In September of 1958, Anne Sexton enrolled in a graduate level poetry class at Boston University and began her career as a poet. Her professor was the highly-esteemed Robert Lowell, famous among the Boston Brahmin for his literary and intellectual family as well as his own work. In that September, Lowell had yet to publish Life Studies or For the Union Dead, the two publications that would bring him the most notoriety, and Sexton had not even begun to think of her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back. In that Boston classroom, Sexton and Lowell hammered out texts that would become the definitive models of "confessional" poetry, and despite their resistance of it, their work reflected the influence of the other and become the mastheads of a genre.
Regardless of this professional association, their personal relationship seemed odd at best. While they respected each other's work, several comments that they made on record give the impression that they didn't particularly like it. In a terse eulogy, Lowell declared of Sexton's work that "For a book or two, she grew more powerful. Then writing was too easy for her. She became meager and exaggerated. Many of her embarrassing poems would have been fascinating if someone had put them in quotes, as the presentation of some character, not the author" (Kumin, xx). Shortly before Sexton won the Pulitzer for Live or Die, she countered a bad review of For the Union Dead by saying "I don't feel that Union Dead poems are melodrama. I think melodrama is more interesting Ã¢â‚¬Â¦. But a "life of their own" is what is missing and gives one the feeling of a stale smoked-up room that has just been deserted by a literary cocktail party" (Sexton and Ames 302). One shudders to think what went wrong in such a legendary literary alliance, especially one that was obviously so mutually productive. In the beginning of their acquaintanceship, Lowell was very supportive of Sexton's poetry and was in fact the first to present a packet of her poetry to Houghton-Mifflin. She was in enamored awe of him and called him her "God", lapping up his criticism like liturgy.
With the publication of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, Sexton presented multiple poems about her several stints in a mental hospital. This institutionalization was a trait she shared with Lowell, and she felt that he "Ã¢â‚¬Â¦like[s] my work because it is all a little crazy and it may be that he relates to me and my 'bedlam poetry'" (Sexton and Ames 70). To Bedlam was published a year after Lowell's Life Studies, and while Sexton claimed to have never read Lowell's poetry while under his tutelage, she seems to have taken the theme of his poem "Waking In the Blue" and run with it throughout her first book. However, one specific poem amongst the bedlam myriad, "You, Doctor Martin," (incidentally, the first poem of the volume) reflects the same imagery and emotional content as Lowell's one "bedlam poem."
"Waking In the Blue" explains how a morning comes to be in an insane asylum, and gives a deft characterization of several of Lowell's inmates. The night attendant, supposedly an authority figure for the patients, is discounted in the first stanza, while Lowell's fellow headcases are consistently associated with royal imagery. Stanley is a "kingly granite profile in a crimson golf-cap" (20), Bobbie is "a replica of Louis XVI / without the wig" (28-29), and Lowell refers to himself as the "Cock of the walk" (42). "Waking in the Blue" is a poem also fraught with animal imagery, eight references in all: mares, cats, crows, seals, whales, horses, roosters, and turtles.
Sexton's "You, Doctor Martin" also describes how patients go the mornings inside her insane asylum. The doctor in question "walks from breakfast to madness" (2), but Sexton does not discount his authority as Lowell discounted the night attendant's. Instead, she crowns him; Dr. Martin is referred to as the "prince of all the foxes" (24), and she calls herself the "queen of this summer hotel" (6) and "queen of all my sins" (38). She does not characterize her fellow inmates specifically as Lowell does; instead she often uses "we", implying that the asylum is more anonymous than Lowell suggests. The animal imagery is also present in "You, Doctor Martin", though perhaps not as prevalent as in "Waking In the Blue": Sexton writes of foxes, bees, nests, and suggests a Cyclops.
Obviously, the two poems are similar enough to merit the comparisons of Lowell and Sexton, but as she said in a letter to Ted Hughes, their "poems ARE different" (Sexton and Ames 307). As much as they wished not to be continually lumped together in the same "school of conformity" (Sexton and Ames 57), Lowell and Sexton are posthumously grouped with the quintessential Confessional poets, along with the likes of Snodgrass, Plath, Seidel, and Kumin. The enduring success of these authors and the number of awards piled upon them ultimately proves that it is not such bad company.
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Sexton, Anne. "You, Doctor Martin." Anne Sexton: The Complete
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Sexton, Linda Gray and Ames, Lois, Eds. Anne Sexton: A Self-
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