As a poet, and indeed as a person, Sexton was primarily concerned with telling stories. Diane Middlebrook begins her book Anne Sexton: A Biography with an account of Sexton’s press interviews, in which Sexton was usually asked to explain how she began writing poetry. Every time, she answered that question using many of the same facts and even many of the same phrases, as if she were improvising on a prepared script and changing it to suit the needs or expectations of the audience. Most interesting, however, was the form the story took. The story she told in answer to the question was based on the fairy tale of Snow White. The wicked queen became Sexton’s mother, her poisoned apple the pressure of society for her to conform to a conventional life as a wife and mother in the Boston suburbs. The poisoned sleep became her suicide attempts, from which she was awakened not by the kiss of a handsome prince but by psychotherapy and its manifestation in poetry. Living ‘‘happily ever after’’ was her career as a poet. Sexton often said that when she wrote something down, she remembered what she had written rather than the original idea or memory on which it was based.
The inability to distinguish between memories of actual events and memories of ideas, fantasies, or other kinds of narratives is known as confabulation. Sexton certainly seems to have had a propensity in this direction. She reported to her psychiatrist Martin Orne many facts and events she supposedly remembered about her family that his investigations showed had no basis in reality. She seemed rather to report narratives that she had created as if they were recollections of true events. In some cases she seems not to have been aware of what she was doing. But in other cases she was fully aware that what she said in therapy was entirely fictional. In 1957, she wrote a fifteen-page typescript called the ‘‘Personal Record.’’ This text has never been published, but Middlebrook summarizes and quotes extensively from it. Sexton produced her record to help keep straight for herself what she considered to be true and what she considered to be fabrications (she called them ‘‘truth crimes’’) in what she was telling Orne. This began when she made up a story about being molested by a family friend at the beach and was amazed that Orne accepted it as the truth. In her ‘‘Personal Record’’ she says the following:
“I am nothing, if not an actress off the stage. In fact, it comes down to the terrible truth that there is no true part of me. . . . I am a storymaker. . . . I know that often people in analysis will tell these great stories about . . . their father etc. and that they are fictitious but are a childhood fantasy.”
This shows that Sexton considered her therapeutic sessions to be as much a form of creative expression or performance as her poetry was. Moreover, she had admitted as much directly to Orne during one of their sessions. Again, Middlebrook quotes extensively from audio tapes of Sexton’s therapeutic sessions supplied to her by Orne: ‘‘I couldn’t make all this up or I don’t exist at all! Or do I make up a trauma to go with my symptoms?’’ To a highly unusual degree, therapy and poetry served the same purpose for Sexton, allowing her to create the narratives that obsessed and fulfilled her, as far as she was able to know fulfillment.
Sexton treated the theme of the separation of her identity from her parents in many of her works, using many different metaphors and guises, as Middlebrook observes. In her own life this transition was very difficult because of her disturbed relationship with her parents. In some respects the treatment of the theme in ‘‘Young’’ is more straightforward than in some of her other poems, in which it is deeply allegorical and symbolic. But ‘‘Young’’ is not truly the revelation of personal secrets in the simple sense suggested by the label confessional poetry. In fact it is highly contrived. It is a fictive narrative like any other poem, which at best can be said to have a relationship with the actual events of the poet’s life. Just as Sexton’s psychotherapy was the inspiration of her poetry, she used her therapy as another platform to create fictional narratives that were not simple statements of her life history but were metaphorical and analogical explorations of her feelings about that history. So the unusually detailed knowledge of Sexton’s therapy that is available does not throw light on the problem of finding confessed truths in her poetry. Instead, it reveals that her poetry and therapy together were a tangled web of fictive narratives that completely obscured her real life, that were both in some sense perhaps an effort on Sexton’s part to supply herself with a life history different than the one she lived.
Bearing in mind, then, that the narrative world of ‘‘Young’’ is not truly confessional and cannot be directly compared to Sexton’s personal life but rather is a product of artistic creation like any other poem, it is possible to look at the poem on its own terms. This reveals not confession but creation, and indeed, the word poetry comes from the ancient Greek word meaning creation. ‘‘Young’’ is not a report of Sexton’s life but of a life that Sexton created. The narrator of the poem presents herself as recalling the onset of adolescence, the time when one leaves behind the innocence of childhood and begins to assume a new identity or sense of self. The adult speaker is thus articulating the second major separation of the child’s identity from that of her parents as her body becomes physically mature and her sense of independence develops. The first separation occurs in infancy and earliest childhood when the infant must create a separate identity from the condition of absolute physical and emotional dependence of the newborn on its parents. The small child forms a sense of identity primarily through building relationships with the caregivers. But now the narrator of ‘‘Young’’ is attempting to describe the loss or death of that identity, and the transformation of that identity or the birth of a new and unknown identity that is not yet formed. The poem seeks to isolate a particular period of time as its language evokes the language of children. Its phraseology is often highly exaggerated and fabulist, as though a fairy tale is being told. But unlike a fairy tale, there is no moral, no happy ending. The poem asks questions for which it provides no answers. Ultimately, though, the experience of the adult makes the final tone of the poem wistful and almost mournful. The adult narrator is perhaps revisiting memories from the end of childhood precisely because her adult self still has not figured out any of the problems or questions about life that the adolescent also asked and had expected would be answered as she grew from childhood to adulthood. In the final sense, the poem’s adult speaker seems no more enlightened than the child. It indeed seems as if in some sense time in that person’s world stopped on that summer night and she has never been able to move beyond it.
How does the narrator recognize what we might call separation from the parents? First, her physical location. She is positioned outside the house, apart from her family. Moreover, it is nighttime—a time of day traditionally in poetry associated with mystery or the unknown. It is fairly clear that the speaker remembers her childhood as one in which she felt no lack of material comforts but felt isolated nevertheless, but this is the judgment of the adult, looking back and imposing truth upon her childhood. The adult narrator also characterizes her relationship with her parents as distant and dim. There is something threatening about the cones of light spilling out of her parents’ ‘eyes,’ rather like the searchlights looking for escapees in a prison movie. As children often do, the child the narrator used to be was seeking to escape and find, perhaps, solace and comfort in nature, hoping that this could be the place she could go with all her unanswered questions. Readers recognize that the child the narrator remembers feels and understands as an adult that there was little meaningful communication within the family (notice her mother and father have separate bedrooms), and the grown speaker also sees that the child she was attempted to fill this need by seeking a meaningful connection elsewhere, with the earth and the sky, in other words with the cosmos or the divine. The adolescent thus acted on her impulse by separating herself physically from her parents. The narrator recalls how she evoked and solicited wisdom, which she obviously did not receive from her parents, from the heavens and from death.
‘‘Young’’ stands in a self-contained world created by Sexton, which does not confess Sexton’s inner life and past history but is built on those foundations like any other poem. ‘‘Young’’ was first published in her collection All My Pretty Ones, whose title comes from a line of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which the character MacDuff learns of the death of his children and refers to them as ‘‘all my pretty ones’’ (act 4, scene 3, line 216). Sexton’s poem is not about her childhood but is perhaps about a childhood that she might have had, a childhood that died without being realized.
W. D. Snodgrass, Sexton’s patron and a leading confessional poet, never liked that term, not only because he considered it too limiting a conception of his poetry but because in the end the concept was not useful. Every poet reveals himself as he writes, so that is not an especially distinguishing criterion, and every poet fictionalizes herself and her experience, the confessional poets no less than any others. Although the term seems destined to be attached to Snodgrass, Plath, Sexton, and the other confessional poets because they constitute a closely knit school bound by ties of time, subject matter, style, and personal connections between the poets, critics soon lost their enthusiasm for reading their poetry as truly personal confessions of secret truths. Sexton created in ‘‘Young’’ a moment in a young woman’s life, but it is not a moment of Sexton’s own life. For Sexton, confession, whether in verse or in therapy, was an exercise in fictive creation.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Anne Sexton, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Bradley A. Skeen, Critical Essay on ‘‘Young,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.