Singer and colleague find lost works by Pulitzer-winning poet

Two years ago, Louisiana Tech assistant professor of English Dr. Erin Singer and a colleague at the University of Idaho, Zachary Turpin, discovered unpublished work by Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Sexton.

Now 44 years after the poet’s death — because of the persistence and research of both Singer and Turpin and the cooperation of Sexton’s daughter — the work was published this week.

Sexton, who suffered from mental illness for much of her life, was born in 1928 and died by suicide in 1974. She won the Pulitzer for poetry for her book, Live or Die, in 1967.

This week the re-discovered work — four early poems and an essay — was published in Fugue, a literary journal.

“It’s great material, and though it’s been a long road, we are happy to share this discovery with the world this month,” Singer said.

In an interview on a local National Public Radio affiliate in Boise, Idaho, Singer called Sexton “one of the most important poets of the mid-20th Century, if not the whole century. It’s confessional poetry: the poems move away from traditional subjects for poetry into more personal topics, as well as (non-traditional) form and language.”

The entire interview is available online.

Turpin said the way these literary researchers went about discovering the work was “nothing complicated.”

“One day doing some basic byline searches, we found things that didn’t look familiar to us,” he said. “We got in contact with scholars of Sexton all over the world. We got in touch with her daughter (Linda Sexton) and thought we’d be politely rebuffed — but she was immediately all-in on the project.”

“(Linda) has been absolutely essential to the process,” Singer said. “This is a nice story between publisher and executor and researcher working together. We felt that since (this work) existed but was not well known, it should see the light of day; she partnered with us to make that happen.”

“This sort of thing happens all the time,” Turpin said, “and it’s the sort of thing that reveals just how little we know about the literature we love and know so well.”

“Sexton burst onto the scene in the mid-20th Century as a very powerful poet,” Singer said. “These four poems, they’re some of the most valuable new poems in the world right now; these show both her development as an emerging poetic voice, but also someone whose poetry was both experimental and personal. (This work) shows this particular moment in history that was lost.”

Singer said that Sexton’s writing was part of her therapy in the late-1950s after she was discharged from a psychiatric stay; this re-discovered work is from that time period when Sexton was basically declaring herself a poet.

“This not only gives us a better understanding of Sexton herself and confessional poetry at its beginning,” Turpin said, “but it also radically reorients our sense of what is possible in literary studies.”

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