Lyric Essentials: Sarah Lilius reads Anne Sexton

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week poet Sarah Lilius joined us to read poems written by Anne Sexton, and discuss the nature of confessional poetry and how there is an intense intimacy when being open in your work. Thank you for tuning in!


Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: During our correspondence, you’ve mentioned that Anne Sexton is your favorite poet. As you’ve grown as both a poet and an individual how has Anne Sexton influenced you? 

Sarah Lilius: When I was younger, I was always struck by how confessional Sexton’s poetry is. I’m sure that her work has definitely influenced mine over the years. I find myself writing from my own experiences and it’s often therapeutic, much like hers was intended to be at first. Much of my work is drawn from my experiences as a woman and as someone who has faced mental health struggles. I think of Anne Sexton as my favorite poet not only because I love her work, but because I always come back to it for inspiration. I think
Sexton’s poetry is refreshing not off putting because it’s confessional.

Sarah Lilius reads “Her Kind” by Anne Sexton.

AH: On a similar vein to the previous question, as you’ve grown older or more experienced, has your view of Anne Sexton and her work shifted?

SL: Some of my viewpoints towards Sexton changed after I read her daughter’s memoir (Searching for Mercy Street: My Journal Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton by Linda Gray Sexton). On the one hand, the book strengthened the argument for me that mental illness should be taken seriously and treated adequately. The stigma of mental illness is a dangerous societal problem that ruins lives. I think access to education about mental health issues and mental health care is crucial to help the situation. Despite the negative allegations surrounding Sexton, I think her work is important to the poetry canon because it still adds a strong female voice. On the other hand, I’m torn by the viewpointof Sexton painted by her daughter. Should we revere someone that harms their children? I think I need time to process how I feel about this issue.

Sarah Lilius reads “Wanting to Die” by Anne Sexton.

AH: What compelled you to choose these specific poems? 

SL: I chose “Her Kind” because I know what it feels like to be a “different” kind of woman. When I was growing up, especially as a teenager and young woman, I often had different ways of looking at things, of understanding the world. I’m still like that today; it could be the poetry life inside my mind. Also, I like the tone of the poem which is confident and haunting. In general, it’s easy to be misunderstood when you’re a woman. Others tend to pigeonhole women into categories or to stereotype us and then treat us how they think is appropriate. I like the language and imagery that Sexton uses, such as, the witch in the neighborhood, the cave stanza which reminds me of a woman in a kitchen, and the last stanza which shows a woman being drove around in a cart. The last stanza has a feeling of escape and freedom and then she writes, “a woman like that is not ashamed to die,” and I think this line leads into the other poem I picked, “Wanting to Die.” Sexton owns the very idea of death and is unafraid what others will think of her when she does take her own life.

I chose “Wanting to Die” because of the frank, specific nature of the language and how the idea of wanting to die is taboo in our culture. The lust of wanting to commit suicide is something that consumed Sexton and ultimately destroyed her. She lost the struggle, but I like to think of myself and hopefully many others as being able to resist that incredible feeling, to get the help we need and live out our lives. The fact that Sexton started writing poems as a form of therapy is interesting and poignant to this matter. Poetry is an important art form used to express oneself and to interpret the world. Poetry couldn’t save Anne Sexton and I think we, as poets, can learn from that.

AH: What do you admire most in Sexton’s poems? 

SL: I most admire Sexton’s unabashed sense of self in her work and also the images she chooses. Often her poems seem just commonplace but then she will hit the reader with an obscure image or great sound, and I love that. My favorite Anne Sexton poem is “The Truth the Dead Know” because the grief she expresses feels concrete and almost like a living thing. I think grief poems are the hardest to write and this poem always hits it for me especially after my father died. “I am tired of being brave” she writes. This sentiment feels perfect.

Sarah Lilius is the author of five chapbooks including GIRL (dancing girl press, 2017) and Traffic Girl (Ghost City Press, 2020). Her first full-length poetry collection is forthcoming from Indie Blu(e) Publishing. Some of her publication credits include the Denver Quarterly, Court GreenFourteen Hills, Boulevard, and forthcoming in the Massachusetts Review and New South. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net Prize. She lives in Arlington, VA with her husband and two sons. Her website is sarahlilius.com.

Further reading:

neil young gives me heart palpitations in the living room,” published in perhappened

Ode to COVID-19,” published in Global Poemic

Hominidae or Homo Sapiens,” published in Willawaw Journal

Anne Sexton was born in Massachusetts and is seen as a face of the confessional poetry movement. She was a trailblazer who was seen as very autobiographical in nature, as she wrote about intimate details of her life, such as depression, her interpersonal relationships, and thoughts of suicide. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for her collection Live or Die.

Read her work here.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi has had work appear in Into the Void Magazine, Mud Season Review, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She currently reads for Mud Season Review and EX/POST Magazine, is the Playwriting & Director’s Apprentice at New Perspectives Theatre Company, was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow, and is the co-Editor in Chief of Juven Press. She can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com

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