Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Awful Rowing Toward Anne Sexton by Lawrence Kessenich

Lawrence Kessenich is one of the managing editors of the literary magazine Ibbetson Street. He is also a former editor at Houghton Mifflin and worked with Diana Hume George and Diane Wood Middlebrook on the Selected Poems of Anne Sexton as well as a subsequent biography. He was generous enough to send this essay about his experiences to the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene.

The Awful Rowing Toward Anne Sexton
by Lawrence Kessenich

From the first time I read one of her poems, I was in love with Anne Sexton. She was the poet I wanted to be. Her work was original, profound, self-deprecating, spiritual—and had a sense of humor to boot:

God loafs around heaven
without a shape
but He would like to smoke his cigar
or bite his fingernails…

He does not envy the soul much.
He is all soul
but he would like to house it in a body
and come down
and give it a bath
now and then.

. She played with words:

even its murders lined up like broken chairs


the skull with its brain like eels


they suck the childhood out of the berries

I was entranced by Sexton’s skill, her brutal honesty, her humor. And when it came time to consider graduate schools in creative writing, I dreamed of forsaking Milwaukee for cosmopolitan Boston, of sitting at her feet in a Boston University lounge to learn how she worked her magic.

I was on the verge of applying to graduate schools—including BU—one fall day when I went shopping at the local market. There I ran into a fellow student from one of my poetry classes, a few semesters before. She asked how I was going about choosing the creative writing programs I would apply to. I told her that I’d been advised to seek out programs where poets I respected were teaching. She asked who those poets were, and I told her. When I mentioned Anne Sexton, she interrupted, saying, “Oh, it’s too bad about her…”

At that point in my life, I wasn’t paying much attention to the news, so I had no idea what she was talking about. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Didn’t you hear?” she said. “Sexton committed suicide a couple weeks ago.”

I was stunned. The thought of that vital life having snuffed itself out was profoundly disturbing. Yes, there was darkness in her poetry, but the humor that often accompanied it had led me to believe that she had a firm grip on life, despite its contradictions. I was deeply saddened by the fact that not only would I never study with her, but I would never even see her read her poetry in person. The kicker was that I later learned Sexton had committed suicide on my birthday, October 4th.

Flash forward almost two decades. I am an editor at Houghton Mifflin—Anne Sexton’s publisher, as I am always proud to tell people. For years, I’ve read for Houghton Mifflin’s annual New Poetry Series—including Carolyn Forche’s first book—and my interest in poetry is known around the office. The editor-in-chief, Austin Olney, approaches me and asks if I’d like to work with two scholars, Diana Hume George and Diane Wood Middlebrook, who are putting together Selected Poems of Anne Sexton. Austin is a pretty reserved old Yankee, but I’m tempted to throw my arms around him and give him a hug.

I did not get to help select the Sexton poems that would go into the book—and, of course, having my own strong feelings about her poetry, I thought there were poems that should have been included and poems that could have been left out. But it was one of the great honors of my life to be the editor who guided the book through the publishing process at Houghton Mifflin—a book that is still in print, 24 years later.

Houghton Mifflin had also contracted with Middlebrook to write a biography of Sexton, and when the editor originally assigned to that book left, I was asked to take it over. For several years, I was Middlebrook’s sounding board at Houghton Mifflin, and I will never forget one call from her. After we exchanged pleasantries, she got to the reason for her call. “You’ll never guess what I have in a box under my desk,” she said. I told her I couldn’t imagine. “Tapes of Anne Sexton’s sessions with her therapist.” My reply was, “Well, you just guaranteed that the book will be controversial!” And indeed it was, though by the time it was published, I was no longer in the business.

I also met Sexton’s daughter Linda during my involvement with these two books, and got comfortable enough with her to tell her the story of my wanting to study with her mother—and of the coincidence of Sexton’s suicide occurring on my birthday. “Well, I’ve got an even more dramatic coincidence,” she replied. “My son was born on the anniversary of the day she died.”

So, despite my sadness over never getting to meet or study with Anne Sexton, I feel privileged to have played a small part in keeping her legacy alive. I believe she is one of our finest poets. Her work speaks to me as powerfully and eloquently today as it did more than three decades ago.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful tribute! Sexton's beauty and honesty shines through the years.