Sexton, Anne: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Sexton, Anne, and Maxine Kumin, Elaine Showalter, and Carol Smith. "With Maxine Kumin, Elaine Showalter, and Carol Smith." In No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose, edited by Steven E. Colburn, pp. 158-79. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.

In the following interview, originally conducted on April 15, 1974, and first published in the journal Women's Studies in 1976, Sexton discusses her personal and professional friendship with Kumin with respect to the rise of the women's movement and the literary successes of both poets.

Max and I
two immoderate sisters,
two immoderate writers,
two burdeners,
made a pact.
To beat death down with a stick.
To take over.
Anne Sexton, "The Death Baby"  

This conversation [April 15, 1974] between four women is about the friendship of Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, a friendship which began in the late 1950s, when they studied together in a poetry workshop in Boston led by John Holmes. Because they had young children, and were often unable to get out of the house, they developed a process of "workshopping" poems on the telephone, supplying for each other both detailed criticism and warm support. Both women won Pulitzer Prizes for books of poems. Anne Sexton in 1967 for Live or Die, and Maxine Kumin in 1973 for Up Country: Poems of New England. Their poetic styles are completely different; Kumin's poetry is exact, formal, intensely crafted, while Sexton wrote dramatically about breakdown and death. On October 4, 1974, Anne Sexton killed herself at her home in Weston, Massachusetts.

We met Anne and Maxine before their poetry reading at Douglass College, and asked to talk with them together, not in the form of a traditional interview, but more as something relaxed and spontaneous. So the reader should not expect to find any theories of art, or formal or technical problems, examined here. Instead we hear the voices of Annie and Max, taped in a motel room in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on an April afternoon, interrupting each other, joking, remembering.

[Kumin]: Meeting Anne was really fantastic. When I met Annie she was a little flower child, she was the ex-fashion model. She wore very spiky high heels—

[Sexton]: Well, that was the age.

[Kumin]: Yes, it was. Well, she was totally chic, and I was sort of more frumpy.

[Sexton]: You were the most frump of the frumps. You had your hair in a little bun.

[Kumin]: I was the chief frump. She was really chic and she wore flowers in her hair.

[Showalter]: Where did you model? I remember reading that, and then it dropped out of your blurbs.

[Sexton]: It's called the Hart Agency, in Boston.

[Kumin]: She was a Hart girl. At any rate, we met at the Boston Center for Adult Education where we had each come to study with John Holmes.

[Sexton]: I came trembling, thinking, oh dear god, with the most ghastly poems. Oh god, were they bad!

[Kumin]: Well … I don't know if that's true.

[Sexton]: Oh, oh, Maxine, horrible, horrible. Anyway, your impression of me was—?

[Kumin]: And my impression of Anne was—I don't know what my impression was. I was very taken with her. I think we were each very taken with each other.

[Sexton]: Now, wait a minute. You were scared of me.

[Kumin]: I was terrified of her. I had just had my closest friend commit suicide, in a postpartum depression. Gassed herself.

[Sexton]: I wasn't writing about that right off.

[Kumin]: Now, wait a minute. I'm just saying why I was scared.

[Sexton]: Why should you know I had anything to do with it?

[Kumin]: Well, I knew your history.

[Sexton]: How?

[Kumin]: You were very open about the fact, of why you had begun to write poetry, and how you had started to write poetry. You had just gotten out of the mental hospital. And something in me very much wanted to turn aside from this. I didn't want to let myself in for that again, for that separation. And Anne is still very much more flamboyant and open a person than I am. I'm much more closed up, restrained. I think this is certain, although much less so now than then.

[Sexton]: Can I say? Since your analysis—you're quite a changed person.

[Kumin]: Yes, since my analysis.

[Sexton]: I mean, she's gotten attractive and yummy. Before her hair was pulled back and in a bun—

[Showalter]: I wouldn't have recognized you, Maxine, from your pictures.

[Sexton]: No pictures are good. She was attractive then, she was attractive then; just a bad picture.

[Kumin]: The picture on the novel coming out next year is a really good picture of me and my dog. I recommend that picture.

[Sexton]: She keeps saying, look at my dog. As if the dog were more important.

[Kumin]: He is kind of spectacular. Anyway, Anne and I met, and we drove into this class together. For a long time, she used to pick me up and—

[Sexton]: Not at the beginning I didn't. I can remember, it was funny. I remember you going to a reading at Wellesley College and you picking me up. I had on sandals. You said, look, she has prehensile toes. I've never forgotten it. And I said, look, anytime you want me to go to a reading or anything (because I was desperate then) I'll do anything. And I started to drive Maxine to the Adult Center.

[Kumin]: And from that we began to go to all sorts of readings together. Actually the reading at Wellesley College was Marianne Moore.

[Sexton]: Remember her? Because she kept contradicting and saying, now don't handle a line this way, don't do that, that's very bad, you know, and don't end-stop here.

[Kumin]: She mumbled so. She read so badly. She was a character, in her tricorner hat and her great black robe.

[Sexton]: Do you remember going to hear Robert Graves? Dear god, he was ghastly!

[Kumin]: Now look, we are not here to talk about people who were ghastly readers or we'll be here all night.

[Showalter]: Was John Holmes in charge of that workshop?

[Kumin]: Yes, John Holmes was teaching a little workshop, for anybody. It was available to the world, whoever wanted to come. And we would all try our poems. And this, I think, is how Anne and I learned to work by hearing a poem, because we didn't bring copies. John would sit at the head of the table and shuffle through the poems.

[Sexton]: He didn't do anything alphabetically.

[Kumin]: And we would all sit there dying, hoping to be chosen.

[Sexton]: Oh, you'd pray to be chosen.

[Showalter]: Not afraid to have a poem read?

[Sexton]: No, not afraid, wanting to be chosen.

[Kumin]: And he would read your poem, and the class would then discuss it.

[Sexton]: And he would.

[Kumin]: And he would.

[Sexton]: Now we have to go into the fact that as it grew later—well, we used to go out afterwards. John didn't drink.

[Kumin]: John was a former alcoholic.

[Sexton]: I don't think I drank myself. I don't think I drank much then, really. I had a beer.

[Kumin]: But he was really on the wagon. He had been a severe alcoholic. And then after that we broke off from the Boston Center, and we formed our own group.

[Sexton]: But I didn't.

[Kumin]: You certainly did. When we broke off?

[Sexton]: I was seeing Robert Lowell.

[Kumin]: No, that was much later. That was after John was dead.

[Sexton]: No, wait a minute. I'm very sorry. I was going, to Robert Lowell's class, and still John's, without you. Begging for the approval that Daddy would never give. Why was I so masochistic?

[Showalter]: Was John Holmes a difficult person for a woman to work with?

[Sexton]: John Holmes didn't approve of a thing about me. He hated my poetry. I remember, even after Maxine had left, and I was still with Holmes, there was a new girl who came in. And he kept saying, oh, let us see new poems, new poems. We need them. And here I was giving him things that were later anthologized forever. I mean, really good poems.

[Smith]: Didn't Holmes write comic verse as well, himself? And think you should move in the direction of comic verse, Maxine?

[Sexton]: No, no, she started with comic verse.

[Kumin]: I had already graduated from comic verse, Carol. I had started by writing light verse; that's how I became a poet. I started writing light verse for the slicks when I got pregnant with Danny, for a year.

[Sexton]: Maxine, it was two or three years, it was no one year.

[Kumin]: Wait a minute—he's now twenty-one. So it was twenty-one years ago. And I made a pact with myself that if I didn't sell anything by the time this child was born, I would chuck all my creative discontents. And in about my eighth month I started really landing with little four-liners, there, here and everywhere. Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan,and so on. Then someone told me about John Holmes's class at the Center and in great fear and trembling I went and met Anne. We did that thing at the Center for a year and then we broke off and started a workshop of our own.

[Sexton]: It was at least two years.

[Showalter]: And who was in the second workshop?

[Kumin]: It consisted of Sexton, Kumin, George Starbuck, Sam Albert, and John Holmes. And for a little while, Ted Weiss.

[Sexton]: He was there for a while. And do you remember? the night we laughed so hard we were screaming, over women's girdles? I mean, we were hysterical. Ted Weiss was in Boston, and John wanted to bring him into the class, and he was nice. I'll never forget how we laughed. He just got us all onto women's girdles. I mean, in its own way it is a bit vulgar, and yet to me it isn't really vulgar at all. It's beauty, it's the girdle that's corrupting her. It was funny. But—I have to point this out, and you must too—John found me evil.

[Kumin]: But I think it should also be said, that the reason for John's reaction, we guess, is that his first wife had been mentally ill, and had killed herself.

[Sexton]: But I was writing about this subject. He kept saying, no no, too personal, or you musn't, or anything. Everything he said about my poems was bad, almost altogether. And yet, from the beginning, from the class, from him, I learned. And from Maxine. I must say Maxine, my best teacher—although for a while I was copying Maxine's flaws. I don't know how, I didn't know they were hers, although now I can see they were someone else's, an inversion here, or a noun. I got over that. I remember, I didn't know her very well. I wrote "Music Swims Back to Me." I was playing a record, a 45, and I was leaning over my husband who was building a hi-fi set. I was climbing over him, in the kitchen, because I wrote in the dining room—I didn't really have a place to write, I wrote on a card table—to put on the 45 again. It's necessary to hear that song, because the song was taking me back to the mental institution where it constantly played. It was a very early poem, and I had broken all my ideas of what a poem should be, and I go to Maxine—very formal—we don't know each other very well. We hadn't started writing together yet. And I said, could you—? We sat together in the living room, stiffly on the couch. Sunday. It was a Sunday. And I said, is this a poem? And she said, yes.

[Kumin]: Well, I get points for knowing it. I don't know how I knew it.

[Sexton]: She knew. She knew. She responded. I had done this crazy thing, written this poem. Always Maxine responded to my poetry. Not John, but Maxine, although in spite of herself. Because it was hard for her.

[Kumin]: Yes, it was hard. Here was my Christian academic daddy saying, stay away from her. She's bad for you.

[Showalter]: Did he actually say that?

[Sexton]: He would write letters saying, she's evil. He did, he said, be careful of her.

[Kumin]: Oh, yes, he would write me letters. He was my patron; he got me a job at Tufts.

[Sexton]: And for me, he was my daddy, but he was the daddy who was saying, you are no good.

[Kumin]: And the fantastic thing is that it did not come between us. Of course, John then died terribly, terribly. He was told that his aches and pains were mental, that he needed a psychiatrist; meanwhile he had throat cancer and it had metastasized. Had totally invaded his chest and shoulders. I remember him talking about a shawl, a cape of pain. And he started drinking again. It was awful, awful.

[Sexton]: It was awful. I remember calling his wife, Doris, and saying, what is it, what is it? He's not going to die, is he? And she said, well, it's funny, it's like psychiatry. What could she say?

[Smith]: Who's that?

[Kumin]: She was a very good foil for John, because she's very warm, very outgoing, and she supplied a lot of things that John didn't. He was really quite reserved. I thought of him as very New England.

[Sexton]: I remember one night Sam and me going to John's. It was sleeting out, but we make it. And he's on his way out—and he's so happy we were going out. I think maybe that moment he forgave me a little.

[Kumin]: I was then teaching at Tufts, but we all read at Tufts, in the David Steinman series.

[Sexton]: I never did. No, he wasn't going to ask me.

[Kumin]: We used to go to parties at John's after all those readings—after John Crowe Ransom, and after Robert Frost. Frost said, don't sit there mumbling in the shadows, come up here closer. By then he was very deaf. And I was so awed.

[Smith]: Was it out of that early relationship that you both began to work together?

[Sexton]: Yes, because we had to listen.

[Kumin]: Because we had to listen to John Holmes read the poems—copies were not provided—and then we worked together on the telephone.

[Sexton]: In our own workshop later we made copies. But then we worked on the phone. And sometimes my kids would be climbing all over me, and I'd say, shh! poem! Maxine! and I'd block my ear, and I could hear it. I could grasp the whole thing, and say change this, change that.

[Showalter]: Did you see it?

[Kumin]: Later. Maybe the following week, if we could get together, if one of us had a sitter.

[Sexton]: She means did we see it in our minds. No, no, I just knew. I could tell the poem, and I could tell what she wanted to do. We still do it.

[Showalter]: You don't have to anymore. This was just because you couldn't get out of the house?

[Sexton]: Yes, because our kids were too small.

[Kumin]: Yes. We did eventually do this wicked thing. We put in a second line, because our husbands complained that we were always on the phone.

[Sexton]: We used to talk for two hours sometimes.

[Showalter]: When was it that you put in the phone? Was it before or after the Radcliffe Institute?

[Kumin]: Probably just then, because we both probably felt flush and important.

[Smith]: And you would talk about each other's poems, workshop each other's poems?

[Sexton]: Yes, and also talk about our emotions and our feelings and what the day was like, what was going on.

[Smith]: When you heard each other's poems, you said before you could enter the consciousness of the other person.

[Sexton]: Well, you see, we never tried to make the other sound like ourselves. We always saw in the other's voice, I'm sure of it.

[Kumin]: We started with a recognition for and a respect for that separate identity. I would never meddle with what Anne is doing. I might be able to help her find a more effective way to do what she's doing.

[Showalter]: Did you ever find your own writing began to shade into the other person?

[Kumin]: No, no, we're different.

[Sexton]: You can tell we're completely different.

[Showalter]: Yes, but was there ever a period when there was a struggle?

[Sexton]: No, there was never a struggle. It was natural, it wasn't hard.

[Kumin]: It seems to be so normal. It wasn't ever an issue.

[Sexton]: There was never any struggle. Don't you see—you enter into the voice of the poet, and you think, how to shape, how to make better, but not, how to make like me.

[Kumin]: I think there is one conviction about the writing of a poem Anne and I share, although we may have come to it by separate routes. We both have very strong feelings about a poem ending definitively. We don't like poems that trail off. Real closure.

[Sexton]: We both do. Oscar Williams said, anyone can write a poem, but who can end it? It's like slamming the door. And I said, you mean like having sex without orgasm? He didn't like that remark.

[Showalter]: Do you do this exchanging with your novels as well, Maxine?

[Kumin]: Anne reads sections. I ask a lot from her when I write prose, but not as much these days.

[Showalter]: Is the poetry workshopping diminishing too? Do you do this less, need this less, than you used to?

[Sexton]: No, not as long as we're writing.

[Kumin]: I think the difference is that perhaps this year I haven't been writing as much.

[Sexton]: I haven't been writing as much either; I've been having an upsetting time.

[Kumin]: I think the intensity is the same, but the frequency has changed.

[Sexton]: But just the other day Maxine said, well, that's a therapeutic poem, and I said, for god's sake, forget that. I want to make it a real poem. Then I forced her into helping me make it a real poem, instead of just a kind of therapy for myself. But I remember once a long time ago a poem called "Cripples and Other Stories." I showed it to my psychoanalyst—it was half done—and I threw it in the wastebasket. Very unusual because I usually put them away forever.

But this was in the wastebasket. I said, would you by any chance be interested in what's in the wastebasket? And she said, wait a minute, Anne. You could make a real poem out of that. And you know how different that is from Maxine's voice.

[Kumin]: I happen to really love that poem.

[Sexton]: Really? I hate it. Although it's good. It reads well. But we're different temperatures, Maxine and I. I have to be warmer. We can't even be in the same room.

[Kumin]: I'm always taking my clothes off and Anne is putting on coats and sweaters.

[Sexton]: But you must remember it's not just a poetic relationship. It's been a great bond of friendship, growing, I suppose developing, deeper and deeper. I mean, if one of us is sick, the other is right there. We tell each other everything that's going on. I tell her a dream to remember it, almost. Used to—I haven't been lately. We've both been so busy this year, we've kind of drifted apart, but it's because—

[Smith]: When you talk about a poem, do you talk about ideas or techniques?

[Kumin]: Usually we don't start without a draft.

[Sexton]: Well—I remember you talking to me about "Eighteen Days Without You," helping me with the plot, the cabin. Although in the end I used none of it.

[Kumin]: You had started though. You knew the shape.

[Sexton]: No I didn't. I have the worksheets. First of all you had an apartment in Watertown and then I make it a cabin in Groton. Yet, she's fictionalized, helping me fictionalize the setting for the lovers. She did one thing, I did another. She started me.

[Kumin]: It's always been this way.

[Sexton]: Now can I tell this very personal thing, which we can cross out?

[Kumin]: Probably not, but go ahead.

[Sexton]: We might just be talking, and I'd say, we're just talking. Why the hell aren't we writing? And we'd get a line, a concept. I'd say, I'll call you back in twenty minutes. It is the most stimulating thing. It's a challenge. We've got this much time, and goddam it, I'm going to have something there. We hang up. In twenty-five minutes I call back. Have you got anything? She sure does. And so have I. It forces us. It's the challenge of it. And with the workshop we had, we always had two poems, sometimes three.

[Kumin]: There were certain people who need not be mentioned who always went over their allotted time span. My kids, when they would see some activity around the house would say, oh, the poets! now we'll never get any sleep! And they would fight for the privilege of sleeping over the garage, which was at the farthest remove, because the poets were so noisy. The poets came together and fought.

[Sexton]: We'd scream and yell. Sam Albert said to Anne Hussey: There was no one who fought harder for her words in workshop than Anne Sexton and then went home and changed them. But I would fight—it was like they were taking my babies away from me. Actually I would write down who said what—like Max, no, George, this—and there were certain people I respected more. But Sam could be good at a sort of instinctive thing.

[Kumin]: Well, we were a good group. George was icily cerebral. George would be sitting there counting the syllabics. But I could point to lines that I changed because of George. We've grown in different directions. We were very open and raw and new then. We were all beginners.

[Sexton]: I think I had my first book published then. But the one time we didn't speak about writing poems was about John. We didn't workshop, we didn't talk, we were suddenly separate.

[Smith]: Because your relationships with him were different?

[Sexton]: Yes, and I suppose our love for him was different.

[Kumin]: Grief is private.

[Sexton]: But our grief was never private in any other way. It was just with him, because he loved you, he didn't love me, and it probably made you feel guilty. Anyway, we discussed nothing. She wrote one poem, I wrote another. Mine was called "Somewhere in Africa."

[Showalter]: Has anything that's come out from the women's movement made you see the relationship you have in a different way?

[Sexton]: You see, when we began, there was no women's movement. We were it.

[Kumin]: And we didn't know it.

[Showalter]: Because the relationship you have, and the relationship of Hallie and Sukey in The Passions of Uxport is totally new.

[Sexton]: I want to say—that is not me in The Passions of Uxport.

[Kumin]: But certainly it takes something from our friendship.

[Showalter]: There are very few relationships in books that are like it. Women are generally supposed to destroy each other.

[Sexton]: I do support Maxine, although I've been a little weaker—

[Kumin]: Of course you do. When I was writing my first novel, Anne was in Europe on a Prix de Rome. I sent Annie air mail, what? Forty pages? Three chapters. I said, please wherever you are, drop everything, read this, get back in touch with me. I don't know what I'm doing. Am I writing a novel? And Anne read it.

[Sexton]: I started to cry. I was with Sandy. We had just driven out of Venice and I read the three chapters from The Dooms of Love, and I cried. She could do it.

[Kumin]: I had to do all that without her. I think though that we're always proud of ourselves that we're not dependent on the relationship. We're very autonomous people, but it is a nurturing relationship.

[Showalter]: What difference would it have made if there had been a women's movement?

[Kumin]: We would have felt a lot less secretive.

[Sexton]: Yes, we would have felt legitimate.

[Kumin]: We both have repressed, kept out of the public eye that we did this.

[Sexton]: I mean, our husbands, we could have thrown it at them.

[Showalter]: Why did you feel so ashamed of this mutual support?

[Sexton]: We did. We were ashamed. We had to keep ourselves separate.

[Kumin]: We were both struggling for identity.

[Sexton]: Also, it's a secret, we didn't want anyone to know. But I think it's time to acknowledge it.

[Smith]: The separateness is evident and obvious.

[Sexton]: You should put that in, because the people who read this might never have read us, and think we're alike. I said to Maxine, write a book called Up Country.

[Kumin]: Yes, you did. You tell yours and I'll tell mine.

[Sexton]: I said write those country poems. It will be a book. Have it illustrated.

[Showalter]: By Barbara Swan. That's one of the external things that connects you, one of the few visible signs. Barbara Swan's illustrations for Up Country, Transformations, The Death Notebooks, Live or Die.

[Sexton]: She was at the Radcliffe Institute.

[Kumin]: We were all there in the same year. Annie wrote the first transformation, and I said, god, that's fantastic. You could do a whole book of these. And Annie said I couldn't possibly. That's the only one, I know it. Of course, by the next day she had written another one. When she was done she said, what can I call it? And I said, call itTransformations.

[Sexton]: Right in the middle I started a novel and you said, put that novel down and finish that book of poems! And thank you.

[Kumin]: We titled each other's books. I titledTransformations

[Sexton]: It's a crappy title (laughing).

[Kumin]: I love it.

[Sexton]: And I named Up Country.

[Showalter]: You said you knew that could be a book. When you write do the poems come separately, or in a rush as a book?

[Sexton]: She had it in her to write masses of these country poems. I knew it.

[Showalter]: How do you organize the poems in the books?

[Sexton]: Well, we look at each other's things and say, do I have a book or do I not have a book? And we say, help me, help me, or this is crap.

[Smith]: I assume Up Country came thematically. In the author's note you have toLive or Die, you say you're going to publish the poems chronologically. Were you interested in them as biography?

[Sexton]: No, I just thought it might be vaguely interesting to someone to see what dates they were written. They were all dated in the manuscripts, you see.

[Smith]: How did they come together as a book?

[Sexton]: I remember George reading it, and there was no last poem. He said, all you need is a poem saying hello. And I wrote "Live."

[Kumin]: Funny how we both went back to George. I sent George the manuscript of my third book, and he read through it with a great deal of care.

[Sexton]: Some of his comments were damn wrong. He said, no one can write about operations but Anne Sexton. How ridiculous. A totally different kind of operation. I encouraged her to write it.

[Showalter]: There were a lot of nineteenth-century women writers who had partnerships like that, and critics tried to make them rivals. Charlotte Brontë once delayed the publication of a novel so it wouldn't come out at the same time as Elizabeth Gaskell's.

[Sexton]: Of course. We have books coming out at the same time next year.

[Kumin]: We just found out.

[Sexton]: It's all right. Maxine used to be horrified if we came out in the same year. But we're not compared.

[Showalter]: In a larger sense, now there's a female renaissance in poetry.

[Kumin]: Thank God. I think the fact that women are coming out of the closet is one of the most positive things that's happened in the century. Maybe the only good thing in a fucked-up world. I see such immense changes in women's perceptions. I grew up in an era when you went to a cocktail party and measured your success by how many men spoke to you. I really identified much more with the male side, but now I have such a feeling of sisterhood. I find that wherever I go, I meet splendid women, and I'd a hell of a lot rather be with them.

[Sexton]: You know, this is also your analysis.

[Kumin]: Yes, and the fact that I have two grown daughters with full-blown careers, and they have raised my consciousness. It was the work that I did with the analyst that helped me get past my awful difficulties with my own mother.

[Sexton]: She had no close women friends, but I broke the barrier, because I'm a terrible breaker of barriers.

[Showalter]: Did you have a lot of close women friends?

[Sexton]: Yes.

[Showalter]: But in your books you have generations of women—the mother, the grandmother, the daughter. There aren't any women friends in it.

[Sexton]: You do see Max, and lists of names. There are the dedications.

[Showalter]: But then there are the blood relationships that are difficult, love you have to win back.

[Sexton]: My mother was very destructive. The only person who was very constructive in my life was my great-aunt, and of course she went mad when I was thirteen. It was probably the trauma of my life that I never got over.

[Showalter]: How did she go mad?

[Kumin]: Read"Some Foreign Letters."

[Sexton]: That doesn't help. Do you know "The Hex" ? "Anna Who Was Mad" in Folly ? Notice the guilt in them. But the hex is a misnomer. I had tachycardia and I thought it was just psychological.

[Showalter]: Were you named for her?

[Sexton]: Yes, we were namesakes. We had love songs we would sing together. She cuddled me. I was tall, but I tried to cuddle up. My mother never touched me in my life, except to examine me. So I had bad experiences. But I wondered with this that every summer there was Nana, and she would rub my back for hours. My mother said, women don't touch women like that. And I wondered why I didn't become a lesbian. I kissed a boy and Nana went mad. She called me a whore and everything else.

I think I'm dominating this interview.

[Kumin]: You are, Anne.

[Showalter]: Maxine, in The Passions of Uxport you describe the death of a child from leukemia—a death which has haunted me ever since. Do you think it's more difficult for a woman to write about the death of a child?

[Kumin]: In all my novels there's a death. In The Abduction there's a sixteen-year-old who dies in a terrible car crash. Perhaps as a mother I have a fear of a loss of a child.

[Sexton]: We all know that a child going is the worst suffering.

[Kumin]: Many years ago, my brother lost a child, and I remember this terrible Spartan funeral. That's the funeral in The Passions of Uxport, when he says the Hebrew prayer for the dead.

[Sexton]: Do you remember we were young and going to a place called the New England Poetry Club, the first year we won the prizes, first or second. We were terrified. It was our first reading. Maxine's voice was trembling so, we couldn't hear her.

[Kumin]: I couldn't breathe.

[Sexton]: I couldn't stand up, I was shaking so. I sat on the table.

[Kumin]: I wonder if there was a trembling in us—the wicked mother, or the wicked witch, or whatever those ladies were to us.

[Showalter]: They were all women?

[Kumin]: There were a few squashy old men.

[Sexton]: There were young men too. John was there. Sam was there.

[Showalter]: Did you have trouble with women writers of another generation? In Louise Bogan's Letters —she says about Anne? She doesn't seem to have been able to accept the subjects.

[Kumin]: This was the problem with a great many people. Women are not supposed to have uter-uses, especially in poems.

[Sexton]: To me, there's nothing that can't be talked about in art. But I hate the way I'm anthologized in women's lib anthologies. They cull out the "hate men" poems, and leave nothing else. They show only one little aspect of me. Naturally there are times I hate men, who wouldn't? But there are times I love them. The feminists are doing themselves a disservice to show just this.

[Kumin]: They'll get over that.

[Sexton]: Yes, but by then, they won't be published. Therefore they've lost their chance.

[Showalter]: When I anthologized you in my book, Women's Liberation and Literature, I chose"Abortion," "Housewife," and"For My Lover on Returning to His Wife." And I like all those poems very much; I'd choose them again.

[Sexton]: "For My Lover" is a help. It doesn't cost very much money to get "Housewife" —you can get it cheap. A strange thing—"a woman is her mother." That's how it ends. A housecleaner—washing herself down, washing the house. It was about my mother-in-law.

[Showalter]: A woman is her mother-in-law.


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At the time Anne Sexton wrote The Awful Rowing toward God, she was preparing to leave her marriage of twenty-five years. Her husband, Kayo, a wool salesman whose hobbies were hunting and fishing, had never taken much interest in poetry or poets. Both daughters—Joy now age 18, Linda 20—had left the family home for boarding school and college. Like many couples of their era, Anne and Kayo found that the departure of their children opened a void across which they measured how little else they had in common. Moreover, career success had given Anne Sexton the confidence and financial security to make divorce a viable option.

Middlebrook, Diane. "Anne Sexton: The Making of The Awful Rowing Toward God, "in Rossetti to Sexton: Six Women Poets at Texas, edited by Dave Oliphant, pp. 223-35. Austin: University of Texas at Austin, 1992.

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SOURCE: Middlebrook, Diane. "Becoming Anne Sexton." Denver Quarterly 18, no. 4 (winter 1984): 23-34.

In the following essay, Middlebrook explores the significance of Sexton's first attempted suicide with respect to the direction of her literary career and her roles as mother, daughter, and writer.

Anne Gray Harvey became Mrs. Alfred Muller Sexton II on August 16, 1948, after eloping from the family home in Weston, Massachusetts, to be married before a justice of the peace in North Carolina. She was nineteen years old. According to her, an action equally precipitous and defiant changed her identity nine years later into Anne Sexton, poet. On her twenty-eighth birthday in 1956 she attempted suicide. A month later she began writing poetry; two and a half years later her first book was published with the title, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960). "It was," she said, "a kind of rebirth at twenty-nine."1

A large collection of manuscripts and correspondence makes it possible to reconstruct the years 1956-1960 in enough detail to conclude that while Anne Sexton's professional development was both rapid and improbable, her success, like that of most writers, resulted from a combination of talent, hard work and well-timed good luck. But Sexton always claimed that her career as a poet had the shape of a story; and that it opened not with the event of writing her first poem, but with the suicide attempt that separated her from a former life. In the following pages I want to explore the ways in which her emphasis on suicide expresses an ambivalence Sexton learned from her mother, a writer's daughter, regarding the roles of mother, daughter, and writer.

Sexton began telling, in print, the story of how she became a writer after she was well on the way to being famous, in "craft interviews" published mainly in literary journals between 1965 and 19762. In each, Sexton found an occasion to remind the questioner that poetic truth is not "just factual." A preference for poetic truth seems to have determined the selection of details she provides about her beginnings as a poet. Particularly artful is the lengthy interview that appeared in Paris Review shortly after Sexton received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1967. In four paragraphs she discloses much of what she ever had to say about the origins of her vocation.

Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn't know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies. I didn't know I had any creative depths. I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream. All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children. I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down. I was trying my damndest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can't build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out. The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.

She began writing as a form of therapy, Sexton told the interviewers:

I said to my doctor at the beginning, "I'm no good; I can't do anything; I'm dumb." He suggested I try educating myself by listening to Boston's educational TV station. He said I had a perfectly good mind. […] One night I saw I. A. Richards on educational television reading a sonnet and explaining its form. I thought to myself, I could do that, maybe; I could try. So I sat down and wrote a sonnet. The next day I wrote another one, and so forth. My doctor encouraged me to write more. "Don't kill yourself," he said. "Your poems might mean something to someone else someday." That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life, no matter how rotten I was. […]

After I'd been writing about three months, I dared to go into the poetry class at the Boston Center for Adult Education taught by John Holmes. I started in the middle of the term, very shy, writing very bad poems, solemnly handing them in for eighteen others in the class to hear. The most important aspect of the class was that I felt I belonged somewhere. When I first got sick and became a displaced person, I thought I was quite alone, but when I went into the mental hospital, I found I wasn't, that there were other people like me. It made me feel better—more real, sane. I felt, "These are my people." Well, at the John Holmes workshop that I attended for two years, I found I belonged to the poets, that I was real there, and I had another, "These are my people."

Asked whether she had never tried her hand at poetry before age twenty-eight, Sexton acknowledged writing little beside light verse for family occasions.

I wrote some serious stuff in high school; however, I hadn't been exposed to any of the major poets, not even the minor ones. […] I read nothing but Sara Teasdale. I might have read other poets but my mother said as I graduated from high school that I had plagiarized Sara Teasdale. I had been writing a poem a day for three months, but when she said that, I stopped.3

From a factual point of view, this account of her development is incomplete and inexact: Sexton condenses the time periods and exaggerates the severity of the mental breakdown. But the narrative or storytelling truth is substantial. Suddenly, in 1956, through a cracked surface a buried self emerged and began looking for something to do. Like many of the housewives Betty Friedan was interviewing for her book The Feminine Mystique,4 Sexton experienced the home as a sphere of confinement and stultification. Her usage three times in two paragraphs indicates that for her the verb do meant action in a social realm other than the family. Among both mental patients and poets she found she felt "more real, sane"; and it was within the realm of psychotherapy that she discovered and began to develop her talents. In the hospital she learned with infinite relief that as a mad housewife she was not merely the selfish monster she knew herself to be at home. She discovered that she belonged to a social category with its own language, its own system of symbol-making. Melville said of Ishmael in Moby Dick that a whaling ship was his Harvard College and his Yale. So too for Anne Sexton were Westwood Lodge and the Boston Center for Adult Education. In these institutions she began to grasp both madness and metaphor as symbol systems, and to cultivate an understanding of them as ways of exploring and expressing her existence.

Sexton amplifies this arresting association between mental hospital and poetry class in both a letter and an early poem, "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further." Addressed to her teacher at the Boston Center, the poem tells him that an asylum was the site of her first real education.

in that narrow diary of my mind,
in the commonplaces of the asylum
[…] the cracked mirror
or my own selfish death
outstared me.
And if you turn away
because there is no lesson here
I will hold my awkward bowl
with all its cracked stars shining
like a complicated lie.
This is something I would never find
in a lovelier place, my dear,
although your fear is anyone's fear,
like an invisible veil between us all …
and sometimes in private,
my kitchen, your kitchen,
my face, your face.

In the poem "For John," the reference to a cracking surface she uses in the interview appears as a metaphor for a kind of writing and a kind of speech. Her mind itself is a diary; the commonplaces of the asylum, a field of meanings she has learned to interpret in therapy and in the study of poetry. The poem is about the discovery of signs. Two years before her suicide attempt in 1956, Sexton had begun consulting a doctor in order to deal with recurring depression. Among other forms of treatment she undertook psychotherapy—sometimes called the "talking cure": the process of verbalizing or free association in which the psyche is coaxed to disclose its private symbolisms. The "buried self" thus uncovered is a linguistic self whose associations and metaphors are, in theory, keys to the origins of the illness.

Listening to the primitive speech of the buried self in herself and other mental patients, Sexton discovered what she later called "language," the convention-exploding imposition of new meanings on clusters of words produced by urgent personal associations. "It is hard to define," she wrote a friend.

When I was first sick I was thrilled […] to get into the Nut House. At first, of course, I was just scared and crying and very quiet (who me!) but then I found this girl (very crazy of course) (like me I guess) who talked language. What a relief! I mean, well … someone! And then later, a while later, and quite a while I found out that [her psychiatrist] talked language […] I don't know who else does. I don't use it with everyone. No one of my whole street, suburb neighbors.6

In the interview, Sexton positions the proto-poet beneath what can be observed on the surface: "I didn't know I had any creative depths." The surface was a mirror reflecting back to parents and husband "the American dream" girl. Not appropriate for exposure were other dreams: nightmares, visions, demons; when the mirror "cracked," these were released for speculation in therapy and poetry. Sexton referred to the releasing event as a "psychotic break." She was of course aware that "psychotic" had a specific meaning in psychiatry that did not apply to her case. By 1968 a variety of diagnostic labels had been attached to Sexton's ongoing mental illness—"hysteric," "psycho-neurotic," "borderline," and "alcoholic"—but "psychotic" was not among them.7 For the purposes of the interview, however, the term implied a significant poetic lineage. It connected her not only to such luminous contemporaries as Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, and Sylvia Plath, but Eliot and Pound, and, before the age of mental hospitals, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Coleridge and others whose careers in poetry had included, in Rimbaud's widely-translated words, "a lengthy, immense and systematic derangement of the senses." As she said to the interviewer, "These are my people."

Sexton's term "break," then, has a range of references in the story of her transformation from housewife into poet. Most obviously, it denotes her break into language and into the fellowship of poets, much assisted by the lucky breaks of having at her disposal the resources of literary Boston, and an affluent, cooperative family to take over the responsibilities of childcare and housekeeping. I want to pause, though, over what is concealed in Sexton's emphasis on discontinuity and transformation. For to become a poet did not mean for Anne Sexton breaking away from family ties, or breaking up a marriage. Rather than breaking out of the conventions of what she called "the bourgeois, middle class dream," Sexton found ways to break into the meanings repressed there, and bring them over into brilliant metaphors. By 1968 when she granted the Paris Review interview, Anne Sexton was established as the poet of female bedlam. But in person Sexton presented to the world the carefully maintained image of an ordinary middle-class woman on whom unexpected fame has fallen. She kept a wardrobe of long dresses for important readings, and made entrances in them like an actress. Except during her severest illnesses, Sexton visited her hairdresser weekly and tinted her hair to cover the gray. Photographs invariably show large diamonds on both manicured hands. Despite her protestations that she was a "victim of the bourgeois, middle-class dream," Sexton maintained its insignia to furnish context for her art. Garbed in her finery, cigarette in hand, Anne Sexton mounted the stage and took the podium to speak lines uniting the buried self with her social stereotype, the suburban housewife.

Earlier I suggested that Sexton's account of her origins was incomplete as well as inexact. Now I want to turn to the question of what she left out or glossed over: the relevance of literary forebears, and most pertinently, the role her mother played in shaping Sexton's literary vocation.

In the fairy-tale version of her life reported to the interviewer, Sexton's suicide attempt precipitates the turn of the plot. Like the Briar Rose and the Snow White of her poems based on Grimm, Sexton wakened from the numb, death-like state of a drug overdose into a new life. The doctor's confidence in her intelligence conflicted with the family drama in which Sexton had been assigned the role of the dumb daughter. The sense of being rotten, purposeless, dumb was of course an issue in Sexton's therapy, where it was treated as a symptom. But in the story she told of her transformation from housewife into poet, it was linked directly to a struggle with her mother over being a writer.

Anne's mother, always called Mary Gray, was the "adored" only child born late in life to Jane Dingley and Arthur Gray Staples in the small town of Lewiston, Maine. Mary Gray's father was editor of the Lewiston Evening Journal. A genteel man of letters, he collected his weekly editorials in several books of essays; on his retirement a eulogistic book of memoirs was published in his honor. One of his books survives in Anne Sexton's library with an inscription by Mary Gray: "to the author's youngest grandchild […] from the author's daughter."8

Mary Gray was not a published author herself, but in a family which assigned older members younger namesakes and appointed family members different roles, Mary Gray and Arthur Gray formed the literary cohort. Several years after her mother's death from cancer in 1959, Sexton discussed the alliance of mother and grandfather with her psychiatrist. Your father always spoke of your mother as a writer, the doctor reminded her. And your grandfather published some books. Were they any good? "The opposite way my poetry is good—folksy—human—He wasn't original—he was homespun—[…] My mother must have had a tremendous Oedipus complex—she imitated him—grandfather drank a lot." The doctor pursued the question of mother's writing. Grandfather ran a newspaper; did mother work on it? "She never worked at anything—she wrote letters, charming letters. I can't spell." Sexton goes on to comment that Mother had beautiful handwriting and wrote the girls "elegant" excuses for school absences—but "she never really wrote real letters—she just composed letters."9

He wasn't original; she just composed. The question, Who are the writers in the family? evokes from Sexton distinctions similar to those that appear in the interview: those people (the family), my people (the poets); the conventional, the real. A feeling of rivalry with her mother had grown especially intense in the period following Sexton's recovery from the suicide attempt of 1956. Diary entries suggest that Sexton, who had only a high school education, thought of enrolling in college courses and broached the subject with Mary Gray. "Mother says she won't help pay for any college," Sexton noted. "Also said she got highest marks ever recorded on I. Q. test at Wellesley College. In other words there is nothing I could do to equal her genius."10 But the conflict between mother and daughter that counted most in Sexton's discovery of her own genius had occurred much earlier, at the time of Anne's graduation from Rogers Hall. Anne had been writing poems; two were published in the school year-book. Anne's sister Blanche validated Anne's memory that Mary Gray at that time accused Anne of plagiarism. Another girl had been expelled from Rogers Hall for submitting her father's work as her own; the scandal may have elicited Mary Gray's suspicions about Anne. She sent a sheaf of Anne's writing to "someone she knew in New York," for an expert opinion.11 He assured Mary Gray that the work was original, but from Anne's point of view, the damage was irreversible. Her account of this episode to the Paris Review indicates she believed Mary Gray's intervention ended a phase of development and effected a moratorium that lasted ten years. No one else's encouragement would have mattered to her, Sexton insisted. "My mother was top billing in that house."12

Mary Gray expressed her sense of being an author's daughter by composing inscriptions, notes and verses to accompany gifts and celebrate special occasions. Given that Sexton was from a young age a scrapbook keeper and hoarder of letters, it is interesting that very few of Mary Gray's manuscripts in these genres survived among Anne Sexton's papers. But three of them which Sexton did save—a letter and two short poems—suggest ways in which Mary Gray served as both censor and precursor during the evolution of Sexton's identity as a poet. All are undated, but from internal evidence all seem to be responses to Sexton's second suicide attempt, which took place in May, 1957, after she had begun writing poetry.

Mary Gray's letter, shattered by long dashes, sounds far from "composed." It poses the predictable question of a parent to a suicidal offspring: where have I failed you?

We have always been a two-way radio, with perhaps one exception—Do you suppose subconsciously you feel—that if you don't please ME you are losing an anchor? I would not know—but I have a feeling that your love for me and my "sympatica" for you—could be licking you—[…]

You—Anne—my sweet daughter find life unattractive—Sometimes I do, too—and cry and cry—all full of self-pity and utter misery—So I can understand how you feel—Yet—you have something to give—a word—The word—a beautiful appreciation of what life—nature—and human relationship does […] Every time you look at Joy—or Kayo—or me—or Linda with love in your heart You are happy—when you think of yourself and all of your failings you are un happy—It happens to me—today—tomorrow—End of sermon—Bless you darling—Your very im perfect mother.13

In the forward drive of feeling, she addresses Anne as both a daughter and a mother and, identifying with both positions, expresses the point of view that the mother's responsibility requires the sacrifice of the daughter's point of view. Daughter finds life unattractive; but mother's duty is "to give—a word—The word—a beautiful appreciation." Closing from the "motherly" position, Mary Gray's letter seems to justify Sexton's claim that the way she was brought up required the suppression of demons, "if there was enough love to put them down." Mary Gray's poems, however, speak from the other, the demonic position. One ends in unambiguous identification with the daughter's despair: "with you I am a frail / Expression of the will to fail." The other, titled "Misery," contains a vivid portrait of Anne returning to consciousness from a drug overdose:

She lay there very still and much too cool
And though she hoped disaster yet could fool
A mortal. But often her red tongue
Kept flicking at her lips. How very young
She seemed to me and when those long white toes
Exposed among the bedclothes rose
They told me she was on this plane
So I could love her desperately again.

The daughter's deathwish places the mother in a double bind, damned whether the daughter dies, or lives to be loved "desperately again." Yet it is disaster that inspires poetry, and the "author's daughter" in the mother who writes it.

Sexton viewed Mary Gray's poems not as messages of compassion, but as outrageous appropriations of the position of writer in the family, according to a letter she wrote poet James Wright about a year after Mary Gray's death. "When my mother wrote me these poems it was to show me that she too could write. But she was a little too late, thank God—I already knew I could do better than this. I remember, now, the scorn with which I read these." Proving she could, indeed, do better, Sexton "improved" the poem "Misery" a bit in process of retyping it for her mentor to read, undermining her rival and improving her own standing as an author's daughter at the same time.15

Sexton's unending rivalry with Mary Gray illuminates yet another meaning in the metaphor of "breaking" by which Sexton characterized the liberation of her talent. Accusing Anne of plagiarism at an early age, then "proving" Anne's originality by consulting a specialist, Mary Gray effectively halted her development as "the author's granddaughter," writer of "elegant excuses" and verse in the manner of Sara Teasdale. What survived to be uncovered as the "real" poet required breaking with the conventions that identify poetry with "beautiful appreciation"; yet she had her convention-imposing mother to thank. Breaking with convention meant, among other things examined here, breaking mother's code. For Mary Gray's communications suggest an identification of Daughter with unacceptable subjectivity, with self-centered authority—with poetry of the sort written by both Sexton and Mary Gray; and Mother with its repression.

The struggle to comprehend the contradiction between the roles of mother and daughter as she had learned them from Mary Gray provided Sexton the subject of what is arguably her most important early poem, "The Double Image" [CP [The Complete Poems ] pp. 35-42], written in 1958. Addressed to her younger daughter, Joy, the poem is an explanation of why Sexton "chose two times / to kill myself" rather than live within the family as Joy's mother. "Why did I let you grow in another place" than the family home? The answer is a long autobiographical poem incorporating many factual details about the period between July 1956, when Joy was sent to live with her paternal grandmother, and November 1958, when "you stay for good […] You learn my name […] You call me mother." The poem has a roughly chronological structure, and recounts that Sexton had been hospitalized, attempted suicide, convalesced in her parents' home; that her mother had been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, blaming Sexton for the illness; that Sexton had attempted suicide a second time. Sexton condenses and interprets these events in the course of developing the rich metaphor of the poem's title. The double image is in fact a pair of portraits, of Mary Gray and Anne, painted during convalescence. In implication it is the situation of the mother in relation to the daughter she was and has; and the situation of the daughter, who must both separate from and approximate the mother.

Sexton speaks in the poem as a daughter to a daughter, against the dominance of mothers. Motherhood in this poem is depicted in images of invasion of personal boundaries, and in the imposition of conventions—as in these lines characterizing Anne's return to the family home, infantilized by illness.

Part way back from Bedlam
I came to my mother's house in Gloucester,
Massachusetts. And this is how I came
to catch at her; and this is how I lost her.
I cannot forgive your suicide, my mother said.
And she never could. She had my portrait
done instead.
I lived like an angry guest,
like a partly mended thing, an outgrown child.
I remember my mother did her best.
She took me to Boston and had my hair restyled.
Your smile is like your mother's, the artist said. (CP p. 37)

The mother's effort to remake the daughter in her own image and dissolve the boundaries between their identities has a tragic outcome when the daughter's unforgiven deathwish shows up in the mother's aging body. "As if death were catching," Mary Gray developed cancer; following hospitalization for a mastectomy, she had her own portrait painted in a pose like that of Anne's portrait: "matching smile, matching contour." When, toward the end of the poem, Sexton returns to the question of "why I would rather / die than love," she offers Joy as an answer these symbolic portraits.

In north light, my smile is held in place,
the shadow marks my bone.
What could I have been dreaming as I sat there,
all of me waiting in the eyes, the zone
of the smile, the young face,
the foxes' snare.
In south light,
her smile is held in place,
her cheeks wilting like a dry
orchid; my mocking mirror, my overthrown
love, my first image. She eyes me from
that face that stony head of death
I had outgrown. […]
And this was the cave of the mirror,
that double woman who stares
at herself, as if she were petrified. (CP pp. 40-41)

Across a passageway in the parental home the generations eye each other, reproductions, surfaces concealing the nightmares of the recent past in both their lives. In this complex of images—of the cave of the mirror, the zone of the smile, the implication of receiving and passing on womanhood as a fatal legacy—is condensed material that fills book after book of poetry by Anne Sexton. And the last lines of "The Double Image" beautifully extend the implications of the metaphor, as Sexton ruefully acknowledges that she has stepped into the mother's position.

we named you Joyce
so we could call you Joy.
I needed you. I didn't want a boy,
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it. I made you to find me. (CP pp. 41-42)

Doubleness now denotes not only proliferation, but duplicity. Naming a daughter for a desirable state of mind, like having her portrait painted, appropriates the daughter's identity, turns her into a mirror; implies that the struggle to separate will have to be violent: cracked mirror, psychotic break. In this poem, Sexton apparently concurs with the assumption that her suicide attempt has been a pathological rather than a creative form of separation. But the "guilt" she accepts at the end of the poem does not refer to her suicide attempt. It refers to the guilt of mothers who wish to reproduce themselves in daughters. For all its tenderness, the poem's point of view is catastrophic: the birth of a child turns the daughter into a mother; if the daughter, a buried self, emerges it must be to kill herself or the mother. Or the mother's image.

In the psychiatric interrogation of her death-wish that began in 1956, Sexton was to grasp that inability to separate from her mother was a central issue in her pathology. In the symbolic structures of her art, however, the hunger for mothering and the boundariless connection to the restless daughter in the repressed mother was fertile ground for exploring the interconnectedness of suffering and love, particularly across the generations of women in a family. Sexton acknowledged this complex debt, in which her pathology and her gift were interdependent, in the enclosure that accompanied her Christmas gift to Mary Gray in 1957:

Dear Mother, Here are some forty-odd pages of the first year of Anne Sexton, Poet. You may remember my first sonnet written just after Christmas a year ago. I do not think all of these are good. However, I am not ashamed of them. […] I love you. I don't write for you, but know that one of the reasons I do write is that you are my mother.

(L [Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters ] pp. 31, 33)

"The Double Image," which Sexton claimed as the first poem in which she had truly found her voice as a writer,16 was not to be written for another two years, after zealous work in the mastery of poetics. But by the end of 1956 Sexton had begun the process of separation and rebirth as the unique talent who for eighteen more years survived her own impulse to self-destruction: Anne Sexton, Poet.


  1. "Interview with Anne Sexton (1965)," by Patricia Marx, in Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics, ed. J. D. McClatchy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), p. 30.
  2. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics contains a complete list of such interviews, pp. 292-293.
  3. "The Art of Poetry: Anne Sexton (1968)," interview with Barbara Kevles, in Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics, pp. 3-7.
  4. In the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan describes the origins of this groundbreaking study: "In 1957, getting strangely bored with writing articles about breast feeding and the like for Ladies' Home Journal, I put an unconscionable amount of time into a questionnaire for my fellow Smith graduates of the class of 1942, thinking I was going to disprove the current notion that education had fitted us ill for our roles as women. But the questionnaire raised more questions than it answered […] The suspicion arose as to whether it was the education or the role that was wrong" (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1974), p. 2.
  5. "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further," The Complete Poems, ed. Linda Gray Sexton, with a foreword by Maxine Kumin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), pp. 34-35. Further quotations from this edition will be annotated CP.
  6. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, ed. Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977), pp. 244-245. Further quotations from this edition will be annotated L.
  7. These diagnostic labels appear in Sexton's hospital records, and in transcripts of tape-recorded therapy sessions she kept from January, 1961 to May, 1964. The latter are deposited as restricted materials in the Anne Sexton Archive, Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas, Austin, and quoted with the permission of Linda Sexton.
  8. Inside cover of Arthur G. Staples, Just Talks on Common Themes (Lewiston, Maine: J. Scudney Publishing Co., 1920). Copy in the collection of Linda Sexton.
  9. Entry in Anne Sexton's therapy transcript June 12, 1962. Quoted from restricted material in the Anne Sexton Archive, Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas, Austin, with the permission of Linda Sexton.
  10. Holograph notes on loose calendar pages dated February 14-19, 1957; filed among letters to her psychiatrist deposited as restricted materials in the Anne Sexton Archive, Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas, Austin, and quoted with the permission of Linda Sexton.
  11. Interview with Blanche Harvey Taylor, Scituate, Massachusetts, April 27, 1983.
  12. "Art of Poetry: Anne Sexton," p. 5.
  13. Sexton, Anne, Miscellaneous file, Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas, Austin.
  14. Sexton, Anne, Recipient: from Harvey, Mary Gray Staples, Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas, Austin. I have reproduced Mary Gray's first two lines as written; the uses of "to" and "And" seem to be errors.
  15. Wright, an established poet slightly older than Sexton, had become her lover and mentor; both relationships were conducted chiefly in an enormous correspondence, much of which has been lost. However, Sexton kept a carbon of this undated letter in a file reserved for notes written in the course of therapy with the psychiatrist who had proposed writing poetry. Quoted from restricted materials, Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas, Austin, with permission from Linda Sexton.
  16. Letter to W. D. Snodgrass, November 26, 1958, L. p. 43.