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

Plunkett, an attractive and precocious high school poet, had been a patient at McLean on and off for five years when she met Sexton. The move from Arkansas to Radcliffe and the Cambridge of the 1950s was too much for her. "She wasn't prepared for the transformation to Harvard," says her younger brother Robert, a businessman in Fort Smith. "Her grades had been straight As beforehand, but the competition was pretty tough. She wanted to have more of a social life, but she didn't know how to proceed."

It may have been Plunkett who suggested that Ball invite Sexton to teach at McLean. Although she made much of being shy, she sent Sexton some of her poems before the seminar began, and emphasized that she was a big fan. In one note she told Sexton, "I feel like your stringbean girl," a reference to the famous poem "Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman," which Sexton wrote for the eleventh birthday of her elder daughter, Linda.

The two women corresponded between classes. Sexton gossiped about the other patients in the seminar and enjoyed sharing confidences with her acolyte. When Plunkett announced that she had left her psychiatrist because he had divorced his wife, remarried, and refused to embark on an affair with her, Sexton—no stranger to the temptations of the therapist's couch—reacted knowingly.

He could have handled it better. Of course you felt rejected, but it seems too bad that you had to stop seeing him. One thing I'll say. All the psychiatrists I've seen have been crazy and yet I learn from them. From your description of him you certainly wouldn't want to be married to him, but I know the feeling better than you think.

When Plunkett published poems in literary magazines during the seminar, Sexton offered heartfelt congratulations on her success. One of Plunkett's most harrowing, and successful, poems appeared in the Hudson Review. Titled "Encounter, Psychiatric Institute," it took place at McLean.

That awful
She smiled at me
From her pinned-down, stretched-out position flat
On the tilted stretcher two big men
Were hustling down the stairs. "And whom have I
To thank for care of me?" she seemed to say.
She smiled at me. Dark red and bright red were
The colors of her arm. Suddenly I knew
She'd done that shredding.

          Dire, innocuous smile!

That anonymity? All people, strange
(Sudden, yet by an awful, slow degree
I knew), could never get a small word in
On her dark room, her razor, finger, arm,
Or her blind soul presiding. "Hear ye!" she
Said to the dark room of the world, alone.
And later even, outside, like galaxies
Of rocks—the stars—or animals—the dogs—
All we could ever do was stand and stare.
And there, the arm, bare. Like her own soul, bare.

She smiles at me across the ribbons—flesh—
That say, "I am alone—without a sound
You talk, without a recognition see
The star, the animal, the blood of me."

In 1969 Plunkett returned to Arkansas, where she remained in communication with Sexton. In June she reported that she had again been institutionalized: "No sweat, though, be out soon, I think." That was the summer of the moon landing, and Plunkett sent Sexton a poem about the event. Sexton responded, "I was pleased that you sent the poem to me although I didn't understand it ... Your rhyming is very skillful, but I do hear you, Jeanie, I do hear you sing."

That year Plunkett published her only book of poetry, If You Listen Quietly, which included the poem "Fragment to Anne." Sixteen years later, after an adulthood beset with psychological and physical disorders, she died of a neurological seizure in Fort Smith, at the age of fifty-three.

In the spring of 1969 conflicting commitments started pulling Sexton away from the McLean seminar. She taught her last class in June. She corresponded with some of the patients for a few years after the class.

Perhaps inevitably, the intensely self-critical and depressive Sexton viewed the seminar as a failure. In December of 1973 she gathered some of the McLean poems and notes into a manila folder and scrawled in felt-tipped pen on the outside cover, "My first teaching of creative writing—1969 Very difficult due to my insufficient knowledge of handling groups and the fact that the group was constantly changing and the aides were easily mixed up with the poets—Decided more commitment on the part of the poet is needed for me to be able to teach well."

Whatever her misgivings about the McLean seminars, Sexton did gain from them the confidence to press forward with teaching. One of the McLean students organized a winter workshop for his Boston-area Oberlin classmates at Sexton's house. Then Sexton was given a faculty appointment at Boston University, where her poetry seminars acquired the same mythic cachet accorded Lowell's classes.

The McLean students seemed to love Sexton, for her celebrity, for her own struggles with mental illness, and for the effort she invested in the course. Margaret Ball, who sent Sexton periodic updates on the patients' lives between class meetings, informed her that her works were stolen from the library more often than any other author's: "'All My Pretty Ones' (replacement volume 4) lasted 1 week on the shelf before stolen."

Robert Perkins, who remembers Sexton as "very pretty and very nervous," wrote, "I've since come to appreciate how difficult it must have been for Anne Sexton to come back to the hospital and deal with a group of loonies. She had been there herself. Maybe she felt she could help one of us. Maybe she did."

Near the end of her life Sexton realized her grim ambition. In psychic despair, she was admitted to McLean in 1973 for five days of psychiatric examination. The Patients' Property Form is one of the few documents remaining from this visit. It reveals that on August 2 Sexton surrendered nine credit cards (one from the Hotel Algonquin) and $220 in cash and traveler's checks (five dollars in dimes, presumably for parking meters). She reclaimed her effects on August 7.

Sexton's former student Eleanor Morris met her teacher unexpectedly that week in the North Belknap medium-security hall. "She remembered me from the seminar, but we didn't talk much," Morris recalls. "She looked so awful ... my heart went out to her." Here was the terrible leveling of mental illness: Sexton, the elegant, chain-smoking Pulitzer Prize winner cast adrift among her former student-patients. Sexton was just a year away from suicide, firmly embarked on The Awful Rowing Toward God, her last collection of poems.

Morris still remembers being awakened by her clock radio on Saturday, October 5, 1974. A newsreader announced that the poet Anne Sexton had died. "It just said she had died, but I knew she had committed suicide, and I spent the whole morning crying," Morris says.

Morris still has a book of poems that Sexton gave her after one of the seminars, a 1966 collection called Live or Die. Inside Sexton wrote, "My directive is LIVE—to Ellie."

Eleanor Morris is living and writing poetry in Concord, Massachusetts.

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