The Mad Poets Society

McLean Hospital, in Massachusetts, was for years America's most literary mental institution, a place that Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton knew well

Anne Sexton for years had a curious ambition: she wanted to be admitted to McLean. "If only I could get a scholarship to McLean," Sexton confided to her longtime friend and amanuensis Lois Ames, as if she were talking about a fellowship to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Sexton certainly had the qualifications: two suicide attempts by the age of thirty, and extended stays at the Glenside and Westwood Lodge sanatoriums. She wrote about her mania in her first poetry collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960). She reveled theatrically in her madness, and was not above using her shocking mood swings to manipulate her friends and family. But her therapist, Martin Orne, wary of the cost of extended stays at McLean, refused to commit her there. By age forty Sexton had won the Pulitzer Prize and had been written about in national magazines. But she had never had her ticket punched at McLean.

From the archives:

"'Discovering' Young Poets" (June 1998)
How some of the best-known poets of this century got that way. By Peter Davison

Why McLean? Because of Plath and Lowell. "We both recognized that Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell had been there, and she wanted to be in that lineage," Ames told me some time ago, "the same way she wanted to be buried in Mount Auburn cemetery, where her family was buried." Sexton was ferociously competitive with Plath in all respects. Both had been reared in Boston's well-to-do western suburbs. Both were extremely articulate, beautiful, and sexually alert. Both had committed themselves to big poetry—publishing in the big magazines (The New Yorker and The Atlantic) and with the big publishing houses (Knopf and Houghton Mifflin), and aiming at the big awards (the Pulitzer Prize, the Yale Younger Poets Award). Each knew she was unstable and vaguely understood that psychological torment somehow produced good poetry. Each saw herself, correctly, as a future suicide. Meeting in drunken martini klatches at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel after Lowell's poetry seminars, the two even discussed killing themselves. (Sexton on Plath: "She told the story of her first suicide in sweet and loving detail.") The conversation was not hypothetical. When talking about suicide, Plath and Sexton were interested in not if or when but how. After Plath ended her life, in 1963, Sexton published an essay-poem griping that Plath had trumped her in their mortal combat: "Thief! / how did you crawl into, / crawl down alone / into the death I wanted so badly and for so long."

The experiences of Lowell, a mentor of sorts, also weighed heavily in Sexton's thinking. As a student in his class, she couldn't help noticing when Lowell disappeared to McLean in the spring of 1959. His mania had overwhelmed him. One of Sexton's first recognized poems describes the ungainly Lowell, "like a hunk of some big frog," leaving his crowded poetry seminar to commit himself: "I must admire your skill," Sexton wrote. "You are so gracefully insane."

In 1968 Sexton received an invitation from Margaret Ball, McLean's librarian, to teach a poetry seminar at the hospital.

Dear Mrs. Sexton,

During the past two months, I have been directing quite a small group of McLean patients who write. Some are quite talented; some of the poems, especially, are fascinating.

I have heard you had, at one time, an interest in the writings of psychiatric patients; the patient who told me this is a great admirer of yours and suggested I invite you to address the group. I would like to amplify her suggestion to include a possible series of workshop or lecture meetings which you would lead ...

Ball was right: Sexton did have an interest in the writings of psychiatric patients. In fact, she believed that she had discovered her vocation as a poet because of her psychotic breakdowns. According to Diane Middlebrook, Sexton created her own Genesis myth after her first nervous breakdown, as a writer "born again" from the slough of despond. "I found I belonged to the poets," Sexton said, and with Orne's support, she started writing poetry. Just as Sexton would later offer unbounded encouragement to her students at McLean, Orne responded generously. "He said [my poems] were wonderful," Sexton recalled. "I kept writing and writing and giving them all to him ... I kept writing because he was approving." Middlebrook concluded, "Poetry had saved her life."

Uncertain of her own abilities—she had never taught before—and wary of lecturing to a roomful of emotionally disturbed men and women, Sexton persuaded Ames, an experienced social worker, to accompany her to McLean. The seminar assembled every Tuesday evening in the hospital library. Typically, Sexton would assign the students a few poems written by contemporaries such as Diane Wakoski, Frederick Seidel, Robert Bagg, and Aliki Barnstone. The tenor would range from the highly agitated to the desultory, depending on the combination of student-patients present. Sexton would ask each participant to prepare one or more poems for the following session, which Margaret Ball would collect during the week and send to Sexton at her home.

There was no way of knowing from week to week which patients might show up for the seminar. Although some patients were permitted to meander around the hospital grounds or even to take public transportation into town, others emerged from maximum-security wards with aides, dubbed "angels," who held them gently by the wrists, meaning that the patients were on suicide watch. Some patients' conditions varied from day to day, not to mention hour to hour. A patient who wrote an excellent poem might disappear for several weeks until his or her condition improved.

Robert Perkins, an author and documentary filmmaker now living in Cambridge, described the seminar in his 1996 memoir, Talking to Angels.

While I was [at McLean] Anne Sexton taught a poetry-writing class. She would come ... to meet with a small group of aspiring poets. It was as boring a two hours as any other, although some of the students were entertaining. These wackos would rise to their feet and make up their poems right there, often yelling them out loud. A chorus of nutcakes. Occasionally, Anne Sexton would speak, but more often she sat there with the rest of us and let events swirl around her. If people wanted to argue about poetry or spout poems, that was fine with her. Most of us, and I was one, could barely raise our heads, let alone write poetry or find anything intelligent to say.

Eleanor Morris, a young patient who had dropped out of Bryn Mawr several years earlier, preserved a different memory of the sessions with Sexton.

I have a mental image of Anne leaning on something in the library, maybe a piano, and the rest of us sitting around in chairs. She assigned us exercises, and you had to read your own poetry, which took a lot of courage. What I remember most is the blue, blue eyes. Her eyes were a piece of hope for me to see every week, they were daring me to do something.

There was no shortage of breeding or brainpower in the Sexton seminars. Perkins sprang from one of Boston's venerable first families; he had interrupted his studies at Harvard for a year to acquire his "McLean diploma." Morris was collaterally related to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Law Olmsted. But Sexton's favorite student proved to be a woman from Fort Smith, Arkansas, Eugenia Plunkett, who had suffered a nervous breakdown after her first year at Radcliffe College.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In