An Accident of Hope: The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton by Dawn M. Skorczewski, 242 pp. Routledge.
Dawn Skorczewski, an Associate Professor of English and Director of University Writing at Brandeis University, has a special interest in the relationship between psychoanalysis and pedagogy and did her doctoral dissertation at Rutgers on the work of Anne Sexton. She asserts that her motivation for this book was to answer questions about how the content of Sexton’s therapeutic conversations with her analyst, Dr. Martin Orne, affected not only her personal development but her poetry. She sought those answers by listening, as did Sexton’s biographer, Diane Middlebrook, to tapes available at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. Although three years of such tapes exist, this book “listens in” only on those made during the final months of therapy. That this will seem voyeuristic to some readers, the author acknowledges in her introduction. I tried to withhold my judgment about that until finishing the book.
For someone of Anne Sexton’s generation, who has been reading her since she first burst upon the poetry scene, who remembers her glamorous appearance onstage at the 92nd Street Y, who was inspired by her to be more open and courageous in my own work and who even remembers exactly where I was on learning of Sexton’s tragic death (ironically, in the parking garage of my apartment building, just about to turn off the radio after driving home from a poetry workshop) this book seems not so much revelatory as redundant.
Is this what it all leads to? I wondered then. If we probe this deeply, open this much, will it kill us? The Sylvia Plath story was vivid then also, as was the romanticizing of poets’ suicides. “On the contrary;” a wise (and psychoanalytically trained) friend said, “it’s our poetry that keeps us alive.”
So where are we with this book? Other than re-igniting the controversy about the ethics of releasing the tapes in the first place, what has Dawn Skorczewski accomplished here, and what does she do for poets and poetry readers? In my view, the book is valuable as social history and gender study for those who neither lived through Sexton’s era nor were victimized by it. At one point the author, whom I had already concluded must be very young, said she felt, on listening to the tapes, as if she were living through an episode of “Mad Men.” Exactly. Her voice has a “gee-whiz” quality when she calls our attention to male attitudes in Sexton’s day and to housewives’ lives. I was a bit surprised to learn that she first “discovered the work of Anne Sexton as a graduate student in the 1990’s. How could that be? Sexton was already a part of literary history; her poems were widely anthologized.
Certainly some additional good is accomplished by adding to the evidence that psychoanalysis can be extremely helpful in releasing blocked creativity. Sexton was numbed when her mother, a would-be poet herself, accused her of plagiarism. She could have been further shut off when her first poetry mentor, the traditionalist and unconsciously misogynistic John Holmes, urged her not to write about her personal experiences. She could have listened to the male critics – and at least one female one – who found her taboo-violating subject matter tasteless. “Menstruation at Forty,” in particular, seemed to arouse their ire. But she didn’t let it happen. That was the most courageous thing about her. She believed in her own work, she knew what she wanted to write about and worked hard to perfect her craft. Acknowledgment and fame followed. Did psychoanalysis produce that? It had something to do with it, but the gift was Anne Sexton’s.
Skorczewski’s book recalls all this for us. But the insights are not new. Does it make a reader want to re-read Sexton? Not this reader. Drawing the connections the author finds between the poet’s private life and her poems doesn’t enhance the poems for me. Now that I know, unnecessarily, what kind of lingerie Sexton bought and how, when and with whom she had sex I want to wash the tabloid ink from my hands. It does indeed feel voyeuristic and should make some analysands worry further about their privacy than they already do.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that the book is well-written, in a fluid, non-pedantic style, if a bit heavy on theory for someone who is, essentially, a lay-person and not a psychoanalyst. It should be noted also that Skorczewski was the recipient in 2009 of the CORST essay prize in Psychoanalyst and Culture from the American Psychoanalytic Association and the 2007 recipient of the Gondor Award for Contributions to Psychoanalytic Education.
Readers seriously interested in Anne Sexton’s poetry can hardly do better than The Complete Poems, with an excellent foreword, “How It Was,” by Maxine Kumin. Another superb book, which approaches Sexton’s poems from both a feminist and psychoanalytic perspective, is Oedipus Anne by Diana Hume George.
Note to readers: Poetry Monday will be on vacation during July and August and will return on September 2nd.Explore posts in the same categories: Poetry