Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Poets in the Asylum: at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival Panel discussion report by David P. Miller

( Left to Right)  Bob Clawson, Kathleen Spivack, and Doug Holder


Poets in the Asylum: at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival

Panel discussion report by David P. Miller

McLean Hospital, the famous psychiatric hospital located in Belmont, Mass., has been the temporary habitation of many creative people. Among the best-known are the poets Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, with Anne Sexton as a short-term visitor. Doug Holder, poet, professor at Endicott College, and co-founder of Somerville’s Bagel Bards, has led poetry groups at McLean on both closed and open wards since 1982. At the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem, on May 3, 2014, Holder facilitated Poets in the Asylum, a panel discussion with poets Kathleen Spivack and Bob Clawson.

Kathleen Spivack, author of With Robert Lowell and His Circle (Northeastern University Press, 2012), arrived in Boston in 1959, having received a fellowship to study with Robert Lowell. Although Lowell was not, in fact, expecting her, she became his student and lived with the Lowells for a time, getting to know Sexton, Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Elizabeth Bishop, among many others. She noted that McLean Hospital was the “private playground” for Boston Brahmins. It was a kind of elite merit badge to have had a nervous breakdown and be sent to McLean, to the extent that those who weren’t admitted to McLean wanted to be.

Spivack emphasized that Lowell, Plath, and Sexton managed to write in spite of their illnesses, tortured-poet clichés to the contrary. Lowell’s hospitalizations were of no help to him. He dreaded his manic episodes, finding them “boring and a waste of his time,” according to Spivack. She observed that his mental illness, far from feeding his creativity, “cost him everything” in his personal life. His manic episodes were sometimes heralded for his poetry students by his unexplained absence from class, or with onsets in the middle of class periods. At those times, Plath and Sexton would look at each other, knowing what was about to happen. Spivack would “withdraw from the scene” during Lowell’s breakdowns, as she could not bear to witness them, though she did visit Lowell in the hospital.

Kathleen Spivack shared many insights on the subject of how mental illness was treated during that era, with particular focus on the poor treatment that Plath and Sexton received. Lowell was given Lithium, a new drug at that time. Although it helped him for a period, the drug was a “blunt hammer” that eventually “eroded his heart.” One other problem with Lithium is that people tended to stop taking the drug when they felt better, which of course set the cycle in motion again, as happened to Lowell. With the exception of Sexton’s first psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orne, she and Plath were handed to doctors so inexperienced that they were sometimes their first patients. The doctors had no idea of how best to help them and/or demonstrated appalling behavior, including sexual exploitation. (One doctor replied to Sexton’s reporting of marital abuse by advising her to wear nice lipstick and put on an attractive nightie.) Spivack observed that Sexton’s “voices” were her unexpressed rage. Plath, too, expressed pain and rage in her journals. Such expression was considered revolutionary in women’s writing at the time, and was not praised (as Lowell’s Life Studies also was not). Spivack noted that even today, when she teaches the poetry of these women to French and North African students, they are strongly impressed by their anger.

Concluding, Kathleen Spivack said that Sexton and Plath continue to serve as role models for her. The ongoing heartbreak of their deaths is that, for all their significant accomplishments, we will never have the chance to read their work in its maturity. In comparison with Lowell’s longer career, for the two women, “we saw their beginnings [and] we saw their adolescence” as poets.

Bob Clawson, friend and confidante to Anne Sexton for ten years, was also the manager of her band, Anne Sexton and Her Kind. He met Sexton while teaching high school. Several of his students chose her work to study. He was not familiar with her work, and as a result he arranged for her to meet them (and him). Clawson noted that her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, is not about experiences in McLean Hospital, but about other hospitals where she stayed: Westwood Lodge, and Glenside Hospital in Jamaica Plain. She apparently would have preferred McLean, but had only a single five-day stay there for an examination. She was teaching during this short period, which apparently gave rise to the legend that she continued teaching while hospitalized.

Clawson read three of Sexton’s poems: “You, Doctor Martin” (for Dr. Orne), “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further,” and “Music Swims Back to Me,” relating them to her struggles with mental illness and self-expression. Martin Orne encouraged her writing: she brought many poems to him. By contrast, John Holmes, her first poetry teacher, strongly disapproved of her working with personal trauma as a subject – something very much out of bounds in the poetry world then, pioneers like Lowell notwithstanding. This advice was useless to Sexton, of course. Clawson also discussed the origin of her band. She and Clawson were teaching high school in Wayland. After she read some of her poems, a football player student set some to music. This provided the impetus to form Anne Sexton and Her Kind. The band performed for three years around the country, but did not tour, as one performance a month was all Sexton could manage.

An engaged audience discussion followed the presentations. Most of the conversation focused on aspects of the poets’ work or the circumstances of their deaths. Both Spivack and Clawson emphasized, though, that the latter is not a favorite subject for them, and is given far too much emphasis generally. It is not the deaths of these poets that live - it is the work that lives, and remains compelling for readers and poets around the world. In the end, madness, breakdowns, and hospitalizations are obstacles, not romances - and suicides remain tragedies.

 *******************   David P. Miller’s poems have appeared in print in Meat for Tea, Stone Soup Presents and Durable Goods, and online in the Muddy River Poetry Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and the Boston and Beyond Poetry Blog. His chapbook, The Afterimages, is forthcoming from Červená Barva Press.  His has three “micro-chapbooks” available from the Origami Poems Project website. David was a member of the multidisciplinary Mobius Artists Group of Boston for 25 years, and is a librarian at Curry College in Milton, Mass. He has often been seen in the company of one or more of the Bagel Bards.

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