Most Admired: Anne Sexton

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Anne Sexton (1928-1974)
Anne Sexton was an American poet best known for her personal autobiographical style of confessional verse. In 1967 she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book “Live or Die.” Additionally she was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the first woman to be a member of the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. The main themes of her poetry consisted of her suicidal tendencies, her battle with depression, isolation, and personal details of her intimate life including her marriage and children. In 1928 she was born in Newton, Massachusetts and would remain in the Boston area for the rest of her forty-five years. She married in 1948 and had two daughters. She was diagnosed with what is now called bipolar disorder and struggled with it much of her life, including several suicide attempts and a long relationship with Glenside Hospital. On October 4th, 1974 she put on her mother’s fur coat, removed her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in her garage turning on the car and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Besides her reoccurring themes of depression, isolation and suicide she also focused on certain issues specific to women which were not commonly addressed in poetry up to that point such as menstruation and abortion. She also more broadly addressed such subjects as masturbation and adultery all subjects that were taboo up until that point. Early in her career she focused almost entirely on autobiographical verse, but as her career progressed she made attempts to reach outside her own personal experience. One of her most successful of these was the book, “Transformations,” in which she retold Grimm’s fairy tales. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. commented after reading the book, “God love her.” The poet Denise Levertov said of her death, “We who are alive must make clear, as she could not, the distinction between creativity and self-destruction.”
A link to Anne Sexton reading her poem “Her Kind” :
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15297

A few quotes :
“All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children…. I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.”

“Death, I need my little addiction to you. I need that tiny voice who, even as I rise from the sea, all woman, all there, says kill me, kill me.”

“The beautiful feeling after writing a poem is on the whole better even than after sex, and that’s saying a lot.”

Wanting To Die – By Anne Sexton

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.
Then the almost unnameable lust returns.
Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun.
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.
In this way, heavy and thoughtful,
warmer than oil or water,
I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.
I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.
Still-born, they don’t always die,
but dazzled, they can’t forget a drug so sweet
that even children would look on and smile.
To thrust all that life under your tongue!–
that, all by itself, becomes a passion.
Death’s a sad Bone; bruised, you’d say,
and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison.
Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,
raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon,
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,
leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love, whatever it was, an infection.

Most Admired: Mary Wollstonecraft

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Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
Mary Wollstonecraft was an eighteenth century English writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights. She wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. She is best known for her 1792 book, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” Through it she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear so simply because they lack the education. She posits both men and women should be treated as rational beings and bring about a social order founded on reason. Today she is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers and her unconventional life is also cited as a fundamental influence among certain feminists.
A few of her quotes summarize some of her beliefs much more adequately than I could ever attempt :

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

“If we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”

“It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men.”

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”
“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

“It is time to effect a revolution in female manners – time to restore to them their lost dignity – and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners.”

“Love from its very nature must be transitory. To seek for a secret that would render it constant would be as wild a search as for the philosopher’s stone or the grand panacea: and the discovery would be equally useless, or rather pernicious to mankind. The most holy band of society is friendship.”
~ Mary Wollstonecraft

Most Admired: Christine de Pizan

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Christine de Pizan (1363-circa 1430)

Christine de Pizan (or Pisan) was a Venetian born late medieval woman poet. She was highly regarded in her own day and during her thirty year career as Europe’s first professional woman writer completing forty-one works. She tirelessly challenged misogyny and the stereotypes of the late medieval period. She was widowed by age twenty-four and much of her motivation for her writing came from her need to earn a living for not only herself but her children. Her early poetry was of the courtly genre and marked by her knowledge of aristocratic custom and fashion of the day involving women and the practice of chivalry. In recent decades her works have once again returned to prominence through the scholarly efforts of those such as Simone de Beauvoir among others. There is some argument among scholars as whether to see her as an early feminist or that her beliefs were not progressive enough.

In 1390 with the death of her husband she was faced with the prospect of being left to support her mother, a niece and her two children. She began writing love ballads which garnered the attention of several patrons within the court who commissioned her to compose texts of their romantic exploits as they were intrigued by the novelty of having a woman writer. It is estimated that between 1393 and 1412 she was quite prolific having composed over three-hundred ballads and shorter poems. In 1401-1402 she engaged in a debate over Jean de Meun’s portrayal of women as nothing much more than seducers in his work “Romance of the Rose.” The result of the debate was more profound for her than the actual conclusions as it established her reputation as a female intellectual in a male dominated realm.

By 1405 she had completed her most successful literary works, “The Book of the City of Ladies,” and “The Treasure of the City of Ladies.” In these two works she argued and showed the importance of women’s past contributions to society and then attempted to illustrate and teach women how to cultivate qualities to counteract the growth of misogyny. She argues that women must recognize and promote their ability to make peace between their husband and his subjects. She believed that slanderous speech destroys the sisterly bond among women, “skill in discourse should be a part of every woman’s moral repertoire.” The works give a fascinating portrait of women in the 1400’s offering advice for women’s lives from the lady in the castle to the servant, peasant and even the prostitute. Through all of this she asserts than woman’s influence is realized when her speech unifies value to chastity, virtue and restraint.

Simone de Beauvoir in 1949 described her as, “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex.” Perhaps this makes her the western world’s first feminist.

A few quotes :

“Just as women’s bodies are softer than men’s, so their understanding is sharper.”

“I say it to thee again, and doubt never the contrary, that if it were the custom to put the little maidens to the school, and they were made to learn the sciences as they do to the men-children, that they should learn as perfectly, and they should be”

“Ah, child and youth, if you knew the bliss which resides in the taste of knowledge, and the evil and ugliness that lies in ignorance, how well you are advised to not complain of the pain and labor of learning.”

“Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.”
~ Christine de Pizan

Most Admired: Edith Wharton

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Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

Edith Wharton is well known as one the more prolific American writers of the twentieth century, being a novelist and short story writer as well as a garden and interior designer. In 1921 she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for one of her best known novels, “The Age of Innocence.” It has been made into at least three movies, the most recent being the Martin Scorsese film released in 1993. In 1923 she became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale.

During her long life her literary endeavors were encouraged by a varied group friends of both the literary elite and other notable public personalities such as: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry James, Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide and Theodore Roosevelt. Additionally she met both Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her upbringing and varied group of friends and influences provided her with unique insights into the upper class. Through all her life her polished prose and humor produced fiction which appealed to a large audience. She received the French Legion of Honor for her philanthropic work during World War I, and was additionally a member of the National Institute of the Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In addition to notable novels such as “The Age of Innocence,” “The House of Mirth,” and “Ethan Frome,” she also wrote at least eighty-five short stories and non-fiction dealing with her European travels and Interior and Garden design such as “Italian Villas and Their Gardens,” and “French Ways and Their Meaning.” She is best known for her novels with portraits of New York’s upper class during pre-World War I society. She used both humor and empathy to discuss their vanishing world at the beginning of the twentieth century. In such novels as “Ethan Frome” she was much more harsh and critical of the rural lower class of Massachusetts.

A few short quotes :

“Nothing is more perplexing to a man than the mental process of a woman who reasons her emotions.”

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.”

“Life is always either a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”
~ Edith Wharton

Most Admired: Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Adeline Virginia Woolf is well known as one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. The English author, novelist, essayist, biographer, feminist, publisher and writer of short stories is best known for her novels “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To The Lighthouse,” “Orlando,” and her book length essay, “A Room Of One’s Own.” From this essay she is often quoted, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

She began writing professionally in 1900 with an article about Haworth, the home of the Bronte family for the Times Literary Supplement. Her first novel “The Voyage Out” was published in 1915 by her half-brother. She would go on to publish novels and essays as an intellectual to both critical and popular success. Much of her work was self-published through the Hogarth Press. Her work was often criticized for its narrow portrayal of the upper middle class intellectuals and lacked anything of ethical or emotional relevance for the common reader. She is often criticized as well for being perceived as an anti-Semite despite the fact she was happily married to a Jewish man and condemned Christianity as self-righteous egotism and in a letter to her friend Ethel Smyth, “my Jew has more religion in one toe nail—more human love, in one hair.” Additionally her distaste for fascism and its ties to anti-Semitism is quite plainly spelled out in her book, “Three Guineas.” Her final work, “Between the Acts,” aptly expresses some of her main themes : transformation of life through art, sexual ambivalence, and the flux of time throughout one’s life at the same time being a deterioration and renewal.

Throughout her life Virginia suffered from several “breakdowns” as a result of having symptoms that conform to bipolar disorder, the first occurring by the sudden death of her mother when she was thirteen. Her most significant episode occurred after the death of her father in 1904 and was in turn briefly institutionalized after her first suicide attempt. Modern scholars have suggested her recurring depressive periods were a result of sexual abuse both her and her sister were subjected to by her half-brothers. She vividly recounts this in an autobiographical essay, “A Sketch of the Past,” which can be now read in “Moments of Being” a collection of posthumously-published autobiographical essays. She wrote of the event, “I can remember the feel of his hands going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower, I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts. But he did not stop.”

Throughout her life she struggled with periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. Though this often affected her social life, her literary career and productivity continued with very few breaks. After the completion of “Between the Acts” she fell into a deep depression. The onset of World War II and the destruction of her London home in the bombing only deepened it. On March 28th, 1941 she filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse which runs through the counties of West and East Sussex near her home. In her last note to her husband she wrote :

“Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
~ Virginia Woolf