Sexton let it slip because Aunt Bea asked around…


Anne Sexton in 1970. Photograph by Elsa Dorfman

From Poetry Daily:

As I grow engrossed in the writing, I feel the benevolent spirits of my aunts hovering close by. They were avid readers, as is my mother, their younger sister. My grandmother (the same one who crocheted the afghan) was mystified by this love of literature; when one of her daughters brought home some new title, she would say, ‘”Another book? Don’t you already have one?”

Many of my aunts’ books found their way into my personal collection while they were alive. Even more came to me after their deaths. If I am uncertain about the provenance of a particular volume on my shelf, it is a safe bet that it belonged to one of the aunts. Some of my books simply could not have come from anywhere else.

They gave me Grace Paley’s two story collections for my birthday when I was fourteen, telling me proudly that they had been friends with her way back when she was a very young wife and mother, living the events that would later be transmogrified in her stories. The original City Lights edition of Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl, thin and small enough to slip into a pocket, came from my Aunt Bea. It embodied her excitement about whatever was new, hip, and rebellious in any given era, even long after most people her age had put away childish things. She gave me the memoirs of Pablo Neruda (he was a communist like her), and I raced through it during my first weeks of college, throwing off the oppression of assigned reading.

Aunt Esther was the custodian of hard-to-find translations of Yiddish writers and of books on race; it was from her that I inherited a novel in two volumes called The Yeshiva, set in the Polish village where my grandfather grew up, and it was from her that I borrowed Manchild in the Promised Land when I was a teenager. When she died well over a decade later, I had not yet returned it.

Aunt Bea wrote for newspapers. Near the end of her life, she brought out her boxes of clippings to show me, and when she died, I became their keeper. She did an interview with Julia Child for the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times, which began, “For anyone who loves fine food, an invitation from Julia Child to drop by for lunch sometime is like Vladimir Horowitz inviting a classical music lover to drop by some afternoon while he runs through a few Beethoven sonatas.”

She profiled poet Anne Sexton, who confessed that the sole reason that she did not leave her husband, a successful businessman, was that in a good year, her poetry and plays brought in no more than $2,000. That did not go into the article. Sexton let it slip (along with other secrets that my aunt refused to tell me) because Aunt Bea asked around, found out the poet’s favorite brand of vodka (apparently everyone had one in those days), and brought a bottle to the interview. Aunt Bea did a piece on Janis Joplin too. As far as I know, there was no heroin involved.