Christopher Grobe

Assistant Professor, Amherst College

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Centering the Margins: The Poetry Performances of Anne Sexton and Her Fans

Seminar on "Performances on the Periphery" (ACLA 2014; New York, NY)

Whenever a cosmopolitan performer tours, the center meets the periphery. But something subtler happens when that performer works in a culturally peripheral art form and represents a socially marginalized identity: the margins meet each other and, if all goes well, they invent their own centrality. By all accounts, Anne Sexton’s poetry readings were exactly such galvanizing events—for people suffering from mental illness, for women racked by “the problem that has no name” (before it had even that one), and for dissenters from Cold War American culture more generally—“secret beatniks” to use Sexton’s epithet for herself. Indeed, the mere fact of these readings was a powerful thing—that at midcentury, before second-wave feminism made such spectacles more common, a woman stood behind a microphone in Cazenovia, NY and Fayetteville, AR and Muncie, IN and El Paso, TX and she spoke the truth of her experience. But very little evidence of these readings remains—and, well, suppose we had more: could we, from our belated vantage point, really understand exactly what was so startling and enthralling about them?

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe