Anne Sexton: A Biography

Holy cow but am I behind on reading for the year.  At the rate I’m going, I’m going to have to do double time this month in order to reach 75 books by December 31st.  But the year is still young and I’m not going to freak out about it just yet, even though I only read two books in February.  One of those books was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – one that was I was long overdue to read and now that I’ve read it, I can finally watch the movies.  I felt about that book much like I feel about the whole Harry Potter series – it was “okay.”  I felt like the whole thing was really quite an anticlimax but I will be eager to see some of the visuals from the book translated to the movie screen (or, in my case, the TV screen.)  It took me a while to read it just because it was so freaking long.  Let me tell you – J.K. Rowling needed an editor like nobody’s business.  That story could have been told in half the number of pages, but why bother editing her when the publisher knows that whatever she puts out there will sell like hotcakes?

The other book I read wasn’t as long – only 405 pages – but it was a dense 405 pages.  It was the biography of the mid-20th century American poet Anne Sexton.  I don’t know what possessed me to read Anne Sexton’s biography.  It’s certainly not the feel-good story of the year.  Sexton spent most of her life battling crippling mental illness, a life that ultimately resulted in her suicide in 1973 at the age of 45.  In the meantime, she wrote poetry to stay alive.  She practically pioneered the genre of confessional poetry – a style that focuses primarily on morbid thoughts of suicide and depression.  Anne Sexton: A Biography is considered the gold standard of Sexton biographies, primarily because it had full support of Sexton’s daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, who serves as the executor of her mother’s literary estate.  The book also caused a bit of a stir when it was published because when the author, Diane Wood Middlebrook, was writing the book, she was allowed access to tapes of Sexton’s therapy sessions with Dr. Martin Orne, Sexton’s primary psychologist and the one who urged her to pursue writing poetry rather than committing suicide.

To say that Sexton’s life was tragic is a dramatic understatement.  Despite the fact that she did not lack for money and married well early in life, she was not able to reconcile her inner demons with the contented 1950s housewife that she was supposed to be.  Her first hospitalization form “hysteria” (an antiquated name for what is likely bipolar disorder) was in 1954.  She wrote her first poem in 1957 and embarked on what would become an illustrious career as a celebrated poet.  Her poems were dark and addressed difficult, often very personal themes in Sexton’s life.  Even the titles of her poems were provocative – “Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn”, “In Celebration of My Uterus”, “Menstruation at Forty” and “When Man Enters Woman”, just to name a few.  She was criticized for being too revealing in her poetry by mainstream poets, only to find herself becoming the mainstream, eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1966.

Sexton was very much a performer, and in her too-short life, she seemed to live life to the hilt, despite (or perhaps because of) her battles with mental illness.  She was a highly sexual woman, carrying on many affairs with men (and at least one with another woman) during the time that she was married to her husband.  The book tells tales of late-night phone calls to friends during which Sexton was clearly in a manic phase.  The performance became standard fare at her readings, which frequently opened with the poem “Her Kind.”

I think it is Sexton’s haunting performance of the poem that finally made me understand it.  One night, about a week before I finished the biography, I spent an hour watching videos of Anne Sexton reading her poetry, as well as an interview (or rather, what appears to be outtakes of an interview) that really helped flesh out Anne Sexton as both a woman and an artist in my mind.  This footage is fascinating to me and it features a performance of “Menstruation at Forty” and her comments on her reading of poetry (which her husband says makes her sound like a minister.)  I’m so glad that this footage exists, it’s a time capsule of something that could have easily been lost to time.

Was this an interesting read?  Yes.  Was it an easy read?  Not really.  As I said before, it was a very dense 405 pages, and the middle third of the book was such a slog that I almost gave up.  I’m glad that I persevered though because the final third of the book, which comprises the bulk of Sexton’s success, followed by her final descent into depression and anxiety which culminated in her suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, was fascinating.  I think part of the reason that it was so difficult for me to read was because I am not a reader of poetry and was not terribly familiar with her work.  I find poetry hard to get into and it doesn’t really hold my attention.  Similarly, the book had a cast of characters with whom I was largely unfamiliar – mid 20th century poets and others in that circle.  The big exception to this was Sylvia Plath, who, like Sexton, died by her own hand.  The book was controversial at the time of its release due to the use of the therapy tapes, which many in the mental health profession labeled a a significant breach of confidentiality and damaging to the doctor-patient relationship.  I’m not sure how I feel about that, but judging from the portrait painted of Sexton in the book, I would think that she couldn’t have been bothered to care. She probably would have wanted those who could be helped by her story to benefit from it.

Sexton was a complicated woman and her biography was no less complicated than she was.  It was worth the read but it helps immensely if you are knowledgeable about poetry and/or enjoy reading poetry.  And if you really want to know what started the whole Anne Sexton thing with me, blame Vanessa Daou, who interpreted one of Erica Jong’s poems “Dear Anne Sexton” for her 1995 album Zipless.  I just had to know who this Anne Sexton woman was.  Now I know.

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2 Responses to Anne Sexton: A Biography

  1. I did a big project on her in college. I have a set of poems I love, but I forget the titles. One is called The Hand, I think and another ends with the line “Darling, the composer has stepped into the fire”. Anyway, love her work.

    And the VD album is a longtime fave.

    • Dan says:

      It was because of you that I heard that Vanessa Daou record at all. It is one of my favorite albums. It reminds me of M’s Erotica.

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