Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook*
Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath once took a poetry class together, and were paired up at some point for a class exercise. In Plath's journals, she writes about this as "an honor," then proceeds to fret about needing a better haircut and to "get fixed up."
I love that Sexton could unleash Sylvia Plath's inner girly-girl.
The two are often compared, but for my money, Anne Sexton is the quintessential lady poet of the 20th century (with all the baggage, good and bad, that goes along with that). For starters, she was a chain-smoking, hard-drinking knock-out who gave sultry readings in a tight red dress. She was the poster child for The Feminine Mystique. And of course, she was suicidally crazy, carrying around a purseful of what she called her "kill me pills" (so I guess Courtney Love is a fan).
Middlebrook is an ideal biographer because she somehow managed to get all the relevant parties onboard for the project. Linda Gray Sexton, Anne's daughter and executor of her literary estate gave Middlebrook full access to everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything right down to her taped therapy sessions. On top of that, Middlebrook does a good job of balancing a thoughtful analysis of Sexton's deceptively accessible poetry with the more salacious aspects of her life. And despite the fact that Sexton was a self-absorbed, child-abusing, philandering confessional poet (shudders), she was also a sympathetic charmer, passionately devoted to her craft.
If I could choose any person, living or dead, with whom to get trashed in a hotel bar in the middle of the afternoon, it would totally be Anne Sexton.
If you ever went through a confessional poetry stage in college, if you're interested in the plight of pill-popping middle-class women in the 50s, or if you appreciate psychoanalysis in a retro-kitschy kind of way, this book is for you.
* I've seen many photographs of Anne Sexton wearing this halter dress. I covet this dress.