Why Don’t We Write Letters Anymore? Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters

I consider the extinction of letter writing one of the great downfalls of technological advancement. I love reading journals and collections of letters. I recently picked up a very nice hard cover edition of Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters for less than $5 at a used bookstore. Anne Sexton wrote and published poetry in the 1960s. A suburban housewife and mother, she began writing poetry as a form of therapy. Anne, along with other poets such as Sylvia Plath, is often referred to as a confessional poet. This kind of poetry deals with intimate, and sometimes painful, details of the poets life such as mental illness, marriage, divorce, and sexuality.
Born on November 9, 1928, Anne was actually my grandmother’s age. Sadly, after a life long battle with mental illness she committed suicide in 1974, shortly before her 46th birthday. Her letters paint an interesting picture of the roller coaster ride she lived on. Through her written voice, the reader can tell when Anne is feeling “normal”, manic, disjointed, needy, depressed, and medicated. I have always felt that there is a thin line between genius and insanity. So, the fact that so many famous writers seemed to have suffered from mental illness, most commonly bi-polar disorder, absolutely fascinates me. Anne’s case is no exception.
She corresponded with many different individuals over the years including other writers and, even, a monk. It seems that many of these exchanges started out with an intensity on both sides, but inevitably the “friendship” would slowly dissolve as Anne became too needy. She expected these individuals to be her therapist, poetic sounding board, and lover all via a letter exchange.
Her letters were often witty, passionate, and raw. Anne was a horrific speller, used unconventional punctuation and typed most of her letters. In a letter to Tillie Olson, another writer, she says: I wish my letters could look like a poem…your writing is so tiny and perfect that it looks as if a fairy with a pink pen and rubies in her hair had sat down to write to me. And I…I must look like a rather stout man who sits by a very respectable black typewriter.”
Some of my other favorite excerpts:
“I wish I were nineteen. Not that it’s better or worse to be me at 36 but it gives you so much more time to grow. Inside I’m only thirteen and outside I have wrinkles and a family and many who depend on me.”
 “how does one go to sleep without pills? how does one live with the knowledge that death, their special death, is waiting silently in their body to overtake them at some undetermined time? how can this be done if there is no God? how does one not get struck by lightning when everyone knows it could and just might strike YOU? or tornadoes that suck you right up into a cloud?
Sleep without pills? impossible. take pills! death? have fantasies of killing myself and thus being the powerful one. God? spend half time wooing Catholics who will pray for you in case it’s true. Spend other half knowing there certainly is no God. Spend fantasy time thinking that there is life after death, because surely my parents, for instance, are not dead, they are, good God!, just buried. Lightning? wear sneakers, stay off phone. Tornado? retire to cellar to look at washing machine and interesting junk in cellar.”
* Oddly enough, Anne’s advice on lightning was exactly that of my Grandmother’s … which cracked me up!!
A Self Portrait Rendered by Anne
“Your traveling Button will now walk somehow down the stairs and out of her tears.”

“Lonliness is a terrible thing and to be alone with people can be pretty horrible.”

On suicide: “There are those that are killed and the few that kill and then the other kind, those that do both at once.” At one point in a letter to Anne Clark, a friend who was also a therapist, she is again writing about the concept of suicide and then suddenly says: “Sandy and Les are coming over for a drink. I shall now go out to new kitchen and prepare shrimp and cocktail sauce.” What a contrast.

In a letter to her daughter Joy she says: “You went to the library yourself. Gee whiz I am happy … now you will be free in a way you have never been free. I mean now you can go to the library and find a friend anytime … long ago, when I was your age, I loved most to go to the library alone. To me it is one of the most important steps in growing up. JUST as special, I think, as getting breasts and all that kind of thing.”
“I hoard books. They are people who do not leave.”


 “Letters are false really-they are [sometimes] expressions of the way you wish you were instead of the way you are…(poems might come under the same category).”

“Oh, I really believe in God – it’s Christ that boggles the mind.”

“But you got only praise. But I know, praise can be heavy too. Yes. I understand.”

The collection was edited by Anne’s daughter, Linda, and Anne’s friend, Lois Ames. Between letters some biographical information is provided to allow for better comprehension of the letters, but I am still left wanting to know more details. I plan to read her biography and then after that I plan to examine her poems. I think it important to have an understanding of Anne the person before delving into her poetry since her style is so autobiographical in nature.

2 thoughts on “Why Don’t We Write Letters Anymore? Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters

  1. Wow Carey, this is overwhelming! i had never heard of her or the confessional poets but they seem very interesting. I have always been fascinated by this kind of psychological insight of the represed ones in society. I cannot help but to think if she had been happier had she not had children/married. It also strikes me how most women find their only ways out in suicide, as if running away was not an option.

    Have you read “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin? I think it might be the narrative counterpart of Anne's works… and life.

    Really, I feel as if a lightening had struck me… she is only one among the many women who suffered this kind of, sadly, common situation.

    Thank you a lot.

  2. Sylvia Plath is probably the most well known of the confessional poets (who also wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar). She has a sort of “cult” following in America. Anne knew Sylvia from a writing workshop they both attended. Sylvia also committed suicide, prior to Anne's death. I plan to take an in depth look at Sylvia during this project as well.
    I did read The Awakening for a college class. I should probably revist it as I look into Anne and Sylvia's work…

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