One learns not to blab about all this
except to yourself or the typewriter keys
who tell no one until they get brave
and crawl off onto the printed page
Anne Sexton (9 November 1928 – 4 October 1974) remains distant and difficult, if not troubling as feminist icon and ‘confessional’ poet.
Often mentioned in the same breath with Sylvia Plath, she struggled against mental illness and succumbed to it. Sexton demonstrated poetry as catharsis and, if we are to read the latest Diane Middlebrook biography without flinching, she lived in terrible torment and inflicted it through violence and abuse. Middlebrook exposes numerous affairs and the incendiary and heartbreaking revelation: Anne sexually abused her own daughter.
Linda Gray Sexton’s approval of the Middlebrook biography in 1992 also drew intense criticism for releasing her mother’s recorded conversations with her psychiatrists. The furor instigated discussions about patient-client confidentiality, celebrity exploitation, and a call for dignifying the memory of the dead; and the biography is explicit that a second psychiatrist slept with Anne and that this ‘relationship’ might have accelerated Anne to suicide. Middlebrook would later do a biography in 2004 on Sylvia Plath and cover the marriage years to Ted Hughes.
While the Middlebrook biography may have disturbed Sexton hagiographers and possibly perpetuated the canard that all victims become predators, the poetry remains as Anne’s testament to her struggles. In retrospect all her poetry can be interpreted as a valiant struggle. In prose William Styron‘s thin volume, Darkness Visible (1993), bears eloquent testimony of coping with mental illness.
Here, I will pull out a few instances where she mentions typewriters because it is the mechanical conduit for any writer, then and now, although it is ‘old technology’ since we now live with computers, silent USB keyboards, and don’t hear the thunderous clickety-clack of typewriter keys that signify the writer’s argument with God, the universe, and the immediate surroundings. It is at the keys that the writer struggles to purify Expression to Essence.
this typewriter likes you on the way to them,
but wants to break crystal glasses
all along, thinking I was a killer, anointing myself daily with my little poisons. But no. I'm an empress. I wear an apron. My typewriter writes. It didn't break the way it warned. -Live
Oh demon within,
I am afraid and seldom put my hand up
to my mouth and stitch it up
covering you, smothering you
from the public voyeury eyes
of my typewriter keys.
There is a voyeurism in her poetry that I sometimes find uncomfortable and it is not because Sexton publicly addresses the m-taboos: menstruation, miscarriage, masturbation, and marriage; and not because I know how her struggle ended for her: suicide by carbon monoxide in her Weston garage. No. It is in reading her pain, sharing with her the awful confrontation with her wrathful demons at the typewriter, that confrontation an indictment to me and all readers not to sit idle without cultivating compassion for those who suffer. We all suffer. Not all of us, however, have the talent to touch the typewriter’s keys the way that she did.