115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Anne Sexton and “Her Kind” of Hybrid Verse and Chorus: Poetry’s Infiltration of Mid-Century Musical Performance

William Mohr, California State University, Long Beach

As mid-century public audiences for popular music began savoring more complicated lyrics, poets such as Anne Sexton responded by enfolding poems with live music. In this diffusion of formal poetry into show business, Sexton provided an early example of poets reconfiguring the social values of their work.

Proposal: 

Recent anthologies of contemporary poetry have begun including popular song lyrics as work nominated for canonical recognition. The recent award of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan has served to underline that cultural shift in the dialogue between “high” and “low” culture. Full academic acceptance of the idiomatic, conversational song lyric, which often depends on its musical accompaniment to amplify its nuances, will likely require further theoretical reconciliation by poets and critics as to what characteristics primarily define a work as a poem. At mid-century, however, some working poets perceived the desire of songwriters to embed their lyrics in a poetics that transcended entertainment as offering an opposite but equal possibility of influx: why should poems not also be heard by public audiences with equal grace notes? Among the poets between 1965 and 1980 to insert themselves into this hybridity, one of the first was Anne Sexton, whose band “In Kind” extended the presence of mainstream poetry into the early discourse about poetry and popular culture. This paper will consider Sexton as an early example of the emergence of a confessional paradigm within the merging of verse and chorus.