Essay

Anne Sexton's Scrapbook

A look inside the young poet's life 16 years before she won the Pulitzer Prize.

by Jessica Helfand

Anne Sexton's Scrapbook.
Images reprinted with the permission of Sll/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Copyright by Anne Sexton.


It is August, 1948 and a young woman in a small New England town is preparing to leave home. She is nineteen years old and she is hopelessly, desperately in love. Tonight, she is ready, and after weeks of clandestine planning, she is going to elope.

And everything is about to change.

Dreamily, she packs her suitcase, stowing her clothing, her makeshift trousseau, and her few personal belongings. She places her papers in an envelope, tucking a hatpin and a hairbrush into the smallest of purses. Clicking the suitcase shut, she checks her wristwatch, turning, at long last, to leave. But as she reaches the door, she stops short.

Hurrying to the desk in the corner of her bedroom, she pulls the drawer open with an impatient, forceful tug. And there it is, nestled between the handkerchiefs and the stationery with their soon-to-be-obsolete monograms: a long, lean box, still tightly wrapped in its shiny cellophane skin, which she quickly tears away.

She lifts off the lid to reveal a book—but this is no ordinary book. It is completely empty, page after page of blank, white space. There is nothing there, yet somehow it calls out to her, in that moment, with unspeakable promise.

It is a scrapbook. And it is hers.

In the days and months that follow, she will begin to save things, filling her scrapbook with the countless items that mark her passage into married life: the motel room key from her wedding night; the apology card that follows her first marital quarrel; even a set of miniature firecrackers from an Independence Day fete. She’ll add silhouetted cutouts—a drawing of a Campbell’s soup can, a photo of Rita Hayworth—and paste in laundry lists, gin rummy tallies and swizzle sticks, a program from an Ice Follies performance and ticket stubs from a Red Sox game. The book will grow thicker and thicker until a year from now, still riding the wave of newlywed bliss, the young bride will look at her masterpiece and grant it the title to which it can only then lay claim: Yes, We’ve Been Married Just a Year and This is Our Story.

Our story: crafted from the material remnants of a couple’s first year together. Our story: told through the countless pieces of ephemera that collectively frame a life. Our story: recorded through the eyes and ears and heart of a young bride who, between the recipes and the telegrams, begins ever so tentatively to write poetry—giddy rhyming couplets about love and enchantment, and later, about sadness and despair. To look at her scrapbook now, long after it has been retired from active duty, is to observe at once a deep uncertainty—of herself, of her identity—and a kind of remarkable clarity, an emerging vision pieced together quite literally from scraps of paper, shards of a life.

And through it all, because of it all, she writes. At turns funny and flirtatious, coy and cryptic, a young woman’s poetry begins to find form, and with it comes a poet’s voice: irrepressible and daring, a firestorm of pathos.

It would be another sixteen years before she would win the Pulitzer Prize, another quarter of a century before she would tragically take her own life. But that one perfect year, Anne Sexton had a story to tell. It was a happy story.

And she recorded it in her scrapbook.


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Jessica Helfand, excerpt from Scrapbooks: An American History, Copyright © 2008. Used by permission of Jessica Helfand and Yale University Press.
Originally Published: December 3, 2008

COMMENTS (4)

On November 27, 2008 at 11:40am Roger E. Miller wrote:
We who are about to die have little respect for people such as Plath, Hemingway, Sexton, add nausea. Those of us who have had to struggle only to realize our mediocrity, have just as much right to suicide as the romanticized elite. One only has to read our works to realize this.

What then is the point of my scribble? It is simply this--Writing is an expression and not a competition. We know when our writing is good; because it lifts us. It may be smudgy with pencil dust. It may be ardently pummeled with a tenth grade education. It may make a young girl's heart flutter, or help a college professor realize how superior he/she really is. We know our place, it is where people like you put us. Your place is with the Pulitzers, Nobels, and Top Sellers of the world.

As for us, we circulate our works among family member and friends. We glow when we get warm approval.

We store our treasures in damp basements and old suitcases. We seldom read your stuff at all.

On December 12, 2008 at 12:54pm Theresa Small Smith wrote:
I miss the days when poets would be free to openly express their emotions, opinions, creativity without the backlash of those that envy...when outdoors and indoors were open for the voices of poetic song...I have been block out of my life and my creativity is being absorbed by those that impose upon mental privacy...creativity...I am a long way from home, NYC, always a resting place, a visit, searching for an outlet for my voice and a way back to freedom, privacy...I miss Anne Sexton and the rest, the creative arena was like family, who profitted together...now we struggle again. Theresa Small Smith, NYC, Chelsea area. TSS.

On February 4, 2009 at 4:04pm Sabine Quisenberry wrote:
In Response to Anne Sexton's Scrapbook:

when felt and made real, words activate the human gene, in their urging, we see lives, lost and regained in ancient smoke signals, beckoning us to open the closed scrapbooks in our lives, or find them, or lose them,

and it will be ok, that is what they tell us....

On September 23, 2012 at 6:28am Mara wrote:
It is all about collage and selecting and rejecting. And it is funny how seeing this bit on her first year of marriage scrapbook showed me how sexton's work is a collage of images and moments and voices. She is a collagist that happily moves beyond the 'scrap book', which would have been so ho hum. what makes Anne Sexton poems great, when they are great, is how she weaves some kind of invisable thread that drives the poem to its conclusion.
I don't care what critics say (was good but lost it, self indulgent etc..) I know Anne Sexton is the real thing.
(And if she were a man.. her poetry would not be.)

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