LIFE ON THE EDGE: The Last of Anne Sexton

Words for Dr. Y. (Houghton Mifflin, 101 pp., $8.95, $3.95) is Anne Sexton's last book of poetry. Except for a few final poems to be included in the forthcoming Collected Poems, everything Sexton wrote has been published. Now begins the process of reconsidering the artist's life and work and - especially in Sexton's case - the peculiar intertwining of the two. Within this context, Words for Dr. Y. will not be very important. Compiled by Linda Gray Sexton from her mother's files, the slim volume consists of scraps: random poems, three slight (but still disturbing) horror stories, a cycle based on newspaper horoscopes, and the section for which the book is named, diary entries addressed to a fictitious shrink and ranging from banal one-liners to extended dialogue. In a book that is essentially an appendix, only this last section commands more than passing interest.

The volume that will figure prominently, however, in any retrospective appreciation of Sexton is her Self-Portrait in Letters (Houghton Mifflin, 433 pp., $15) edited by her daughter and Lois Ames. Somewhere in the middle is this offhand remark, slipped into a note to a poet friend: "Letters are false really - they are expressions of the way you wish you were instead of the way you are." In context, the remark is almost comic; for the picture of the late poet that spills out onto these pages is one of a woman possessed with an extraordinary capacity for self-knowledge. If anything, the book reveals the extent to which writing letters was for Sexton a rehearsal for the process of turning her life into poetry.

Reading the private scribblings of a writer, one always notes the differences in style and content from his or her published work. What is fascinating (and frightening) about Sexton is how much her letters are like her verse: morbid, witty, obsessive - about death, love, money, poetry. Recipients included friends, editors, fans, other writers she admired, mental patients who identified with her, young poets seeking advice. Each correspondent was a potential confidant. In an early letter she commiserated with another struggling female poet about the prospects of studying with Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke: "And there we'll be (you and me) with our Cal and our Ted, not liking our work enough (sobbing in our own private caves of womanhood and kicking at the door of fame that men run and own and won't give us the password for)." To Hudson Review editor Frederick Morgan she worried about the effect of her mental instability on her marriage and of sanity on her work: "Everyone has somewhere the ability to mask the events of pain and sorrow. . . But the creative person must not use this mechanism anymore than they have to in order to keep breathing." Lecturing an arrogant aspiring poet on discipline, she wrote, "As for madness... hell! Most poets are mad. It doesn't qualify us for anything. Madness is a waste of time. Even though I'm often crazy, and I am and I know it, still I fight it because I know nothing grows from it and you, meanwhile, only grow into it like a snail." And writing to her friend and mentor W.D. Snodgrass about her feelings of guilt toward her mother (then dying of cancer), she mused, "What do we do with our old hate? I feel as if, now, I were taking each one of her bones, separately, and carrying them to a soft basket. It is hard too, when people die slowly, slowly, slowly; bone by bone, to the soft basket . . . ."

Her tone was instantly familiar, even gushy; comments on her therapy, work, home life and relationships tumbled out all at once, as they did (with much more control) in her poems. "You see," she explained to one pen pal, “I dare write to you quickly, pouring forth, badly written, all misspelled, any old way the words come. Only in a poem is the emotion intensified, sharpened, made acute and sometimes more than I knew I knew. Too much verbiage in a letter by Anne Sexton. . . and nothing remains defined except the gesture, the pouring forth, the friendship and aknowledgement (sic) of love.” (Her “acknowledgements” of love poured out sometimes at the risk of being misinterpreted. With amusing regularity, her letters contain disclaimers directed to male acquaintances who took her amorous proclamations at face value.)

It is impossible to read these letters without feeling the steady tug of tragedy, and not just because they march inexorably toward Sexton's well-publicized suicide in 1974. Despite the frequent hospitalizations and suicide attempts which added to her living legend, it was possible to believe that the fascination with death expressed in Sexton's verse was essentially an intellectual one, to view her end as an almost romantic accident. Self-Portrait makes painfully clear how real was the struggle with life and death for her: For a psychiatrist-friend she casually composed a list of her daily fears: "How does one walk down the street and not look conspicuous and strange? how does one function at a party when you forget everyone's name and want to hide in a corner? how does one ask directions in a strange city and then remember them if one has dared ask?" Later, to the same woman: "Now listen, life is lovely, but I CAN'T LIVE IT. I can't even explain. I know how silly it sounds. . . but if you knew how it FELT. I 'm like a stone that lives . . . locked outside of all that's real." And in the middle of an otherwise newsy letter to a long-time fan, Sexton dispassionately dropped the harrowing details of her latest OD. These episodes of madness and despair stick most firmly in the reader's mind -- not because they are typical but because they are infrequent eruptions of what must have lurked constantly just under the surface.

Self-Portrait in Letters is as complete and as compelling as any narrative could conceivably be. It includes lots of delicious trivia (Sexton contemplated writing a comic manual on how to pick a shrink, with section headings like "The Fee, or Don't Let Your Swimming Pool Show" and "The Masturbating Secretary") and few obvious gaps, though poet Maxine Kumin, Sexton's closest friend for 17 years, is conspicuously absent (presumably she plans to tell her own story). Each chapter is given a structure, title, introduction, keynote poem, and running, between-the-letters annotation; these are invariably thoughtful and knowledgeable - illuminating both the poet and the poems. It is a tribute to editors Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames that you're so drawn into the poet's perceptions that her descriptions of certain moments send a chill up your spine, such as the arrival of the telegram informing her that Live and Die (1966) had won the Pulitzer Prize. It's ironic and sad that that book's final entry, "Live," was a poem whose stunningly affirmative sentiments. ("I say Live, Live because of the sun./ the dream, the excitable gift.") were, for their author, ultimately not enough.

Boston Phoenix, November 28, 1978