A collection of dismantled almosts

Dear Anne,

I must confess one thing: I have just violated your correspondence. Not the dismantled chaos of letters, postcards or little notes you have probably left behind, but the collection edited by your eldest daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, and by Lois Ames, your friend and confidant. The idea behind Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977) is for it to be read like the autobiography written through your letters.

anne sexton

Compiled in chronological order, the letters cover a period of almost 30 years, from your childhood to the months leading up to your suicide. The correspondence is organized into six chapters, and each chapter has an introduction and an opening poem. Intertwined with the letters, we have biographical notes and photographs. Despite having been edited and having suffered orthographic adjustments and name alterations, the letters collected here serve as a good complement to the reading of your poems and biography. The collection includes some of your correspondence with exponents of the American literary scene in the second half of the twentieth century, such as: WD Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, George Starbuck, Maxine Kumin, Elizabeth Bishop, Tillie Olsen, Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson, Kurt Vonnegut, Stanley Kunitz, CK Williams and James Dickey.

The letter exchange between you and your contemporaries illuminates the books and authors that influenced your work. Especially interesting are the passages in which the creation process of some of your poems is put into context. The Double Image; All My Pretty Ones; Live; And 45 Mercy Street, among other poems, are repeatedly mentioned in the letters. Another interesting point is that, in some places, the letters sound like an uncut sketch of the process by which you transformed life into poetry – an attempt to explain and understand your personal chaos (“my own need to make form from chaos”).

The collection also includes your correspondence with fans, editors, students, young poets in search of advice, friends and family. You seem to make of each of your correspondents a potential confidant. Your voice in these letters is witty, casual, intimate, sentimental, sometimes urgent. Not infrequently, a single letter embraces, as in a stream of consciousness, a profusion of themes following one another in one breath: work, family life, therapy, travel.

The Anne who emerges from this collection is multifaceted: a daughter eager for parental approval; a loving mother (“I would tear you down and put it into a smart jewelry box if I could. I would seal up love in a long thin bottle so that you could sip it whenever I could.”), but sometimes passive-aggressive and suffocating; a wife now in love, now bored; a dependent, demanding, intense woman (“I am a collection of dismantled almosts”); a housewife surrounded by dogs, cats and two small children running around the table (“I am kind of a secret beatnik hiding in the suburbs in my square house on a dull street”); a true self-made woman who, with little “formal” education (one who did not go to college, had bad grades at school, and committed gross spelling mistakes), won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1967 for the book Live or Die, received an honorary doctorate from Tufts University and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University, and was a professor at Boston University. People are always telling me I’m tough. Maybe because I’ve survived so much. Inside I feel like a cooked broccoli, and I don’t mean the stalks which should be crisp and tasty. I mean the heads that fall apart when you cut them. The only time I’m tough in my own mind is when I’m seized by a poem and then determined to conquer it and let it live it’s own peculiar life. All my toughness goes into my writing.”

While it is true that the subject of depression, suicide attempts, and psychiatric hospitalizations is very present in this collection (“I feel so lonely. I feel worse – strange. And when I leave on my thin and bony legs, with my big feet and my awkward pocketbook I cry in the car. And I say to myself that the trouble with life is that people are strangers”), you also reveal, in these letters, a twisted way of laughing at yourself, of being criticized, of falling and getting up. Intertwined with the episodes of suffering, there is an exuberant celebration of the most prosaic aspects of everyday life (the first menstruation of your daughters, the birth of eight Dalmatians, a sunny day by the pool, the publication of a collection of poems).

“Poetry saved me,” you repeatedly wrote to more than one of your correspondents. “And the poetry, the writing are a gain, a something very good from a something very terrible.” The letters collected here do not sound as lamentations, but as the dignified record of a hard battle. A collection of sometimes loving, sometimes desperate smoke signals.

Yours truly,

J.


Denis Sarazhin
Denis Sarazhin

“I hate writing letters. I feel like an Indian sending up smoke signals or that I’m writing a telegram and leaving the most important nuances out. Since I’ve become a poet I am not a good letter writer. I just dash them off, knowing it’s not the real thing.” ― Anne Sexton, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters

“You see, I am given to excess.  That’s all there is to it.  I have found that I can control it best in a poem….if the poem is good then it will have the excess under control…it is the core of the poem…there, like stunted fruit, but actual.” – Anne Sexton, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters

“Words bother me. I think it is why I am a poet. I keep trying to force myself to speak of the things that remain mute inside.  My poems have only come when I have almost lost the ability to utter a word. To speak, in a way, of the unspeakable. To make an object out of the chaos…to say what?  A final cry into the void.” – Anne Sexton, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters

“I’ve told you the facts coldly and clinically almost because I couldn’t bear to tell them with feeling. Hell is too wide to describe.” ― Anne Sexton, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters

“The future is a fog that is still hanging out over the sea, a boat that floats home or does not.”
― Anne Sexton, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters

“I don’t dare walk outside where the sky must hurt even extra with its full load of stars. The sky outside must ring.” ― Anne Sexton, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters

“Drowning is not so pitiful as the attempt to rise.”  – Anne Sexton, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters


About the book

  • Mariner Books, 2004, 433 p. Goodreads;
  • First published in 1977;
  • My rating: 5 stars.
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