Anne Sexton, who died forty-two years ago today, did her best to respond to the legions of fans who wrote to her. The letter below, from August 1965, finds her dispensing unvarnished advice to an aspiring poet from Amherst. Read more of her correspondence in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters.
Your letter was very interesting, hard to define, making it hard on me somehow to set limits for you, advise or help in any real way. First of all let me tell you that I find your poems fascinating, terribly uneven … precious perhaps, flashes of brilliance … but the terrible lack of control, a bad use of rhyme and faults that I feel sure you will learn not to make in time. I am not a prophet but I think you will make it if you learn to revise, if you take your time, if you work your guts out on one poem for four months instead of just letting the miracle (as you must feel it) flow from the pen and then just leave it with the excuse that you are undisciplined.
Hell! I’m undisciplined too, in everything but my work … Everyone in the world seems to be writing poems … but only a few climb into the sky. What you sent shows you COULD climb there if you pounded it into your head that you must work and rework these uncut diamonds of yours.
If this is impossible for you my guess is that you will never really make it …
As for madness … hell! Most poets are mad. It doesn’t qualify us for anything. Madness is a waste of time. It creates nothing. Even though I’m often crazy, and I am and I know it, still I fight it because I know how sterile, how futile, how bleak … nothing grows from it and you, meanwhile, only grow into it like a snail.
Stop writing letters to the top poets in America. It is a terrible presumption on your part. I never in my life would have the gall (sp?) to write Randall Jarrell out of the blue that way and all my life I have wanted to do so. It’s out of line … it isn’t done. I mean they get dozens of fan letters a day that they have no time to respond to and I’m sure dozens of poems. Meanwhile, these poets (fans of whatever) should be contacting other young poets on their way—not those who have made it, who sit on a star and then have plenty of problems, usually no money, usually the fear their own writing is going down the sink hole … make contact with others such as you. They are just as lonely, just as ready, and will help you far more than the distant Big Name Poet … I’m not being rejecting, Jon, I’m being realistic.