Home from Antioch, Sexton wrote to Dr. Orne [her psychiatrist], who was away for the sumer, about what she had learned by living for a whole week among writers. The experience had confirmed an insight from therapy: even very personal poetry came from the power of words to radiate meanings beyond the poet’s conscious intention.If I write RATS and discover that rats reads STAR backwards, and amazingly STAR is wonderful and good because I found it in rats, then is star untrue? . . . Of course I KNOW that words are just a counting game, I know this until the words start to arrange themselves and write something bettter than I would ever know. . . . I don’t really believe the poem, but the name is surely mine so I must belong to the poem. So I must be real. . . . When you say “words mean nothing” then it means that the real me is nothing. All I am is the trick of words writing themselves.
Sexton’s tone of humble self-assessment in this letter masks a deep insight into the workings of society: that “poet” is an identity extrapolated from a published poem. The poem’s “I” is real because it has become visible in the medium of print and circulated among those who are positioned to recognize it. The better the journal in which the poem appears, the more secure the identify deflected onto its maker. Like other forms of currency, the first-person pronoun has a value established in a cultural marketplace. That value accrues to the poem’s author as a side effect of the recognition of her or his work.
18 June 2005
what makes a poet
Diane Wood Middlebrook’s biography of Anne Sexton describes the poet’s return from her first poetry workshop (1958):