You could think of Anne Sexton as Betty Draper: beautiful, smart, and deeply, deeply unhappy. Like our favorite Mad Men heroines, Sexton was a model as a young woman, married early, and tried her hardest to be happy as a housewife. Like Betty, though, Sexton quickly realized that a pretty little home in the 'burbs wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Her poetry lays bare all of the ways that her life has been punctuated by mental illness and circumscribed by rigid definitions of what a woman "should" do or think or believe.
Sexton's name is right up there with a handful of other poets as one of the most-read poets of the twentieth century. Her name gets coupled with Sylvia Plath's just about all the time. Maybe it's because they both killed themselves. Maybe it's because they both wrote in the twentieth century. Here at Shmoop, though, we like to think that it's because they both explored the complicated role that women played in the mid-twentieth century.
Funny thing is, Sexton tends to get a bad rap from critics – both when she first published and, well, now. Apparently her no-holds-barred emotional tell-all makes some people a little bit uneasy. Maybe it's the fact that her confessional style isn't disguised by ornate turns of phrase or any of the formal tricks that so many poets tend to have up their sleeves. Maybe it's just that we all tend to get a bit weirded out when someone we've never even met starts spilling serious dirt.
Whatever it is, "Her Kind" is quintessential Sexton – so if you're not sure whether you're a Sexton fan or foe, this poem is a good litmus test. It's the sort of poem Sexton's known for: deep emotions, straight-speaking, and a healthy dose of social critique.
Published in 1960, "Her Kind" was part of the collection To Bedlam and Part Way Back. For those of you who haven't kept up with your nineteenth-century history, "Bedlam" was the nickname for one of London's most notorious mental institutions. We're guessing that Sexton chose to reference Bedlam in the title of her first collection because, as it turns out, she began writing while spending time in a mental institution. Choosing to describe her collection as a trip "part way back" to mental health allowed Sexton to shock her readers even as she confessed her ongoing depression and sense of social alienation.
So: is Sexton making literary bank off of her own misery? Or is she just trying to find a public voice for issues which no one seems to want to talk about? Well, that's up to you…
Ever have one of those days when you don't quite seem to fit in with anyone around you? When everything you say or do doesn't make sense to anyone but you? When the whole world seems to be a suburban nightmare? When all of your options turn out to be no options at all?
The loner, the loser, the freak…they're pretty much what Molly Ringwald made a career of. From The Breakfast Club to Pretty in Pink, the moral of her story goes something like this: everyone feels trapped sometimes. And every now and then, everyone needs to get away. Where Molly (and the '80s in general) find happy endings, though, this poem allows us to think through lives that don't end in prom dresses and power ballads. Not everything gets a picture-perfect ending, after all. In fact, sometimes the reminder of difficulty can be empowering.
For the speaker of this poem, getting away means retreating into fantasies about women as powerful and, well, scary as she herself can be. And it's precisely those dreams that allow her to get in touch with the sorts of strength and purpose that don't rely on lipstick or high heels – or, for that matter, any of the other trappings of stereotypical womanhood. And hey – nontraditional forms of power? That's gotta be pretty thrilling. Even if you don't happen to be a woman.