Anne Sexton’s Love Poems gave American literature its first fully sexual heroine. The speaker of Sexton’s poems dwells with husband and children in affluent, white Protestant America just after the death of JFK. Her story begins after the fairy tale ending of “happily ever…” begins in the “post -pill paradise” of sexual revolution. More than a century earlier, Hawthorne had created in The Scarlet Letter a sexual female protagonist, Hester Prynne- to exhibit her leading a life of disgrace at the margins of the town because of her sin of adultery. In Sexton’s New England the margins of town have been transformed into suburbia, and adultery looms as the next horizon of sexual destiny, once marriage and childbirth have ripened a woman’s body and mapped her sexual pleasure centers. In 1969 this was new; no woman had published such poems in English for centuries.
Adultery is the theme that gives Love Poems its seriousness and importance. Because it is at once transgressive and banal, sensational, and predictable, the love affair of a married woman invites the powers of the storyteller. Sexton was always a storyteller in her poetry; the titles of these love poems mark, like the stars of a familiar constellation points of reference we can easily connect into a narrative. “The Touch” leads on to “The Kiss” to “The Breast”- and to hesitations: what manner of man is this “Man of Many Hearts”? Consummations follow. The plot takes a downward turn when the lover returns to his wife. Ensues “The Break”the “Again and Again and Again” of pain,”The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator.” Another cycle opens: “Barefoot,””Now,” “Us,” “Mr. Mine”; then another separation, the “Eighteen Days Without You”
Once through a cycle might yield romance or tragedy, but Sexton’s love poems, taken together, tell another kind of story, complex and ambiguous. They trace the rise and fall and rise of the desire that, like a drug, awakens feeling and steals sense, brings transformation and addiction and sadness in the same dose. With a frankness new to the serious literature of her day, Sexton celebrates the sensual frontiers discoverable in the body of each new lover, man or woman, no two alike. There is lovely resonance to the sexual knowingness in many lines of these unmaidenly poems. Can adultery be heroic? Maybe not, but it can be spiritually educational. When the moment of consummation drains away, consciousness and conscience return, and that is why adultery rather than adult female sexuality is Sexton’s theme. Adultery is still a sin in Sexton’s book; it rubs against the grains of self esteem, prompting sober insights about the origins and significance of our most seductive illusions.
The most ambitious poetry in this book comes last. In “Eighteen Days Without You,” the frame of reference widens systemically from the exquisitely personal to the political, positioning the lovers’ bodies in a social world. The year is 1966. Kennedy has been shot; other assassinations and catastrophes, as we know, wait their turn on the calendar and are foreshadowed in the poem, essential to the design of sequence and to the design of the book. For “Eighteen Days” was composed under the influence of the evil star of Vietnam. Like most poets when confronted with a request for political poetry, Sexton had felt helpless and fraudulent in attempting to fashion human sentiments for public consumption. Her unpretentious artistic solution to the problem of bringing home the war was the poetic sequence “Eighteen Days.” Its adulterous lovers are as guilty as anyone: safe, affluent, self -indulgent, ignorant of the worst things history is readying in the wings, and protected anyway by their ordinary privileges.Nor are they heroic: she knows they will grow bored with each other. The simple, sure footed language builds into the sequence a spiritual center at once personal and communal. If “Eighteen Days Without You” makes few claims as a stand against war, it does make a stand on behalf of feeling. It meets standards by which we have always measured love poetry. It is Sexton at her very best.