Contents | July/August 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on poetry from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"Madness in the New Poetry" (January 1965)
"Is it only coincidence that poetry in the last two decades has come into the full uses of madness as of an instrument?" By Peter Davison.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Soundings: Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead" (April 11, 2001)
Frank Bidart, Peter Davison, and Robert Pinsky read Lowell's poem aloud. With an introduction by Peter Davison.
Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.
Robert Lowell; Sylvia Plath; Anne Sexton
Biographies, selected poems, and related links. Posted by the Academy of American Poets.
The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2001
cLean Hospital, in suburban Boston, is not the nation's oldest mental hospital; that distinction belongs to the Pennsylvania Hospital, in Philadelphia. Nor is it generally considered the country's best; most professionals would probably rank the Menninger Clinic, in Topeka, Kansas, above McLean. But before the advent of diagnose-dose-and-discharge mental-health care, McLean, which sits on a gorgeous 240-acre campus in the town of Belmont, was probably the country's most aristocratic mental institution and definitely its most literary. Ralph Waldo Emerson complained in a letter about the high costs of treatment for his brothers. In the late nineteenth century Henry Adams's sharp-tongued wife, Clover, remarked to her father that McLean "seems to be the goal of every good and conscientious Bostonian." Her brother, the treasurer of Harvard University, ended his life there. Reputable historians and even a former chief administrator of McLean insist that the father of American psychology, William James, was a patient there, although there is little evidence that this is true. Frederick Law Olmsted, who also died at McLean, chose the land for the campus.
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
by Alex Beam
In the modern era McLean became, if anything, more literary and even fashionable. The curious "McLean chic," which culminated in the unexpected success of the movie version of Susanna Kaysen's memoir, Girl, Interrupted, can be traced to the fall of 1953, when McLean's director, Franklin Wood, admitted a Smith College senior named Sylvia Plath, who was suffering from suicidal depression. Just six years after her treatment, when she was twenty-seven, Plath realized that she could capitalize on her stay at McLean. After spotting two articles on mental health in Cosmopolitan magazine, she wrote in her journal, "I must write one about a college girl suicide ... And a story, a novel even ... There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don't relive, recreate it." When Plath's novel, The Bell Jar (1971), finally appeared, it became must reading for girls, in the same way that J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was devoured by moody adolescent boys. Wandering the fictional corridors of "Belsize" (Belknap) and "Wymark" (Wyman) Halls, thousands of American teenagers were getting a first-hand look inside McLean.
Plath was one of three major American poets who exploited their McLean experiences in their work. And although she was the first of the trio to check into McLean, she wasn't the first to write about it. That distinction fell to Robert Lowell, who wrote an exquisite poem about a 1958 stay in McLean's Bowditch Hall, "Waking in the Blue." A copy of it was still pasted on the wall at the Bowditch nurses' station in the late 1980s. Plath and her friend and rival Anne Sexton attended Lowell's poetry seminars at Boston University in 1959, and both quickly cottoned on to what Lowell was up to. Although well versed in classical poetry, Lowell was writing in a beautiful American vernacular, and he wrote about life as he found it, whether in an uncompromising portrait of his ineffectual father ("Father's death was abrupt and unprotesting") or in a heartrending description of returning to his wife and daughter after a few months in the "bin" ("I keep no rank nor station/Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small"). Plath had checked into McLean five years before Lowell, but it was Lowell who helped her to understand what madness had taught her. Sexton, too, experienced suicidal depression, and learned to write about it.
For all three poets sojourns at McLean provided not only needed respites but also creative material. Madness came out of the closet in their writings, and even acquired a certain cachet. Sexton's biographer, Diane Middlebrook, caught the favor when she wrote that McLean "had always held an odd glamour ... as the hospital of choice for the occasionally mad artists of Boston."
he story of Plath's stay at McLean has entered the literary canon not only by way of The Bell Jar but also from the writings of numerous biographers and memoirists. The consensus tale runs like this: A sensitive, erudite, and hardworking young woman from a conventional but not particularly happy family in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Plath experienced mild depressions while studying at Smith. As well versed in Freud as any budding intellectual of her generation, she thought she had "penis envy" and suffered from "schizophrenia." After winning a prestigious national contest and while working at Mademoiselle magazine, in New York, during June of 1953, she suffered a rare career setback: she was denied admission to a Harvard summer writing seminar. Trapped at home in August, drained of energy, she began to contemplate suicide. After a half-serious attempt to drown herself, Plath hid in a crawl space underneath her family's house and swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills. She very nearly died. ("BEAUTIFUL SMITH GIRL MISSING AT WELLESLEY" and "TOP RANKING STUDENT AT SMITH MISSING FROM WELLESLEY HOME" were two of the front-page headlines in the Boston papers.) Her family and doctors concluded that her attempt went beyond the classic suicide "gesture" and packed her off to McLean.
Talented and ambitious, Plath had a knack for aligning herself with the best brains available. As at Smith, she was a "scholarship girl" at McLean, supported by the well-to-do novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, a forceful and intelligent woman who had suffered her own nervous breakdown a quarter century before. The psychiatrist with whom Plath met every day was Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, a real New York Tiffany and rare at McLean, where most of the doctors were men. Freudians would call it "transference"; whatever the case, Plath fell in love with her doctor. In The Bell Jar she drew on her Mademoiselle training to describe "Dr. Nolan," as she called Barnhouse in the book: "She wore a white blouse and a full skirt gathered at the waist by a wide leather belt, and stylish, crescent-shaped spectacles. This woman was a cross between Myrna Loy and my mother." Years after her release from McLean, Plath continued to consult with Barnhouse, and in 1959 she confessed in her journal, "RB has become my mother." When I interviewed Barnhouse, more than thirty years later (she has since died), it was easy to appreciate the spirit that had animated Plath. Taking a break from puffing on her Nat Sherman cigarettes during an outdoor interview on the cobbled Main Street in Nantucket, Barnhouse joined me for lunch at a restaurant called Arno's that featured a "Healthy Beginnings" menu. "I just refuse on principle to order any food that has the word 'health' in its description," she said. "The world began to go to hell in a basket when they substituted margarine for butter."
Although Plath provided vivid descriptions of life at McLean in her letters, she rarely discussed her therapy. There wasn't really a great deal to discuss. When Plath first arrived, Barnhouse decided to supplement psychotherapy with insulin-shock treatment, which not only failed to address the patient's apathy but caused her face to bloat up and bruise, spoiling her natural beauty and compounding her crisis of self-doubt. Like most McLean patients, Plath was dosed with the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine, which contributed to her affectless behavior. Months after her arrival her therapy was still blocked. "I got her to draw things first, and then I had gotten her to talk, which was already something," Barnhouse told me. "But she had been in there for months, and Mrs. Prouty was paying the bills. This was going on and on. She was totally depressed, and she wasn't getting any better."
Olive Prouty visited Plath regularly, and was becoming quite impatient with McLean. In November she wrote a letter to Franklin Wood, threatening to stop paying for treatment (Prouty thought it was nontreatment) that seemed to be leading nowhere. Prouty had spent time at Silver Hill, in Connecticut, a mental hospital with a more structured approach to mobilizing depressed patients, and she couldn't abide the laissez-faire attitude at McLean. "I usually find Sylvia wandering listlessly up and down the corridor," she complained to Wood, "and when I leave she says she will do the same, as there is nothing else for her to do."
Plath's stay was approaching its climax. Barnhouse decided to gamble, and proposed electroshock therapy. The idea was frightening—especially so to Plath, because she had suffered through several painful and impersonally administered shock treatments before coming to McLean. She had received no anesthesia before the treatments, and afterward she was wheeled into an empty recovery room to cope alone with her trauma. "She was not properly protected against the results of the treatments," Prouty wrote to one of Plath's doctors, "which were so poorly given that the patient remembers the details with horror." Prouty was a meddler, but an informed meddler, and she voiced her opinion that the botched electroshock had driven Sylvia to attempt suicide. Barnhouse promised to stay with Plath during the therapy, and convinced her that this time the results would be different.
They were. In December, Plath received the first of three shock treatments. She regained her personality and composure so rapidly that she was able to spend Christmas at home. The hospital officially discharged her in late January, and by February she was back at Smith. Five years later Plath wrote of the treatments in her journal, "Why, after the 'amazingly short' three or so shock treatments did I rocket uphill? Why did I feel I needed to be punished, to punish myself." Neither she nor Barnhouse could explain the miraculous turnabout. "I can't tell you what happened," Barnhouse said in Nantucket. "The human mind is very complex. That sounds obvious, but people keep forgetting it. They think you just throw a little Prozac in here, and a little of something else in here, it'll do this, this, and this. It's ridiculous."
Many psychiatric hospitals, including McLean, still administer a less traumatic form of shock treatment, more palatably christened "electroconvulsive therapy," to blocked patients. [See "Shock and Disbelief," by Daniel Smith, February Atlantic.] When it works, doctors are still at a loss to explain how.
y the time he first checked into McLean, in 1958, Robert Lowell was, as they say in the consumer-products field, a repeat user. Forty-one years old, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the country's most respected poets, Lowell experienced uncontrollable manic surges, and had been institutionalized before. To the astonishment of those around him, he would swell up with power, anger, and delusion. He would shower his closest friends with bitter, mocking curses, or proclaim undying love to an airline stewardess and insist on leaving the plane with her to start a new life. He once delivered a gibbering lecture lauding Adolf Hitler. Some stereotypes are true: there are people in mental institutions who want to assume the power of Napoleon, or of Jesus Christ, and at times Robert Lowell was one of them.
Just on the strength of his magnificent "Waking in the Blue," with its haunting description of life among the "Mayflower screwballs," Lowell was the uncrowned poet laureate of McLean.
... (This is the house for the "mentally ill.")
"Waking" was included in the book Life Studies (1959), which many Lowell admirers believe to be his best book. Life Studies is intensely autobiographical, and unsparing of Lowell's immediate and extended family. Sarah Payne Stuart, one of the poet's cousins, has recently suggested that the family's hostility to the poems may have precipitated a breakdown that sent Lowell back to McLean. After reading a pre-publication copy of the book, Lowell's formidable aunt Sarah Cotting announced, "I've just read what Bobby wrote about [his parents] Charlotte and Bob, and it's just awful." From her Beacon Hill town house she marched down to Lowell's home, on nearby Marlborough Street, and gave her nephew a piece of her mind. (This was the same aunt who once mused, while sitting on her yacht, "Why doesn't Bobby write about the sea? It's so pretty.") "I'm sorry you didn't like it," Lowell answered softly. "I thought it was rather good." A few weeks later Life Studies was formally published, and Lowell was back at McLean.
What use is my sense of humor?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with the muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson golf-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbet and ginger ale—
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean's;
the hooded night lights bring out "Bobbie,"
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig—
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.
These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.
Because he was born into the Boston aristocracy, Lowell understood instinctively who was in McLean and why. He had grown up with "thoroughbred mental cases." No nuance of Boston snobbery could escape him—certainly not that he hailed from the line of thin-blooded, artistic Lowells, as opposed to the broad-shouldered, industrial-titan Lowells, who enriched themselves with textile mills along the Charles and Merrimack Rivers. Ralph Lowell, the downtown-banker chairman of McLean's board of trustees, was a "real" Lowell; Robert and his family, although they lived quite comfortably, were comparatively poor relations. Robert's father, Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, was a middle-ranking naval officer who had made a good match. His wife's family, the Winslows, proudly traced their ancestry back to the Mayflower. The venerable names attached to halls at McLean—Wyman, Appleton, Higginson, Bowditch—were the names of family friends. Robert had attended St. Mark's School and Harvard with the likes of them. Lowell read the hospital like an open book. In this case the book was a crazy salad of John Marquand, the Harvard faculty directory, and the Social Register. He wrote to his friend the poet Elizabeth Bishop,
I live in an interesting house now at McLean's, one in which no man had entered since perhaps 1860; suddenly it was made co-ed. It was like entering some ancient deceased sultan's seraglio. We were treated to a maze of tender fussy attentions suitable for very old ladies: chocolate scented milk at 8:30; a lounging and snoozing bed spread after meals, each announcement of an appointment gently repeated at ten minute intervals, an old crone waiting on table barking like television turned on full to pierce through deafness. On the other hand, it took three days to get a shaving glass. The man next to me is a Harvard Law professor. One day, he is all happiness, giving the plots of Trollope novels, distinguishing delicately between the philosophies of Holmes and Brandeis, reminiscing wittily about Frankfurter. But on another day, his depression blankets him. Early in the morning, I hear cooing pigeon sounds, and if I listen carefully, the words: "Oh terror. TERROR!" Our other male assembles microscopically exact models of clippers and three masted schooners.
Lowell visited McLean four times over the course of eight years. He left a paper trail of letters with the return address 115 Mill Street, Belmont, Massachusetts. He is probably the only patient to have exchanged letters with Jackie Kennedy from the wards; she thanked him for a book he had sent her, and congratulated him on getting away for the holidays. Lowell also corresponded with the poet Theodore Roethke, who had his own struggles with mental illness (Lowell: "I feel great kinship with you"), and he mailed a letter from Bowditch to Ezra Pound, who had been locked up in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, in Washington, D.C. "Do you think a man who has been off his rocker as often as I have been could run for elective office and win?" Lowell inquired of Pound.
Both men, and I too, shrink before a garrulous Mrs. Churchill, sometimes related to the statesman and sometimes to the novelist ... "How are you related to Thomas Arnold Lowell?" I assumed she meant James Russell Lowell, and was abysmally wrong and have never been to explain. Pointing to the classical moulding on a mantelpiece, she will say, "That's Cameron Forbes, the ambassador to Japan," or begin a dinner conversation with, "Speaking of Rhode Island reds ... "
Sometimes with a big paper napkin stuck like an escaping bra on her throat, she will dance a little jig and talk about being presented to Queen Victoria. She was.
I have in mind the State senatorship from my districtthe South End, Back Bay Boston, and your son's Roxbury etc. The incumbent is an inconspicuous Republican. His rival is a standard losing party democrat. I'd run as a democrat, and if I could edge out in the very difficult primaries, then I'd cream the Republican. And then there'd be vistas before me as I sat in the Boston State Capitol on my little $5,000 a year job that would cost me about $10,000. What's your advice.
There is no trace of a reply.
nne 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,
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."
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 ...
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July/August 2001; Mad Poets Society; Volume 288, No. 1; 96-103.