“Two Sweet Ladies”: Sexton and Plath’s Friendship and Mutual Influence
I SHOULD SAY AT THE OUT SET THAT I AM, HAVE been-on and off- since the 1970’s, a Sexton and Plath-oholic. When I first encountered Sexton she was on the cusp of being, thanks largely to the women’s movement, co-opted by academia. Plath was already being taught in literature classes at my college; Ariel had been published in this country in 1966, and thanks largely to the shock value of Plath’s suicide, and the role that suicide plays in her poems, she was very popular. Both writers’ preoccupation with death, of course, connected them in my mind. As did the fact that they had been friends. For me there was an irresistible glamour about their friendship. It’s always felt like I was honoring-in my devotion to and my obsession with their lives and their work-the bond between them. Something intimate and yet Olympian, if you will, touched by creative genius. Over the years, however, I’ve begun to question the depth of their friendship. There are a number of holes in the story, mysteries of a sort. And although it is an accepted fact that Sexton and Plath influenced each other’s work, there has been very little scholarship, to my knowledge, in this area. It’s these holes, these blind spots that I’d like to explore.
For many years the accepted (and pretty much sole) record of Sexton and Plath’s friendship has been Sexton’s brief memoir “The Bar Fly Ought to Sing.” In the fall of 1966, Tri-Quarterly magazine published a, and I quote, “womanly issue,” which featured a special section called “The Art of Sylvia Plath”-one of the earliest, if not the first, tributes to Plath. A year earlier, Tri-Quarterly’s editor Charles Newman had contacted Sexton about “a feature section devoted to Sylvia Plath,” originally intended for spring 1966, to coincide, no doubt, with the June publication of Ariel. Sexton’s response to Newman is basically a rough draft of her memoir. At first she tells him she has “no contribution to make,” but then proceeds to describe her friendship with Plath. At the end she offers to expand her letter into a “small sketch.” And adds: “I am ashamed of America-when I think of Sylvia’s last poems. I read at many universities and yet no one mentions her work. Are they all fools?” This is an interesting glimpse of Plath’s neglect, at least during the three years between her suicide in 1963 and the American publication of Ariel in 1966, in light of the immense attention she was about to receive.
Sexton fleshed her memories into “The Bar Fly Ought to Sing” and included two poems: “Sylvia’s Death,” an elegy she wrote on February 17, 1963, just six days after Plath’s suicide, and “Wanting to Die,” which she wrote one year later. “I knew [Plath] for a while in Boston,” says Sexton, and tells how they both grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, though didn’t meet until they were both adults, both poets. Plath and George Starbuck heard, she says, that she was auditing a poetry workshop at Boston University taught by Robert Lowell and “kind of followed me in, joined me there.” Lowell was then a leading American poet; Sexton depicts him as a merciless judge of student poetry, but a personally kind father figure. She describes how after class she, Starbuck, and Plath would “pile into the front seat of my old Ford and . . . drive quickly through the traffic to, or near, the Ritz. I would always park illegally in a LOADING ONLY ZONE, telling them gaily, ‘It’s okay, because we are only going to get loaded!’ Of Twe’d go, each on George’s arm, into the Ritz and drink three or four or two martinis. George even has a line about this in his first book of poems, Bone Thoughts. He wrote, I weave with two sweet ladies out of The Ritz. Sylvia and I, such sleep mongers, such death mongers, were those two sweet ladies.” In the “plush, deep red” Ritz-Carlton bar, the three would eat free potato chips and drink “lots of martinis,” and Sexton and Plath would discuss, “like moths to an electric light bulb,” their passionate flirtation with death. Later they made their way to the nearby WaIdorf Cafeteria, where dinner could be purchased for a mere seventy cents. After Plath moved back to England, Sexton tells us, they “exchanged a few letters . . . I have them now, of course . . . Sylvia wrote of one child, keeping bees, another child, my poems-happy, gossip-letters, and then, with silence between us, she died.” Sexton also tells us, regarding Plath’s talent: “Something told me to bet on her but I never asked it why.” Although in her original letter to Newman she states: “I never guessed that she had it all in her.”
It takes a little detective work, culling facts from various letters, journals, memoirs, and biographies, to get the timeline down, and to fill out the details. In another, earlier “small sketch” of Robert Lowell as a teacher, Sexton says she studied with him “during the fall of 1958 and the winter of 1959”-she doesn’t specify these dates in “The Bar Fly Ought to Sing.” In September of 1958, Sexton, who had yet to publish her first book, applied to Lowell’s graduate writing seminar at Boston University. She did so at the suggestion of W. D. Snodgrass (himself a former student of Lowell’s), whom she had met earlier that year at the Antioch Writers Conference. A week later she received a letter from Lowell accepting her into the class. Lowell (we now know, thanks to his recently published letters) praised the poems she had submitted to him: “They move with ease and are filled with experience, like good prose … You stick to truth and the simple expression of very difficult feelings, and this is the line in poetry that I am most interested in.” The editorial notes in Anne Sexton: A SelfPortrait in Letters inform us that “[t]he class met on Tuesdays from two to four in a small room. Although smoking was forbidden, Anne lit up furtively, defiant as in her high school days, using her shoe as an ashtray.” According to Sexton’s Lowell sketch, the class “consisted of some twenty students-seventeen graduates, two other housewives (who were graduate somethings), and a boy who snuck over from M.I.T. I was the only one in that room who hadn’t read Lord Weaty’s Castle.” By October 6, Sexton is writing to Snodgrass: “I am learning more than you could imagine from Lowell.” In the same letter she says “Lowell just called,” as if they’re suddenly chums, and passes on some professional gossip. But such chumminess is short lived: on November 26, after a brief stay in a mental institution, Sexton writes Snodgrass: “Went to Lowell’s class yesterday. I guess I forgive him for not liking me (if he didn’t like me as I thot) because he has such a soft dangerous voice. He seemed more friendly yesterday. He is a good man; I forgive him for his sicknesses whatever they are. I think I will have to god him again; gods are so necessary and splendid and distant.” Still, in November, again according to Sexton’s Lowell sketch, she gives him a manuscript of her poems, “to see if he thought ‘it was a book.'” Another letter to Snodgrass, written on January 11, 1959, confirms that Lowell is still looking over Sexton’s manuscript. This same letter gives us a pretty good idea of what it was like to have Anne Sexton as a workshop peer:
The class is good. I am learning leaps and boundaries. Tho I am very bitchy acting in class. I don’t know why but I am very defensive around Lowell (I think I am afraid of him) … so I act like a bitch with these sarcastic remarks … The class just sits there like little doggies waggling their heads at his every statement. For instance, he will be dissecting some great poem and wilt say “why is this line so good. What makes it good?” and there is total silence. Everyone afraid to speak. And finally, because I can stand it no longer, I speak up saying, “I don’t think it’s so good at all. You would never allow us sloppy language like that.” .. . and so forth. But I don’t do this for effect. But because the line isn’t good. What do you do-sit there and agree and nod and say nothing …?… As you say, I do act aggressive.
On February 1 she writes Snodgrass: “Lowell is really helping me … he likes the looks of my ‘book,’ with some critical reservations, and has shown it to Stanley Kunitz … who … agree[s] with his enthusiasm … He is going to show it to somebody Ford at Knopf this week to see if he would be interested. And Houghton Mifflin wants to see it… in total he likes my work a lot… .” Enough to also share it with Randall Jarrell, among others. Lowell coaches her on which poems to delete from the manuscript, encourages her to replace them with new ones. Though Sexton puts the word “book” in quotes, indicating she’s not sure it is yet a book, she’s already calling it To Bedlam and Part Way Back, a title that would stick. A few days later, February 5, Sexton writes poet Carolyn Kizer that Lowell is “pushing me to send out fat groups [of poems] to the big places,” that is, the most visible literary magazines.
In the midst of all this exciting tutelage, February 1959, Sylvia Plath began auditing Lowell’s poetry class. Plath, living in Boston with husband Ted Hughes, and still very much in his shadow, had recently finished a year of teaching at Smith College. From the February 25 entry in her journal: “Lowcll’s class yesterday a great disappointment: I said a few mealymouthed things, a few BU students yattered nothings I wouldn’t let my Smith freshmen say without challenge. Lowell good in his mildly feminine ineffectual fashion. Felt a regression. The main thing is hearing the other student’s poems & his reaction to mine.” Unhappy at first with the workshop, Plath perked up when Lowell started comparing her work to Sexton’s. Lowell suspected, perhaps intuitively, and ultimately correctly, that they might benefit from each other’s differences. Plath’s journal, March 20: “Criticism of 4 of my poems in Lowell’s class: criticism of rhetoric. He sets me up with Ann [missing the ‘e’j Sexton, an honor, I suppose. Well, about time. She has very good things, and they get better, though there is a lot of loose stuff.” That looseness-in person as well as on paper-was a potential antidote to Plath’s compulsive togetherness. Kathleen Spivack, then nineteen and a student in the class, remembers Plath as “curt and businesslike,” as “reserved and totally controlled as well as unapproachable to the younger writers.” She was “composed, neat, held in, in a tightly buttoned print blouse and neat cardigan. She spoke quietly, with utmost control.” In contrast, Sexton “was often late, and wore splashy, flowing dresses and flashy jewelry. Her hoarse voice breathed extravagant enthusiasm and life. Her hands shook when she read her poems aloud. She smoked endlessly. Anne’s poems were ragged; they flew off the page. She was an instinctual poet rather than, as Sylvia, a trained one.” In class, Sexton named William Carlos Williams as a favorite poet; Plath, Wallace Stevens. Their own poems, at this time, reflect their preferences: Sexton’s are personal, colloquial, direct; whereas Plath’s are intellectual, mythological, and formally complex. These stylistic differences were clear to Plath. From her journal, April 23: “She [Ann Sexton, the Ann again without its ‘e’] has none of my clenches and an ease of phrase, and an honesty.” Sexton poems Plath would have read or seen workshopped include “The Double Image” (Sexton’s painfully open and seamlessly crafted sequence about her mother’s death from cancer and her separation, due to breakdown, from her infant daughter; both answer and homage to “Heart’s Needle,” a Snodgrass sequence Sexton deeply admired) and “You, Doctor Martin” (a signature madness piece, with its unforgettable admission: “Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself”). Plath was writing such poems as the stilted “Electra on Azalea Path” and the gimmicky “Metaphors,” two poems that would fail to make their way into the American edition of her first book, The Colossus.
It seems the gay afternoons at the Ritz-Carlton, the mutual infatuation between Sexton and Plath, would have occurred during the months of March and April, 1959. In April, to Snodgrass, Sexton wrote: “Ted Hughes and his wife (Sylvia Plath) are in Boston this year (he is an english poet) and they are going to Yaddo for 2 months next fall. She wants to know what it’s like if you can drink and etc. She is going to Lowell’s class along with George Starbuck (poet) (and publisher at Houghton Mifflin) and we three leave the class and go to the Ritz and drink martinis. Very fun. My book is at H.M. now.” “Not martinis,” insisted Starbuck when he was interviewed by Sexton biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook some thirty years later, “Anne drank stingers at the time-awful stuff-I don’t remember what Sylvia drank.” Middlebrook would have us believe nothing at all: she makes the following assertion about Plath’s drinking habits in Her Husband (her study of the Hughes/Plath marriage): “Sexton says they drank martinis at the Ritz-this would have been very unusual behavior for Plath.” Could Sexton have misremembered, or projected? And could she have exaggerated about the frequency of the trio’s outings to the Ritz? About Sexton and Plath’s death talks, Starbuck concurs (although the tone of their conversations seems lighter than Sexton implies): “They had these hilarious conversations comparing their suicides and talking about their psychiatrists.” Then he adds: “It was just a few times that I was privileged to eavesdrop on them.” Starbuck was a junior editor at Houghton Mifflin (not a publisher, as Sexton wrote Snodgrass) and according to Middlebrook would “now and then [take) off from work … to drop in on [Lowell’s] seminar.” So it doesn’t appear he was a regular presence in the class or at the Ritz. From the vantage point of age and more modest accomplishments, Starbuck said this about Plath: “Her journals indicate that she was wary of me, which is odd. Everybody at that age thinks the other people are the lions.”
Indeed, judging from her journal entries, the honeymoon ended, for Plath, almost as soon as it had begun. On April 23 she acknowledges that Sexton and Starbuck are having an affair-a fact Sexton would discreetly omit from “The Bar Fly Ought to Sing.” Sexton is obviously referring to Starbuck in this quote from a letter to Snodgrass, also written in April: “There is a rather nice poet in Boston who is in love with me. I guess I’d better give up and sleep with him.” Maybe Plath felt like the odd poet out, witnessing the beginning of her friends’ affair, but she was no prude. A May 3 journal passage makes it clear that it was a different kind of jealousy-not sexual, but career-related-that was getting under Plath’s skin: “Retyped pages, a messy job, on the volume of poems I should be turning in to Houghton Mifflin this week. But AS [Anne Sexton] is there ahead of me, with her lover GS [George Starbuck] writing New Yorker odes to her and both of them together: felt our triple martini afternoons at the Ritz breaking up.” (Plath, it would appear, was capable of putting back three martinis.) Plath goes on: “That memorable afternoon at G’s monastic and miserly room on Pinckney “You shouldn’t have left us”: where is responsibility to lie? I left, yet felt like a brown winged moth around a rather meagre candle flame, drawn. That is over. “This sounds pretty final, but Starbuck and Sexton have really gotten under Plath’s skin. On May 18 she dreams “George Starbuck had a book of poems published by Houghton Mifflin, a spectacular book, full of fat substantial poems I hadn’t seen, called ‘Music Man’.” Then two days later, on May 20: “All I need now is to hear that GS or MK [Maxine Kumin] has won the Yale and get a rejection of my children’s book. AS has her book accepted at HM and this afternoon will be drinking champagne. Also an essay accepted by [the Christian Science Monitor], the copy-cat. But who’s to criticize a more successful copy-cat. Not to mention a poetry reading at McLean. And GS at supper last night smug as a cream-fed cat, very pleased indeed, for AS is in a sense his answer to me. And now my essay, on Withins, will come back from [the Christian Science Monitor], and my green-eyed fury prevent me from working.” On June 6 Plath learns that her manuscript (an early incarnation of The Colossus, then titled The Bull ofBendylaw) has lost the Yale “by a whisper”; it came in second. Angrily, she calls the judge, Dudley Fitts, “a fool.” Then rails about her lack of support: “I have no champions. They will find a lack of this, or that, or something or other. How few of my superiors do I respect the opinions of anyhow. Lowell a case in point. How few, if any will see what I am working at, overcoming.” The last straw comes a few days later, June 12, when Starbuck calls Plath and announces, smugly, that he is the poet who has beaten her out for the Yale: “O, didn’t I tell you.'” Perhaps Plath had good reason to be wary of Starbuck, after all. Unable to sleep, she stays up until three in the morning, “feeling again the top of my head would come off, it was so full, so full of knowledge.” Knowledge, she goes on to explain, of corrupt, political stringpulling in Poetryland-of the private boy’s club variety. In a letter to a college friend, Plath calls Starbuck a “louse” and dismisses his work as light verse. (Ironically Plath makes an appearance, you’ll recall, in a poem in Starbuck’s winning manuscript. Bone Thoughts, as one of two sweet ladies of the Ritz.)
Sexton and Starbuck high on the acceptance of their first books. Plath fuming, the success of her friends triggering feelings of jealousy and frustration, perceived failure. This in June 1959, two months after Lowell’s Life Studies, the book that will crown him king of Confessional poetry, is published. On April 1 Sexton had written to Carolyn Kizer about Lowell’s new volume: “Tho I haven’t seen [it], I hear it is full of personal poetry and think that he is either copying me or that I’m copying him (tho I haven’t seen his new stuff) or that we are both copying [Snodgrass].” A fair appraisal, in my opinion. More could be said about all this influence, the freedom of subject matter that these poets sparked in each other. But for now I will leave Starbuck’s sweet ladies to their summer plans: Sexton to a fishing trip to Maine with her husband Kayo, followed by the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in late August (with her lover/editor George); Plath to a car camping trip across North America with Hughes, during which she realizes she is pregnant, followed by a stay at Yaddo in the fall. While at Yaddo, on October 6, Plath will jot the following bitter entry in her journal: “George Starbuck’s immortal love poem to Anne Sexton in the NY [New Yorker] this week. A reminder.”
Something which has always puzzled me is the absence, in all that’s been published by and about both poets, of the correspondence between Sexton and Plath. Sexton, we are told, kept carbon copies of all of her letters; this is why Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters is so comprehensive. Missing from the volume, however, are Sexton’s letters to Plath. Plath’s letters to Sexton (“I have them now, of course,” says Sexton in “The Bar Fly Ought to Sing”) are in the Anne Sexton Papers at the University of Texas at Austin. Available online is the Index of Correspondents, which indicates the number of letters by each correspondent, as well as the number of letters from Sexton to each correspondent. It’s not clear whether these are actual letters or Sexton’s carbon copies. For example, the index shows that there are three letters from Lowell to Sexton, and four letters from Sexton to Lowell. The index also shows that there are two letters from Plath to Sexton, and none from Sexton to Plath. Two letters in the three and a half years between Lowell’s workshop and Plath’s suicide. An appendix in Linda Wagner-Martin’s biography Sylvia Plath tells us that the Plath letters in the Sexton archive are dated 1961 and 1962. Wagner-Martin’s list of Plath’s individual correspondence tells us that, at Smith College and Indiana University, the two schools that house Plath’s papers, there are no letters from Anne Sexton to Sylvia Plath.
Sexton biographer Diane Middlebrook obviously read the two Plath letters at UTA. Sexton, she says, sent Plath an advance copy of her second book, All My Pretty Ones, in 1962. Plath responded (this would have been the second of the two letters, only Middlebrook calls it a “thank-you note,” not a letter) with the following praise: “I was absolutely stunned and delighted with the new book. It is superbly masterful, womanly [that word again!] in the greatest sense, and so blessedly un-literary.” Paul Alexander, author of the Plath biography Rough Magic, also did his homework. He provides the date of this second letter (August 21) and reminds us that Plath wrote from Court Green, Devon, at a time when her marriage with Ted Hughes was breaking up; Hughes was spending much of his time away from Plath, in London with his lover Assia Wevill. Alexander reveals more of the contents of the letter: “Plath predicted-she was blessed with clairvoyance, she said-that All My Pretty Ones would earn Sexton a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.” All My Pretty Ones would indeed be nominated for the National Book Award, and Sexton’s next book, Live or Die, would win the Pulitzer in 1967. “Then,” Alexander continues, “Plath asked Sexton a most revealing question. How did it feel, she wanted to know, to be a female Poet Laureate? With The Colossus a failure in England and America, Plath posed the question out of at least some unacknowledged jealousy. Next, Sylvia told Sexton about Nicholas and Frieda, about tending bees and planting potatoes, and about trudging into the BBC to record broadcasts. However, she did not so much as allude to Ted, or her marriage.” Within a week, Plath would write her mother that she intended to pursue a legal separation from Hughes.
Alexander also summarizes the first letter Plath wrote to Sexton, on February 5, 1961. Plath wrote the letter, he says, in response to a card Sexton sent Plath. Plath professes admiration for To Bedlam and Part Way Back, announces she has given birth to a daughter, says her own poems have been wellreceived in England, and boasts of hobnobbing (on Hughes’s arm, we can imagine) with London’s literati: Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, W. H. Auden, Thorn Gunn, and just a few days before, American Theodore Roethke.
So these are Plain’s “happy, gossip-letters.” And where are Sexton’s? Did they even survive? We can infer that Sexton sent Plath a card in 1961 (and she certainly wouldn’t have made a carbon copy of a post card or, God forbid, a Hallmark) and, a year and a half later, a letter? a note? another card? to accompany the galleys of All My Pretty Ones. Sexton’s communications couldn’t have been any less perfunctory than Plath’s. They were friends, but poet friends, each ambitious and self-absorbed, one of them, at least for the moment, more successful than the other. Sexton was able to have a nurturing and intimate relationship with Maxine Kumin, who lived nearby and was a lesser poet, therefore non-threatening; Sexton was always the star. Similarly Plath, when she knew her, posed no threat. Sexton admitted in “The Bar Fly Ought to Sing” that she didn’t notice in Plath her determination to succeed, to be a “great writer.” “I was too determined to bet on myself,” Sexton recalled, “to actually notice where [Plath] was headed in her work.” After her breakup with Hughes, Plath would begin to develop close friendships with other women, including the poet Ruth Fainlight. I suppose one could say that Plath and Sexton knew each other as well as they could know each other, given the time, given the circumstances, given their personalities. In 1967, Sexton would write to Ted Hughes, the person who knew Plath better than anyone, that, regarding research being done on Plath, she “had little to add. That poem [“Sylvia’s Death”] of mine makes everyone think I knew her well, when I only knew her death well.”
Regardless how well the poets actually knew each other, one thing is certain: they both had had breakdowns and had courted death (“our boy,” Sexton says possessively in “Sylvia’s Death”), and this shared experience drew them to one another, an attraction-moths to the bulb-impossible to resist. Another thing is certain: Plath knew and liked Sexton’s poetry. I think it’s important to point out that Plath read All My Pretty Ones just weeks before beginning to write her Ariel poems. Plath wrote no poems between August 13,1962 (a week before she wrote her “thank-you note” to Sexton) and the end of September, when she, in essence, kicked Hughes out of Court Green. Alone, she desperately threw herself into her work. On September 30 she wrote “A Birthday Present,” the first of her amazing month-long outpouring-twenty-six poems, many of them her most famous, in almost as many days. Of Plath’s poems, Sexton declared she didn’t “need to sniff them for distant relatives of some sort.” I, on the other hand, seem to have that need, or perhaps knowing Sexton and Plath’s work as well as I do, cannot help but notice resonances. Here are a few:
… the brown mole
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
[on] my right cheek: a spot of danger
where a bewitched worm ate its way through
in search of beauty.
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
although I am very sad,
could you please
let these four nuns
loosen from their leather boots
and their wooden chairs
to rise out
over this greasy deck,
out over this iron rail,
nodding their pink heads to one side
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My dark girls sing for this.
They are going up.
See them rise
on black wings, drinking
the sky, without smiles
They call back to us
from the gauzy edge of paradise,
good news, good news.
I think I am going up,
I think I may rise-
The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean.
Not you, nor him
Not him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)
The snow has quietness in it
The snow has no voice.
All harmless, probably unconscious echoes. A more overt example is the way Plath appropriated rhythms, rhymes, and phrases from an obscure Sexton poem, “My Friend, My Friend,” for one of her most notorious Ariel poems, “Daddy.” “My Friend, My Friend” was first published in The Antioch Review’ in the summer of 1959, and remained uncollected until 2000, when Diane Middlebrook included it in Sexton’s Selected Poems (it was not included in Sexton’s Complete Poems in 1981). The poem, Middlebrook contends, “was almost certainly critiqued in [Lowell’s] class.” Further detective work might verify that this is true. At any rate, Plath knew it, and knew it well. In 1987, Heather Cam published a brief essay in American Literature called “‘Daddy’: Sylvia Plath’s Debt to Anne Sexton.” In it she compares the two poems and delineates their similarities. The first stanza of each poem will give you the general idea:
Who will forgive me for the things I do?
With no special legend or God to refer to,
With my calm white pedigree, my yankee kin,
I think it would be better to be a Jew.
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Cam shows how Plath twice alters Sexton’s “1 think it would be better to be a Jew” line: 1) “I think I may well be a Jew” and 2) “I may be a bit of a Jew”; how Plath borrows the end-rhymes “do,” “you,” and “Jew,” but adds inventive rhymes of her own: “shoe,” “Achoo,” “blue,” “du,” “true,” “through,” “who,” and “glue”; and calls special attention to Plath’s “gobbledygoo” vs. Sexton’s “bugaboo.” One similarity Cam fails to “sniff” is the reference to white skin in the opening stanza of each poem: Sexton’s “calm white pedigree” (repeated later in the poem as “my calm white skin”) and Plath’s metaphor of herself as a “poor and white” foot.
That Plath pilfered so heavily from one of Sexton’s poems, albeit a minor one. is a bit of a revelation. Sexton believed Plath hid her “real” influences. But Plath always wore her influences on her sleeve. Throughout her work, one can detect traces of her idols (Auden, Dylan Thomas, Roethke) as well as her friends and contemporaries (Sexton, Lowell, W. S. Merwin). And of course, quite prominently, Ted Hughes. In 1961, when Knopf was considering the British edition of The Colossus for publication in America, editor Judith Jones asked that Plath cut poems that struck her as “deliberately stolen from Roethke”, so much so that she “would almost fear the charge of plagiarism.” Plath obliged, deleting most of the derivative “Poem for a Birthday” sequence. In “The Bar Fly Ought to Sing,” Sexton “remember[s] writing to Sylvia in England after The Colossus came out and saying something like: ‘if you’re not careful, Sylvia, you will out-Roethke Roethke,’ and she replied that I had guessed accurately and that he had been a strong influence on her work.” (Again, one wonders why these letters have not found their way into print.) In her poem “Sylvia’s Death,” Sexton refers to Plath as a “funny duchess”-a nod, for sure, to “Duchess of Nothing,” a line from one of the excised Roethke-influenced pieces in “Poem for a Birthday.”
On October 30,1962, just a few days after writing “Nick and the Candlestick” and “Purdah” and putting the finishing touches on “Lady Lazarus,” Plath recorded fifteen of the twenty-six poems she’d written that month for the BBC in London. Afterwards, Peter Orr conducted an interview. When asked if there were any themes that attracted her as a poet, Plath had this to say:
. . . I’ve been very excited by what I feel is the new breakthrough that came with, say, Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, this intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which I feel has been partly taboo. Robert Lowell’s poems about his experiences in a mental hospital, for example, interest me very much. These peculiar, private, and taboo subjects, I feel, have been explored in recent American poetry. I think particularly of the poetess Anne Sexton, who writes also about her experiences as a mother, as a mother who’s had a nervous breakdown, as an extremely emotional and feeling young woman, and her poems are wonderfully craftsman-like poems and yet they have a kind of emotional and psychological depth which I think is something perhaps quite new, quite exciting.
It was Plath who was now high on her own achievement (she knew that she’d done it, written poems that would “make [her] name”), and she could afford to set jealousy aside and be generous, acknowledge the impact Lowell and Sexton had had on her. They’d given her permission to explore, in her work, “peculiar, private, and taboo subjects.” With the exception of “Lady Lazarus” (“The second time I meant / To last it out and not come back at all”) and “Daddy” (“At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you”), the Arid poems do not deal, directly, with Plath’s experiences in a mental hospital, or with nervous breakdown per se. She had already covered that ground in The Bell Jar, which she’d written the previous year. Plus Lowell and Sexton had been there before her-he in Life Studies, she in her Bedlam poems. Instead, Plath locates us, dead center, in the extreme emotions and feelings of a young woman who, if not in the throws of a nervous breakdown, is experiencing intense psychological distress. Note: she may not have had much choice in this. The recently restored edition of Ariel, which honors Plath’s original selection, dramatizes the source of that distress: outraged by Hughes’s “desertion … and doubleness,” she angrily liberates herself from the relationships that have restrained her-husband, dead father, mother-reinventing herself literarily, in poem after poem, as a man-eating phoenix, as a transcendent whore/Madonna, as an avenging (“More terrible than she ever was”) queen bee. Plath’s Ariel sequence is not a dead end; on the contrary, the story they tell leads, ultimately, to emancipation and hope. Nonetheless, poems such as “Tulips,” “Cut,” “Poppies in October,” and “The Moon and the Yew Tree” are vivid simulations of a mind that’s “not right,” to quote Robert Lowell. And poems like “Ariel” and “Lady Lazarus,” which triumphantly proclaim Plath’s death wish, owe much to Sexton. In her first two books, Sexton often confesses her desire to die, most purely in “The Starry Night”:
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:
into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
Plath’s poem “Ariel” is, in a sense, a response to Sexton’s “The Starry Night.” Both are celebrations of the suicidal impulse, that impulse the poets excitedly shared over martinis at the Ritz. Whereas Sexton describes Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting and projects her death wish onto the scene, Plath is an active participant in the action: riding her horse at sunrise, she imagines dissolving, physically, and “flics / Suicidal at one with the drive / Into the red // Eye, the cauldron of morning.” Sexton’s moon rebukes, “push[es] children, like a god, from its eye”; Plath’s rider (“God’s lioness”) sails like an arrow straight into the sun’s red eye. You can feel (and surprisingly relate to) the immediacy of Plath’s dissolution-her letting go, her own astonishment, and then her glee; Sexton’s death, though wished for, is kept from her-it’s a desire locked in the painting. And because “Ariel” takes place at daybreak, Plath’s suicidal vanishing act seems like a beginning, a renewal, compared to the negation of Sexton’s silent “split.” Plath’s tone is proud and empowered, the effect heroic. She clearly surpasses Sexton here: utilizes her own (rather than someone else’s) imagery; fully realizes the emotional experience for herself and the reader, risks and accomplishes more.
In her BBC interview, Plath mentions Sexton’s poems about motherhood. She could only have known two: “The Double Image” (the heartfelt sequence addressed to Sexton’s daughter Joy, which had been workshopped in Lowell’s class and published in To Bedlam and Part Way Back) and “The Fortress” (a tender poem about taking a nap with her daughter Linda, which Plath would have read first in The New Yorker, then in All My Pretty Ones). It’s easy to imagine how these might have inspired Plath to write such poems as “Magi” (a feminist statement about her newborn daughter, which Plath intended to be included in Ariel, but which Hughes cut), “Parliament Hill Fields” (a poem about her miscarriage-which occurred, incidentally, on February 6, 1961, the day after Plath wrote Sexton praising To Bedlam and Part Way Back; she wrote the poem just five days after she miscarried), and “Morning Song” (addressed to her daughter and written a week after “Parliament Hill Fields”; it would be the opening poem in Ariel). Once Plath and Hughes’s marriage dissolved, motherhoodor finding herself a single mother-became one of Plath’s great themes. She wrote “For a Fatherless Son” before Hughes officially moved out of Court Green. Then, in the midst of the Ariel poems, she wrote “By Candlelight,” “Nick and the Candlestick,” and “The Night Dances”-also addressed to her nine-month-old son. Both Plath (in “Nick and the Candlestick”) and Sexton (in “The Fortress”) express concern for the safety of their children, given the dangers that exist in the outside world. “Darling,” says Sexton, “life is not in my hands; / life with its terrible changes / will take you”; take her, Sexton then envisions, via bomb or cancer. “Love, love,” says Plath, “I have hung our cave with roses, / With soft rugs- / The last of Victoriana.” She knows delicate antiquities will not “ward off the world’s ills”; still she implores, “Let the stars / Plummet to their dark address, / Let the mercuric / Atoms that cripple drip / Into the terrible well”. Sexton’s poem captures a calm, loving moment: mother and daughter napping under a pink quilt, trees and birds in the window. Plath wakes in the dark and by candlelight tends to her son; instead of a sweet nursery scene, we’re taken underground, into a cave where ” Black bat airs / Wrap [her], raggy shawls, / Cold homicides”, where a fish mobile becomes “A vice of knives, / A piranha / Religion, drinking // Its first communion out of my live toes”, where “The pain / You wake to is not yours.” Different poets, different situations.
The first two poems in All My Pretty Ones (“The Truth the Dead Know” and the title poem) are both elegies to Sexton’s father. Her father is also characterized, in “The House,” as a lecherous alcoholic. One can almost miss (I did for many years) the importance of this moment in Sexton. Her father’s face is “bloated and pink / with black market scotch”; “His mouth is as wide as his kiss.” The climax of the poem, a suicidal declaration (“Father, father, I wish I were dead.”), is directly related to “the bender that she kissed last night.” Diane Middlebrook is uncertain whether such incestuous depictions were true-were they based on Sexton’s memories or her fantasies? True or not, a similar kiss is described at the end of the last poem in Transformations, “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty).” The whole book, which turns Grimm fairy talcs on their head, leads to this final dark admission:
It’s not the prince at all,
but my father
drunkenly bent over my bed,
circling the abyss like a shark,
my father thick upon me
like some sleeping jellyfish.
Later, in The Book of Folly, Sexton is more graphic. While dancing with her father at her cousin’s wedding, her father has an erection: “The serpent, that mocker, woke up and pressed against me”. When they kiss, his tongue “like a red worm . .. crawled right in.” But Sexton never expresses anger at her father; rather, she seems resigned to “swallowing] down his whiskey breath” and concludes her ” Death of the Fathers” sequence with a kind of metaphorical affection: “Father / we are two birds on fire.” Of course Plath did not read Transformations or The Book of Folly. But she did read “The House” and she did read the elegy “All My Pretty Ones,” in which Sexton claims that she forgives her father, though she doesn’t tell us what she forgives him for. She calls him “my drunkard” and refers to his “alcoholic tendency.” The poem ends, oddly enough, with Sexton bending down her “strange face” to kiss the image of her father. In interview she admitted “it’s … a kind of sexual thing there.” She also said that she hadn’t actually forgiven her father, she’d only written that she had.
Anger is, in a way, the ingredient that is missing from Sexton’s early poems; she would learn, from Ariel, how to more openly channel such emotion into her work. And anger is, in a way, the thing that is unique to Plath, her contribution to the poetic dialogue she was engaged in, the way she extends, adds to what Lowell and Sexton had confessed before her. For Plath, forgiveness is not an issue-she’s righting back with the only weapon she has, she wants to wound. Father, mother, husband, husband’s lover, husband’s uncle, prim maiden aunt, eavesdropping neighbor-Plath fires furious poems at them all. It is an exhilarating spate of poems, one that, from Plain’s point of view, seems justified. Naturally Hughes received the brunt of her fury-at least half of the poems in her version of Ariel are directly or indirectly aimed at him. Though now in book form, it is impossible to read Plath’s Ariel the way she intended it to be read, impossible to experience it as it would have been experienced then, in the sixties and seventies, as an incipient feminist text. In this way, I think her version will always remain lost to us. I like to believe that, had she lived and published Ariel, Plath would have been as influential a figure as Adrienne Rich, only wittier, and less stringent. When Plath edited a selection of American poetry for Critical Quarterly in 1961, she included Sexton, Starbuck, Merwin, Rich, and Snodgrass, but also included Barbara Guest, Denise Lcvertov, and Robert Creeley. In her introduction she says that she wanted to include Gregory Corso as well, but couldn’t obtain permission. This shows how open she was to different kinds of writing-to poets associated with the Beat movement, with the New York and Black Mountain schools. Based on this, I also like to believe that she would have been receptive to and inspired by much of the poetry that emerged in the decades after her death.
Sexton’s work opened doors for Plath; after her suicide, Plath’s work did the same for Sexton-up to a point. Plath died when Sexton was well intoabout halfway-her third book, Live or Die. Hie poems in Live or Die are dated and arranged chronologically, so we see, thanks to the poem “Sylvia’s Death,” exactly where that death falls. Live or Die is the first book in what I would call Sexton’s middle period-where she begins to let go of the forma! strategies that dominated her first two books, and to write looser, longer poems. A number of poems prior to “Sylvia’s Death” retain the rhyme schemes and visual order (tidy, identical stanzas) that Sexton was fond of, but a number of themlike “Flee on Your Donkey,” “Those Times , . .”, and “To Lose the Earth”-are composed in this freer, more expansive style. After “Sylvia’s Death,” Sexton abandons rhyme (with one exception) and writes the rest of the poems in Live or Die in her new mode. These poems span the next three years -from February 1963 to February 1966. In this period, dashes and exclamation marks (abundant in Plath’s Ariel poems) abound in Sexton as well. Skimming through the second half of Live or Die, you can see these punctuation marks increase; it’s as if we can witness Sexton becoming more and more familiar with Plath’s last poems, and responding to them in her own. Many of Plath’s poems appeared in magazines in the years following her death (“Fever 103°,” “Purdah,” and “Eavesdropper,” for instance, were published in the August 1963 issue of Poetry magazine); Sexton would have read them as they came out, and there would have been discussion of them in Sexton’s poetry circle. “Cripples and Other Stories,” the one rhymed poem in the second half of Live or Die, written in October 1965, is sing-songy, self-mocking, and deliberately lewd-a far cry from Sexton’s previous impeccability when using form. (In fact Sexton will never, from this point forward, be able to return to rhyme schemes with her earlier seriousness.) She lets us know, at the beginning of “Cripples and Other Stories,” that she’s using “silly rhymes”; this enables the reader to get into the spirit of the piece.
God damn it, father-doctor.
I’m really thirty-six.
I see dead rats in the toilet.
I’m one of the lunatics.
Disgusted, mother put me
on the potty. She was good at this.
My father was fat on scotch.
It leaked from every orifice.
Towards the end of the poem, Sexton gives us the following stanza:
My cheeks blossomed with maggots.
I picked at them like pearls.
I covered them with pancake.
I wound my hair in curls.
An obvious rip-off of “Lady Lazarus”: “They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.” But because she’s making fun of herself (and her fixation with Plath), Sexton gets away with it. “Live,” the final poem in Live or Die, ends with one of Sexton’s first Nazi references, and points toward a tendency Sexton will later abuse:
… in spite of cruelty
and the stuffed railroad cars for the ovens,
I am not what I expected. Not an Eichmann.
The poison just didn’t take.
Here Sexton is mimicking the Nazi imagery that Plath employed, and which so shocked (and surely continues to shock) first readers of Arid. The representation of Plath’s father, in “Daddy,” as a “Panzerman,” and of Hughes as a “man in black with a Meinkampf look,” and of Plath as a concentration camp victim in that poem as well as in “Lady Lazarus,” are a few of the most famous examples.
What Sexton most admired about the Ariel poems, she tells us in “The Bar Fly Ought to Sing,” is Plath’s “openness to metaphor, the way [she] . . . jumpfsj straight into [her] own image and then believjes] it.” In Live or Die and in her next two books, Love Poems and Transformations (which round out her middle period). Sexton practiced, and benefited from, this technique. She’s able to throw herself right into a poem, into an image, often to thrilling effect, although more theatrically than Plath. Sexton, at this stage in her public life, is becoming an exhibitionist; she’s too exaggerated and flamboyant, too aware of an audience she thinks sees her as “the living Plath”-a comment she once made to John Malcolm Brinnin. Although envious of Plath’s tremendous posthumous success (Sexton narcissistically felt Plath had robbed her of her suicide), Sexton’s own fame grew because of her association with Plath. Tulips and blood (Plathian images) suddenly make their way into Sexton’s poems. “Life rushed to my fingers like a blood clot,” she writes in “The Touch.”Then in “The Kiss”: “My mouth blooms like a cut.” One thinks, naturally, of Plath’s poem “Cut,” of her lines “A mouth just bloodied. / Little bloody skirts!”, of her “Black sweet blood mouthfuls”. In “The Breast” Sexton even “ris[es] out of the ashes” à la Lady Lazarus. Ariel is peppered with tripled words and phrases: “wars, wars, wars”, “my fear, my fear, my fear”, “that kill, that kill, that kill.” Sexton (remember that Plath called her a “copy-cat” in her journal) adopts similar repetitions; “his job, his job”, “my head, my head”, “the child in me is dying, dying”, “an offering, an offering”-these just in the first few Love Poems. She not only steals from Plath, she starts to steal from herself. “No one’s alone,” she says in “Eighteen Days Without You,” cannibalizing one of her best-known poems, “The Truth the Dead Know.”
Then there is the Nazi trope. Nazi images appear here and there in Love Poems: “Oh my Nazi, / with your S.S. sky-blue eye”, for example (too close for comfort to Plath’s “Aryan eye, bright blue”) or “you dragged me off by your Nazi hook”. At first a Sexton-oholic like myself could forgive her such thefts, and such lapses in taste; she was, after all, Anne Sexton, and she did have a special, first-hand connection to Plath. But this Nazi business soon gets out of hand; in Sexton’s later books, the trope appears with increasing frequency. There’s “Herr Doktor!” (spelled with a “k” as in Plath), “that Nazi mama with her beer and sauerkraut”, the Nazi in “After Auschwitz” who sautes a baby for breakfast in a frying pan. These are just a few random examples. It becomes embarrassing, to say the least, a kind of Cabaret burlesque that, along with other flaws in her deteriorating craft, serves to undermine her entire art. Most dismal of all is the posthumously published 45 Mercy Street, which Sexton had yet to finish at the time of her death. I read it with great interest when it was published in 1976; in retrospect, however, I wish it had been suppressed. The section of divorce poems is littered with dreadful Nazi-isms. Sexton, separated from her husband, seems to be play-acting at being Plath: “Mr. Firecracker, / Mr. Panzer-man”; “a gas chamber for the infectious Jew in me”; “I see the killer in him / and he turns on an oven, / an oven, an oven, an oven / and on a pie plate he sticks / in my Yellow Star”. I could go on, but it seems pointless, and given my love of Sexton’s work, too painful. This is, undeniably, the downside of influence. Sexton’s desire to out-Plath Plath undid her in the end. In an attempt to produce her own Ariel “at white heat,” Sexton wrote The Awful Rowing Toward God-thirty-nine poems-in a mere fifteen days. It is the last book in her third period (which also includes The Book of Folly and The Death Notebooks), characterized by her ribald tone and her slowly unraveling style. Sexton’s efforts in this period are not without merit; as Jeffery Conway says, there are still some Lucky Charms there. But who can write a book of poetry in two weeks? The day she corrected the galleys of The Awful Rowing Toward God, Sexton committed suicide.
When I saw the 2003 movie Sylvia, I was disappointed that the filmmakers failed to include a scene of Plath, Sexton, and Starbuck drinking martinis at the Ritz bar. So vividly, thanks to Sexton’s “The Bar Fly Ought to Sing,” has that scene lived in my imagination. I thought Gwyneth Paltrow made a fairly decent Plath, though the script was awful and Daniel Craig, who played Ted Hughes, was physically too small for the role. (Sexton once jokingly called Hughes “Ted Huge.”) But who could have played Sexton? For a while I thought Mercedes Ruehl could do her justice-but maybe it was just her big brunette hair. Sexton said she and her Ritz cohorts always wished the waiters would mistake them for celebrities, “some strange Hollywood types.” Plath and Sexton did indeed become celebrities-in the poetry world and beyond. Due, in large part, I believe, to the mystique of their brief, intense friendship.
This lecture was delivered at the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College on June 18, 2005.
DAVID TRINIDAD’S most recent book, Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse, written in collaboration with Jeffery Conway and Lynn Crosbie and based on the film All About Eve, was published by Turtle Point Press in 2003. His other books include Plasticville (Turtle Point, 2000), Answer Song (High Risk Books/Serpent’s Tail, 1994), and Hand Over Heart: Poems 1981-1988 (Amethyst Press, 1991). With Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, he edited Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry (forthcoming from Soft Skull Press). Trinidad teaches poetry at Columbia College Chicago, where he co-edits the journal Court Green, His next book of poetry, The Late Show, is forthcoming from Turtle Point Press in 2007.
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