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Notes from the Undergrad: An undergraduate’s introduction to Anne Sexton

By Jane Robbins Mize

Jane Robbins Mize is a senior in English and Liberal Arts Honors and is a current intern in the Ransom Center’s public affairs department. She recently worked in the Anne Sexton papers for her English class “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.”

 

After several undergraduate poetry courses, I had heard Anne Sexton’s name countless times. I’d read samples of her work in course packets and anthologies, and I knew she was a “confessional” poet and a contemporary of Sylvia Plath. But, I had never read a complete collection of her poems (I could not even name the title of one), and I was even less familiar with her family and career.

 

So when given the opportunity, I signed up to give an oral presentation on Anne Sexton’s life and work in my English class, “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.” In a preliminary conference with Professor Carol MacKay, she described to me the Ransom Center’s collection of Sexton’s manuscripts and suggested that I explore the archive myself before presenting. I unhesitatingly agreed and soon found myself in the Reading Room holding the manuscript of Sexton’s best-known collection, Live or Die.

 

Sexton began writing poetry as therapy for her post-partum depression in 1956, the year following the birth of her second daughter. Soon after, she began working with poets such as W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell and developed a close friendship with Maxine Kumin. She published her first collection, To Bedlam and Partway Back, in 1960. Just six years later, Sexton released her most celebrated work, Live or Die, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1967.

 

The manuscript of Live or Die is, in a word, raw. Through it, I was able to experience Sexton’s work in an unembellished state. That is to say, my reading of the poems was not influenced by the presentation of the collection. I encountered no introduction or blurbs, biography, or portrait. Instead, I found only the table of contents, dedication, and poems themselves—in addition to frequent penciled corrections. In this way, the manuscript introduced me to Sexton’s work through the content and nature of her poems rather than the reputation that precedes them.

 

My relationship with Sexton slipped quickly from vague acquaintance to deep familiarity as I scanned her correspondences and sifted through her notes, photographs, and even the digitized pages of the scrapbooks and journals of her youth. Through the archive, I was able to develop a more complete portrait of Sexton than that which could be presented in a written biography. I was collecting the details and, through them, gaining a deeper understanding of the woman’s life, character, and creative process.

 

It is exceedingly rare to meet a writer and explore her work through her private, personal, and unpublished papers. At the Ransom Center, however, hundreds of authors and artists are waiting to be introduced. I look forward to many more first encounters.

 

More than 50 fellowships provide opportunity to research at Ransom Center

By Jennifer Tisdale

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon on a Hazy Night, ca. 1887, color woodcut, Thomas Cranfill collection; Claude Bragdon, plate 30 from A Primer of Higher Space, 1939; Sir Edward Charles Blount and Gertrude Frances Jerningham Blount, Children motif, ca. 1870, collage of albumen prints, watercolor, pen & pencil in unpublished album, Gernsheim collection; Charlotte Brontë, manuscript of 'The Green Dwarf,' 1833, Brontë Family collection; Southeast Asian white parabaik (accordion book), Eastern Manuscripts collection.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon on a Hazy Night, ca. 1887, color woodcut, Thomas Cranfill collection; Claude Bragdon, plate 30 from A Primer of Higher Space, 1939; Sir Edward Charles Blount and Gertrude Frances Jerningham Blount, Children motif, ca. 1870, collage of albumen prints, watercolor, pen & pencil in unpublished album, Gernsheim collection; Charlotte Brontë, manuscript of 'The Green Dwarf,' 1833, Brontë Family collection; Southeast Asian white parabaik (accordion book), Eastern Manuscripts collection.

The Ransom Center has awarded more than 50 research fellowships for 2012–2013. The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, photographs, art, film and performing arts materials.

Christopher Grobe, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Amherst College, is one of the recently named 2012-2013 fellowship recipients that will conduct research at the Ransom Center. Grobe intends to work with the collections of Anne Sexton and Spalding Gray for his project “Performing Confession: Poetry, Performance, and New Media since 1959.”

Below Grobe shares information about his proposed research and working with collection materials.

When you want to experience a work of literature from decades or centuries past, you can always start by picking up a copy of the text. Performances, though, are seldom so easy to access. At best you can hope to triangulate them, and for that you need the documents left behind by those who planned and memorialized them. Archival research, then, is particularly vital to work in performance history. Thanks to this fellowship, I will be able to do such research in the Harry Ransom Center archives.

My current project offers a history and theory of “confessional performance.” This is my term for all the ways in which American autobiography has, over the last 60 years, become something not only to write but also to perform. I think of this project not only as a work of performance and cultural history but also as a provocation to studies of print autobiography. What does book-bound autobiography become when we see it not just as the product of writing but also as the product of (and prompt to) performance? What does the written life become in a culture of performed self-creation?

The Ransom Center holds the papers of two artists obsessed with precisely these questions, though from different sides of the print-performance divide: poet Anne Sexton and performer Spalding Gray.

Sexton began writing confessional verse amidst a craze for poetry readings and recordings, thus ensuring that she would constantly perform these poems in public. I’ll be looking not only at notes and correspondence related to her public readings but also at working drafts of her most frequently performed poems. After all, private “pre-performances” formed a crucial part of her writing and revision process—so even these drafts may constitute evidence of performance.

Gray, whose papers the Center acquired late in 2010, pioneered a mode of first-person monologue that he occasionally referred to as the “talking novel.” His performance practice has confounded anyone accustomed to drawing sharp lines between writing and talking, print and performance. I’ll be looking among his papers for signs of these entangled literary and theatrical aspirations. Of particular interest are the notes or outlines from which he developed his earliest monologues and the unpublished short stories he produced during those same years.

Of course, as with any such venture into the archive, I hope and expect to discover much more than I set out to find.

Related content:
Information about fellowships.

The Writer’s Project: Searching for something to say

By Alicia Dietrich

Noah Gordon. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Noah Gordon. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Noah Gordon is a Master of Arts student in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He teaches tenth grade American Literature as a student teacher at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. He recently spent time at the Ransom Center gathering materials to use in his classroom with high school sophomores and writes here about that experience.

Your high school English teacher probably wanted only your final draft. Even process-based writing instructors expect the final version to represent the author’s best work: scrubbed of grammatical errors and clunkers, defined and refined in logic and narrative structure. As much as possible, the product should be perfect.

It’s no wonder that writing is so daunting for most students. The only writing that they see covered in red ink is their own. Most of the canonical books they read have been edited and revised until every warty word has been excised, leaving a deceptively smooth, unblemished sheen. But how often do students see the actual process?

Now, with 34 tenth graders coming under my charge, I’m about to teach American Literature. How can I help my future students to make meaningful connections through reading and writing?

I visited the Harry Ransom Center to study how professional writers write and in an attempt to make literature more relevant to my life. My experience led me to wonder what would happen if my students read the day-by-day slog recorded in Steinbeck’s journal while they read The Grapes of Wrath. Could the corrections, carets, and scribbles in Whitman’s proofs of Leaves of Grass bring my students closer to writing their own poetry? I imagine a student reading “Two Minutes,” a short story by 14-year-old Tim O’Brien, and saying, “Well, I could do better than that.”

Reading through Anne Sexton’s teaching materials from Wayland High School, I was struck by how difficult teaching teenagers can be, even for a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet. And yet, thumbing through her students’ poems, I was inspired. It was exhilarating to look at drafts that I wasn’t supposed to see, to gain intimate access to each author’s life and to see the students’ vital search to find their words.

Your high school English teacher also probably wanted your work to appear effortless. But exposing the hard work may be the chief power the Ransom Center holds for students: the archive reveals not just the process, but also the project of writing. Every author’s project begins with finding something worth saying to someone. The Ransom Center is a catalog of each frustrated attempt as accomplished wordsmiths struggled to write precisely what they meant.

This is the spirit that I want to bring to my classroom: that meaningful connection is possible through the reading and writing of words. For our writing to be purposeful, we must find something meaningful to say. We must have a project. What becomes clear after reading the preserved papers is that they were written by human beings for other human beings.

I hope to share with my students what I learned from my week at the Center: that the canon’s authors’ godlike craft comes not solely from the natural ability, but from hard work, and that they, my students, potential authors of great literature, have much to contribute.