ANNE SEXTON by Diane Wood Middlebrook


A Biography
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 Frustrated as a housewife and mother in suburban Boston and plagued by mental problems including suicidal obsessions, Sexton, beautiful, intense, and gifted, began writing poetry at age 29 on the advice of her therapist. Within ten years she had won nearly every prize available to an American poet--and collected hundred of hours of tapes from her therapy sessions. Access to these tapes and the intimate revelations of Sexton's family have enabled Middlebrook (English/Stanford; Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, 1974) to explore here some of the dynamics of creativity, and the relationship between art and mental disorder. Artful, oblique, confessional, Sexton's verse, as Middlebrook shows, is representative of her generation of emotionally distraught poets, nearly all addicted to booze, pills, sex, and to themselves: Anguished, broken, many ended up suicides. Robert Lowell, Roethke, Schwartz, Bishop, Rahv, Berryman, Rich, Jarrell, James Wright, Anthony Hecht, George Starbuck--they were a community of pain, friends or lovers, meeting at workshops, readings, or retreats. Their poetry is private, academic, and written to one another: Sexton wrote some of the best. But however much recognition Sexton received as a poet, her personal life remained at the edge, as the title of her first collection implies: To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960). And everyone was forced to share that space with her: Her husband adored, mothered, and finally beat her; her daughters, emotionally abandoned, finally rejected her, one confessing that her mother tried to seduce her; and her lovers- -men, women, even her therapist--were unable to fulfill her demands. Before she finally succeeded in committing suicide, however, she claimed she had ``lived to the hilt.'' Middlebrook is better at explicating the poems than she is at explaining the life. That remains, in spite of the tapes, a mystery, one of universal interest relevant to the large issues of poetry, madness, and suicide, but only tangentially related to the feminist thesis that Middlebrook prefers to associate with Sexton: a typical victim, she says, of society's repression of women. (Twenty-four b&w photographs--not seen.)

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 1991
ISBN: 0-395-35362-9
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1991


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