‘Structures of Influence’: the Boston Trio – Lowell, Plath and Sexton
Doctor of Philosophy
Department of English
Burton, Sarah-Jane, ‘Structures of Influence’: the Boston Trio – Lowell, Plath and Sexton, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Department of English, University of Wollongong, 2015. https://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/4552
Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are all poets of preeminent distinction in American literary history. Partly responsible for changing the norms of poetic production in the mid-twentieth century, these poets have been valorized and criticized for what, alongside the works of their contemporaries W.D Snodgrass and John Berryman, came to be known as their “Confessional” verse. However, contemporary studies have revealed the poets’ own aversions to this label and the presence of more complicated means of personal presentation in their works, demonstrating that such a categorization is no longer a relevant or accurate description of the writers or their work.
This study presents a revised critical frame for a simultaneous analysis of Lowell, Plath and Sexton’s work. Concentrating on the period in the late 1950s when the three poets worked together in Lowell’s Boston University writing workshop, this study reassesses the poets as a trio and develops a theory regarding what this thesis has termed their “Corresponding Verse”.
Highlighting the city of Boston as paramount in their connections, the study refers to the three writers as “The Boston Trio” and introduces new terminology surrounding their social and cultural contexts, providing “structures” in which their verse may be read collectively. These structures are made up of four key areas, which form the chapters of this thesis. “The Epoch” or their temporal context, “The City”, Boston and the spatial and historical relevance of this place to their collective identity, “The Academy” and the role of the university and the increasing prevalence of writers as teachers and “The Workshop”, the final structure which offers detailed analysis of Lowell’s workshop itself.
Arguing, through detailed textual analysis and the presentation of new information from previously unpublished archival sources, that Lowell, Plath and Sexton can and should be read collectively, this study re-examines works from Lowell’s Life Studies (1959), Plath’s The Colossus (1960) and Sexton’s To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960). Tracing their influence on each other and developing a cohesive picture of the period in which they worked together, this thesis completes a task which has yet to be undertaken by any critical or biographical study, adding a crucial missing piece to the rich and varied criticism on these three prominent American writers.