Seek to Hide
The tragic and disturbed life of Anne Sexton began with a rocky and abusive childhood, and ended with an adulthood roughly along the same lines. Despite the harm she suffered and inflicted on others, her honest comments about her introduction to the world of poetry in these interviews with Patricia Marx and Barbara Kevles appear level-headed. Beneath that cold logic existed a hidden, sometimes mistaken faith in the world; as she wrote of her friend Sylvia Plath, “Something told me to bet on her but I didn’t know why.” (In the following excerpts, these two interviews have been abridged and combined.)
You were almost thirty before you began writing poetry. Why?
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 damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.
Didn’t anyone encourage you?
It wouldn’t have mattered. My mother was top billing in our house.
In the beginning, what was the relationship between your poetry and your therapy?
Sometimes, my doctors tell me that I understand something in a poem that I haven’t integrated into my life. In fact, I may be concealing it from myself, while I was revealing it to the readers. The poetry is often more advanced, in terms of my unconscious, than I am.
About three or four years ago my analyst asked me what I thought of my parents having intercourse when I was young. I couldn’t talk. I knew there was suddenly a poem there, and I selfishly guarded it from him.
About three weeks ago, he said to me, “Were you beaten as a child? I told that I had been, when I was about nine. I had torn up a five-dollar bill that my father gave to my sister; my father took me into his bedroom, laid me down on his bed, pulled off my pants and beat me with a riding crop. As I related this to my doctor, he said, “See, that was quite a royal strapping,” thus revealing to me, by way of my own image, the intensity of that moment, the sexuality of that beating, the little masochistic seizure – it’s so classic it’s almost corny.
Once you began writing, did you attend any formal classes to bone up on technique?
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 i the middle of the term, very shy, writing very bad poems, solemnly handing them in for the eighteen others in the class to hear. The most important aspect of that class as that I felt I belonged somewhere.
How about Holmes or the poets in your class, what did they say?
During the years of that class, John Holmes saw me as something evil and warned Maxine Kumin to stay away from me. He told me I shouldn’t write such personal poems about the madhouse. He said, “That isn’t a fit subject for poetry.” I knew no one who thought it was; even my doctor clammed up at that time. I was on my own. I tried to mind them. I tried to write the way the others, especially Maxine , wrote, but it didn’t work. I always ended up sounding like myself.
And Lowell, how did he strike you?
He was formal in a rather awkward New England sense. His voice was soft and slow as he read the students’ poems. At first I felt the impatient desire to interrupt his slow, line-by-line readings. He would read the first line, stop, and then discuss it at length. I wanted to go through the whole poem quickly and then go back. I couldn’t see any merit in dragging through it until you almost hated the damned thing, even your own poems, especially your own.
I wrote to Snodgrass about my impatience, and his reply went this way: “Frankly, I used to nod my head at his every statement, and he taught me more than a whole gang of scholars could.” So I kept my mouth shut, and Snodgrass was right. Robert Lowell’s method of teaching is intuitive and open. After he had read a student’s poem, he would read another evoked by it. Comparison was often painful. He worked with a cold chisel, with no more mercy than a dentist. He got out the decay, but if he was never kind to the poem, he was kind to the poet.
Are you ever influenced, or do you ever learn anything from critics?
Oh, they’re very disturbing. I don’t know what I learn. I just want to say, “Gee whiz, kids, that’s the best way I could do it,” something like that. One prolific poet who I greatly admire can hardly write a damning review without mentioning my name in connection with “mechanically bad writing.” What should I do? Send him a telegram? I carried one very bad review in my wallet all over Europe. The good reviews I left at home. But even over there I was still Anne. I couldn’t change her. I think mostly reviewers are upsetting. You just love the praise, and you try to shut out the criticism. I don’t know how much they can influence you. I don’t think they always read you correctly, but you always think the ones that like you are reading you pretty well.
I wonder what is the relationship between form and making a poem function like an axe. In what way do you approach a poem stylistically and in what way does content dominate?
Content dominates, but style is the master. I think that’s what makes a poet. The form is always important. To me there’s something about fiction that is too large to hold. I can see a poem, even my long ones, as something you could hold, like a piece of something. It isn’t that I care about the shape of it on the page, but the line must look right to me.
Is there any time of day, any particular mood that is better for writing?
No. Those moments before a poems comes, when the heightened awareness comes over you and you realize a poem is buried there somewhere, you prepare yourself. I run around, you know, kind of skipping around the house, marvelous elation. It’s as though I could fly, almost, and I get very tense before I’ve told the truth – hard. Then I sit down at the desk and get going with it.
“These Things I’ve Come To Know” – James McMurtry (mp3)
“Deaver’s Crossing” – James McMurtry (mp3)
The new album from James McMurtry is entitled Complicated Game and it was released on February 24th.