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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,074

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This is the grave of Anne Sexton.

Born in 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts, Sexton grew up in Boston, went to a private academy in Lowell for school, modeled, married, had a couple of kids. Now, Sexton had her issues. She was bipolar and had some pretty severe low points, especially beginning in the 1950s. In fact, she would be depressed for most of her life, which was marked by many suicide attempts. In 1955, a doctor suggested she start writing poetry as a way of dealing with her trauma. So she did and almost immediately found success.

Like any usual person might be, Sexton was very nervous about the idea of writing poetry. She actually had her friend sign her up for her first poetry workshop, which was run by the well-known poet John Holmes. But he loved her work and so did almost everyone else. She found a mentor in W.D. Snodgrass, another well known writer and then took courses with Robert Lowell. She got to know Sylvia Plath and all the other major poets of the time. The New Yorker started publishing her poems, then as now the largest publication possibility for a poet, though of all the New Yorker readers I’ve known for the decades I’ve read it, I’ve never heard anyone discuss a single poem in the magazine except to wonder why there is so much poetry in it. Anyway, good for those 50 people who like to read the poems to have that opportunity.

Not surprisingly, Sexton’s work was highly confessional. This was her method of getting the living hell that was her depression out of her and into something a bit more productive. But she was also no holds barred when it came to subject matter. At a time when the nation was reopening its legs after the 50s refusal to discuss sex (ironic of course because of rapidly plunging marriage ages and the Baby Boom that led to), she wrote about abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, all the good topics. Of course many people hated this at the time, especially those who thought such topics should remain undiscussed.

Sexton began to stretch out a bit too. She got to know the writer Maxine Kumin. They became good friends and wrote a few children’s books together. She also started working on a play. It took a long time to finish but Mercy Street was finally published in 1969 to great acclaim, with the New York Times critic Clive Barnes called it “a voice for a generation.” It took me until writing this post to discover that the Peter Gabriel song by the same name is about Sexton and the play. She even started a jazz-rock group named Her Kind where she used her lyrics behind some musicians. Given my general dislike of jazz vocals, I doubt this would be my thing, but I am highly interested in the idea and total respect for someone seeking to tell their story in so many different ways.

Sexton’s first book was To Bedlam and Part Way Back in 1960. She came out with new volumes every couple of years after this for the rest of her life. This was an era where people actually bought poetry and so she sold well. She also won all the awards, including the Pulitzer, a Guggenheim, and all the major poetry awards. She taught at Boston University and Colgate as well. She even taught poetry at a Boston high school for a year in the late 60s, which is an interesting choice for someone this famous. Of course she was a critical darling. One poem that really got the critics attention was “The Starry Night.” Let’s read it:

The town does not exist except where one blackhaired tree slips up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.

The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.

O starry starry night! This is how I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.

Even the moon bulges in its orange irons to push the children, like a god, from its eye.

The old unseen serpent swallowed up the stars.

O starry starry night! This is how I want to die: into that rushing beast of night.

sucked up it, that great dragon, to split from my life with no flag, no belly, no cry.

Sexton’s depression was probably not helped by her therapist, the famous Martin Orne, who used a lot of questionable methods on her, including shots of sodium pentothal to bring back suppressed memories, as well as hypnosis. This was unfortunately the great age of psychotherapy with all its babble and pseudo-science behind it. Whether or not this was true or not, and there’s plenty of evidence that Sexton would tell doctors what they wanted to her, tapes released years later that violated doctor-patient privilege where she said she molested her own daughter. This actually and very sadly probably was true. Sexton was a pretty messed up person. She definitely beat her children and got into a lot of physical altercations with her husband, who she finally divorced in 1973.

Sadly, Sexton’s demons were just too much for her to overcome. She was spending a lot of time in mental hospitals at this point and dealing with just the worst possible kind of despair. Depression is just a hell of a thing and I am extremely grateful to not have this problem, though my first marriage was destroyed by this hell in my ex-wife. So I get it, at least as much as anyone who doesn’t actually have the problem can. In 1974, she was working on revisions to her last book, The Awful Roaring Toward God (good title!). She had just had enough. She walked to the garage and turned on the car and waited for the carbon monoxide to do its work. She was 45 years old.

Anne Sexton is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other poets, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. May Swenson is in Logan, Utah and May Sarton is in Nelson, New Hampshire. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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