Wednesday, May 21, 2008
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Wellesley and Weston’s Hometown Poets

Three writers: two Pulitzer-Prize winners, one of whom wrote one of the most famous novels of the last 50 years; and a third whose love song to America is perhaps the most beloved. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Katharine Lee Bates. International legends, they all called Wellesley and/or Weston home.

When you think about it, it’s extraordinary that three of the most iconic women writers of the 20th century were from our two small towns. And they didn’t just pass through. All three grew up and went to public school here, lived here most of their lives, always referred to Wellesley or Weston as “my hometown,” and two died here.

What an astonishing legacy this has been for children growing up in our towns. As a Wellesley native, I am deeply grateful for these many rich opportunities that this town offers. High among them is the thrill of, from childhood, feeling close to these writers; thinking of them as neighbors, being awash in stories of their past, living near the homes and places that inspired them, even meeting them or knowing people to whom they were close.

This two-part series will share some of the unique glimpses we who grew up here are privileged to have into the very real people behind the legends.

“The blood jet is poetry,/
There is no stopping it”

For decades, students across the country have come to know Sylvia Plath through second-hand lectures, textbooks, or even the movie of her life starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

But here in town, we learned about her in Room 206 at Wellesley High, the same classroom where my teacher and mentor, the also-legendary Wilbury Crockett, had been her teacher and mentor a generation before. So I knew her not as a distant, one-dimensional mythic figure; not just as the tormented poet of Ariel, or the suicidal 20-year-old narrator of the novel The Bell Jar, or the discarded wife who killed herself at 30.

No, I knew her as the teen who once brought the whole class to Mr. Crockett’s house and woke him up at dawn to prove her point about the words she had used to describe the sunrise. I knew her not as the fictionalized Bell Jar narrator, but as the broken, empty girl whom Mr. Crockett used to visit at McLean Hospital, bringing Scrabble pieces to try to get her to spell words when she couldn’t even read. I knew her not as the scathingly fierce poet of those blazing last months, but as the “most brilliant student Wellesley High had ever known,” who worked diligently piling Mr. Crockett’s desk with hundreds of poems and stories, some of which brought her national awards when she was still in her teens.

Mr. Crockett introduced me to Sylvia’s mother, saying he felt we would have a special bond. And we did. Aurelia Plath became a dear friend and confidante from that first meeting until the day she died, more than 20 years later. Sitting in her worn living room at 26 Elmwood Road, the same one where “Sivvy” grew up, holding Sylvia’s own glorious and enormous cat Sappho on my lap and looking at Sylvia’s artwork still on the walls, I would have tea and Austrian sweets with Aurelia, and she would share the cherished triumphs and the deepest heartaches of her daughter’s life and death.

And since Sylvia had lived only three streets away from me, I knew others who had been her friends, too. There was Mrs. McGowan, who lived next door, who watched her nestled in the branches of the apple tree in her front yard, writing, always writing. And Duane Aldrich, who lived across the street, who tried to be a father to her the 1953 summer of her paralyzing depression following a stint as Guest Editor at Mademoiselle Magazine. He led hundreds of Boy Scouts and neighbors in the frantic search for her when she disappeared during her subsequent suicide attempt (a days-long search featured on the front page of The Boston Globe which ended with her brother finding her burrowed into a crawlspace under their sunporch, having swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills).

Sylvia’s Wellesley friends Perry Norton, Phil McCurdy, and Gordon Lameyer remembered her walking across Weston Road to Perrin School, sitting cross-legged in a booth at Howard Johnson’s (on Central Street, where Alta Strada is today), lying on the beach at Morses Pond (her favorite spot every summer day), playing tennis at the Hunnewell Courts, and biking to the Fells Branch Library (“my second home”) or Hathaway House Bookshop (today’s Stuart Swan in the square). They also remembered her “almost frightening” talent, her mercurial brilliance, and the dichotomy between the bright “golden girl” and her haunted secret self.

When Sylvia left Wellesley, she crossed into the world where critics and fans would eventually re-invent her as a “suicide goddess,” or a feminist martyr. People across the world now know her story, how after graduating from Smith College (with more honors and prestigious publications than any student in the school’s history) she won a Fulbright Grant to study at the University of Cambridge in England. There began one of the most famous and doomed romances in literary history, when she married Ted Hughes, who later became England’s poet laureate (portrayed in the movie Sylvia by Daniel Craig, the current James Bond).

Seven intense years later, years filled with writing and passion and the very beginnings of success for both, the marriage was over, leaving Sylvia in London with two small children and one of the most astonishing bursts of creativity chronicled in literary history. In a few rage-filled months, she left behind the poems that would make her name, create her image, craft her legacy. Bitterly volatile, anguishingly personal, fueled by the darkest terrors of her past and present, poems like “Daddy” (“If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—/The vampire who said he was you/And drank my blood for a year,/Seven years, if you want to know”) and “Lady Lazarus” (“Out of the depths I rise with my red hair/And I eat men/Like air”) blazed onto the page in a frenzy. Published after her 1963 death in a collection called Ariel, they were her suicide note.

Aurelia told me that at first she was told Sylvia had died of pneumonia, and only learned later that her daughter had tucked her children in bed, left them milk and bread, sealed the cracks of their door with towels, then laid her head on the open door of her oven and turned on the gas.

Back home in Wellesley, Aurelia arranged for a memorial service at the Unitarian Church, which she and Sylvia had attended, and asked Sylvia’s friend and fellow poet Anne Sexton to organize the readings.

The people who had known and loved her in Wellesley were left with the emptiness, and the questions. The high school started a Sylvia Plath Creative Writing Award, and its recipients have included Nina Shope, who has published her own book to critical acclaim and says, “I remember thinking how amazing it was that Plath went to Wellesley High School and lived in town. I’m still very proud to have an award named in her honor.”

But soon, Sylvia no longer belonged just to Wellesley. More posthumous writings emerged, each publication elevating her reputation until her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize 19 years after her death. The Bell Jar, which had been published under a pseudonym to practically non-existent critical reaction a week before she died, soared to best-selling status on both sides of the Atlantic once it was revealed to be autobiographical. Never out of print since the first edition 45 years ago, it has become a classic of adolescent angst, rediscovered by each generation of students, taught in universities in countless countries, through countless translations.

But Sylvia the Myth (which developed based on the way her life, death, and writings intersected) eclipsed Sylvia Plath. So Aurelia brought out her own best-seller, a collection of Sylvia’s “Letters Home,” to try to remind readers of the touching reality of this brilliant young woman.

What is left, finally, is the genius of her poetry. A critic noted, “hers is one of the voices by which future generations will seek to know us.”

The tribute which meant the most to Aurelia came from A. Alvarez, one of the most respected British poetry critics, in an essay published less than a week after Sylvia’s death. Scarcely anyone knew her name then, but Alvarez had seen and been bewitched by the Ariel poems, and he grieved their creator. In this essay, he told the world that her writing “represents a totally new breakthrough in modern verse, and establishes her, I think, as the most gifted woman poet of our time.

“The loss to literature is inestimable.”

“Live or die,but don’t
poison everything”

I was sitting at my desk in my Wellesley College dorm when the phone rang. I was exhilarated because I was transcribing the interview I’d just had with poet Anne Sexton—she was a kind of goddess to English majors, and I had been thrilled when she granted my shy request to meet.

It was my mother calling, to tell me that Anne had just killed herself.

I turned off the tape recorder, but could still hear her voice echoing in the room. I searched through my notes for clues. Yes, at one point she had said, “I’m not dead. Not yet,” but after spending the afternoon with her I had come away dazzled by the sensation that she was not just filled with life, but larger than life.

We’d met in the cluttered, dark, wood-panelled study of her longtime home at 14 Black Oak Road in Weston, just off her sunny kitchen with incongruously cheerful gingerbread men on the curtains. She ionized the room. In my memory everything else was black and white (ironically, especially her Dalmatians), whereas she exploded through in drenched technicolor.

Her voice was three notches louder and three notches deeper than average, hoarse and whisky-edged. Her gestures suited a stage, not a cramped room. She was never still, moving with the natural yet calculated sensuality of the model she had been, continually entwining her legs while her equally graceful yet silent dogs mirrored her. At 45, her Jane Russell face never looked the same from one moment to the next, emotions flowing and changing in such vivid succession that I always felt a step behind.

In her large hands, with her long, unpolished, ink-splattered fingers, she held a succession of cigarettes, smoking in the same concentrated way she talked, inhaling so deeply that her cheeks hollowed, holding in the smoke as if desperate to drain every molecule, exhaling in a noisy cloud that obscured her face.

But, of course, it was her words that riveted, their intensity that exhausted. One of the most famous poets in the country, she had received almost every award possible, from the Pulitzer Prize to Ford and Guggenheim and American Academy of Arts and Letters Fellowships. She, along with Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, had created and embodied the “confessional” school of poetry, writing fiercely and uncompromisingly about their mental illnesses, hospitalizations, and suicide attempts. And she spoke as she wrote, with words that were harsh, stark, and unflinching.

“I am not depressed,” she said suddenly, in regard to nothing we had been discussing. “I am in despair.” Those are the words that summed up the tone of our talk. “Life, for me, is despair.”

She spoke of her Wellesley childhood, her current Weston life. “My poetry shocks my neighbors,” she said. “It’s raw and cruel. They say it’s not me. But it’s the true me.”

She talked of the girl she’d been growing up in Wellesley (at 81 Garden Road, just a short walk to the Brown School and the Wellesley Hills Congregational Church where she went to Sunday School), who belonged more to a world of fairy tales and fears than playgrounds. (A third generation Wellesley child, her grandfather had been president of the Wellesley National Bank.) Looking back at her years in Wellesley, and then in Weston after her parents moved the family to 82 Oxbow Road, she dismissed her teenage self as a “pimply, boy-crazy thing” who was obsessed with flirting and received a “C” in her 10th grade American Literature class (with an “F” for effort).

Eloping at 19, she worked for a while as a clerk at Hathaway House Bookshop (now Stuart Swan Furniture in Wellesley Square), but it wasn’t until she’d had two children, a suicide attempt, and a lengthy hospitalization, that she “found [her] essence” when she began to write poetry at 27.

Anne and Sylvia Plath overlapped as children in Wellesley, but never knew each other until they met in 1959 as adults auditing Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar at Boston University. It was a legendary, combustible combination. “We were suicide-sisters, draining each other of every detail of our attempts,” Anne said of the intense bond they formed. “We lusted after it.”

Four short years later, years filled with publications and honors for each of them as they suddenly exploded into the international literary world, Sylvia killed herself. As soon as she heard the news, Anne wrote a furious poem fueled by grief and envy called “Sylvia’s Death:” “Thief —how did you crawl into,/crawl down alone/into the death I wanted so badly and for so long.”

“My time will come,” Anne said to me. “Sylvia had the suicide inside her. So do I.”

Yet she also talked of things that seemingly tethered her to life: her daughters, near my age, off at school; her many poetry readings, some set to the music of her own jazz group; the beauty of the swamp maples that encircled her home; her puckish delight at the enormous boulder that seemed to rise up out of the earth in the front yard, “a totem, protecting me;” an honorary degree which would have impressed her father; her recently published volume The Death Notebooks; and new poems which would be published posthumously as The Awful Rowing Toward God.

When we parted, she gave me a signed copy of an unpublished poem she had just finished called “The Sickness Unto Death”, and graciously, warmly asked to see copies of my writings.

And then, a blink of an eye later, on that brilliant fall day, October 4, 1974, in her running car in her closed garage, Anne followed Sylvia into “the sweet death we both yearned for.”

 

 

© 2008 Elm Bank Media