Below, Anne Sexton writes to poet Anthony Hecht. Both friends were Pulitzer Prize winners for poetry, and each had battled bouts of mania and depression. In the letter, Sexton attempts to resolve a recent conflict between them, and seeks Hecht’s help editing some of her new work. Though the letter has several instances of romantic sentiment, Sexton was married to Alfred Muller Sexton at the time and would be for a decade more. (Sexton was alleged to have conducted many affairs, and many have speculated that domestic abuse by Alfred contributed to their notoriously unhappy marriage.) Though Sexton appears to write to convince Hecht that she had not been flirting with him, many of his letters to Sexton—written after his divorce and while at Gracie Square psychiatric hospital—are exceedingly flirtatious. Sexton references two of her poems, included in an anthology of “modern” American and British poets—a selection with which she does not agree.
40 Clearwater Road
Friday September 15th 1961
I think that I’m cross with you. I have just finished reading your letter, just now—and I have things to say back. I’d do it better in person, but this will have to do…when you say that I am giving vent to a wild, romantic fantasy of a rather suspect kind … etc. and that I tell you (too often) that “Tony, I feel so comfortable with you”…Well, damn it, I’m going to defend myself because there really isn’t anything wrong with a wild romantic fantasy and it is the warmest blurting forth to tell you that I am comfortable AND that you attract me (all at once). What I meant very simply is that I love you … but I’m not in love with you … that it isn’t necessary to be IN love with you. To be your friend, a good close friend, is not complicated by neurotic demands. This is unusual. Maybe you don’t know it, damn it…but there aren’t many around like you (not any). For one thing you are kind, rather unusually so…not kind like people are kind to Oscar [Williams] because he is pitiful (that’s easy) but kind to a Joe Bennett when he hires a queer car and hopes we will laugh.
Besides it’s all just a fact, what I said and I’m not sure what it meant except that it isn’t as bad as you make out and, Tony, it may have been silly and childish to say…perhaps it was and I don’t dislike you for coming back with your feelings on the subject but I am very cross with you for not allowing me some room for a very female emotion that wasn’t meant to bother you or tempt you or do anything but make you smile your nice smile. I wasn’t talking about “fucking” (I’m really too New England to use that word with ease) and I don’t suppose I was talking about who you really love. In fact, I wasn’t trying to intrude. You make me feel as if I had intruded. You make me feel sad, I guess. Is everything a question of the one love or on the other hand “fucking”? Or being “pals”?
Jesus, what is anything? What I meant, if I meant anything real at all…I meant that I have loved, really loved a few people and with the exception I guess of Kayo (he is too complicated to go into) it always seemed to be tragic or something equally neurotic. When I am with you I feel happy. I guess that sentence says the whole thing and says what I meant in the first place. It isn’t only that you make no demands on me as a woman but that you don’t feel you have to and yet I still feel like a woman. This in itself is a complement to your masculinity, I would think. […]
It is late and I’m drinking my pills in a glass of milk. John Malcom Brinnin Inc, are putting 2 of my poems in that book. You were right…“Her Kind” and “Letter on Long Island Ferry.” I don’t think L.I. Ferry is really a good poem of mine…too sentimental. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I ought to allow my female heart more room…it seems to be the way I’m writing lately…my new poem too…but I’m going to harden up soon I promise myself…stop all the emoting around and get down to facts and objects. Can I send you my new poem? You OWE me some good crit…though this poem may not inspire it.
I’ll type out the poem for you before I fall asleep here in my brown study. You know, Tony, even if I’m cross that I love you and bless you and wish you well. You make me happy but that doesn’t mean I own any of you. None of that is fantasy.
From Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Boston: Mariner Books, 2004. pp. 126-127
Read Anne Sexton’s elegy for Sylvia Plath, published shortly after Plath’s suicide in 1963.
Read The Kenyon Review’s study of the “double dactyl,” a form of verse invented by Anthony Hecht in the 1950’s.
Read John Simon’s 1991 essay on Sexton’s suicide fascination, at The New Criterion.