by ALEX CARNEVALE
The great theme is not Romeo and Juliet. The great theme we all share is that of becoming ourselves, of overcoming our father and mother, of assuming our identities somehow.
— from Anne Sexton's early introduction to The Double Image
Anne Gray Harvey didn't start writing poetry until she was 28. Before then she was a model with Boston's Hart Agency. In 1948, at the age of 20, Anne ran off and eloped with Kayo Sexton. After she'd married Kayo, they sent along the same telegram to each of their parents. The Sextons tosses theirs away in a fury at the union, although they would later grow closer to Anne than her own parents. Anne's parents preserved the telegram for posterity:
Living off Kayo's parents and then with her husband supporting her, Anne began to pursue her poetry, taking her first class with the mercurial poet John Holmes. Her complicated relationship with Holmes' aesthetic was later superceded by Robert Lowell. By the time she met Lowell, she had already made her first suicide attempt. She wrote this letter to get into Lowell's class at Boston University.
September 15th, 1958
Dear Mr. Lowell:
What a fine letter you wrote me. I am considering framing it to prove to all comers that poets are people. I am so pleased that you think my work shows promise, that I shall need no new proof for possibly a month.
Since receiving your letter I have been busy begging money from old fat relatives. Today, with 90 dollars in my fist, I called the registrar's office. However, it seems they are not bouncing with joy at the thought of "special students" with no particular degree. A Mr. Wilder said I would have to wait until after registration and see if there were too many students in the class. I forward this information to you because I gather he will present you with the problem.
I hasten to add, since he may forget my name, that I am one of the vagrant applications that awaits your decision. He asked me if I were connected with any publication. I am not. In fact, I am totally disconnected from everything. I did not mention my slim list of credits, thinking he might wonder WHAT I was talking about. I am supposed to call him on Friday morning at eleven.
If this doesn't pan out I can always try for the second semester. I am even tempted to sit watching your lovely letters of praise and forget all about the work and criticism and growth that I would enjoy working with you.
I am more than a little shy of the great factories of humanity, like B.U., and it will take considerable moral courage to get on with this complicated application, registration, and these new hurdles. Somewhere, I hope I will get to a classroom where Robert Lowell is talking about poetry. I don't want the three credits, I am not sweetened with a background of knowledge, am even defensive saying ("I don't know anything.") — but if you can squeeze me in, I will be there.
You do not need to answer this letter. I just wanted to let you know the meanwhiles and if so's. If I do not make it I will surely meet you sometime.
Anne had a complicated relationship with her parents, but they were as much raw material for her existing troubles as the source of them. Whatever happened with her and her father (he got rich selling various goods during World War II), Anne was predisposed to mental illness from the first, and spent most of her life on medication (specifically the antipsychotic thorazine) and under analysis. Her manic qualities are obvious from her letters, which represent an extraordinary output of energy. Anne's writing began as a way of coping with her illness, and her letter writing was the best kind of therapy. Her relationships with poets like Maxine Kumin and W.D. Snodgrass are preserved in this form.
November 28, 1958
To W.D. Snodgrass
Dear passionflower tender,
I was just looking out the window at the truck that was delivering two bottles of whiskey and it was, yes it was, snowing. I am young. I am younger each year at the first snow. When I see it, suddenly, in the air, all little and white and moving; then I am in love again and very young and I believe everything. Christ is in his manger and Santa in heaven.
I am a good girl and the man left two bottles of booze because my mother is rich and she ordered them. She is staying with us because my father is ill, in the hospital with a stroke. My mother keeps telling me that soon I will be rich because they will be dead (she is greedily wordy about this) and I listen to her and think about a poem by you about a mother...she is like a star...everything MUST center around her.
And I write in a hurry because it is snowing and because this morning I received a letter from you and I because I would rather write to you this moment than sleep with Apollo or even go outside and measure the snow on the walk. I write to you because you understand my letters and do not take them TOO seriously or too casually. And because, after all, I love you and you are my best god anyhow.
Did I? Why do I forget everything! send you a complete copy of my "Double Image" poem the other day? I sent it someone that I cared about. But was it you? Who else could there be, that I care about - about reading it??? I think I did. If so — read it. If not — let me know.
I also received a nice letter from Jim McConk taking two poems for Epoch (it's about time) and saying such nice things about my work and when was my book coming out (I didn't believe that, but it looked nice on the page) and all. That sweet ladypoet from Rochester took two poems for Voices (don't know why I sent there — but did —) one of the ones was a new one, "Obsessional Combination of Ontological Inscape, Trickery and Love" ... why am I rambling on? Now I know why I am really writing you so promptly. I have a question —
How do I go about applying for Yaddo? Would John Holmes be enough of a recommendation? Who else could I find? Would Nolan Miller (he thinks he discovered me) help? Or Hollis Summers (he writes me letters) — I might be able to go. I think the first thing to do is see if I could get in — do you think, perhaps, it would be better to wait a year (in view of that fact that I'm such a "new" writer)...
John Holmes is having a small party for John C. Ransom next Wed. night and has asked me so maybe I will meet someone who will decide to discover me. I will be on the lookout for a possible famous soul who can recommend me.
But how do you go about it, dear night clerk; the future is my own. I am trying to steer. I paddle my own craft with toothpick oars. Thank you for quoting my letter. I will write you dozens more someday. I doubt if I can use it in a poem (but there is lots more where that came from). I am a romantic and am full of tiers of tries of all that.
let me know about Yaddo —
Success came quickly, and while the accompanying confidence kept her going through her constant bouts of anxiety and depression, it also exaggerated her considerable alienation. At times she could be deft about how she pushed herself on other people, but she was often extremely intrusive, even on the lives of her own husband and daughters. Her boundaries weren't too spectacular.
Anne's best book, her 1962 collection All My Pretty Ones, was roundly celebrated. It was even nominated for the National Book Award, the second time Anne would receive that accolade. The one exception was a negative review by James Dickey that appeared in The New York Times Book Review. Anne carried the clipping around in her wallet:
It would be hard to find a writer who dwells more insistently on the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience as though this made the writing more real, it would also be difficult to find a more hopelessly mechanical approach to reporting these matters than the one she employs... Her recourse to the studiedly off-hand diction favored by Randall Jarrell and Elizabeth Bishop and her habitual gravitation to the domestic and the "anti-poetic" seem to me as contrived as any poet's harking after galleons and sunsets and forbidden pleasures.
Anne was fairly good with criticism; in fact it is rumored she was the last person to take criticism well in this country. After reading the review, she wrote Dickey a letter and befriended him. In short order he was eating out of her hand. She did this with most of her antagonists, the mark of every disturbed disposition.
Anne's letters also show why she was renowned as a capable, albeit wildly erratic, teacher. She did feature, as all great instructors do, the exact right combination of total self-involvement and magnetic empathy that drew students to her in the classroom. She had an astonishing amount of attention to give, and as a poet she was as engaged with her critics (of which there were many) as her admirers. She was so manic in the way that she interacted with people that were if not for the relative stability of her husband, she might have gone completely off the rails.
The quintessential volume of Anne's letters is Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters, edited by two women who knew Sexton intimately, Lois Ames and Anne's daughter Linda. Anne's number one correspondent was her husband, especially when she was separated from him. In one letter, Anne quotes John Ciardi's phrase that "a woman marries what she needs." The following letter to her husband Kayo is perhaps proof of this. Anne was on a long European trip that had started when she and her travelling companion had all their possessions stolen. The flood of ensuing letters were wild beacons across the Atlantic.
Sept 7th, 1963
I want, though not often, to write you a letter of your own...i.e. a love letter. It can be a drag to have to speak publicy (to all, the girls and whoever, sometimes I feel to the whole neighborhood) ...when I often long for you and wish to speak only to you. Naturally the news goes on, the road moves, the travelerama continues and with it, with each time I type, are these almost unspoken words of love for you. Kayo, my darling, I miss you terribly. Each food I taste that I think worthy of your taste I miss you more. And more! Oh, Boots, there are times, despite the excitement of the buildings, of the food, of the people, when longing for you wells up in me... and I want to be home beside you in the bed looking at t.v. or at the kitchen table drinking a martini...(for God's sake now Sandy is talking and talking and all day she has been silent but when I start to write, well then she talks...) enough complaints. Actually we get along pretty well, except for a fight last night that didn't last long. I was typing out the list for Kazan and asking her how to spell and she sounded irritated and I barked back and told her to go to hell, etc. She went out of the room in huff and went to the john and smoked a cig. Good for me I sez...might as well speak up and clean the slate off once in awhile.
Kayo, the night before last I dreamt you were having an affair with someone and I woke up crying! Awful. Please keep loving me! I love you so much and feel you are here with me all the time...miss you more than I had thought possible. True, I am terribly busy what with losing everything! And all. The shock of losing it all just doesn't sink in. I lost all the books! Even nana's letter from Europe and grandfather's too.
I did value and love those two books...but they are in the thief's wastebasket I guess...and life must go on not backward (just this fact makes me feel better, the trouble with therapy is that it makes life go backwards) and I am so tired of that old suffering. I want life to go forward even if I have to lose all my books and clothes to keep it going in that direction. And in a way, life is flowing toward us...you and me...and the life we have, for each day that goes by brings us nearer and each mile does it too.
I feel, sometimes, as if I were actually driving upon the map in our kitchen! I know I am here and you are there and yet, and yet, not quite. The sound of the ocean reminds me of the night in front of the house we rented on the Cape. (Do you remember that night on the beach?)
I keep missing baked beans. Do you think you might send me a care package of baked beans? It is the first meal I think of and long for. Tonight in Knokke at our hotel (meals with room...a nice summer out of season hotel ... typical dutch bourgeois resort, very nice) we had tiny, two or three inch, lobster as a start and then steak and marvelous sauce and french fries. The french fries all over Europe are wonderful. I have become a lover of french fries (not frozen, not HoJo)...
But you know, Kayo, I always did I have a "wanderlust" and it wasn't JUST A NEUROTIC wish to flee responsibility...but to see new things. And I do love that. I don't have the time or energy to get depressed or anxious. If I get anxious I seem to have four miles of walking in front of me and that takes care of THAT. Tonight we are supposed to be at the Poetry Festival Ball (for which I bought that damn expensive new dress in Brussels) but which I don't feel like going to. The sea has undone me. To hell with the ball. The dress I will wear on New Year's Eve and you will fall in love with me. That's what I want the dress for.
Meanwhile, I'll wear the few rags I have left. We have a copy of what we sent to Kazan as a list and will send it later, perhaps from Amsterdam (right now using mailers) for you to check. I wrote it out quite correctly, be sure to check with him and see what's up and tell him clothes all new from trip and not to devalue them as "used" ... some never worn. Kayo, my boots, keep loving me. It is hard to go so long without letters from you. Every night before sleep I read the ones I got in Paris but then you had never heard from me...the time lapse is painful (that's why the cable). You hear from us more regularly, but it is hard to wait this long, I become fearful and afraid, afraid I'll lose you. I know that IS silly, but there it is, and in all its little ugly unsureness and with its open love. Europe is fascinating. I am truly interested and excited but I miss you very much and love you with all my heart. Usually I must write the large common letter. But tonight I must say my special say which goes for always but must be said once more. I love you.
Later in the month, she sent the following telegram:
VENICE IMPOSSIBLY BEAUTIFUL YOUR LETTERS BETTER THAN WINE STAYING 8 DAYS PLEASE WRITE HERE JUMPING CATFISH LOVE
To me, Anne seems the living embodiment of something that is in all of us; in Anne it was the entire thing. She could not live, was not able to survive, without chronicling her life, without remedying the errors she had met and explaining them, often to large audiences, in order to set them right. She is a reminder that while we can change, a part of us never does.
As she got older and struggled more with her illness, alcoholism too began to take hold. Her breakdowns had led to several hospitalizations, but her writing continued. She distanced herself from many of her oldest friends, and her letters become evidence of a closer relationship with fans who randomly connected to her poems than those who knew her best. Her clipped bursts of enthusiasms toward her admirers are both sweet and chilling at the same time. Anne received a letter from Dorianne Goetz, who wrote her from a mental hospital, and sent back this postcard in June of 1965:
Thank you so much for your note. I'm so pleased you like my work. I hope you can get a chance to see the new poem out in Harper's this month (June) called "For the Year of the Insane." It is only for a few people.
I would like it if you could be one of them.
I wish I were nineteen. Not that it's better or worse to be me at 36 but it gives you so much more time to grow. Inside I'm only thirteen and outside I have wrinkles and a family and many who depend on me. How silly all this is when you are actually 13. That's what I mean "I wish." Time to grow — it's so needed. Hope you still find Hillside "a wonderful place." I've been in so many that aren't. But that's another story...Please send poems. I'd like to see them —
Before filing for divorce from Kayo, she accompanied him on a safari to Africa, one of his long-terms goals. She was really grossed out by the bloodshed as a lifelong vegetarian but suffered through it for him.
Anne killed herself on October 4, 1974 after a day of lunch with Maxine Kumin and time spent proofing her new book. In 1969 a letter to her daughter Linda, who would become her literary executor, anticipated her death:
I am in the middle of a flight to St. Louis to give a reading. I was reading a New Yorker story that made me think of my mother all alone in the seat I whispered to her "I know, Mother, I know." (Found a pen!) And I thought of you — someday flying somewhere all alone and me dead perhaps and you wishing to speak to me.
And I want to speak back. (Linda, maybe it won't be flying, maybe it will be at your own kitchen table drinking tea some afternoon when you are 40. Anytime.) - I want to say back.
1st I love you
2. You never let me down
3. I know. I was there once. I too, was 40 with a dead mother who I needed still.
This is my message to the 40-year-old Linda. No matter what happens you were always my bobolink, my special Linda Gray. Life is not easy. It is awfully lonely. I know that. Now you too know it — wherever you are, Linda, talking to me. But I've had a good life — I wrote unhappy — but I lived to the hilt. You too, Linda, Live to the HILT! To the top. I love you, 40-year old Linda, and I love what you do, what you find, what you are! Be your own woman. Belong to those you love. Talk to my poems, and talk to your heart — I'm in both: if you need me. I lied, Linda. I did love my mother and she loved me. She never held me but I miss her, so that I have to deny I ever loved her - or she me! Silly Anne! So there.
"I Feel Better (Richard X remix)" - Hot Chip (mp3)
"I Feel Better (Dan Haan remix)" - Hot Chip (mp3)
"I Feel Better (Club Version)" - Hot Chip ft. Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)
I am, each day,
typing out the God
my typewriter believes in.
Very quick. Very intense,
like a wolf at a live heart.