Literary Legacies: Workshopping with Anne Sexton

by Robbie Gamble | August 2016

Photo credit: Rollie McKenna

Photo credit: Rollie McKenna

If you scan through a random yearbook from a New England high school in the late 1970s, public or private, there’s a fair chance that it will include an epigraph by Anne Sexton under the wistfully smiling cameo of one the graduating senior boys. This boy will not have been a jock, nor a hard-charging Debate Club type, but rather one of those quiet kids who sat in the back of the class scribbling in a journal. The girls who read poetry in those days were drawn to Sylvia Plath, feeling empowered by her icy, justified rage. But boys with literary aspirations saw Anne as the really, really cool outrageous Mom they would never have.

I was one of those boys, and my yearbook epigraph was from Live or Die: “I say Live, Live because of the sun,/ the dream, the excitable gift.” It was hopeful and poetic, I thought, but also sophisticated in its irony, as Anne had committed suicide during my freshman year. I was fascinated that someone so full of bright creative energy was also able to explore the darkest parts of her psyche. She articulated emotions my fumbling adolescent brain could barely touch.

Anne was friends with my aunt and uncle, and they took me to one of her last public readings in March 1974 at Sanders Theater in Cambridge. Hundreds of fans packed the burnished, oak-paneled space up through both balconies, curious to discern any new vulnerabilities following her most recent release from McLean Hospital. She strode onstage in a bold Marimekko print sheath, wavered under the cascade of welcoming applause, and found her voice as she launched into familiar pieces. Early on she read “Fury of Cocks” (“There they are/ drooping over the breakfast plates,/ angel-like,/ folding in their sad wing…./ Whereas last night/ the cock knew its way home,/ as stiff as a hammer…”), and my fourteen-year-old head nearly exploded, You can say stuff like that in public? Building momentum, she ran through her poems like an arena rock star cranking through a playlist of greatest hits.

Near the end of the reading, she debuted a piece from the book she was working on, The Awful Rowing Toward God, called “The Rowing Endeth.” In it, Anne moors her rowboat at an island called God, and sits down to play poker with him, God and island being one and the same. As I recall, some confusion arose over how the cards were dealt in the poem, and a man stood up in the audience to explain to Anne that it’s not possible to have simultaneous hands of four aces and a royal straight flush, because that would require five aces. She graciously demurred, saying that she really didn’t know much about cards, and that she would look at revising the section. It was a memorable moment of public workshopping.

Looking now at the published version of the poem, it seems she reworked the ending to introduce the concept of the wild card (“I win because I hold a royal straight flush./ He wins because He holds five [!] aces,/ a wild card has been announced/ but I had not heard it/ being in such a state of awe…”). Then Anne and God both burst into laughter, leading to the glorious final stanza:

Dearest Dealer,
I with my royal straight flush,
love you so for your wild card
that untamable, gut-driven ha-ha
and lucky love.

I can’t recall how she concluded the earlier draft of the poem when she read it that night, but it did not resound with this stunning affirmation of the joyous wild card randomness that life can sometimes deliver. For an artist who struggled so constantly with her shadow self, she was also able to fiercely embrace the sun, her dreams, those excitable gifts.

Seven months later she ended her life under a cloud of carbon monoxide in her garage. I was stunned and saddened that her demons finally won out in her life and death struggle. But I like to think back on the night of that reading, where I witnessed an artist at the height of her powers debuting a piece in front of a standing-room-only crowd, then graciously taking feedback that led her to find a wild card key, transforming a draft poem into an iconic work. As a budding poet subjecting my precious drafts to the give-and-take of the workshop world, her thoughtful public example of receptiveness to change inspires me to open up and trust the process.  

Robbie Gamble is working on an MFA in Poetry at Lesley University. He is a nurse practitioner with the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and has led writing workshops with some of his homeless patients. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife, two stepdaughters and three energetic dogs.