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

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.

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."

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