[lit-ideas] Anne Sexton, a few biographical notes

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 25 Nov 2014 16:40:09 -0800

The following is from the foreword to The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, 
written by Maxine Kumin who collaborated Sexton on a number of things:

"Though the reviewers [and not just them] were not always kind to Anne's work, 
honors and awards mounted piggyback on one another almost from the moment of 
publication in 1960 of her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back.  [I remember 
buying that book]  The American Academy of Letters Traveling Fellowship in 
1963, which she was awarded shortly after All My Pretty Ones was published and 
nominated for the National Book Award, was followed by a Ford Foundation grant 
as resident playwright at the Charles Playhouse in Boston.  In 1965, Anne 
Sexton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in Great 
Britain.  Live or Die won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1967.  She was named 
Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard in 1968 and accorded a number of honorary 
doctoral degrees. . . ."

"But between the publication of new books and the bestowal of honors fell all 
too frequently the shadow of mental illness.  One psychiatrist left.  His 
successor at first succumbed to Sexton's charm, then terminated his treatment 
of her.  She promptly fell downstairs and broke her hip -- on her birthday.  
With the next doctor her hostility grew.  Intermediary psychiatrists and 
psychologists came and went.  There seemed to be no standard for dealing with 
this gifted, ghosted woman.  On Thorazine, she gained weight became intensely 
sun-sensitive, and complained that she was so overwhelmed with lassitude that 
she could not write.  Without medication, the voices returned.  As she grew 
increasingly dependent on alcohol, sedatives, and sleeping pills, her 
depressive bouts grew more frequent.  Convinced that her marriage was beyond 
salvage, she demanded and won a divorce, only to learn that living alone 
created an unbearable level of anxiety.  She returned to Westwood Lodge, later 
spent time at McLean's Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, and finally went to 
Human Resources Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts.  But none of these 
interludes stemmed her downward course.  In the spring of 1974, she took an 
overdose of sleeping pills and later remonstrated bitterly with me for aborting 
this suicide attempt.  On that occasion she vowed that when she next undertook 
to die, she would telegraph her intent to no one.  A little more than six 
months later, this indeed proved to be the case. . . ."

"Women poets in particular owe a debt to Anne Sexton, who broke new ground, 
shattered taboos, and endured a barrage of attacks along the way because of the 
flamboyance of her subject matter, which, twenty years later, seems far less 
daring.  She wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, 
adultery, and drug addiction at a time when the proprieties embraced none of 
these as proper topics for poetry.  Today, the remonstrances seem almost 
quaint.  Anne delineated the problematic position of women -- the neurotic 
reality of the time -- though she was not able to cope in her own life with the 
personal trouble it created. . . ."

Comment:  Having read Freud at a very early age I have never been willing to 
dismiss the idea that if one is raised with a standard of morality, one can not 
violate that standard without paying a price.  Freud's answer was to dismiss 
the standard, overcome it with therapy.  I don't know if the psychiatrists 
Sexton went to tried that but Kumin tells us they gave up on her -- and then 
she on herself -- or maybe she gave up on herself before she went to them.

Kumin tells of Sexton claiming (during the time she was producing one poem 
after the other, sometimes as many as four a day) to be God -- always a risky 
business if part of that moral standard included Sunday School teachings about 
Nebuchadnezzar.

Kumin's assessment is the one sentence "Anne delineated the problematic 
position of women -- the neurotic reality of the time -- though she was not 
able to cope in her own life with the personal trouble it created."   I doubt 
that Kumin would agree with what I've written here and instead would blame it 
on the backward times and the verbal abuse directed at her by reviewers and 
others for what struck them as her excessiveness in bizarre directions.  Truman 
once said that if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.  He was 
speaking about politics, but the same thing would apply to any of us, and in 
the case of Anne Sexton how could she know she couldn't stand the heat until 
she had actually entered the kitchen?

Lawrence


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