The hand that stilled the heart could not stifle the voice. Since Anne Sexton’s suicide in 1974, the literary world has received a legacy in three posthumously published works. The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975) and 45 Mercy Street (1976) complete her volumes of confessional poetry. But nothing has augmented her poetical gifts more than Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977) edited by Linda Gray Sexton, her elder daughter, and Lois Ames, her biographer. The letters themselves show the richness of Sexton’s life as poet, critic, philosopher, friend, lover, wife, and mother. They show the complexities and difficulties of Sexton’s playing all these roles in one brief lifetime of forty-six years.
Linda Gray Sexton, perhaps more than anyone else, knew her mother and shared her most intimate thoughts for twenty-one years. Linda was sometimes a mentor, sometimes a sounding board, often a cause for concern, but always an understander of “the language.” This perception not only has made Linda Gray Sexton a poet in her own right, but it has made her a highly qualified editor of this collection.
Lois Ames, too, knew Anne Sexton well before her suicide. First introduced to her as Ames was searching for biographical information on Sylvia Plath, Ames became a correspondent, traveling companion, and confidante to Sexton, sharing the last nine years of her life. While Lois Ames and Linda Sexton’s compiling this collection was obviously a “labor of love,” it was more accurately an attempt to share with the literary world this very special woman with whom they were on such intimate terms.
The paradox of Anne Sexton’s being so special is that in so many ways, she was so ordinary—a daughter anxious for parental approval, a mother delighted with and sometimes depressed by two daughters, a true wife (although she “loved” many people), a suburban housewife who pecked out the moments of her existence with two toddlers running in circles around her.
And yet, Sexton was far from ordinary. Her accomplishments include nine published volumes of poetry, a collection of letters, several children’s books; the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1967 for Live or Die, an honorary doctorate from Tufts University, Fairfield University, and Regis College; an honorary Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and Radcliffe; a guest professorship at Colgate University; and a professorship at Boston University.
Sexton’s friends and acquaintances are as extraordinary as her list of credits: Robert Lowell, George Starbuck, Maxine Kumin, Elizabeth Bishop, W. D. Snodgrass, Tillie Olsen, Anthony Hecht, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Louis Simpson, Kurt Vonnegut, Stanley Kunitz, and James Dickey. These people were among her best friends as well as her most severe critics. Vast numbers of letters attest to the special camaraderie Sexton shared with some, the special antipathy she had for others.
The attraction of Sexton is this unique blend of special and ordinary. She was the self-made woman who, with little “formal” education, was a professor at Boston University. She was simply a mother who found time to pour her soul into numerous volumes of poetry with children underfoot. She was a sharer of fragmentary thoughts and joys with those she loved and respected. She was open, very honest, and sometimes silly. Sexton was casual, conversational, and yet sometimes censorious simultaneously. This blend of so many polarities was the Sexton intrigue.
A large part of the Sexton mystique stems from her suicide itself, the constant wondering of “when” and “how,” the desire to see precisely what went wrong and where. The mystique is the search through the letters and poems for clues to the tragedy of October of 1974. The end of A Self-Portrait in Letters is itself the answer. The suicide was deliberate, planned, a composite of many years of deciding on the tools. “But suicides have a special language./ Like carpenters they want to know which tools. They never ask why build.” (“Wanting to Die” from Live or Die).
And yet so much of Sexton’s work is filled with life, a celebration of her own existence and the existence of others. Her letters are a testament to this. To a stranger in need of encouragement, a mental patient, Sexton writes, “So I say live, because of the sun, the dream, the excitable gift” (“Live” from Live or Die). Sexton observes life and blooming all around her and participates in that growth as in “Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman.” “My daughter at eleven/ (almost twelve) is like a garden./ . . . where apples are beginning to swell./ . . . But what I want to say, darling,/ is that women are born twice.” Not only is Sexton’s love affair with death part of the intrigue, but so is her exuberant celebration of life.
These major themes of life and death are prevalent in her letters. While she rejoices at the rebirth of Linda and Joy at adolescence, the birth of eight Dalmatian puppies, the births of new collections of poems of W. D. Snodgrass (Heart’s Needle) and C. K. Williams (I Am the Bitter Name), Sexton spends considerable time...
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