Since the World Wars, serious poets have tried to fill a God-shaped hole in the Western psyche.
Anne Sexton (1928-1974), a housewife and former fashion model who went on to win the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for verse, and to die by suicide in 1974, was no exception. She wrote first-hand about the search for God, in the process also exploring such taboo realms as masturbation, drug addiction, and abortion. Following a post-partum bout of mental illness in the 1950s, her psychiatrist urged her to take up writing poetry. Her disciplined approach to the craft seemed to be innate; she enjoyed superb family support as she practiced her calling, and the surrounding culture—academic Boston in the late 1950s and 1960s—seemed to be ripe for her innovation. Her reputation grew quickly.
I have been enjoying myself tremendously, curled-up with Diane Middlebrook's 1992 biography, Anne Sexton, and with Sexton's Complete Poems. In her career and in her life, Anne Sexton grappled with modernity's weakening religious and moral strictures. Her timely struggles inform politics, as well, in ways I'll discuss below.
(Warning: Disturbing poem, possibly triggering.)
One poem, "The Addict," from Sexton's 1966 collection, "Live or Die," was shocking in its day, but is also trenchant in our own. It concerns one facet of the longing for transcendence. It reads in part:
to kill myself in small amounts,
an innocuous occupation.
Actually I'm hung up on it.
But remember I don't make too much noise.
And frankly no one has to lug me out
and I don't stand there in my winding sheet.
I'm a little buttercup in my yellow nightie
eating my eight loaves in a row
with two pink, two orange,
two green, two white goodnights.
Now I'm borrowed.
Now I'm numb.
The tension between the embodiment of conventional womanhood, the "little buttercup," on the one hand, and the "borrowed, numb" transgressor, on the other, drives much of Sexton's work. Religion, remember, often doesn't mediate human contact with the absolute, anymore; poets of Anne Sexton's day address the vacuum it has left. The groping towards ultimate understanding in a secular age means flouting bourgeoisie dictates of restraint and "virtue," moreover, which have traditionally also derived from religion.
A "bad girl" herself, Sexton smoked like a chimney from her teens onward; she drank like a fish; she gulped pills. But she primarily flouted standards of conventional propriety through sex. She was married to one spouse for most of her adult life, apparently conventionally so. But she had many extramarital affairs, of all lengths and gradations of seriousness. The illicit liaisons are documented in her poems, often as ecstatic unions. From the poem "December 11," part of the series, "Eighteen Days Without You:"
Then I think of you in bed,
Your tongue half chocolate, half ocean,
of the houses that you swing into,
of the steel wool on your head,
of your persistent hands and then
how we gnaw at the barrier because we are two.
During Sexton's early forays into poetry-writing, while enrolled in Robert Lowell's seminal writing workshop at Boston University, Sexton frequently socialized outside of class with other students, several of whom also went on to become noted poets. She and Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck, among others, regularly gathered for drinks at the Ritz. Apparently, this crew also could not stay out of each others' beds. Wrote Plath, as paraphrased by Middlebrook:
...an insufferable woman (myself, of course),' maliciously tells a man's wife that her husband is having an affair with 'Anne,' then learns that he is having an affair with her. 'It becomes nasty busi-bodiness. THE OLYMPIANS. Poor, married poets in the Ritz bar.'A bit before her seminar with Robert Lowell, Sexton met a fellow, more accomplished poet, W.D. Snodgrass, with whom she struck up a friendship. He became her instructor at the Antioch Writers' Workshop in Ohio in 1958, then called the Antioch Writers' Conference, and informal mentor thereafter. True to form, Sexton had a torrid affair with a fellow poet during the conference. She also tried to seduce Snodgrass. Middlebrook's striking words about Snodgrass's rebuff of Sexton's sexual overtures are written as an aside at the end of a paragraph:
For instructors at the writing conferences, thrown together day and night with creative people who had temporarily abandoned their families, flirtations were an occupational hazard. Snodgrass resisted seduction, adopting a mentorly role that stood Sexton's fragile psyche in good stead.Throughout her life, Sexton had many deep non-sexual friendships. While most of her sexual partners were men, she also knew men—warmly, intimately—whom she, for her own reasons, theirs, or both, did not bed. Key examples were her longtime psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orne, and a fan and friend, Brother Dennis Farrell. From her male associates' point of view, what made Sexton's platonic relationship with Snodgrass unique?
In keeping his sexual distance from his patient, who may have behaved seductively, Dr. Orne was abiding by a professional code of ethics. Brother Dennis Farrell was fulfilling his vow of celibacy as a Roman Catholic monk by not becoming sexually involved with Anne Sexton.
W.D. Snodgrass faced none of these constraints. We know he was a worldly man. He wed serially over the course of his lifetime and he serially philandered. The conference, to my knowledge, didn't and doesn't restrict contact by teachers and students in any way. Yet, for personal reasons, in a permissive literary and intellectual milieu, W.D. Snodgrass declined to become Anne Sexton's lover.
The decision Snodgrass reached, regarding the nature of his relationship to Anne Sexton, interests me much less than the way he seems to have reached it. I like to believe he was deciding rationally about his sexual conduct, as he saw it, weighing potential consequences of an affair with Sexton to himself and to all concerned. He didn't want to cause harm. He was acting independently, both of conventional religious teaching about sexuality, and of reflexive "mirror-image" rebellion and excess that teaching inspired.
Personal volition or conscience, not dictated by outside authority, on the one hand, or by rebellion against that authority, on the other, is a crowning human faculty. As we're keenly aware today, personal conscience threatens demagogic political interests' control of the masses. Demagogues undermine individual conscience by ignoring it as a potentially valid guide to human behavior. They point to non-conforming behavior, including rebellious excess, as sure evidence of "human depravity." They tout conventional religious piety as the one answer to that "depravity." They invent the "disease," then, which their measures, alone, supposedly "cure."
Conventional religion promises believers that God exists. But the modern poet has to search for God, or at least for "what will suffice" in God's stead. That search has produced some of the greatest moments in all literature.
Sexton wrote a poem, "Faustus and I," about an artist's search for transcendence, which throbs like a carnival organ. (While she wrote mostly un-rhymed "free verse," Sexton understood, and fully exploited the capabilities of, formal rhythm.):
I went to the opera and God was not there.
The voices were full as goblets; in mid-air
I caught them and threw them back. A form of worship.
In those vacant moments when the Lord sleeps
I have the voices. A cry that is mine for keeps.
The narrator searches, not only in an opera-house, but also in an art museum and a bookstore, and "God was not there." The search turns up only vulgar entertainment.
Perhaps Anne Sexton herself came closest to finding "God" when she came closest to realizing the sovereign character of human free will. To use personal sexual expression as an example again, for what seem to have been considered, personal reasons, she and James Dickey, a reviewer who became a friend, jointly declined to have an affair with each other. They decided that, we can be sure, for reasons other than a desire to conform to bourgeoisie notions of "virtue." They were acting as rational, volitional persons.
Abstinence, per se, isn't "better" than consenting sexual involvement of any kind. What's "best" in all situations, not merely sexual, is an awareness of one's own wishes, and a conscientious appraisal of possible consequences of one's behavior, to oneself and others.