Berryman, Sexton and the Possibilities of Poetic Language

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2 Citations (Scopus)


This paper examines a select number of poems by Middle Generation poets John Berryman and Anne Sexton in relation to questions of death, silence and the task that literature sets itself as understood in key works by Blanchot, Heidegger, and Levinas. Rather than recourse to the overtrodden critical path of confessional interpretations of their work, this paper connects Berryman’s The Dream Songs (1969) and two Sexton poems (‘Oh’ and ‘The Silence’) to the philosophical determinations of what it is language can say and what demands literature makes of the writer prepared to risk their own being in answer to its call. Central issues such as suicide and the originating silence of the work of art are intricately interwoven with Berryman’s and Sexton’s work. Leaving aside their biographies, and by approaching suicide as a philosophical problem with which their poetry wrestles, a restructured approach to their work becomes available. The impulse to suicide and the mental processes involved in considering and committing the act are instincts and responses located within an individual’s own psychology. For these writers particularly such issues are sited within a philosophical debate about language, what it can and cannot represent. If poetry articulates language’s argument about its own capability, it is the ideal forum for philosophical confrontations with the possibilities of existence as represented by the grave decision to take one’s own life. © The Author 2013.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)380-404
Number of pages25
JournalEnglish: The Journal of the English Association
Issue number239
Early online date20 Aug 2013
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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