Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters.
by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames.
Houghton Mifflin. 433 pp. $15.00.
In the fall of 1974 Anne Sexton committed suicide by asphyxiating herself in the garage of her home in Weston, Massachusetts. This end had not been unexpected. When, as the editors of this compendium respectfully put it, “she took herself,” it was the third and final attempt of a death-obsessed existence. The obsession with suicide was one she had in common with Sylvia Plath, with whom she had attended Robert Lowell’s poetry seminars in the late 50’s. After class, over martinis, they had shared stories of their failed attempts, discussed ways and means and cures.
Unlike Sylvia Plath, whose fame was posthumously won, Anne Sexton’s career was richly rewarded during her lifetime, her celebrity status established long before her death at forty-six. Yet this difference aside, the fame conferred on both these careers was of a piece. If Sylvia Plath was elevated to a place of importance in American letters during a period that was conspicuously hospitable to the idea of woman’s martyrdom—that was inclined to idealize breakdown and madness as forms of cultural defiance—the same period and the same atmosphere nurtured Anne Sexton’s career as well. The breakdowns, the incarcerations in mental hospitals documented in much of her poetry, her central themes of madness and despair, all helped win for her precisely the same audience that had made a cult figure of Sylvia Plath, and for roughly the same reasons. Ever busy even today, the Plath industry still turns out essays on her life and her suicide. In a recent compilation of these, one scholar takes the position that it was being a poet that killed Sylvia Plath, a contention for which he is taken to task by other contributors: most members of the Plath cult know that it was being a woman and a mother that killed Sylvia Plath.
Anne Sexton too was a wife and mother, as well as a poet: a wife, moreover, to a man she had married at twenty and who, by the time they were both in their forties, had become something of an embarrassment. Like most of her literary friends, Anne Sexton had become a peace activist and something of a “movement” person generally, in the way of the 60’s. But Alfred “Kayo” Sexton had not. The stubbornly unprogressive Kayo went so far as to put a sticker on his windshield that said “Register Communists Not Firearms,” an act which caused his wife no small discomfiture. “Rigid” and “politically repulsive” is the way she describes Kayo in a letter to a friend a few years before she asked for a divorce. But with the divorce and the dissolution of the one bond that had been, however embarrassingly, her emotional mainstay, she entered a period of decline and loneliness which ended a year later in her suicide. She had imagined that divorce would yield a life rich in romantic possibilities, with men who were peers. In this it turned out she was mistaken. The men and the romances were few—so few, indeed, that she turned to a computer dating service—and the despair and loneliness more intense than ever before.
By the time of her death she had written nine volumes of poetry, one of which earned her a Pulitzer Prize. Poetry saved her, she tells one of her correspondents: it gave focus to her life, a reason for continuing. But if Anne Sexton’s poems saved her from illness, they also carried the stamp of that illness. The artifice and posturing which informed most of her commerce with the world—as these letters to friends, fellow poets, editors, and family show—are not less evident in her poems. Anne Sexton’s is, indeed, a poetic voice that seems, even when most intense, to lack heart. The falsification of feeling that is a prominent feature of her poems, including the most celebrated among them, emerges more often than not in the form of contrived metaphor, exercises in compression that are at once agile and empty of resonance. One of her most famous poems, called “Live” (1966), is as good a case in point as any, an “affirmation” that has more to do with eliciting approval, a skill at which she was adept when she wished to be, than with any profound realization of life’s value:
So I won’t hang around in
my hospital shift,
repeating the Black Mass
and all of it.
I say Live, Live because
of the sun,
the dream, the excitable gift.
There were, to be sure, instances when emotional integrity triumphed, notably when her eye turned inward on her life’s obsession, suicide, the impulses toward which had yielded her an identity as strong as, and possibly stronger than, any she had found as a poet. Indeed, it was when that identity was most available to her that she seemed to perform best as a poet:
But suicides have a
Like carpenters they want
to know which tools
They never ask why build.
(“Wanting To Die,” 1964)
Among the letters collected here, none is as strong and evocative as the one she writes her husband during a trip to Europe, in which she confirms her inability to function alone. For Anne Sexton, whose poetry Robert Lowell praised for its “swift, lyrical openness,” was clearly all her life a stranger, like a good many other profoundly neurotic people, to the ordinary range of feelings and emotions. In some measure aware, as such people are, that there was something lacking in her relationship to feeling, she became a watcher, an obsessed observer, and sometimes a skilled imitator of the way other people deal with one another.
None of this prevented her from establishing a marriage, and winning friends, until such time as the extraordinary demands she made on them caused them to retreat. When she wished to be, she was a master politician, capable, as one after another of these letters shows, of any flattery and backbiting that might advance her career. In one, written to W. D. Snodgrass, she refers slightingly to Nolan Miller of the Antioch Review and wonders whether his recommendation would be helpful in getting her a grant to Yaddo. The next letter is to Nolan Miller and begins, “Dear Nolan: You are my favorite famous person!”
Next to those with her daughters, to whom she was devoted, her truest and most uncalculating relationships appear to have been with the fans who wrote her from mental hospitals. To these she was unstinting in her displays of concern and warmth, her letters a proof in their way of the emotional power reserved exclusively for that which touched the mainsprings of her identity, the suicidal and the mad. That with all this she became a poet widely celebrated in America and ranked among the best has far more to do with the illness of contemporary culture than with any triumph of art over infirmity.