Anne Sexton and the Poetry of Mental Illness

A young Anne Sexton as a fashion model.
A young Anne Sexton as a fashion model. | Source


Anne Sexton was encouraged to write poetry by her psychiatrist, a Dr Martin Orne, who she consulted following bouts of mental illness - depression and a suicide attempt in 1956. Already a mother of two daughters, the former fashion model gradually began to write poetry following her 'rebirth at 29.'

By Christmas 1956 she had created 37 poems, learning as she went along, pouring her experiences into a variety of poetic forms.

It took only three years for her to publish her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), poems that contain some of the most personally direct lines ever written, on topics that at the time of publication, were seldom exposed. This was a remarkable debut because it dealt in the main with her experiences of mental illness and life in an asylum.

Basically what Anne Sexton tried to achieve through writing poetry was a form of self healing, a way of expressing deeply repressed emotion based on her experiences in her private and for a time institutionalized life.

By looking at some of her poems within the context of her life and illness, I hope I can shed some light on her struggle to come to terms with such challenges.

Anne Sexton's work will always be judged in the shadow of the fact that she took her own life, by asphyxiation in her garage at home. It's not for us to try to understand why she did this - it was a seemingly rational act following a routine lunch with her old friend, poet Maxine Kumin - the only option is to read her work.

As she herself said to her oldest daughter Linda, 'Talk to my poems.'

Anne Sexton in her mid forties.
Anne Sexton in her mid forties. | Source

Pioneering Poetry

Although many poets had written so called 'confessional' poems in the early to late 1960s, Anne Sexton brought a new dynamic edge to the genre by publishing poems on all kinds of previously taboo topics.

Abortion, menstruation, drug addiction, medication, sex, erotic fantasy, religion, suicide, family abuse and death - she wrote about it all with a brave, some would say, excessively manic voice. No woman had pushed the boundaries of taste so far. It was as if Anne Sexton was exposing her whole life through her art, warts and all. Dark stories and all.

You only have to read the poem Wanting To Die, written in 1964, to know that here is an author unafraid of the open road that leads partly out of the darkness and wholely back into the same source of black.

Two Poems From Her First Book - To Bedlam and Part Way Back

Wanting To Die

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.

I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.

Then the almost unnameable lust returns.

Even then I have nothing against life.

I know well the grass blades you mention,

the furniture you have placed under the sun.

But suicides have a special language.

Like carpenters they want to know which tools.

They never ask why build.

Twice I have so simply declared myself,

have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,

have taken on his craft, his magic.

In this way, heavy and thoughtful,

warmer than oil or water,

I have rested,drooling at the mouth-hole.

I did not think of my body at needle point.

Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.

Suicides have already betrayed the body.

Still-born, they don’t always die,

but dazzled, they can’t forget a drug so sweet

that even children would look on and smile.

To thrust all that life under your tongue!—

that, all by itself, becomes a passion.

Death’s a sad bone; bruised, you’d say,

and yet she waits for me, year after year,

to so delicately undo an old wound,

to empty my breath from its bad prison.

Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,

raging at the fruit a pumped-up moon,

leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,

leaving the page of the book carelessly open,

something unsaid, the phone off the hook

and the love whatever it was, an infection.

Critical Analysis of Wanting to Die

This poem was written on February 3rd 1964 and sums up Anne Sexton's approach to death. The fact that it was written a year after Sylvia Plath's suicide on February 11th 1963, also by asphyxiation, is perhaps no coincidence.

Anne Sexton greatly admired her fellow poet, both had studied under Robert Lowell in Boston, and both incorporated deep personal issues into their creative work. They had vastly differing styles but the foundation - the strangeness of motherhood's powerful emotional energy - lay in common ground.

Wanting To Die is one of Anne Sexton's best poems. From the first stanza to the last of eleven, her language swings from the forthright to the cryptic and symbolic. The title itself is disturbing enough but the almost casual way she opens the poem suggests a familiar dialogue of the self is taking place.

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.

Or is she answering one of many questions asked by her therapist, Dr Martin Orne? It could be either. And what exactly can't she remember? Is she journeying back into childhood, trying to pinpoint the memory of the first time she thought, I want to die?

To Bedlam and Part Way Back
To Bedlam and Part Way Back

Anne Sexton's early confessional poems gathered together in a powerful book. Recommended.


'Then the unnameable lust returns'

Lust is a powerful word to use in a poem like this. It ends the first tercet and sets the tone for the rest of the poem and for Anne Sexton's life. Lust is the instinctive side of love, the carnal magnetism that draws people, helpless, into situations they perhaps think they can avoid but know they must eventually face.

The poem continues its journey into the world of the suicide, the third stanza offering us the idea that killing oneself is an ancient craft, related to the idea of supreme sacrifice for all of those we know and love. Choosing the word carpenter introduces the idea of Jesus Christ and the religious undertones are worthy of note.

Death is sweet, she's waiting for the poet in all innocence, the body already betrayed (with the help of drugs); even a child would view the scene with a calm if rather macabre smile.

The last three stanzas encapsulate in powerful imagery the reasons why a suicide might leave the world of the living. For Anne Sexton death wants:

'to empty my breath from its bad prison,'

The poem suggests female suicide's are often hungry for love (bread and kiss), angry and confused about their femininity and fertility (fruit and moon) and unable to return the love of others, which in the end is what destroys them.

Poetic Influences

In her many letters and interviews Anne Sexton acknowledged the influence of Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass, pioneers of the confessional poetry which dominated in the early to mid 1960s.

Other inspirations for her writing came from poets Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke and perhaps William Blake. She also loved dipping into fairytales and biblical stories.

The Moss of His Skin

Young girls in old Arabia were often buried alive next
to their fathers, apparently as sacrifice to the
goddesses of the tribes . . .

Harold Feldman, "Children of the Desert"
Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Review, Fall 1958

It was only important
to smile and hold still,
to lie down beside him
and to rest awhile,
to be folded up together
as if we were silk,
to sink from the eyes of mother
and not to talk.
The black room took us
like a cave or a mouth
or an indoor belly.
I held my breath
and daddy was there,
his thumbs, his fat skull,
his teeth, his hair growing
like a field or a shawl.
I lay by the moss
of his skin until
it grew strange. My sisters
will never know that I fall
out of myself and pretend
that Allah will not see
how I hold my daddy
like an old stone tree.

Analysis of The Moss of his Skin

This is a short autobiographical poem disguised in a historical costume and culture. Anne Sexton must have read about this ancient Arabic practice and put herself in place of one of the unfortunate young girls buried alive with their father.

Appeasing the gods and goddesses involved the ultimate sacrifice in this case. The scenario must have resonated with the poet, the idea of a 'pure' death being attractive to Anne. The voice of the girl becoming more abstract as the poem progresses adds to the mystery.

Anne Sexton's Letters

Anne Sexton wrote many letters to friends, colleagues, poets and well wishers. You get a sense of her natural confidence and optimism in many of them;she comes over as a loving family oriented kind of person, full of stories from home, describing her latest work.

In others you know something dark might be unfolding.

One particular letter to her daughter Linda is extraordinarily moving. Anne Sexton is writing it telling her then 15 year old that she loves her, she's never been let down by her and that when Linda is 40 she may be looking back thinking about her dead mother.

Confessional Poetry

Anne Sexton's poetry could be seen as a form of confession in the literal sense - she was writing about her 'sins', her mental illness in the context of her femininity and motherhood. Perhaps she felt she needed forgiveness from a higher power plus, if she shared her confessions, other people in similar circumstances might also be helped?

She certainly believed in the power of confessional poetry to reach into her readers, especially those keen to explore the darker side of the unconscious.

The Double Image

Anne Sexton, for most of her adult life, struggled to bridge the gap between a normal life and the unpredictable demands of her mental illness.

'All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children. I was trying my damndest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can't build white picket fences to keep the nightmare out.'

Her therapy and medication went some way towards stabilising her moods but couldn't cure her depression, her constant need for reassurance.

She seemed never to recover emotionally from the loss of her beloved Nana in 1954 and both parents suddenly in 1959. Marriage and children were no consolation, adding to the tension and inner turmoil.

Poetry offered a way out. The publication of her first book in 1960 brought critical acclaim and a first step towards a sort of fame, at least within the poetic world.

By publishing this book Anne Sexton began her beautiful, brave and terrible inner journey, exposing her vulnerability to a new found readership.

Anne Sexton - All My Pretty Ones

Anne Sexton relaxing in her study
Anne Sexton relaxing in her study | Source

Her Second Published Book - All My Pretty Ones

Anne Sexton's second published book, All My Pretty Ones (1962), established her as an up and coming poetic voice. Female critics largely praised its maturity and exploration of taboo subjects, whilst one male critic, James Dickey the poet, said:

'It would be hard to find a writer who dwells more insistently on the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience.'

This was from the influential New York Times Book Review. You can sense that Anne Sexton's poetry disturbed many male readers simply because of the subject matter - menstruation, abortion, femininity - yet it was her language and poetic form that were impressively harmonic.

Elizabeth Bishop became an admirer of the work and a copy of the book was sent to Sylvia Plath in England, herself undergoing transformative events in her own private and poetic life.

'It is superbly masterful,' she wrote back, 'womanly in the greatest sense.'

This was in the summer of 1962. Sexton and Plath had become distant rivals of a kind. Their lives intertwined in a somewhat asynchronous fashion.

Both had studied under the confessionalist mentor Robert Lowell in Boston, both had gone through therapy and both were in the process of turning their poems into a personal mythology.

Just a few months later, in February 1963, following a traumatic break from husband Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath would take her own life and thereby upset Anne Sexton's plans for her own tragic demise.

When Anne Sexton heard about the suicide she declared to her therapist:

'That death was mine!'


With Mercy For The Greedy

For my friend, Ruth, who urges me to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession

Concerning your letter in which you ask

me to call a priest and in which you ask

me to wear The Cross that you enclose;

your own cross,

your dog-bitten cross, no larger than a thumb,

small and wooden, no thorns, this rose—

I pray to its shadow,

that gray place

where it lies on your letter ... deep, deep.

I detest my sins and I try to believe

in The Cross. I touch its tender hips, its dark jawed face,

its solid neck, its brown sleep.

True. There is

a beautiful Jesus.

He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.

How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!

How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!

But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.

All morning long

I have worn

your cross, hung with package string around my throat.

It tapped me lightly as a child’s heart might,

tapping secondhand, softly waiting to be born.

Ruth, I cherish the letter you wrote.

My friend, my friend, I was born

doing reference work in sin, and born

confessing it. This is what poems are:

with mercy

for the greedy, they are the tongue’s wrangle,

the world's pottage, the rat's star.


This poem is free flowing and has a logical if not desperate delivery within a rough form. It's a straightforward reply to a friend who has kindly given the speaker a cross to wear perhaps because the friend thought the poet needed a little help spiritually!!

Anne Sexton sums up the situation when she declares 'need is not belief' that is, she knows she'll never have faith in the cross and what it represents. But being open minded she's willing to wear it.

She has instead poetry to help heal the spiritual wounds. Poems are forgiving, they speak for themselves and are magical, like a star.

Anne often thought of herself as a rat when she was ill.


Live or Die, Anne Sexton's Third Published Book

In 1966 Live or Die helped boost Anne Sexton's popularity. The following year it won her the Pullitzer Prize and her career as a performance poet took off. She formed a rock band, Anne Sexton and Her Kind, and they provided backing as she read out her poems.

As with most things in her life, it wasn't all plain sailing.

Some loved her performances, her 'marvelous, throaty, classy voice' bringing just the right feel to her harrowing accounts of insanity and loss. Others hated them. Even her best friend Maxine Kumin found the readings 'melodramatic and stagey' and she didn't like the way Anne pandered to an audience.

All the time the chain smoking, pill popping poet was having to keep her mental illness in check. Just to perform she had go through a kind of anxious hell, hyping herself up so she could give the crowds what they wanted.

She knew how to pack them in, playing both the artist and the martyr.

Anne Sexton was so insecure at times she needed help just to go down to the local store. It makes you wonder if all the therapy she underwent had really done her any good at all?

Meanwhile her marriage was beginning to show cracks. She admitted that when poetry became a major force in her life her failings as a mother and wife were accentuated.

Anne Sexton's popularity and reputation displeased her husband and caused friction in the household where her two daughters vied for attention, not always of the proper kind. But, if there were desperate lows in Anne Sexton's life this period between 1966 and 1969 could be seen as a high.

Audiences loved her, her poetry was critically praised and she had some semblance of a family life.


Live or Die - A Mythological Voyage

' realize a poem is buried there somewhere (in the unconscious)....there is a lot of unconscious truth in a poem. As you see me now, I am a lie.'

Anne Sexton

Live or Die is a title Anne Sexton might have chosen to confirm the enormous struggles that were going on within her. It's as if the book is an ultimatum.

There must have been a part of her that believed in the cathartic nature of writing poetry. If she could cleanse herself from within by writing poems, perhaps her mental and spiritual anguish would subside? If it were only that simple.

Yet the book as a whole does contain the story of a quest, a journey down deep into the darker corners of the soul. The poet uses simile, metaphor and figurative language to evoke a sense of myth and religious significance. Poem after poem contain symbol and image - tree, fish, the Sun, water in the form of rain,river and ocean, caves and angels - the speaker mixing actual experience with fairytale and fiction.

The Addict is a straightforward poem about taking different sorts of tablets, given a religious twist in a style somewhat tongue in cheek. 'Don't they know that I promised to die!/I'm keeping in practice.

Live is a rambling free verse poem to her family, with the shifting Sun a symbol of purity and life.

In Consorting with Angels the speaker, tired of being a woman, describes a dream where Joan (Joan of Arc?) is sacrificed and, in a new Jerusalem, gender is no more.

More Poems From Live or Die

Those Times - an autobiographical free verse poem about growing up -'the little childhood cruelties' and into a woman and mother. Not one of her best but has some powerful imagery.

Menstruation at Forty - this is all about fertility and the monthly cycle given the Sexton treatment - at forty she begins to accept that procreation might be over and no more children = a kind of death.

Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman - a poem to her daughter Linda, about growing up and becoming a woman. With many symbols and a fairytale atmosphere. Intimate poem, from a mother to her baby.


Love Poems- the fourth published book

Anne Sexton's 1969 book might be said to be her most open and explicit. It contains some good poems and some that are on the borderline. Yet it broke new ground again for women,exploring taboo subjects such as masturbation and touch.

Loving the Killer - tells of a recent trip to Africa which she undertook with her husband. The speaker equates hunting with love, blood and ancestral loss. I will eat you slowly with my kisses/even though the killer in you/has gotten out.

For My Lover, Returning to His Wife - this poem tells of the lover's wife, the bearer of his children,the solid foundation of his life - the monument which he climbs - whilst the speaker all the time compares herself to paint: As for me, I am a watercolor./I wash off.


Transformations - the fifth published book.

Transformations is Anne Sexton's re-telling of 17 Brothers Grimm fairy tales. She uses simile, metaphor and her modern wit to first unsettle the reader, then provoke and tickle them into submission. You'll either love or hate these transformations because they completely do away with notions of 'happily ever after' and idyllic situations.

They are the work of a middle aged witch - Anne Sexton herself.

Each tale is preceded by an introductory poem, some dark and twisted, some spicy and sour, some creepy and farcical.

Once there was a witch's garden

more beautiful than Eve's

with carrots growing like little fish,

with many tomatoes rich as frogs,

onions as ingrown as hearts,

the squash singing like a dolphin

and one patch given over wholly to magic -

Lurking beneath the surface of these re-told tales is a quest for a life truth. As in all Sexton's work the ideal is always questioned, the fever charts held up for all to see and compare.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,
and thus they met and he declared his love.
What is this beast, she thought,
with muscles on his arms
like a bag of snakes?
What is this moss on his legs?
What prickly plant grows on his cheeks?
What is this voice as deep as a dog?
Yet he dazzled her with his answers.
Yet he dazzled her with his dancing stick.
They lay together upon the yellowy threads,
swimming through them
like minnows through kelp
and they sang out benedictions like the Pope.

In Briar Rose she describes the girl's awakening, not by a handsome Prince,

but my father
drunkenly bent over my bed,
circling the abyss like a shark,
my father thick upon me
like some sleeping jellyfish.

Here we have an autobiographical sketch intended to shock the reader into realising that, far from life being a dream fairy tale, life can sometimes be a nightmare.

Anne Sexton's re-working of the Brothers Grimm offers a new perspective: she brings a fresh dose of reality mixed with a veiled malevolence so the reader can strip down the original tale to reveal.....

What voyage this, little girl?
This coming out of prison?
God help –
This life after death?



Anne Sexton kept busy as a poet right up until her death, despite her many 'lives' all vying for supremacy. She published The Book of Folly and The Furies, and posthumous works included The Death Notebooks and The Awful Rowing Towards God.

She remains an enigma. As with all tragic artists, questions of whether her life fed her art or vice versa will continue to be open ended. Anne Sexton - Anne Gray Harvey - seemed very much aware of her strengths and vulnerabilities.

Her poems are still very popular. If you read contemporary reviews by younger people they are mostly positive and, as with Sylvia Plath, there is an enormous amount of interest shown in her writings.

She took confessional poetry to a new and slightly frightening place, dark in the corners yes, shocking and explicit, yet offering fresh emotional discoveries for the reader.


Rare Film Clips of Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton's Published Books of Poetry

1960 To Bedlam and Part Way Back

1962 All My Pretty Ones

1966 Love or Die

1969 Love Poems

1972 Transformations

1972 The Book of Folly

1974 The Death Notebooks

1975 The Awful Rowing Toward God


© 2014 Andrew Spacey

More by this Author


chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK Author

Thank you very much for the comment. Perhaps confessional poetry is the most difficult to truly understand as it tends to come raw and passionate from the emotional life of the poet. I think Anne Sexton managed to convey some of her deepest feelings about her personal life - very brave.

LMBrodskyAuter profile image

LMBrodskyAuter 2 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

Hello. Excited to say your is the first hub I have read (I'm new here). I write confessional poetry (though I'd call it something different, I think) and I've studied both Sexton and Plath for years. I was very impressed with your hub and I look forward to reading more of your work. Thank you!

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK Author

Thank you for the comment and vote Suzanne. I think Anne Sexton is an acquired taste but her poetry has rewards - it's intense and from the heart, and she was a brave pioneer. Confessional poetry isn't the easiest!

Suzanne Day profile image

Suzanne Day 2 years ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Haven't read much of Anne Sexton but I quite liked the frank poems here. She puts the message across quite well and definitely has a flair for intriguing descriptions. Such a shame that she had to feel so sad though. Voted interesting.

Marie Flint profile image

Marie Flint 2 years ago from Jacksonville, FL

Chef, I confess to ignorance about both these women. I wanted to read the hub, however, because of my own personal experiences with "mental illness" and was curious as to what the poet had to say.

In my spiritual studies, an individual can experience to what is referred to as the "dark night of the soul." This was undoubtedly the case with these women. My studies have also taught, "The lesson of suicide is this: You must face whatever it is you thought you were running away from."

I don't place a lot of faith in doctors and psychiatrists; rather, I must master my own energies. Therapy can be a useful toll; medication is a bandage for extreme cases. Most licensed health care professionals over prescribe, but then they're not taught to educate their patients.

You did an excellent job analyzing the poems. Voted up.

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK Author

Thank you for the visit Jamie. I appreciate that. Yes, she had many struggles, beyond our understanding, but her work remains as proof of a rare talent.

jhamann profile image

jhamann 2 years ago from Reno NV

I was just listening to her read her "The Operation" this morning at Donald Hall's Archives. It is simply amazing what she created out of her pain. Well written hub about an incredible yet tortured poet. jamie

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK Author

Many thanks suzettenaples. Anne Sexton's work is an eye opener, full of surprises and dark corners. Such a struggle she had yet as you say managed to produce and perform great poems.

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK Author

Thank you for the visit Eric Flynn, I appreciate that. Reading Anne Sexton is a challenge but she is so fascinating with her bravery and raw feeling.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM

Excellent hub! I have heard of Anne Sexton but never read any of her poetry until today. It is heartbreaking and heart wrenching. Thanks for sharing some of her poems with us. It was a shame and difficult for women in the 50's and 60's to express themselves and also live the 'conventional life.' I can feel for her - she wants the conventional life with the white picket fence, but is different like pushing a round peg into a square hole. It can't be done and so the reason for her despair and disconnect. I am saddened she took her own life but the pain must have been excruciating for her and so that is what she resorted to. But, she leaves a legacy of poetic works that will never be forgotten.

Eric Flynn profile image

Eric Flynn 2 years ago from Providence, Rhode Island

Great read.... I need to read all of her work now, thanks for opening a door. "Need is not belief" Wow.

Eric Flynn

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK Author

Many thanks for your comment and votes Jodah, really appreciated. This was a fascinating hub to research. I knew of Anne Sexton but hadn't gone into her work to such depth. Now I know a little more about her situation I'm full of admiration for her bravery and talent.

Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

Wow chef, I found this hub riveting. I had heard of Anne Sexton but never knew about her life or read any other poetry. Your research was thorough but the story was interesting throughout, and the photos and video great accompaniments. She had a powerfully haunting voice perfect for reading her own poetry. The samples of her poetry and your explanations were wonderful. Incredible hub, voted up and shared.

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK Author

Much appreciate the visit and comment, thank you. Yes, inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. And poems can be created just like that, in minutes or in days or even years.

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK Author

Many thanks for comment, much appreciated. Mental illness is such a challenge - to create poems out of the personal issues and get them out there takes a huge leap of faith. You're right, her work can be very raw and dark, but there's also life in there too.

WordMan21 profile image

WordMan21 2 years ago from Maryland

Great information, or shall I say story on a person who was a very enlightening poet. As a poet myself, we draw from many forms of inspiration.

lambservant profile image

lambservant 2 years ago from Pacific Northwest

This was very well written, Andrew. I had heard Ann Sexton's name and that she struggled with mental illness, but little more. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to look into her soul a bit. Poor tortured woman. Her poetry, despite the rawness and darkness, so much reflects for many of us who have walked the path of MI, what it is like to some degree. Nice job.

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK Author

Thank you for the visit and comment, I appreciate that. Researching for this hub was both challenging and enlightening. I read many of her poems - some are really direct, others full of symbol and metaphor - and discovered her struggles to maintain family life and creativity whilst going through therapy. I'm glad you found it useful.

awordlover profile image

awordlover 2 years ago

I have heard the name Anne Sexton in poetry circles. I might have even read a poem or two of hers, but I can't say I knew much about her or her life. Your hub introduces me to her work so I wanted to read more, to view youtube videos as I did today and to learn more about this wonderful poet who left behind a substantial body of work. This is a very organized and informational hub. I voted it up and shared it with followers. R.

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Andrew Spacey (chef-de-jour)521 Followers
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published on line and in print.

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