A sure way for a poet to sell books is to die a suicide, particularly if the poet is a woman. Most particularly if she writes poems about death and violence. Or at least that is the lesson that the posthumous careers of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath seen to teach us.
Reading this new volume of Sexton's previously uncollected poems, one has to wonder what will happen when there are no more half-finished poems left to be published. Will her grocery lists be next?
I'm sure that the editor of this volume, Sexton's daughter Linda Gray Sexton, acts out of the desire to complete her mother's oeuvre, and apparently Anne Secton did leave instructions for at least some of her work, the section called "Letters for Dr. Y," to be published after her death. And in all fairness to Linda Gray Sexton I should mention that she and her co-editor Lois Ames did an excellent job of annotating and editing Anne Sexton's collected letters, putting together in A Self-Portroit in Letters (1977) a picture of a remarkably courageous woman and talented artist who fought her madness for many years.
The heart of Anne Sexton's work lies in her earliest books - To Bedlam and Part Way Back, Live or Die, All My Pretty Ones. Here searing images take one by surprise, and the poems combine virtuoso technical skill with highly personal material is a way no one dies had ever done before. Yet as she grow older, worn down by her recurring bouts with insanity , Sexton's work grew sloppier, more self-indulgent , repetitive and heavy-handed. Her obsession with death and violence became more and more a part of some personal psychotic heil, more and more distorted each time she wrote, like a drawing one can't quite get right and finally ruins by constant erasure. The poems and the three horror stories in Words for Dr. Y are no exception.
I would like to remember Anne Sexton for what I consider to be those extraordinary poems written in the face of great odds - poems like "Music Swims Back to Me," "You, Dr. Martin," "Her Kind." But the continuing publication of her inferior work tends to obscure her real achievement.
Who will buy this book? I think, from hearing them speak at poetry readings and in poetry workshops, it is primarily young girls and women who admire Sexton for all the wrong reasons, making her a martyr to art and feminism; who seem, out of their own needs, to identify with her pathological self-loathing and to romanticize it into heroism. It has very little to do with poetry and it does neither poetry nor Anne Sexton a service. (Houghton Mifflin, $8.95; paperback, $3.95)