Fame at last

Elaine Showalter

  • Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook
    Virago, 488 pp, £20.00, November 1991, ISBN 1 85381 406 7

I met Anne Sexton six months before her suicide, in April 1974. My colleague Carol Smith and I were doing a series of interviews with women writers, and we had heard how Sexton and her friend Maxine Kumin had worked together for years, talking about their poems in long telephone sessions when neither of then could get out of the house. We wanted to ask them about their relationship as housewives, friends and poets, and so it was arranged that they should come to give a joint poetry reading at Douglass College, where we taught, and that we should meet with them in the afternoon before the reading.

When we arrived at their motel at about 2.30 Anne and Maxine were alone in the coffee shop. They had the matched look of actresses in a Forties film, Jane Russell and Jane Wyman, or Joan Crawford and Joan Fontaine. It was clear that Anne – drinking a martini, talking too loud – was the bad girl, and that Maxine was taking anxious care of her.

It had been a difficult year. Anne’s divorce from Kayo Sexton, the businessman she had married at 19, had not been a leap into a Hollywood dream of glamorous lovers, but the hard slog a 45-year-old woman faces alone. She had even resorted to placing personal ads in the lonelyhearts columns of the local newspapers. Always a heavy drinker and drug-taker, she had lost control over her addictions. At several points during the year, she had commuted to her poetry classes at Boston University from a psychiatric clinic. She was tired, so tired that we went back to their motel room and taped the interview as she lay on the bed under Maxine’s coat; at intervals she made frantic phone calls to a prospective lover somewhere in New Jersey. ‘I think I’m dominating this interview,’ she remarked at one point, to which Maxine wearily consented: ‘You are, Anne, you are’. Yet even under these conditions, it was hard to resist the force of her personality. Jon Stallworthy had called her ‘the New England Nefertiti’.

Anne upstaged Max again that night at the reading, making an entrance slowly from the back of the room in a long red dress, diamond rings flashing on her bony fingers as she chain-smoked through a series of poems that began with the signature poem, ‘Her Kind’:

I have gone out, a possessed witch
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

The poem ends with an allusion to Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, the witch about to be tortured and burned, and a final chilling line:

A woman like that is not afraid to die.
I have been her kind.

Taken from her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), the poem shows Sexton’s craft, honed with advice from John Holmes, W.D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell. Retrieved at the last moment from her ‘bone pile’ of discards to fill out the book, it had gone through 19 drafts before Sexton achieved what Middlebrook calls the ‘double “I” ’ of the stanza and refrain.

It was not craft, however, that Sexton flaunted in her readings. ‘I hated her readings,’ Kumin told Middlebrook. ‘They were so melodramatic and stagey. I felt they took away from the marvellous texture of the poems by making them into performances.’ Her kind was Lady Lazarus, the come-back queen. ‘I do not want to be known as the mad-suicide poet, the live Sylvia Plath,’ she told her students at Boston University: but she auditioned for the role and rehearsed it in book after book until she wrapped herself in her mother’s fur coat and gassed herself in October 1974. There was no ironic mask in her readings; while all her readings were performances for which she painfully psyched herself up with pills and gin, they were also an exhibition of wounds, a freak show, as she herself acknowledged in the American Poetry Review.

How Sexton would have loved Diane Middlebrook’s biography! Ashamed of her scanty education, she would have revelled in the sensitivity and care with which Middlebrook, a professor at Stanford, reads the evolving drafts of her poems and analyses their allusions and skill. Regarding therapy as a ‘minor art’, she would have relished the highly publicised controversy over Middlebrook’s use of 300 hours of taped psychotherapy sessions released by her daughter and executor, Linda Grey Sexton, and her therapist, Dr Martin Orne. Although she would have been shocked by Linda’s claims that her mother’s affections bordered on the incestuous, she would have been delighted by the family feuds over revelations in the book, aired in long letters to the New York Times Book Review. And most of all, she would have been thrilled to know that the book is a best-seller, currently holding at number ten, just below the story of LaToya Jackson. Crazy Annie, famous at last!

Sexton’s late-blooming career as a poet makes an unusual story. Hospitalised for acute depression after the birth of her second daughter – she had also attempted suicide – Sexton was encouraged to study and write by her young psychiatrist. Watching I.A. Richards lecturing on the sonnet on Boston educational television, Sexton decided that she could write one, and went on to write them every day for a month. Other experiments with verse forms, all praised by her doctor, followed. By Christmas 1956, at the pivotal age of 29, she presented her mother with 37 poems, from ‘the first year of Anne Sexton, Poet’.

The infant poet grew rapidly, with help from a variety of workshops and classes. Poetry was from the first a kind of work to her. Kumin remembered how Sexton would ‘willingly push a poem through twenty or more drafts’. Beginning with simple couplets and quatrains, she rapidly moved through a series of experiments with poetic forms, including acrostics and villanelles. Never much of a student or serious reader, Sexton knew little more than the work of Edna St Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale when she started, precursors much scorned by the Cambridge literati. Later, at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, Tillie Olson quoted Teasdale and Sexton exclaimed: ‘Oh, so you love her poems too! But you must never, never admit it to anyone.’ Although they were quickly replaced in her canon by other models, including her contemporaries Snodgrass and Lowell, the influence of Teasdale and Millay may have helped Sexton define herself confidently from the start as a woman poet. Apart from a brief lapse in Lowell’s workshop, when, in response to his reflex categorisation of women poets as ‘minor, definitely minor’, she expressed her fear of ‘writing as a woman writes’, Sexton bravely insisted on bringing hitherto taboo subjects from female experience into her work. No matter how harsh the male critical response, she continued to write about abortion, menstruation, sexuality, marriage, motherhood and divorce up until her death. Close friendships with women, and bonds with other women poets including Kumin and Plath, reinforced her literary feminism.

Sexton’s first book, based mainly on her experiences in the mental hospital, was a great critical success. She was good at the business end of poetry too, an adept self-promoter, networker and marketer. Adrienne Rich remembered Sexton’s poise and elegant good looks at a Boston party. As Middlebrook notes, ‘success in the poetry business resembled success in the wool business.’ Salesmanship and marketing certainly helped. Moreover, despite her patchy education and brief ‘finishing’ at Garland Junior College, she had other credentials for acceptance in the poetry world, having graduated from a number of Boston’s finest mental establishments and finally, with the class of 1973, becoming an alumna of McLean Hospital, alma mater of Lowell and Plath.

Wherever she went there were flings and affairs, behaviour expected of course from male poets on the circuit, but scandalous when the poet was a woman. ‘Wow! I’ve kissed Sexton,’ D.M. Thomas recalled thinking of his brief encounter. More shocking than the lists of Sexton’s adulteries or Dr Orne’s release of her therapeutic tapes is the revelation that she had a long affair with her second psychiatrist, here called ‘Ollie Zweizung’. She would go to her appointments with him carrying a red nightie in her handbag. To the outrage of her friends, he continued to charge her for their twice-weekly sessions. After Orne protested and threatened to report him, Zweizung simply became more secretive. When Sexton became too demanding, Zweizung let the affair leak to his wife, and backed off.

While Middlebrook rightly emphasises the enormous value of psychotherapy in helping Sexton develop her gifts, this ugly episode should not be overlooked. As a New York psychiatrist elegantly remarks apropos of a recent Manhattan scandal involving a clergyman and a married parishioner, ‘you’re not allowed to shtup the patients. All the religions have the same rules. The freedom to dip one’s wick is not in any of these credos.’

In his foreword to the book, Martin Orne explains that Sexton was a hysteric, someone who imitated or absorbed symptoms from other patients, as well as suffering extreme gaps in her memory and in the stories she told about herself. On the other hand, Sexton’s ‘hysteria’ sounds much like a wish to please the analyst. Early in her treatment, she had read up on hysteria, especially the case of her namesake, the classic hysteric Anna O., and was giving her doctor the trances and ‘language’ that he might have been expecting. Without exaggerating Sexton’s disadvantages – she did have an extremely patient and supportive family network, and the financial resources for years of therapy – Middlebrook stresses the social context of her malaise. ‘The social confusions of growing up in a female body and of living as a woman in post-war American society.’

Despite its many controversial revelations, what was best and most representative in Anne Sexton’s life and career is honoured in Middlebrook’s fine biography. ‘Sexton’s life,’ she concludes, ‘ended in a suicide that was the act of a lonely and despairing alcoholic, but it might have ended silently and much earlier if she had not, almost miraculously, found something else profoundly important to do with it.’ Along with much that is sordid and sad, this book also rescues Sexton from her performances, and shows the importance of the work behind the shows.