It is strange to contemplate the destinies of America’s three most prominent women poets of the post-Bogan-Bishop generation: Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton. Two of them committed suicide; the third, Adrienne Rich, had a husband who did. Rich eventually turned into the most militant of lesbian feminists, refusing even to talk to men, except on business matters.
I met Plath only once. She was with Peter Davison, the editor-poet, her then lover; we were waiting to get into the Brattle Theater, just off Harvard Square. During a brief conversation, Miss Plath impressed me as rather plain under her defiantly blondined hair, but lively enough for a Smith girl, a part she looked to a “T.” Adrienne Cecile Rich, a Radcliffe undergraduate, signed up for a poetry course given by Archibald Macleish, in which I was her section man, though not for long. She complained to me, and doubtless also to Macleish, that the course wasn’t stimulating enough, and that, as winner of that year’s Yale Younger Poet award, she was not shown sufficient consideration. Soon she dropped the course. Some time later, after a poetry reading by Rich, a Radcliffe dean asked me for my opinion. I allowed as how, to appreciate it fully, one would have needed the combined attributes of Homer and Beethoven, namely blindness and deafness.
One of Anne Sexton’s symptoms was a preternatural need to be loved by everyone all the time.
Anne Sexton and I met twice. Once in a Harvard Square hangout, where I spent a couple of hours with three closely linked poets, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck, the latter two lovers at the time. My recollections are dim, but I remember enjoying Kumin most: she was warm and straightforward, as on all subsequent occasions we met. Starbuck was clever in a somewhat brittle way; Sexton was rather quiet. She was a handsome woman who seemed, even sitting down, quite tall; I now read with surprise that she was only 5’71/2”. Still, to seem tall is much the same as being tall, even as, psychiatry tells us, to believe you were raped in childhood by your father is emotionally tantamount to having been. Anne Sexton claimed only to have been molested by her dad, and even about this she kept changing her story, so that many doubt that anything happened. Diane Wood Middlebrook, the author of Anne Sexton: A Biography, believes it did take place, because it makes a compelling cause for Sexton’s lifelong hysteria.1 True, but so could many another thing.
The second time I met Anne Sexton was when I introduced her at a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y. I may not have presented her in sufficiently glowing terms, for she gave me a rather funny look as she stepped up to the lectern. But then, as she herself knew very well, one of her symptoms was a preternatural need to be loved by everyone all the time, and my introduction was not a declaration of love. She again struck me as conspicuously tall. Her biographer mentions high heels, but not extra-high ones. Mrs. Middlebrook does, however, recount an incident when Anne, age thirteen or fourteen, put on bright lipstick and high heels to vamp her visiting brother-in-law and his male friends. His name was Brad Jealous, which must have made elder sister Jane, Mrs. Jealous, a jealous Mrs.
Nomen est omen. Names in Anne Sexton’s life have a peculiar aptness, starting with her own. A sexton is a minor church official in charge of ringing the bell for services, and of digging graves. With a curious blend of self-promotion and self-destructiveness, Anne Sexton was given to publicizing herself in often outrageous ways while also plotting, practicing up for, and finally perfecting her death—an expert at summoning people to worship at her shrine and at digging her own grave. Her husband, the wool merchant Alfred Muller Sexton II, was nicknamed Kayo as a baby, after a character in the comic strip Moon Mullins. Still, the word means knockout, and during the twenty-four years of their marriage Kayo and Anne exchanged many a well-aimed blow, physical and psychological. Eventually, by divorcing him, Anne delivered the knockout punch; but by not being able to survive without his steadying influence, she proclaimed, in effect, his victory on a technical K.O.
Nothing much can be made of the name of her father, Ralph Churchill Harvey, who prospered in the wool business; but Anne’s mother was always called, by both name and middle name, Mary Gray. (Anne’s own full maiden name was Anne Gray Harvey.) Mary Gray, though in various ways a good mother, had something cold, distant, gray about her. And when it came to be Anne’s turn, with her daughters Linda and Joy, there was plenty of grayness to Anne Gray’s mothering, too. Most important to the growing Anne was her proximity to her maternal great-aunt, Anna Ladd Dingley, known as Nana. It is with the spinster Nana that she had, or believed she had, a quasi-sexual relationship—a Nana who, by the way, ended up hospitalized with mental illness. “Dingley” suggests ding-a-ling or dingbat to me, and when I read about Anne’s supposed un-innocent cuddling with Nana, I can’t help recalling the sheepdog Nana in Barrie’s Peter Pan, who acts as a nuzzling nursemaid to Wendy and her siblings.
Anne Sexton was, for almost all her adult life, in psychotherapy of some kind, indeed in and out of mental hospitals and sanatoriums. The stays were usually quite short and generally voluntary, but what makes them particularly disturbing is that they tended to follow on suicide attempts. Both the elder of Anne’s sisters, Jane, and an aunt, Frances, were suicides. Heavy drinking surrounded Anne: her father and father-in-law were borderline alcoholics—as, in his way, was Kayo. Mary Gray, though always steady on her feet, was a steady drinker as well. Anne herself became more and more of an alcoholic with the years, and some of the drunken fights between her and Kayo must have been grotesque and horrible.
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Sexton’s history with her various doctors also exhibits bizarre features. Her first therapist, Dr. Martha Brunner-Orne, eventually passed her on to her son, Dr. Martin Orne, in whose care she remained for the next eight years, after which Orne moved to Philadelphia. But he would come back for monthly follow-up sessions with Anne and other Boston patients. If no one else was momentarily available, Dr. Brunner-Orne would get back into the act, notably when Anne needed hospitalization, for which she would usually go to Westbrook Lodge, run by Brunner-Orne. Sexton, a promiscuous woman, duly fell in love with Dr. Orne, who ornerily and properly resisted her, and got her to become a writer, which proved her salvation. Later she wrote him, “Of course, I love you; / You lean above the plastic sky, / god of our block, prince of all the foxes.” (What plastic sky, incidentally, and why above, not beneath? To rhyme with “love”?)
But Dr. Orne also made tapes of their sessions, and had Sexton listen to them and provide oral or written comments. These, with the approval of Anne’s family— specifically daughter Linda, Anne’s executor —the doctor later turned over to the biographer. This was to cause a major posthumous brouhaha in the Sexton story. Should a therapist, under any circumstances, make such material available? In view of how public Anne made her private life, and how hungry she was for every kind of publicity, no breach of etiquette suggests itself to me. The only problem to my mind is what dull reading excerpts from the tapes make in Middlebrook’s biography.
I do not accuse the poet herself of dullness; it is just that scrutiny and dissemination of pathological problems in great detail cannot help being boring, and have caused, as it were, a decline in the quality of madness. When poets (and others) of former ages became seriously deranged—say, Christopher Smart, John Clare, Hölderlin, Nerval—lack of drearily probed symptoms allowed them to preserve some dignity even in their most irrational behavior. When every last and least aspect of a Sexton’s malady and therapy becomes an open book, it becomes very tempting to slam that book shut.
With her next therapist, Sexton was both luckier and less lucky. Mrs. Middlebrook had to protect him with a pseudonym, and calls him Dr. Ollie Zweizung, the last name derived from the German for two-tongued, i.e., double-dealing. For the married Dr. Zweizung became Sexton’s lover, right there in the therapeutic sessions for which Anne—or, rather, her husband and family —had to pay. The supreme irony is that whereas Dr. Orne turned Sexton on to poetry, it was Sexton who turned Dr. Zweizung on to it, and forthwith the therapeutic lovers were toasting each other in verse. Middlebrook reports with a straight face: “She had felt very proud … when [Zweizung] suggested that she move to the couch, since she considered that a sign of progress.” Yes, but toward what? I am reminded of the famous schoolboy boner, “The Templar asked Rebecca to be his mistress. The brave girl reclined to do so.”
When Robert Clawson, a high-school English teacher and Sexton fan, drove the poet to a literary conference in East Hampton, where the pair became lovers for a week, he, too, started writing love poems to Anne. “What Clawson didn’t know—and what Sexton never told him—was that the love poems she had laid on the restaurant table during lunch on Long Island had been written in Weston a week or so earlier to another man … she had embarked on a passionate affair with her psychiatrist, Dr. Zweizung… . In one of his verses he quoted back to her her favorite paradox: ‘In poetry, truth is a lie is a truth.’”
There is something sublimely ridiculous and coarsely touching about Sexton’s love for her “doctor-daddy,” though her best friend’s comment was characteristically down-to-earth: “Imagine paying to get laid twice a week!” But, as Kumin added, “Anne always had the notion that she was the most underloved person in the universe. There could never be enough proof that she was loved.” At the suggested breakup of her affair with Dr. Ollie, Anne took an overdose, was hospitalized for forty-eight hours, and missed one of those monthly follow-up sessions with Dr. Orne. For all our advances in psychotherapy, you see, we have introduced something into biography that wasn’t there in the lives of a Smart, a Clare, a Hölderlin—the element of farce. Even Nerval’s walking a lobster on a pink-ribbon leash has an aura of innocent sweetness about it.
“Anne always had the notion that she was the most underloved person in the universe. There could never be enough proof that she was loved.”
But there is nothing sweet about Sexton as she tumbled down the stairs in her house on her birthday—the day she often chose to punish herself—to commemorate Dr. Zweizung’s leaving her. Mrs. Z. had discovered their poetic love correspondence—especially galling since it was the good doctor’s habit to leave bits of it for his wife to find whenever things between him and Sexton got too hot and heavy. Anne broke her hip, which left her slightly but permanently limping. She wrote a couple of lyrics for her lost Ollie, actually recycling some of his images. The better of the two, “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife,” ends:
She is so naked and singular.
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a water color.
I wash off.
But the other lyric, “The Break,” contains such stuff as “So I fell apart. So I came undone. / Yes. I was like a box of dog bones.” And later, in the hospital, “… My one dozen roses are dead. // They have ceased to menstruate. They hang / there like little dried up blood clots.” The poem ends with “The zeal / of my house doth eat one up.” Such deliberately ugly tropes, such uncertain diction reaching for archaism, and, above all, the proud prosaism of short sentences flatly stating the obvious!
It is instructive to follow the development of Anne Sexton’s poetry, which all too soon turns into regression. After the first two or three volumes, she proceeded pretty much on automatic pilot. Consider: Sexton’s chief mentor, the highly gifted James Wright, left behind an oeuvre of roughly two hundred pages. Sexton’s corpus, representing less than two decades, extends to six hundred pages. The affair with Wright took place, typically, against the background of a poetry conference, and was, like so much in Anne’s life, sad and funny, touching and ludicrous. In reading the biography, one is constantly moved by the desperation of this woman, and constantly repelled by what seems like monstrous self-indulgence. There is something about Sexton’s craziness—perhaps about all craziness—that comes across as willed, self-serving, for effect. It feels calculated to get away with something impermissible to even vaguely normal folk. One reaches out to slap Anne Sexton, then pulls one’s hand back in shame.
Further poets fell for her; she had affairs with George Starbuck, the English poet George MacBeth, and more. Others wisely resisted her: W. D. Snodgrass (from whom she learned a lot), Anthony Hecht. Still others—James Dickey, for instance—she herself resisted, only just. But if she got much from the poet lovers she fed on, she got even more from her fans, not always poetry lovers, who fed on her. Sexton, the retiring, frightened, overawed person, became for them one of the most aggressive poetry performers, a grandstander worthy of Yevtushenko and Voznesensky. There is even the curious business of Sexton as a sort of hippie rocker, chanting her works with a group of instrumentalists under the name Anne Sexton and Her Kind. This derives from one of her best poems—perhaps the best—“Her Kind.” Yet even that short, taut lyric is not entirely free from posturing, from rodomontade.
How she wooed her audience! There are many vivid descriptions in the book of her sundry poetry readings, considered “hammy” even by “Max” Kumin. At one of them, in Indianapolis, a faculty member shouted, “A little less Phyllis Diller, if you please, and a little more Anne Sexton.” By the end of her life, she was one of the best-paid poetry performers, modeling her fees on James Dickey’s. In real life, though, she was afraid to walk along a sidewalk, and chose her friends among those neighbors whose properties abutted on hers. “On stage,” we learn, “she projected a commanding, confident, glamorous physical presence; from her husky voice issued a hint of vulnerability, reinforced throughout the reading by rehearsed breaks and catches.” She infuriated W. H. Auden, who had to follow her at a London poetry event, by going well overtime; and she did not endear herself to the English in general by making as if to embrace the audience and blowing it a fat kiss. But one way or another, she made headlines.
She would lie to interviewers. Thus Middlebrook: “Strategic untruthfulness was, of course, an element of her poetry, so perhaps she regarded it as a legitimate characteristic of her self-representation.” “I am known to lie,” she told D. M. Thomas, “and I never let myself down.” And, for all her miseries, she could say (ungrammatically, as was her wont), “I had a good life—I wrote unhappy—but I lived to the hilt.” Her greatest problem, perhaps, was her difficulties with her daughters, or, more accurately, her daughters’ difficulties with her. In a circular relationship, there is grief all around. And the most spectacular aspect of this drama was the occasional episode of incest. One may wonder just what Linda’s motives were in making this material public, but I believe that they were honorable: to show the world how disturbed someone can be and still be a dedicated artist.
One reaches out to slap Anne Sexton, then pulls one’s hand back in shame.
In short, there were the times when Anne would crawl into Linda’s bed for comfort—typical role reversal—and the terrified girl would realize only later that, while she herself slept on her side, her mother was masturbating at her back. This, however, need not constitute absolute proof of incestuous feelings, but can be construed more charitably as group masturbation for one. Sexton, at any rate, was able to make poetry even out of such experiences, as in the not ineffective second stanza of “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator,” where “she” and “I” are Anne past and Anne present, and “you” is the faithless lover:
Finger to finger, now she’s mine.
She’s not too far. She’s my encounter.
I beat her like a bell. I recline
in the bower where you used to mount her.
You borrowed me on the flowered spread.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
The last line, which serves as refrain to the poem’s seven stanzas, is typical of Sexton. It is not quite on target and not quite off, not quite poetry and not quite prose—pathetic in both the good and the bad senses of the word.
There was one particularly sordid incident. Kayo was on one of his business trips, and Linda, fifteen, was invited into Anne’s big bed to make her mother feel less alone. “They watched television for a while; then Linda fell asleep. In the middle of the night she woke, feeling that she couldn’t breathe. It was dark, but she realized that her mother was lying astride her, rubbing against her and kissing her on the mouth. ‘I felt suffocated. I remember pulling out of bed and throwing up. Mother followed me into the bathroom, and soothed my head.’” Child abuse, incest, lesbian molestation? All three, if you will. But again: Sexton was preparing her autobiographical play, Mercy Street, for production, and was perhaps trying to relive its crucial incidents. She was re-feeling her problems with her father and Nana. Yet even research should only be pushed so far: must a playwright dealing with murder commit it in order to comprehend it?
There was some interesting infighting concerning these revelations (if such they are) in the pages of The New York Times Book Review. Running in tandem with Katha Pollitt’s thoughtful review of the biography was a compelling article by Linda Gray Sexton, whose fourth novel was recently published, which culminated in the cri de coeur, “The only way to transcend the hurt is to tell it all, and to tell it honestly.” The following week, Linda’s cousins—daughters of Blanche, the one seemingly undamaged Harvey girl— came back with a lengthy letter impugning Anne Sexton’s veracity (“products of a prodigiously fertile—and perverse—imagination, without basis in fact”) and trying to clear their grandfather and great-great-aunt. But some of their assertions were patently pious whitewashing, and their rage against Linda and Middlebrook further weakened their case. Other letters followed, the most notable one coming from Natania Rosenfeld of Philadelphia, who wrote in part: “Sexton may have been a ‘seriously troubled woman,’ but what are we to make of the following example, which her nieces choose to illustrate her perversity: ‘Anne saw Christmas as a particularly villainous season. Yet her sister Blanche (our mother), growing up in the same household at the same time, saw reindeer on the roof, Santa Claus and expressions of love’? Which sister was insane?”
This amusing letter fails, of course, to prove Anne sane and Blanche crazy, but it does suggest what relative concepts “sanity” and “insanity” are. More important, it goes to the heart of the question of what is poetry. For poetry is not some strange, highly specialized, even esoteric activity, but something most of us use in varying ways to make sense of life. Young Blanche is just as entitled to reindeers on the roof as middle-aged Anne is to vilifying Santa—“Please God … Don’t send death in his fat red suit and his ho-ho baritone”; both are poetry, and neither would hold up in court.
None of this, however, can disprove that Sexton was often mad as a hatter, and that dinner at the Sextons was at times like the Mad Hatter’s tea party crossed with a Bruegel painting. Here is Linda’s account given to Middlebrook:
Joy and I would be banished during the cocktail hour, while Daddy and Mother absorbed their martinis or whatever. By the time dinner was served at eight or nine o’clock they would be sloshed. The meal was full of tension. And there was just never enough food! Daddy would open one small package of frozen peas, maybe bake those small boiling potatoes, one apiece—no salad, no dessert. Mother would gag down a drumstick. She was hardly able to swallow anything solid; she’d often get up from the table and vomit her food… . At the table, Mother was so often crazed; we had to contain it somehow. She’d talk gibberish, she’d stare at the wall, her eyes traveling mechanically up then down in a way my father called “headlighting”—it drove him wild. We’d have to put her to bed. One night she fell straight forward into the mashed potatoes! My father would say, “Anne, stop it, you’re frightening the children.”
As Middlebrook points out, “the dearth of food had nothing to do with the Sextons’ financial situation, as during those same years they ordered champagne by the case. It was a combination of Anne’s queasiness about food and neurotic fear of markets —she placed exactly the same order every week by telephone—and Kayo’s efforts to cover the bases both at home and at work. … During this time, however, Sexton was successful at keeping her disorders private.”
Poetry is not some strange, highly specialized, even esoteric activity, but something most of us use in varying ways to make sense of life.
This presents us with the fundamental choice: are we to be repelled by Anne Sexton’s craziness or are we to be touched by how, despite everything, she kept up appearances? There are plainly two Anne Sextons. There is the sick woman who cannot venture into the street by herself, except to her headshrinker or hairdresser; who must be accompanied even to the bookstore or library, and rehearse ahead of time what she will say; who worries for three weeks in advance about buying her children a pair of shoes; who needs round-the-clock advice and help from family, friends, lovers, strangers—and survives by sheer egocentricity. But there is also the other Sexton, who lives for and in her writing, knows how to publicize herself but does not recoil from dogged work, and can intermittently be a good friend, mother, teacher. And can even make sound sense, as when she tells a feminist professor, “Just remember that women are human first.”
But again, this is the woman who keeps going into trances anytime, anywhere, even in the most intimate, romantic situations —in fact, at one time or another with all of her lovers, to their considerable embarrassment or concern. Sometimes she could not be roused from these trances by anyone: therapist, lover, or daughter. And yet she managed to function in some ways and keep teaching, writing, falling in love, having affairs (once even with a woman friend, the psychiatrist Anne Wilder)—anything to keep her poetic juices flowing. It is a strangely bisected life, no sooner inviting than frustrating any clearcut response. When Dr. Orne first asked the twenty-seven-year-old Sexton what she might be good at, she could come up with only one skill: she might make a good prostitute. And in a sense, the poetry he steered her into was to be a kind of prostitution, but not for that without any value, some of it even poetic.
In the end, it is the poetry that matters. Much has been made, by Middlebrook and others, of a statement in Sexton’s memoir about Sylvia Plath: how the two poets agreed that “suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem,” which makes it sound as if in the crunch their common sense prevailed. But the same short piece contains two other, rather different and less positive, utterances: “Sylvia and I, such sleep mongers, such death mongers …” and “we talked death and this was life to us… .” Anything can be grist for poetry, even infatuation with death, as a greater poet than either Plath or Sexton, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, has demonstrated. But the trick is to make poetry come out ahead of neurosis, art ahead of autobiography. Middlebrook quotes John Holmes, Sexton’s first poetry teacher, in his subsequent disenchantment: “Not that she has two subjects, mental illness and sex, but that she writes so absolutely selfishly of herself, to bare and shock and confess. Her motives are wrong, artistically, and finally the self-preoccupation comes to be simply damn boring.”
The other part of the problem was spotted by James Dickey as early as his review of Sexton’s first volume, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960). Here again Middlebrook and others tend to latch on to the wrong passages; in fact, the verses with which Dickey tries to demonstrate that Sexton is writing with an “easy, A-student, superficially exact ‘differentness,’” strike me as effective. But otherwise Dickey was quite right—even prophetic about the later work, which was yet to come—that “if there were some way to relieve these poems of the obvious effort of trying to be poems, something very good would emerge.” Nevertheless, short stories, which Dickey proposed, proved not to be the answer, though some other form she did not live to achieve might well have been. And I find rather disturbing the way Sexton wrote her poems, typing out the rhyming words, then filling in the lines, again by typewriter, and relying on a rhyming dictionary. Had she lived a little longer or later, it would have been the computer.
Still, a poet who sells as well as Sexton has been selling—and not just to the “I don’t read poetry, but I read Anne Sexton” kind of reader mentioned by Middlebrook— deserves our attention, the attention she gets from fellow poets, scholars, critics, and other literate readers. Sexton cannot be dismissed, but she can be disliked. Among the various comments about her by another of her teachers, Robert Lowell, Middlebrook quotes the one in which he compares her to Edgar Lee Masters (praise to faint from), in whose work “little moments prop the big moment.” And Lowell continues: “Faults? I don’t think they matter. Or perhaps they are unavoidable human limitations—yours! There are loose edges, a certain monotony of tone, a way of writing that sometimes seems to let everything in too easily, bald spots, uninspired moments that roll off disguised by the same certainty of voice, poems that all one can say about is that they are Sexton and therefore precious.”
But Middlebrook does not quote a later comment of Lowell’s to Ian Hamilton: “[Sexton] is Edna Millay after Snodgrass. She has her bite. She is a popular poet, very first-person, almost first on personality. I had a mortifying revelation. I was reading an anthology and imagined I was reading another poet I often prefer to Sexton. It was marvelous, ‘much X’s best poem.’ I thought X had become unmuddy and personal at last; but the poem was by Anne. Then the poem sank a little, I’m afraid. I knew Anne could be personal. I read her with bias.” I quote this remark entire, partly because of what it tells about Lowell, partly because of what it says about Sexton’s “confessional” poetry, and partly because of the questions it raises about the nature and worth of a poet’s work. What Lowell is saying in effect is that, as birdsong goes, the cuckoo’s is not especially beautiful, but it would be stunning if it came out of an elephant. Highly debatable; but, in any case, Millay, Masters—that is not the tournament most poets would wish to compete in.
Diane Wood Middlebrook is a poet, literary critic, and professor of English at Stanford. She has toiled for ten years over this biography, but sympathy does not cloud her judgment of her subject. (Other things, to be sure, may.) In a review in Book World, Joyce Carol Oates praised Anne Sexton: A Biography as “informed by at least one guiding principle—that poetry was not Sexton’s sickness, but her stay against sickness.” True, but not much of a commendation; any biographer who merely recorded the life and ravings of a madwoman for over four hundred pages would cast some doubt on her own sanity. Well researched, decently organized, and readably written as her book is, Mrs. Middlebrook does at times sound— how shall I put it?—worrisome. Thus she writes: “The home, the mental hospital, the body: These are women’s places in the social order that appoints different roles to the sexes; and woman herself is the very scene of mutilation, according to the theory of penis envy, which had great currency in Sexton’s milieu.” Any halfway competent satirist could get a whole essay out of playing with this sentence alone.
There were two Anne Sextons, in life as in poetry. Apparently there were two of them even in suicide.
But, I reiterate, there were two Anne Sextons, in life as in poetry. Apparently there were two of them even in suicide. Sexton always carried about a sufficient dose of “kill me pills,” as she called them, to make a hasty exit from life possible whenever she might choose. Note, however, that she could stage a phony suicide with meretricious theatricality as easily as, when she was ready, commit it with a touching thoroughness, the dedication of a child tucking itself comfily into bed. First the phony one, soon after a fight with her dear friend Maxine Kumin:
Sexton put on a fancy red dress—one she wore for readings—and told her current tenant [she had divorced Kayo, to his dismay and her ultimate undoing] that she was going dancing. She took a cab to Cambridge and got out a short distance from Linda’s dormitory, then strolled down to the Charles River and danced her way along the embankment, wading in and out of the water, until she was across from Barbara Schwartz’s office, where Schwartz [a mere psychiatric social worker, Sexton’s last resort, her final, female psychiatrist having dropped her, and no other one, apparently, wishing to take her on] always left a light burning, at Sexton’s request. Then she began taking handfuls of pills, washing them down with milk from a Thermos bottle she had taken along. A good Samaritan came along [note the inelegance of these two “along”s] and asked if he could help. He took her to the emergency room of Mount Auburn Hospital.
This is almost too perfect: picking the site near Linda’s dorm and Schwartz’s office, so your death becomes a powerful reproach to both of them; wearing your most elegant clothes, as befits a tragic corpse; behaving conspicuously in a place where there was a good chance of being noticed and saved. (And what of that eternal light that Sexton demanded of Schwartz?) But why milk in the Thermos? Because it reminds you of your childhood into which, with death’s help, you hope to regress? Or because milk is good for a suicide’s health?
A few months later—on October 4, 1974, in the forty-fifth year of her life—Anne Sexton, this “addict of suicide,” did kill herself. She went to see Barbara Schwartz and brought her a poem she had written for her. She seemed utterly calm; the only thing that worried Schwartz was finding Anne’s lighter and cigarettes tucked behind a vase: “Anne Sexton without cigarettes was unthinkable.” Then Anne joined Maxine Kumin for “a wonderfully gay and silly lunch,” as Max recalled, during which she helped Anne correct the galleys of The Awful Rowing Toward God. Still, Kumin never felt exploited: “Annie gave as good as she got.” Sexton then drove herself home to Weston amid lovely Indian summer weather and foliage. In her kitchen, she had some vodka (not milk!), and phoned her date for the evening to change the hour of their meeting.
She removed her rings and took from the clothes closet her mother’s old fur coat. Against the somewhat chill air, the coat, Middlebrook relates, would feel like a familiar embrace, and make death a falling asleep in maternal arms. Carrying another glass of vodka, Anne went to her garage, closed the door behind her, sat in the driver’s seat of her red, vintage 1967 Cougar, and turned on the ignition and the radio.
Now, that radio is particularly significant. Her mother had once written Anne, “We have always been a two-way radio.” When Mary Gray lay dying of cancer in the hospital, Anne guiltily took the portable radio from her mother’s room. “Ever after, this radio and its successive incarnations were always playing while she worked at her desk, while she breakfasted, and while she fell asleep at night. [Sleep was never easy for her.] ‘I will die with this radio playing—last sounds,’ she wrote.” This appears on page 47 of Middlebrook’s biography; the suicide is on page 397. I hope readers are long enough on memory to connect the two passages. Sexton’s suicide was a determined withdrawal into childhood, mother’s love, and being sung to sleep.
Touching, of course. Yet this is the woman about whom her husband, fifteen years after her death, told the biographer, “Anne had a mouth like the needle on a Singer sewing machine … She had a way of making me the goat.” Two Anne Sextons, I repeat one final time: the better one methodical and efficacious about poetry, about becoming a success, about committing suicide. Mrs. Middlebrook does both of them full justice. The only injured party, at times, is the English language. Should a professor of English at Stanford write “submitting two women to torture,” “termination from Dr. Zweizung,” “Plath’s novel aggravated her fiercely,” “sex regresses the practitioner,” “seventeen long poems comprising Transformations,” “a masterful poet,” “to contact her,” “intuited,” “critiqued”? Should she write “Macduff” as “MacDuff”? Sexton, of course, would not have cared—she, who had very little formal education, pluralized “wife” as “wifes” and wrote “Society isn’t set up for somebody realizing yourself at 28.”
But by forty-five and death, Anne Sexton had realized herself. She had said, “To be halfway is to be nothing. There is no point in being half a poet.” Also: “I have to be great.” And, in her small way, she was.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 4, on page 58
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