Anne Sexton







Issues and Themes

       Anne Sexton was known or classified as a confessional poet, one who writes real or fictitious, intimate, and hidden details of one's life.  Sexton's poetry was so confessional that it was hard to distinguish if she was writing about her life or if it was just fictitious.  Sexton's poetry dealt with subjects that others found very inappropriate for poetry, especially at this time when Sexton was writing.  She wrote about topics that people-women faced every day, but didn't talk about so openly and publicly. Some thought her topics were just too personal to be writing about.  Anne did not consider herself to be a feminist, although she did write such poetry that dealt with feminist subjects and concerns. Anne Sexton wrote about such topics as abortion, menstruation, drug addiction, sex, religion, and suicidal tendencies, along with other such topics.  Her poetry explored an array of various themes and subjects such as those.
        According to M.L. Rosenthal, as quoted in Caroline King Barnard Hill's book, Anne Sexton, "Confessional poetry is a poetry of suffering.  The suffering is generally unbearable because the poetry so often projects breakdown and paranoia.  Indeed, the psychological condition of most of the confessional poets has long been the subject of common literary dicussion-one cannot say gossip exactly, for their problems and confinements in hospitals are quite often the specific subjects of their poems." , this is classical Anne Sexton, according to Rosenthal's above comments on confessional themes and concerns.  Her poetry, as I said above, is very confessional.  Readers can't tell if the topics she wrote about really happened to her or not.  Anne wrote a lot about her own experiences to the point that it was hard to criticize her, because she really did go through some of it.
         Anne Sexton's first book of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, published in 1960, dealt with the breakdown and poetic independence of Anne Sexton's life.  Her second book, All My Pretty Ones, published in 1962, was a continuation of her first book of poetry, but its major focus was Anne's concern for the loss of loved ones that made her breakdown again, due to the fact that their deaths were very traumatic for her.  Her third book, Live or Die, published in 1966, which Anne later won a Pulitzer Prize for, dealt with a progress from sickness toward health.  Anne's book Love Poems, published in 1969,  dealt with love of loved ones that she had lost.  There was a difference between Sexton's poetry from early years to her last poems.  It is evident in her next book Transformations, published in 1971, there was shift in her style, theme and subject (George, Intro.).  She became more mythical, dark, and each of the poems turn on a magical transformation (George, Intro.).  Anne's book, The Book of Folly, published in 1972, went back to more of her usually themes as before.  Then there is a switch-back in The Death Notebooks, published in1974, back to the mythical side and going back to her early works.  Anne Sexton's last book, The Awful Rowing Toward God, published in 1975, just before she died, the theme and subject matter remained the same but with an added touch of joy, although they were less powerful and imaginative.
        Anne Sexton had a hard life of drug and alcohol addiction, being in and out of mental institutions, and dealing with the deaths of many loved ones.  Around all this she wrote poetry to express her feelings and at the same time, made a career for herself by doing so.  Although her poetry is very confessional and sometimes hard to read and understand, she was very good at it.  Her poetry dealt with issues that we can all relate to, in her day and in ours.


"Red Roses"
By Anne Sexton
Tommy is three and when he's bad
his mother dances with him.
She puts on the record,
"Red Roses for a Blue Lady"
and throws him across the room.
Mind you,
she never laid a hand on him,
only the wall laid a hand on him.
He gets "red roses" in different places,
the head, that time he was sleepy as a river,
the back, that time he was a broken scarecrow,
the arm, like a diamond had bitten it,
the leg, twisted like a licorice stick,
all the dance they did together,
Blue Lady and Tommy.
You fell, she said, just remember you fell.
I fell, is all he told the doctors
in the big hospital, a nice lady came
and asked him questions, but because
he didn't want to be sent away, he said, I fell.
He never said anything else although he could talk
He never told about the music
or how she'd sing and shout
holding him up and throwing him.
He pretends he is her ball.
He tries to fold up and bounce
but he squashes like fruit.
For he loves Blue Lady and the spots
of "red roses" she gives him.


        I believe the poem "Red Roses" by Anne Sexton is about how a mother verbally and/or physically abuses her son.  I believe "Blue Lady" represents Tommy's mother and the "red roses" symbolize the marks, bruises, and broken bones that Tommy receives from his mother. I believe Anne Sexton uses the label "Blue Lady" to represent Tommy's mother for two reasons.  First, because of the old saying, "Roses are red, Violets are blue...", Tommy's "red roses" turn colors like any other bruise does-red, purple, black, and blue-which therefore reminds you of that old saying.  Secondly, because Tommy's mother is sad or "blue," and giving Tommy "red roses" makes her happy or lifts her spirits.  Every woman loves "red roses" and the only way she is able to recieve "red roses" is by abusing Tommy.  Which is a bit ironic because Tommy is the one who actually receives them.  Since Anne doesn't mention anything about a father figure in Tommy's life, you could assume that is the reason why Tommy's mother is so "blue."  I believe Anne Sexton leaves it up to us to assume this connection.
        Tommy is only three years old, still just a very young child, but when he is "bad" according to his mother, she dances with him.  Dancing is really just a metaphor for when Tommy's mother abuses him, either by throwing him around or beating on him.  "Blue Lady" likes to refer to the abuse as dancing, that way to her it doesn't sound so bad as beating on him or abusing him.  Her idea of dancing is throwing Tommy across the room so he will hit the wall or fall down.  So that way "Blue Lady" can say she never laid a hand on Tommy.  But he seems to get "red roses" in different places, as stated in the poem, such as his head, his back, his arm, and his leg.  Tommy received "red roses" on his head when he was sleepy as a river, meaning he was limp or incoherent.  Tommy's back received "red roses" due to the fact that he was a broken scarecrow, but really because he was just going with the flow of the "dance," letting "Blue Lady" throw him around and toss him front wards and backwards.  Tommy's arm was referred to as a "diamond had bitten it," his arm was really scratched in such a way that it looked like someone or something had bitten it. Tommy's leg was twisted in such a way that it looked like a licorice stick, flexible and turning black and "red" because it was hurt so bad.  All this happened to Tommy when he was dancing with his mother, "Blue Lady."  She would tell Tommy to say he fell, so she wouldn't get into trouble.  When the "dancing" got so bad, Tommy ended up in the hospital.  All he said was that "he fell", despite the abuse he had received from his mother.  Tommy  loved her and didn't want to be away from her.  Tommy never spoke again after that.  When "Blue Lady" would throw him around, Tommy would pretend he was her "ball," to a make a game out of the abuse.  Because Tommy is no "ball," he would just squash like a fruit, meaning he would just fall to the floor. Tommy loves "Blue Lady" and the "red roses" he receives from her.  I believe Tommy really loved his mother and didn't have anyone else to turn to for help.  So he just lived with the abuse and took whatever she gave him.
        The abuse that Tommy received really affected him, because he never spoke again.  Abusing a child like that can really distort their way of looking at the world and the things around them.  Anne Sexton's poetry dealt with alot of subjects like this one, everyday topics that real people face in their lifetime.  Sexton's poetry dealt with subjects that some might like to avoid because they are too personal.  Anne Sexton was known or classified as a confessional poet, one who writes real or fictitious, intimate and hidden details of one's life.  Sexton's poetry was so confessional that it was hard to distinguish if she was writing about her life or if it was just fictitious.



To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960)
All My Pretty Ones (1962)
Selected Poems (1964)
Live or Die (1966)
Poems (1968)
Love Poems (1969)
Transformation (1971)
The Book of Folly (1972)
The Death Notebooks (1974)
The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975)
45 Mercy Street (1976)*
Words for Dr.Y:Uncollected Poems w/ Three Stories (1978)
The Complete Poems (1981)
Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (1988)


45 Mercy Street (1976)

Children's Books:

Co-authored with  Maxine Kumin :
Eggs of Things (1963)
More Eggs of Things (1964)
Joey and the Birthday Present (1971)
The Wizard's Tears (1975)


Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977)
No Evil Star: Selected Essays,Interviews, and Prose (1985):
"Dancing the Jig" (1960)
"Classroom at Boston University" (1961)
"On 'Some Foreign Letters' " (1962)
"The Last Believer" (1963)
"The Barfly Ought to Sing" (1966)
"For the Year of the Insane" (1967)
"The Letting Down of the Hair" (1972)
"The Freak Show" (1973)
"A Small Journal": "All God's Children Need Radios" (1973)
"Journal of a Living Experiment" (1979)


Written by Courtney Helena Khan, University of North Carolina at Pembroke, 1999.
Edited by Mark Canada