'I think it would be better to be a Jew'

Anne Sexton and the Holocaust

in Critical Survey
View More View Less
  • 1 University of Newcastle melanie.waters@northumbria.ac.uk
Restricted access

Writing in postwar America for an eighteen-year period between 1956 and 1974, the poet Anne Sexton was repeatedly drawn to the Holocaust, and its awkward cultural legacy, as a source of creative inspiration. Still, while her contemporary, Sylvia Plath, has generated a series of fierce debates as a result of the Nazi–Jew symbolism in her poems ‘Daddy’ (1962) and ‘Lady Lazarus’ (1962), there have been no sustained excavations of Sexton’s own complex relationship to the Holocaust. In this article, I aim to shed new light on Sexton’s use of Holocaust imagery by making detailed reference to three of her poems: ‘My Friend, My Friend’ (1959), ‘Hansel and Gretel’ (1971), and ‘After Auschwitz’ (1974). Written at various stages in her career, these poems not only engage with the subject matter of the Holocaust at the level of content, but also at the level of form. More explicitly, these poems display a range of formal eccentricities that register the difficulties of converting the Holocaust into poetry and which, I argue, might be usefully reconsidered alongside recent theoretical discourses on aesthetics, psychoanalysis, and trauma.