"Two sweet ladies": Sexton and Plath's friendship and mutual influence

I SHOULD SAY AT THE OUTSET 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!' Off we'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 Waldorf 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 Self-Portrait 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 Weary'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 will 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 I 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: "Lowell'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'] 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." 


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