Non-fiction: Mary Baures

ANNE SEXTON: “ONE WRITES BECAUSE ONE HAS TO”

The following is an excerpt from “Anne Sexton—Battling One’s Demons with Poetry or Using Poetry to Battle One’s Demons.”

“Art should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Kafka

I came to Boston in 1973 to study with Anne Sexton in the master’s program in creative writing at Boston University. I was fascinated by her honesty, her wise profound observations, and the way she mocked her fears with humor.

One day stands out vividly. Anne and I had just crossed Commonwealth Avenue, and headed for the Dugout, a bar where we met after class. A young woman stepped in front of our path. She had mailed Anne some poems and wanted a reaction.

“Oh, yes,” Anne said, making her voice gentle. “There are some good lines in them, but I teach a graduate class. I don’t think you are ready for that.”

“Should I be a writer?” the woman asked.

“One does not choose to write,” Anne answered. “One writes because one has to. It is not an easy life. Look at me. I am staying in a mental hospital. I only come out to teach my class.”

Speechless, the woman stood there staring at the backs of cars, their little red lights saying, “Let me out of this lane.” Anne wished her good luck with her writing.

It was a sunny fall day and our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the bar. Two other members of the workshop waited for us at the dimly lit table. The nurse from the hospital had gone to the car, and, since she wasn’t watching, Anne borrowed a dollar for a beer since the hospital made her give up her money. Her hand fumbled over five packs of Benson and Hedges in her purse to an opened pack. She stuck the soft white stick in her mouth and leaned toward an orange flame.

“That was a marvelous poem you had today,” she raved, her blue-green eyes looking brightly across the table at the woman who had written it. After we finished talking about the poem, Anne said, “It’s a horrible place.” Everyone knew she referred to the hospital.

“At least you will get some gripping poems out of it,” another classmate said.

“No,” Anne replied her voice a bit loud. “I do not want to be known as the mad suicide poet, the live Sylvia Plath.”

Anne was an attractive Pulitzer Prize winning poet who seemed to squeeze every bit of enjoyment from life. It was sometimes hard to see how fragile she was.

She taught us about images and metaphors. They were more powerful when you found connections between unlike things—a fist and a fetus, eyelids and riding boots, a tongue and fish, flies and small black shoes, a girl curled like a snail. She showed us how to “imagemonger” by spewing out a torrent of metaphors in a process called “storming the image.” We would “unrepress” by creating an unconscious for an object, like a can of Coke. Our associations became rapid as we talked over each other to get our ideas out. We became raunchy and laughed wildly.

I couldn’t understand how such a fun-loving person like Anne could obsess about dying. And if she really wanted to die, why did she have so many failed attempts? Were they expressions of ambivalence? Did part of her want to die, while another part was terrified of dying?

Clearly another part wanted to live.