Anne Sexton’s first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back, which described her struggle with mental illness, was published in 1960 and received much critical acclaim. Seven years later she received the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die, but the poetry collections which she published from then until her death in 1974 often did not receive the enthusiastic praise from critics which these early books engendered. This fourteen-year writing career which included great success and some failure is spanned in Words for Dr. Y., a collection of previously unpublished poems (two did appear in Mademoiselle) and short stories.
The best poems in this collection exhibit the characteristics which led to Sexton’s rather meteoric success. They explore intense emotions in personal terms using images which are unusual, vivid, and memorable. They portray real terror, madness, or hope because they share with the reader the actual experiences and feelings of their author. At their best they communicate these emotions through the discipline of form. However, too many of these poems are not of this high caliber; most of them flare into self-dramatization or wallow without control in unrestrained emotion. They lack discipline of form and settle for deliberately shocking imagery which is not always relevant. Similarly, a lack of craftsmanship in the stories leads the reader to conjecture that there was good reason for not publishing many of these works earlier.
Words for Dr. Y. consists of three groups of poems and three gothic stories. The first group of poems was written from 1960 to 1970, the second from 1971 to 1973 and the third in 1971. Each group is autobiographical in the sense that the poems are often based on experiences which the author was having at that particular time; each group also reflects the contemporary changes in Sexton’s style. Therefore, although certain characteristics and themes pervade the collection, the poems can most accurately be evaluated as part of the group in which they were written rather than as part of the whole collection.
The first group of poems, “Letters to Dr. Y.,” was intended for publication in The Book of Folly, according to Editor Linda Gray Sexton. However, friends dissuaded the author from including these poems in that collection, and she designated them for publication after her death. Autobiographical elements abound in the poems, which are ostensibly entries in a journal written for a psychiatrist. In her own life Sexton relied on voluminous letter-writing as a means of delving into her own emotions and of nurturing relationships not possible other than on paper (See Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters, Letter to Brother Dennis Farrel, March 28, 1963). She actually did correspond regularly with at least one psychiatrist, and in letters to her friends she mentioned her psychiatrist or asked to hear their psychiatrists’ opinions of herself.
Despite the author’s reliance on her own experience, these poems are not convincing as entries in a journal to a psychiatrist. Little sense of communication between the speaker and Dr. Y. is achieved, even though the poems sometimes address Dr. Y., are dated like letters, and discuss deeply felt emotions. Perhaps this lack is due to the variety of form in the entries. Some of the poems begin with a direct address to the doctor and suggest that the doctor is being talked to in the process of sifting through fears and memories. Other poems only address the psychiatrist later in the poem or refer to him indirectly as “you” or “Father, Inc.” Some entries which do not mention the psychiatrist at all are still confessional in tone, such as “I am no longer at war with sin,” or focus on the subject of mental illness, such as “What about all the psychotics/ of the world?” (since these “letters” lack titles, an abbreviation of the first line will usually identify them).
A few of the entries do not even appear to belong in letters to the psychiatrist. The poem “I love the word warm” not only does not mention Dr. Y., but does not discuss mental illness or fit the definition of the letters as a journal to examine the speaker’s “own sense of filth.” Other examples of misplaced poems are “I put some daisies in a bowl,” in which the speaker talks of showing love for someone, and the entry of July 4, 1969, which reads, “As Ruth said, ’Enlarge the place of thy tent.’”
The themes which occur throughout most of these poems are appropriate to a journal of someone undergoing psychiatric care. The need for help is expressed in “Dr. Y./I need a thin hot wire,” and in “My safe, safe, psychosis is broken” Dr. Y. meets that need by holding the writer’s hand. The speaker’s attraction to death is suggested often—the razor in her medicine cabinet suggests that she cut her hands; the green leaves excite her and tell her to die. Hints of her paranoid sense of evil appear in the images of decay; to her, evil is more than just committing adultery or theft. In “I am no longer at war with sin” the speaker explains that evil “dines on the soul,/stretching out its long bone tongue./It is evil who tweezers my heart,/picking out its atomic worms.”
The bizarre images which permeate the poems are convincing in their portrayal of insanity. An example of Sexton’s deliberately weird sexual descriptions can be found in “I am happy today” when she refers to “all the crotches of the angels of the world.” “Remember The Shadow Knows” humorously portrays paranoia and the “they” who see you in your pajamas watching television “or at the oven gassing the cat.” Even masochism is suggested in “What do the voices say” by the reference to the whip which “will mark you all over with little red fish./You will be almost killed, a delight.”
Perhaps because of the choice of subject matter—insanity—the emotions of many of the poems are often too raw, their expression too dramatic. An example of the speaker’s histrionic tone occurs at the end of “Dr. Y. I have a complaint” when she says “Urine and tears pour out of me./I’m the one you broke.” In “What has it come to” the speaker says that if she defied her psychiatrist she would be God without Jesus to speak for him and ends “I would be Jesus/without a cross to prove me.” Genuine emotions are taunted by the many images which are designed to wring some emotional response, usually a negative one, from the reader. For example, in “What are the leaves saying” the color green reminds the speaker of among other things “The slime pool that the dog drowned in. . ./A drunk vomiting up a teaspoon of bile.” In “I’m dreaming the My Lai soldier again” the speaker ends up “lying in this belly of dead babies/each one belching up the yellow gasses of death.” The endless parade of bizarre images becomes too much; finally the reader loses sight of the themes or ideas in many of these poems and becomes conscious only of disgust.
Some of the poems also suffer from haphazard construction. Even the poem “I remember my mother dying,” in which Sexton controls her emotion to create a deliberate effect, suffers from jumps between the consciousness of the mother and that of the daughter and from alternating between the past and present. The speaker in these poems is never identified; no persona is really established to differentiate her from Sexton. Why, then, did the author even bother with the artificial format of writing letters to an unknown psychiatrist by an unknown writer? Often the poems are weakened by the author’s attempts to end on a clever or dramatic note; for example, in “I called him Comfort” she finishes by describing...
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