What started as a simple archival search has turned into the discovery of a lifetime for Zachary Turpin.
Turpin, an assistant professor of American literature at the University of Idaho, considers himself a “literary archaeologist.” He takes great pride in discovering previously undiscovered works, in unearthing pieces that have not seen the light of day.
Turpin and his colleagues recently found previously unknown writings by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, whose confessional style of writing made her one of the most well-known poets of the 20th century and placed her on the Mount Rushmore of her field.
The works will be published by Halloween in Fugue, a literary journal run by graduate students in English and creative writing at the school.
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“It was an exercise in curiosity,” Turpin told the Statesman in an email. “And, yet, after plenty of gentle failures, it did yield something.”
A simple search
Having had recent success in uncovering works by 19th century poets Walt Whitman and Emma Lazarus, Turpin decided the next step was looking for works from the 20th century. He and a colleague created a list of poets they wished they could find more about: Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Sexton.
Born in 1928 in Massachusetts, Sexton rose to prominence in the early 1960s. She wrote seven collections in her lifetime and had an additional three published after her death. “Live or Die,” written in 1966, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967.
Sexton was not without her demons, and her legacy is not without its controversy, however. She had serious bouts of postpartum depression throughout her life, as well as pill and alcohol dependency, according to The Poetry Archive. She committed suicide in 1974 at age 46.
Sexton began writing at the advice of her therapist as a way to express herself. What resulted was a style of confessional and “raw” writing that changed the entire genre. It’s hard to find poetry that is not confessional these days, Turpin said.
“What emerges from the start is raw, visceral verse, creative to an almost painful degree,” Turpin said. “This poetry of hers explores topics that were then considered off-limits ... sex, menstruation, abortion (and) postpartum depression.”
Turpin began searching extensive online databases for Sexton’s byline. Though Sexton’s published books were well-known, there was a chance that some of her work might have been published outside of those collections, in smaller publications.
Turpin’s search results yielded several bylines of Sexton’s in the Christian Science Monitor between 1958 and 1959, prior to the publication of her first book, “To Bedlam and Part Way Back” (1960). The pieces, four poems and an essay, looked unfamiliar; they were not among Sexton’s known works.
So Turpin and a colleague from his doctoral program at the University of Houston, assistant professor of American literature Erin Singer (now at Louisiana Tech), asked several well-known Sexton scholars whether they could identify the pieces. None had ever seen the works.
One of Sexton’s daughters, Linda Gray Sexton, was consulted. She hadn’t seen them either.
But it was important for the world to see her mother’s earliest works, Sexton told the Statesman.
“I believe that the beginnings of a poet’s work are just as important as the crescendos or the finale,” Sexton said in an email. “It is valuable to look where she came from in order to better understand where she went. These poems are some of her very first, and yet demonstrate such a gift. I am proud to have them published.”
Though the pieces were passed on by other literary journals, Fugue editors saw something extraordinary. And while Anne Sexton has no direct connection to Idaho, staff at U of I said the discovery shows the poet developing her distinct voice.
“These are some of the most valuable ‘new’ poems in the world right now,” Turpin said.
The poems are titled “Argument in the Gallery,” “Winter Colony,” “These Three Kings,” and “In Your Freshman Year.” The essay is titled “Feeling the Grass”; all were in Christian Science Monitor in 1958 and ’59. They were likely composed in Sexton’s first year as a writer.
The pieces did not make it into her first book, Turpin and colleagues suggest in the foreword to the Fugue article, because they did not fit with the rest of the poems that wound up published. They did, however, “break ground that her later poems would seed, nurture, harvest, and burn, and finally sow with salt.”
“The poems show (that) her talent was developed by way of experimentation, exploration, and self-plumbing, in ways that aren’t fully reflected in her collected works.”
Singer, whose favorite of the new poems is “Winter Colony,” said that these new works are a breath of fresh air and provide an opportunity for uninitiated readers to become Sexton fans.
“As a poetry critic, these new pieces of work have allowed me to return to Sexton’s poetry with a fresh perspective,” Singer told the Statesman in an email. “These early poems show a key point in her poetic development, which also highlights some of the early developments in mid-20th century poetry (such as experiments with poetic voice and subject matter). Personally, I hope that these finds inspire a new generation of Anne Sexton readers, as well as remind people how tremendously exciting the field of literary research can be.”
Turpin said he doesn’t consider himself any sort of hero after being part of this discovery, but he’s aware of how important these works are to the field as a whole.
Because, as Turpin said, it means that there is likely more undiscovered work out there from other famous authors just waiting to be uncovered.
“There is the increasing possibility that we don’t yet know the full extent of their work, their publication and their influence,” Turpin said. “And all because digitization makes available what might formerly have been locked away from our leaders: the great mass of unread writings that is ‘American literature.’”