On May 19 at the Wilderness House Literary Retreat in Littleton, Mass. poet, writer, journalist, educator Bob Clawson talked with a group of literature lovers about his friendship with the acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, the late Anne Sexton. Clawson showered his audience with his fascinating anecdotes and experiences with Sexton, who wrote “To Bedlam and Part Way Back,” among other critically acclaimed poetry collections.
Clawson explained that he was teaching English at Weston High School in Weston, Mass. in 1963. He had students read the works of contemporary poets to stoke the interest of his young charges. While reading Sexton’s poem “Menstruation at 40” in the faculty room, the gym teacher asked Clawson if he was a fan of Sexton. When he answered in the affirmative; the teacher said he was a friend of the poet and he would introduce him to her.
It seems that Sexton lived in Weston, and she eventually invited Clawson for a visit. Clawson described Sexton as being not what he expected for a lady poet of the time. She was certainly not dowdy and was adorned in a shocking pink dress. Eventually Sexton read at Weston High School and was a great hit. They needed a large auditorium to handle the crowd the second time around.
Sexton campaigned to be Poet-In-Residence at Weston High, but it seems the headmaster felt she shamelessly flirted with him and told Clawson, “We can’t have this here!’
Clawson was reluctant to talk of Sexton’s mental illness that eventually lead to her suicide. Clawson recalled: “She wasn’t really diagnosed. She told me she heard voices.. Her husband, a wool merchant, was said to have beaten her, which couldn’t help matters.” According to Clawson, Sexton would sometimes call him around midnight and want him come to her house stating “I’m desperate.”
For such an accomplished poet it is surprising that she never finished college. Clawson said she eloped during junior college and never went back. She was self-educated and widely read. Clawson said he was always under the impression he was speaking with a highly intelligent and knowledgeable person.
Sexton had eclectic tastes, and could not be placed in one particular school of poetry. She respected Allen Ginsberg, and was not a snob about who she admired. And although she had no formal higher education, she was welcomed with open arms by the academy according to Clawson.
Later, Clawson, Sexton, and a couple of musicians put together a “chamber rock” group to put Sexton’s poems to music. The group's name: “Anne Sexton and Her kind.” Her poems were adapted to the demands of musical composition. Sexton read while the musicians complimented her with accomplished guitar and bass accompaniment.”
The group had many gigs from the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., Jordan Hall in Boston, to venues throughout the country.
Sexton found the concerts extremely draining, and could only do a limited amount. But from the musical tapes that Clawson brought in, it was evident that she was an accomplished performer with a beautiful and haunting voice, not to mention breathtaking poetry.
For more information about the Wilderness House Literary Retreat go to: http://wildernesshouse.org/