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Scholar Unearths Trove of Anne Sexton’s Forgotten Early Works

The four poems and an essay find the confessional poet detailing American life in the 1950s, from skiing to suburban lawn care

The re-discovered works are newly published in the literary journal Fugue. (Rollie McKenna/Virago)
smithsonian.com

Sixty years after their initial publication, five unheralded early writings by confessional poet Anne Sexton are back in the spotlight.

The lost works—a quintet of four poems and an essay—were published in the Christian Science Monitor before the release of Sexton’s first poetry collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back. Over the decades, they lapsed into oblivion, surpassed by compositions that better fit the singular style of dark intimacy for which Sexton is known.

Then, in 2016, University of Idaho assistant professor of American literature Zachary Turpin chanced upon a mention of the Monitor bylines, which were published between 1958 and 1959, in Sexton’s digital archive. As Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, Turpin wasn’t sure if the works—titled “Argument in the Gallery,” “Winter Colony,” “These Three Kings,” “In Your Freshman Year” and “Feeling the Grass”—were included in the author's oeuvre. He consulted Sexton expert Erin C. Singer, and Linda Gray Sexton, daughter of the poet herself. Neither had heard of the early writings. Nor had any other Sexton scholars he consulted.

Turpin, a self-proclaimed “literary archaeologist” who has previously uncovered forgotten works by 19th-century luminaries Walt Whitman and Emma Lazarus, tells the Houston Chronicle’s Allyn West that the rediscovered texts—published in the University of Idaho literary journal Fugue in October—address “fairly traditional, late-'50s American” subjects, from skiing to the holidays and suburban lawn care. It’s likely they constitute some of Sexton’s earliest works, as she only began writing in 1957, when a therapist suggested adopting the practice as a means of self-expression.

It’s unclear why the five pieces never made it into Sexton’s canon, but in an interview with Fugue, Linda Gray Sexton says her mother may have dismissed them as “early work that she would not have wanted seen.” Still, as she tells the Idaho Statesman‘s Michael Katz, “it is valuable to look [at] where she came from in order to better understand where she went.”

Turpin notes that the nascent texts provide an opening into the development of Sexton’s distinctive poetic voice, which was crafted through “experimentation, exploration and self-plumbing.”

To readers acquainted with Sexton’s typically candid discussions of the female condition, as evidenced in poems such as “The Abortion,” “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” and “Menstruation at Forty,” the rediscovered texts will show the confessional poet in a new light. Alternately irreverent—in “These Three Kings,” she defies fellow poet Louis Simpson's mandate against using the words “ceremony,” “dance” and “praise” by recounting a holiday celebration defined by all three—and mundane—“Feeling the Grass” finds its narrator attempting “to pretend ... that I care” about maintaining the perfect lawn—the works serve as meditations on the quotidian that hint at their creator's underlying discontent.

Sexton committed suicide at the age of 45 in 1974. She’d won the Pulitzer for her 1967 poetry collection, Live or Die, and she left behind enough writings, both published and posthumously published, to fill a hefty 600-page volume of her complete works (not including, of course, the newly re-published texts). Last month, Sexton would’ve turned 90 years old, a fact Linda Gray Sexton tells Fugue alongside the realization that her mother “has been gone as long as she had lived.”

Yet “the poetry lives on,” Linda notes, “cheating death itself.”

Turpin attributes Sexton’s lasting resonance to her “raw, visceral verse, creative to an almost painful degree,” but as the works he brought back to the forefront show, the poet was also capable of expressing moments of pure joy. Take Turpin’s favorite of the newly found poems, “Winter Colony,” in which Sexton conjures up a day on the slopes. The poem, he explains in Fugue, “with its undertones of a possible letter to a lover, or even an ode to winter,” gives us a glimpse of Sexton, unburdened. In it, she crafts an indelible image of freedom in its verses, writing: “We ride the sky down, / our voices falling back behind us, / unraveling like smooth threads.”

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