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Gender, body, and feminine performance: Edna St.Vincent Millay's impact on Anne Sexton

abstract

This paper will discuss Edna Millay's influence on Anne Sexton, with particular reference to issues such as gender politics, femininity, performativity, and the female body. Through close comparative readings of some of the two women's most representative poems, I analyze, firstly, how Millay's outspokenness and daring self-presentation as a woman writer facilitated Sexton's handling of material that was previously considered unacceptable for poetry and, secondly, how Sexton expanded the scope of women's writing in a manner that paid tribute to the earlier poet's innovation. My paper maintains that Millay's repeated attempts to explore gender and interrogate the concept of ‘authentic’ femininity anticipated Sexton's overtly feminist works. Ultimately, I am arguing that, despite the literary climate of the 1960s (which urged the rejection of poets like Millay) and despite her own ambiguous feelings for the earlier poet, Sexton eventually recovered Millay as an important literary predecessor for her generation, consistently imitated her artistic posturing, performance strategies, and self-presentation, and finally acknowledged her unique contribution to women's writing.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Emphasis Hecht's; quoted by Middlebrook (1991: pp. 277–278). Hecht's comment regarding Sexton's impact is certainly not negligible, considering that Pablo Neruda and W.H. Auden were the two distinguished figures of that event.

  2. 2.

    Cited in Middlebrook (1991: 319–320). For a challenging reading of Sexton's ‘feminine’ poetic performances and of her self-packaging as a marketable cultural icon, see also Bronfen (1998).

  3. 3.

    For an interesting view of Sextons's use of the body, as well as of her understanding of performativity / poetic personae in relation to her teaching career, see also Salvio (1999).

  4. 4.

    The elements that Clark interprets as ‘feminine’ in the above excerpt are Millay's ‘coquettish’ use of language, and her ‘girlish cleverness and wit’.

  5. 5.

    All poems quoted hereafter are reprinted by permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Copyright by Anne Sexton.

  6. 6.

    Consider also Sandra M. Gilbert's argument in ‘Female Female Impersonator: Millay and the Theatre of Personality’, according to which ‘a number of literary women – notably Plath and Sexton, along with such other poets as Rich and Levertov – have followed Millay's path of self-dramatization, narrating confessional histories of the self which use the fertishized private life of a woman to comment on the public state of the world’; cited in Thesing (1993: 293–312 (309)).

  7. 7.

    For an excellent reading of Millay's short story see Veatch-Pulley (1993).

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Michailidou, A. Gender, body, and feminine performance: Edna St.Vincent Millay's impact on Anne Sexton. Fem Rev 78, 117–140 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.fr.9400150

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Keywords

  • women poets
  • Millay
  • Sexton
  • literary influence