Anne Sexton, Aesthetics & the Economy of Beauty
Anne Sexton was a beautiful womanâa fact we rarely neglect when we talk about the iconic confessional poet today. Appropriately, Maxine Kumin opens her 1981 foreword to The Complete Poems by remarking on her close friendâs appearance:
Anne Sexton as I remember her on our first meeting in the late winter of 1957, tall, blue-eyed, stunningly slim, her carefully coifed dark hair decorated with flowers, her face skillfully made up, looked every inch the fashion model. And indeed she had briefly modeled for Hart Agency in Boston. Earrings and bracelets, French perfume, high heels, matching lip and fingernail gloss bedecked her, all intimidating sophisticationsâŚ
Later she continues:
In addition to the strong feelings Anneâs work aroused, there was the undeniable fact of her physical beauty. Her presence on the platform dazzled with its staginess, its props of water glass, cigarettes and ashtray.
Sexton’s beauty (along with the tragic details of her biography, of course) has proven just as captivating in posterity; few late poets stare solicitously from the cover of their collected works, or are captured in a candid yet glamorous exclamation of laughter on the cover of their selected letters. (I still remember seeing the cover of The Complete Poems for the first time: I was fourteen; the first boy I loved had just left for college, not before rekindling his relationship with his girlfriend; and I was browsing through the stacks of my high school library during a free period. I pulled the blue paperback off the shelf, took one look at Anne hugging her knees to herself, and opened to “You All Know the Story of the Other Woman.” I feel like I’ve never put the book down since.)
A quick Google search will yield dozens more stunning photographs of the poet, including a number from Sexton’s short modeling career. Though her time as a professional model was a virtual blip on what would prove to be a very impressive resume, this detail makes its way into even the shortest biographies, as if to remind us that Sexton was not only a poet beautiful enough to be a model, but in fact, bothâthe very model of a modern model-poet.
Which, really, she was: Sexton enjoyed (and some argue, was ultimately consumed by) a celebrity foreign to most contemporary poets, and few of her own contemporaries as well. Maya Angelou and Billy Collins might have similar name recognition today, but they are firmly literary celebrities, whereas Sexton’s fame went beyond her work. Allen Ginsberg perhaps loomed as large in the American imagination of the ’50s and ’60s, but for more explicitly political reasons, and with the momentum of the countercultural movement behind him. Sylvia Plath, to whom Sexton is most often compared, was not nearly as famous and certainly not as celebrated during her lifetime (Sexton, in contrast to Plath, was already mourning a career in decline when she committed suicide in 1974).
At her heightâwinning a Pulitzer for 1966âs Live or Die, followed by the commercially successful Love Poems and Transformations (poems from which appeared in Playboy and Cosmopolitan)âSexton was a star, her readings famously standing room only and her fee among the highest of any working poet. âAn actress in an autobiographical playâ (as she once described her public persona), she had succeeded in a calculated move to market herself as the mad housewife turned poet, never forgetting the fact of her beauty, or how essential it was to her self-performance.
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Full disclosure: Anne Sexton is my favorite poet. I love her work (even the later, critically unpopular poems), her shameless exhibitionismâand yes, what she looked like.
Recently Iâve been thinking about her a lot, as thereâs a conversation about beauty happening today in the world of gay poetry. Mostly itâs a whispered conversation, conducted behind backs, reflecting a discomfort with a shifting landscape in which a gay poetâs self-presentation seems as important to his success as do his poems.
Of course, as Sextonâs own celebrity suggests, this is not a new phenomenon in poetry (Iâd credit any feeling of novelty to the broader cultureâs relatively recent acceptance of literature with explicitly gay content, and the subsequent proliferation of young gay poets). And, as Sexton explored in a 1973 essay for The American Poetry Review, aptly titled âThe Freak Show,â every poem is, by its nature, concerned with a performance of the self.
Thereâs no doubt, however, that this is making some gay poets uncomfortable. In the past year, some of this private skepticism has started to appear in more public forumsâon Facebook and in comments sections, for instance, as well as in interviews.
Just last week, guestblogging for Ploughshares, Michael Klein interviewed Eduardo C. Corral about his newly-released debut Slow Lightning, winner of the 2011 Yale Series of Younger Poets award (a bold and imaginative book Iâd recommend to anyone). Asked how he was acclimating to life in New York, Corral had this to say:
The queer poetry community in New York City is full of beautiful people, which makes me an outsiderâŚIâm disappointed in many of my queer peers. So many of them want to be part of the hipster crowd. So many of them value looks over talent. The cool kids form clubs, become gatekeepers. So many of my peers are clamoring to be let in.
Though Iâm impressed by Corralâs candor, and lament his experience of exclusion because of his appearance, I bristled when I read this. I found myself worrying that this sort of attitude, taken a bit further, could lead to the devaluation of something important to meânamely, fashion and beauty. Moreover, Iâm afraid such an attitude sets up a false dichotomy: looks or talent, style or substance. I refuse to settle for one or the other. Silly as it might sound, I want to be beautiful and I want to write beautiful poems.
I’m not, of course, arguing poets need (or should) be good-looking, nor do I advocate exclusion within the gay poetry community on any basis. I’m certainly not claiming the hunger for celebrity I share with Sexton is noble. But this is the truth of my life: I’ve wanted to be famous longer than I’ve wanted to be a poet. And I’m apprehensive about what happens when we privilege one experience of the world over any other. I may be young, I may be an aestheteâI may one day recall my great longing to be desired as frivolousâbut I don’t believe that makes my experience any less worthy of artistic representation.
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Presumably, one of the clubs to which Corral was referring is the Wilde Boys, the queer poetry salon run in New York City by Alex Dimitrov. The subject of a front page story in the The New York Times Style Section last November, the salon has also received attention from The Atlantic, The Paris Review, BOMBlog, and a number of other websites and publications (including Lambda Literary Review). In keeping with the Style Section’s voice and point-of-view, the Times piece focussed primarily on the social climate of the salon, rather than the quality of the literary discussionâan angle which inspired considerable internet backlash when the article was published.
Dimitrov’s career hasn’t suffered for it, however: his first book, Begging for It, is forthcoming from Four Way Books next year, and this June will mark the release of American Boys, a gorgeous digital chapbook from Floating Wolf Quarterly. Not to mention that he’s featured in this month’s Out as part of its Hot List 2012, in a piece which describes him as “poetry’s next great gay hope.” When Harriet, the Poetry Foundation’s blog, picked up the story, it ran with the cheeky headline: “Alex Dimitrov is Hot.”
I talked with him a bit about beauty and poetry in preparation for this piece, and loved his take:
I think about beauty in my poems, but so did Keats and Rilke and Sexton. I think many poets are obsessed with beauty and its power, its allure, its danger, how fleeting it is. And when I say beauty I don’t just mean in the corporeal sense, like being at dinner or in bed with a beautiful person. Rilke wrote, ‘beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.’ Yeah, definitely, I get that. I mean, why is beauty necessary? It makes life bearable. Even if it’s impossible to hold onto it, or enjoy it without being destroyed by it.
I think he’s exactly right, and that it’s only natural if poets’ preoccupation with beauty sometimes extends to their self-presentations. Content aside, poetry is a highly aesthetic formâas poets, we labor over how our lines look on the page and how the sound of each syllable affects the ear. Why shouldn’t we give some thought to the dramatic impact we make when we give a reading, or what image comes to mind when someone reads our name? (Anyone who’s read a chapter of Butler knows that we’re all performing all the time, even those of us who deny the importance of beauty).
Ultimately, the poems will always be the test. Sexton may have capitalized upon her looks to gain readers, but her gift as a writer remains singular and irrefutable. Likewise, Dimitrov (his attractiveness aside), writes tight, honest poems that interest me. I suppose it’s presumptuous to assume I can speak for anyone but myself, but as someone who thinks constantly about beauty, desire, death, America, and, of course, New York, Dimitrov is writing some of the most exciting poetry today. That he is young and pretty shouldn’t count against him.
Lambda Literary believes discourse is important.Â That being said, we also understand that opinions on aesthetics, exclusivity, and âbeauty” in the gay poetry community are as contentious as they are varied and, even if unintentional, are terms that can be racially coded.Â SinceÂ Jameson Fitzpatrick, the author of the opinion piece, is also the poetry editor of the Lambda Literary Review, we feel it’s important that we apologizeÂ to anyone, including Mr. Corral, who was offended by this post–Â thisÂ was neither the authorâs nor Lambdaâs intention. Additionally, we intend to post a dissenting opinion during the upcoming days, and welcome further commentary on the content of the original piece.