sexton, vonnegut, depression, and writing.

photo  by TommyOshima.

i’ve read confessional poet extraordinaire anne sexton a lot lately particularly as i have developed the series on depression that i started posting this week. i don’t think there are many people who have written about the disorder better than sexton. she writes about most things better than anyone else but depression is a particularly difficult subject to describe because of its tendency to eat away at your senses. sometimes, i feel like i have huge holes in my memories from periods of my life when depression strangled my world. i know a lot of people must feel that way because of the distortion that depression causes. how then do you write about something that you can’t even see clearly?

…   …   …   …   …   …

my favorite sexton poem: “barefoot.”
the poet of ignorance,” a poem about the helplessness of depression that particularly grips me.
lessons in hunger,” one of her last poems before her suicide.


i love sexton’s fairy tale reincarnation transformations and kurt vonnegut jr’s foreward in the book:

I asked a poet friend one time what it was that poets did, and he thought awhile, and then he told me, “They extend the language.”

Anne Sexton does a deeper favor for me: she domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop wild in my forest once more.

–Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

i love his interpretation of her writing. sexton writes about the most intimate corners of her life but it never seems narcissistic or overdramatic; she allows a voice for every one of the emotions running rampant in you.

i remember the first time i read transformations. i was staying with an ex in brooklyn who had the most amazing little apartment. his roommate had decorated the living room with a small sofa, wooden statues that resembled different parts of a tree, and piles of piles of books in every corner. for days i wanted to walk around the room barefoot and touch all of the different books. i didn’t though because i’ve always felt like looking through someone’s book collection was too intimate for a stranger to do (his roommate was away on assignment in africa — i never met him) but my ex, a devout writer yet very reluctant reader, laughed at me and laid a giant pile of books on my lap. it was then that i found transformations and entered the mind of sexton for the first time.

i have yet to read any of vonnegut’s books (he’s on my to read list). however, i do love to read and reread his eight rules (particularly #7) for short story writing which are from Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

He qualifies the list by saying that Flannery O’Connor, and other great writers tend to break all the rules except for #1.

i love the fact that he adds that little clause at the end about breaking the rules. rules and tips are great especially when writers are first developing their style and voice but who needs rules when it comes to creativity?

photo by Coffeelatte.  quote from the sexton poem “knee song.”

About lissa e.

Lissa's offerings include integrative mental health care, meditation and mindful movement (yoga, qigong, improvisation) instruction, and writings offered in an inclusive, compassionate, culturally responsive, and social justice-oriented framework as part of a lifelong mission to reduce suffering for all beings. If you appreciate this offering and would like to support Lissa and their mission to offer sliding scale and donation-based offerings, feel free to donate at venmo @embodiedheartmind or Thank you. View all posts by lissa e.

17 responses to “sexton, vonnegut, depression, and writing.

  • Paul

    I’ll make you a deal. I’ll promise to read Anne Sexton if you promise to read the ancient and noble Mr Vonnegut. (If he liked her work, she must be great.)

    • lissa

      deal but it might take a few months until i get to him. i have a huge stack of books waiting in line for me. which book should i start with for vonnegut?

  • sexton, vonnegut, depression, and writing. | Depression Knowledge Info Blog

    […] Read more here: sexton, vonnegut, depression, and writing. […]

  • johemmant

    I love Sexton and I love Flannery O’Connor. The turn in Barefoot:
    You do
    drink me. The gulls kill fish,

    Wonderful. This was a really interesting post, thanks Lissa.

    And I examine book collections the first chance I get…..I’d sooner go through someone’s books then ask them questions about their live!

    • lissa

      thanks jo. that part is great. that poem is just breathtaking. you’re right. it can be so tedious to ask questions and you’ll find out so much more by just looking through their books.

  • johemmant

    life. Grrrr. Too early. Not properly awake :)

  • somewhat voluble

    I’ve never read Sexton’s work, but I’ve been reading Sylvia Plath lately, and I’ve heard their work is similar?

    • lissa

      their work is similar in that they both are confessional and share similar topics incl. mental illness and suicide, but i find their writing styles to be different (plath-more direct, sexton-more subtle) and am drawn more to the images and language that sexton uses.

  • Paul

    Oh what a question. You could read them chronologically and go on a lifetimes journey with one of the most amazing human type humanist minds of all time. Or you could just read, “Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.” You see Mr Vonnegut came from a time when writing meant getting people to read you but he was also the definition of a gentleman and tried as hard as he could to add value to the lives of his readers. Now do I really have to go and read another confessional poet? Oh well,
    P.S. You rock!

  • Cynthia

    I’ve always adored Anne Sexton and her courage to
    reach into the pit of the volcano [depression]
    and to come up with a bouquet made of lava
    and pebbles and gems.
    Oh Yeah! Transformation is utterly fascinating.
    A professor of mine gave that book to me a decade
    ago with the challenge of re-writing or possibly
    inventing my own fairy tales. Thanks for reminding
    me, Lissa this weekend is a great time to immerse myself in her words.

  • Cynthia

    And mega thanks for the Vonnegut piece, I just wrote
    down his list. Now, I really should read one of his

  • Julie

    Hello. I love your blog. It’s beautiful.

    This is an interesting topic. Flannery O’Connor is one of my idols. Each time I read one of her stories, I discover something new.

    I also find your series on depression very interesting, because someone I love struggles with depression. You’re right about Sexton’s writing. It’s awesome and also helpful. Thanks for sharing this great post.

  • Judith Ellis

    Ah, Lissa, what a most beautiful post. Thank you so much for the honesty and care with which you have assembled your thoughts and those of others. There is a gift in this and you, dear writer, have done it well.

    I have not read Sexton or Vonnegut, but you make me want to soon add them to my reading list. I did come across something that spoke of Vonnegut, I included it on my blog after reading it in the introduction of John Bogle’s brilliant “business” book, ENOUGH. It was a reminder that we have become too fixated on material things, namely the pursuit of money:

    “At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch – 22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough”

    Thanks again, Lissa. Have a super day!

  • stevi

    I love Sexton. What a talented (and very beautiful) woman she was. My favourite poem of hers is Her Kind. (I have gone out / a possessed witch) Thanks for reminding me.

  • rebecca

    This was the line that immediately stuck out to me: “sometimes, i feel like i have huge holes in my memories from periods of my life when depression strangled my world.” I can so, so relate. Anyone who has been there, has experienced it, I believe cannot remember much for the mind at the time was morbidly filled with other thoughts that did not allow any of what little light you might have experienced then to be remembered.

    Wishing well, Lissa….

  • How to Get Six Pack Fast

    This is quite a up-to-date information. I’ll share it on Facebook.

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