manipulating the “spoken” and the “unspoken” elements of confession are to ultimately arrive at the the truth, although critics like James Merrill claim that this is impossible, arguing that: “Confessional poetry… is a literary convention like any other, the problem is to make it sound like the truth”.  As a counter-argument, critic Dery Rees-Jones points out that: “If autobiography can be read as a narrative which fashions a truth about the history of the self, then surely we must read the confessional poem as an aesthetic of truth”. I agree with Rees-Jones’s idea of the confessional poem as a an instrument of truth, and not just a literary convention. However, Merrill does point out that the biggest problem of confessional poetry is concenctrated in how the truth sounds, which I believe is as important as the truth itself. In Sexton’s case, she produces truth by engaging in the natural flow of conversation, which often includes digressions.

I would argue that if Sexton chose to confess the truth in a mechanical, manicured fashion, it would sound more like a story than the truth. For instance, in “The Double Image”, Part 4 of 7 consists of stanzas comparatively shorter than the rest, here Sexton reflects for the first time on returning “part way back from her sterile suite”, and later addresses the title of the poem by pointing out that: “During the sea blizzards she had her own portrait painted”. Clearly these two issues are sensitive enough for Sexton and as such, she does not want to elaborate too much on them as she had done previously on other parts of the poem. In this specific segment, emotion is best conveyed through form rather than content. Sexton chooses to abandon the uniformed pattern employed previously, and gives us  a series of stanzas that run quicker and yet, sound as if they hold the most relevance.

By witnessing Sexton’s struggles with telling the truth, we gain insight at how she engages in telling it. Because she never says “I’m telling you the truth”, Sexton monitors very closely how she sounds, and the only way to do that is through rhythm.  According to the Oxford Dictionary, rhythm is “a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound”. As it pertains to poetry, rhythm is acquired through a deliberate selection of words, often related to each other by sound. Though many of Sexton’s poems do not rhyme, they are certainly rhythmic due to her controlled surveillance over sound. In “Said the Poet to the Analyst”, Sexton uses rough-sounding words like “broken”, “unbuckled”, “clacking”, and “ridiculous” as a way of interrupting the proposed flow of soft-sounding words like “labels”, “better”, “bees”, and “things”, to name a few. There is a constant struggle, a push-and-pull effect, a give-and-take feeling, that arises from the rhythm these words produce. Patricia Meyer Spacks asks how the reader can “properly respond to lines as grotesquely uncontrolled as these’. What is the ‘proper’ (the etymological connection with the French propre ‘neat, orderly, clean’, should be noted) way to read these poems?”. Spacks notices that the lack of emotional control in Sexton’s poetry subjects the reader to a state of confusion, asking “how does one respond?”, when there is no distinctive authoritative command from Sexton, I say: keep reading. The poetic “I” may mirror its conflicted, struggling nature by way of rhythm, but the rhythm is in itself controlled and authoritative.

How rhythm exerts its authority is mainly achieved through punctuation; an unexpected period may shock us, while a stanza without commas may leave us out of breath. In “You, Doctor Martin”, Sexton chooses to begin every sentence in the middle of the stanza:

What large children we are

here. All over I grow most tall

in the best ward. Your business is people,

you call at the madhouse, an oracular

eye in your nest. Out in the hall

the intercom pages you. You twist in the pull

of the foxy children who fall

In this particular poem, we have periods that force us to pause in the middle of the stanza, challenging our natural instincts to pause at the stanza’s end. The rhythm of this poem emphasizes the middle rhyme, rather than the final rhyme of each verse. By following an idea as it begins and ends half way through a verse, we can assume that the poetic “I” is interested in the half way point of “things”. This being the case, we can draw an immediate connection with the “Partway Back” in the book’s title and the hard sounds that interrupt an otherwise continuous existence. The partial return of the self from madness is what causes the interruptions because that is how it knows to communicate. The invasiveness of these interruptions as well as the unapologetic fashion in which they are delivered point to a self that is not concerned with the aesthetics of normalcy. Rather, this self is interested in disrupting, being erratic, all while conveying a cohesive message. By utilizing the element of disruption we are forced to stop and think, which is what the content asks us to do by way of thought-generating phrases like “your business is people”. People as business, that is a proposal you do not hear everyday and it certainly commands attention, if we choose to bypass it, form follows content by grabbing our attention a second time through invasive punctuation.

In “Ringing The Bells”, Sexton’s poetic “I” uses a completely different strategy as it scarcely uses any commas, which are meant to allow us to pause and catch a breath. This poem resonates with Patricia Meyer Spacks’ suggestion of the uncontrolled verse, and hence the uncontrolled emotion of the poetic “I” in an unstoppable outburst:

And this is the way they ring

the bells in Bedlam

and this is the bell-lady

who comes each Tuesday morning

to give us a music lesson

and because the attendants make you go

and because we mind by instinct, (…)

Uncontrolled emotion is also expressed in “Her Kind”, where the complete opposite takes place. Commas are abundant in the middle as well as the end the every verse, suggesting an obvious concern with pausing continuously, while every comma separates a new confession:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,

haunting the black air, braver at night;

dreaming evil, I have done my hitch

over the plain houses, light by light:

lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.

These two examples evidence uncontrolled emotion in different ways. The first employs the lack of commas as a best practice for blurring out, with unstoppable force, the truth. There is a sense of rushing to the end and then, relief may be attainable. We see this relief manifesting itself physically for the reader (we can finally breath) as well emotionally for the self (glad it’s finally over). In the second example, the abundance of commas also evidence an abundance of confessions that, instead of waiting for a new stanza to come to light, closely follow one another. Here we receive a tremendous amount of information about what concerns the self, its feelings of helplessness, and again a possible sense of relief on the part of the self. As readers, all this flow of information feels as a crash-course into the psyche of the self, we receive no relief because we are presented with problems, not with solutions. We must then remember that this self is the same that returned part way from madness, it will certainly not provide us with solutions.

Alongside the manipulation of punctuation, Sexton’s poetic “I” uses time in order to confess what it wants and/or needs. When reflecting on the relationship of past and history, G. Eross argued that “time is condemned to be the context or the horizon, frame, or dynamic component of most authors.” Eross argues that time is the element most commonly-manipulated by authors because it provides a solid foundation for defending any perspective. By folding time onto itself, the conversation in Sexton’s poetry remains on-going and limitless. Past and present are often interchangeable, aiding the delivery of confession by providing a neutral platform of mea culpas that stem from the past, the present, or both. “Her Kind” is a great example of the ambivalent relationship between past and present because here Sexton reflects on what she has been, and then compares it to what she is accused of being in present times.

When Sexton confesses that “ I have gone out, a possessed witch”, she is recollecting on a past action, then she says: “a woman like that is not a woman, quite”. Here Sexton refers to herself in third person, which supports her case for constructing ambivalence, but most importantly she says that this woman “is”-whatever it is- not was. What she is literally saying is that whatever she did in the past constitutes what she is, but does not provide us with a linear focus that could lead us to this conclusion. Instead, we hear that “ I have done”, “I have gone”, “I have been”, “I have found”, “I have ridden”, and because of all these actions she is “misunderstood”, “not ashamed to die”, etc. We can read this from the angle that this self is reminiscing on the past in the present, or that this self is foreshadowing the present while still in the past, which in fact would make the past her present, and the present her future. If this could get more confusing, it would be called NYC Subway Map. The point is that the use of temporal ambivalence allows the poetic “I” to envelope itself around a universal, unified identity, which is what the fragmented self ultimately wants.

While time may be a unifiable artifact -past, present, and future all become past- the self, though it may appear unified at specific time locations, is not. As explained by A. Alvarez: “confessional–or ‘extremist’–poetry is simultaneously a poetry of its particular time and place and an expression of alienated individuality.” In other words, confessional poetry captures the self remembering, or revisiting, a certain time and place as it alienates itself for the sake of that specific memory. I would argue that as each confession takes place, each occupying an exclusive place within the self’s  memory, they give rise to alienated individuality. I would disagree with Alvarez’s suggestion that both processes- the revisiting of memory through confession and the confection of alienated individuality- happen simultaneously. Furthermore, that it is this alienated individuality, a perception of the self at a particular time and place, what causes the self to be represented at extreme ends of identity, and this fragments it. What I mean by this, simply, is that we are never always good or always bad, and that a confession renders us as either, for it is subject to a specific time and place. These two can be manipulated to resonate particularity, but the self remains alienated by representation.

Though confession may be an attempt to regain inner peace, it often times is for Sexton a torturous reminder of a burdening memory, that is no less burdening by the simple action of confessing it. Through the processes of negotiation and contestation with the confession, Sexton’s poetic “I” splits into characters that further defend a personal purpose. By splitting, the self becomes fragmented not for lack of identity but for the abundance of the same. The possibilities of “being” are endless for Sexton’s poetic “I” as its journeys in and part way back from maddening memories.Then,1011 the only decision left to make is which stylistic choice is better suited to guarantee that the truth sounds like the truth, and not a story. Personally, I believe that Anne Sexton continued to be fragmented beyond her poetic “I”, that she constantly sought poetry as a means to find herself, and that within and without poetry she was “that double woman who stares at herself, as if she were petrified in time (Sexton 41).”


Alvarez, A. Beyond All this Fiddle Essays 1955-1967. California: A Lane Publishing, 1968. Print.

Beardsworth, Adam. “Learning to Love the Bomb: Robert Lowell’s Pathological Poetics”. Canadian Review of American Studies 40.1 (2010): 95-116. Project MUSE. Web. 17 Dec. 2010.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Publishings, 1990. Print.

Gill, Jo. “Anne Sexton and Confessional Poetics.” The Review of English Studies 55.220 (2004):425- 45. Humanities Full Text.Web. 17 Dec. 2010.

Johnson, Greg. “The achievement of Anne Sexton.” Hollins Critic 21.3 (1984): Academic OneFile. Web. 24 Nov. 2010.

Kroó, Katalín. “On a special case of meaning-emergence in the literary text: The function of semantic formations with ‘contradictory’ sense-orientation in the process of poetic meaning-evolution.” Semiotica 170.1-4 (2008): 79-95. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 Dec. 2010

Rees-Jones, Deryn. “Consorting with Angels: Anne Sexton and the Art of Confession.” Women 10.3 (1999): 283. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 Dec. 2010.

“Rhythm”. The Oxford Dictionaries.Web. 17 Dec. 2010.

Sexton, Anne. To Bedlam and Part Way Back. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. Print.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. On 45 Mercy Street. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. Bloomington: IN, 1978. Print.

Perloff, Marjorie. Robert Lowell. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973. Print.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email