Here's Omar Musa's introduction to Anne Sexton...
I first came across Anne Sexton's poetry ten years ago. I was in second year university, in a creative writing course in Canberra that I considered pretty useless. The one good thing that came out of it was a friendship with a Finnish girl named Emma Markala who mentioned to me several times that Anne Sexton was her favourite poet and that she thought I would be into her confessional poetry. I can't remember if she emailed it to me or photocopied it, but she got me a copy of ‘To My Lover, Returning to His Wife’ and that was the very first poem of Sexton's I read.
I was immediately hooked – her poetry is fearless, exploring the rawest emotions and dealing with what Cormac McCarthy might describe as ‘the matters of life and death’ – sex, infidelity, madness, suicide, loss. While her subject matter is raw, her words are sculpted, finely wrought, in built with delicate rhythms and cadences and she uses imagery that is almost unfailingly original, unexpected, startling. She punches you in the face with a velvet glove on and is the queen of the devastating last line.
I can't think of too many poets who handle this whole balancing act so masterfully and I always thought it was something to aspire to, in both my raps and my poetry. My favourite rappers also manage to present the visceral in a stylish, crafted way – Nas, 2Pac, Andre 3000, Masta Ace.
I came away from reading that poem changed. I've had a few moments like that on my life. When I first heard Public Enemy and Ice Cube, I thought ‘I want to write poetry like that’. When I read Anne Sexton, I thought ‘I want to write poetry like that’.
I couldn't live on photocopies forever. I needed the book in my hand. So I went out looking for an anthology or book of her poetry and after trawling bookshops around Canberra unsuccessfully, I finally found an anthology of all her work for $50. Now if you've ever been in second year uni, you'll probably remember how broke you were and I was no different, so I remember thinking of a way to steal it – down the front of the pants was always the best, but the book was too thick. But I had already been caught shoplifting before in my hometown Queanbeyan, and I remembered how humiliating it was and thought it would be even more embarrassing as a 20 year old man, with a copy of Anne Sexton's poetry down the front of my pants. So it was back to photocopying pages in the ANU library and looking up poems on the internet.
I found this copy when I was living in Oakland, California at a bookshop in Berkeley for $7, which I thought a far more reasonable price.
In the introduction to this book, Maxine Kumin speaks about the way Anne Sexton broke down the doors for a lot of people, particularly female writers, with her willingness to openly tackle taboo subjects – masturbation, menstruation, abortion, drug addiction – subjects at the time not considered proper topics for poetry, and that this combined with her brilliance as a sculptor of words, earns her a place in the canon.
I'm no expert on Anne Sexton or American poetry or where she fits in and to be honest, even the mention of a ‘canon’ usually makes me shudder. I consider Anne Sexton ‘necessary’ in a personal way – she inspires me. To be better, to write better, to be fearless. She is the type of writer who I can turn to when dealing with writers block and always come out the other side revitalised and seeing the world with different eyes – and thank fuck for writers like that.
So thanks to Emma from Finland and now I'm gonna read some poetry.