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Book Review: Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook

     I have good memories of biographies.  My elementary school classrooms always had a set of biographies (the condensed kind that are about a quarter inch thick), and I was probably the only kid in class who enjoyed them.  I still remember random details about the lives of Milton S. Hershey (of confectionery fame) and Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb.  For example, when I'm feeling hopelessly scatterbrained, I like to remind myself that Edison once forgot his own name for several hours after spacing out in a long line.  Clearly my forgetfulness is a mark of genius.  Right?
     Despite these fond childhood associations, Anne Sexton is the first biography I've read in years. But I'm so glad I did read it!  Anne Sexton was one of the first poets to write "confessional" poetry about her own life, as opposed to the third-person, universal idea-centered poetry (think T.S. Eliot) that was preferred up until the late 60s'.  She began to write poetry at the suggestion of her therapist, as a way to deal with her mental instability.  She went through periods of depression and mania, and attempted suicide several times before succeeding in 1974, when she was only forty-five.  (You know what's funny about biographies?  People will read them even if they already know the ending.)  But her discovery of poetry probably extended her life by many years, and gave the world many volumes of bizarre and original writing.  
My copy features a partially scraped-off price sticker!
     If you're going to read a biography, I think that writers' biographies are especially good picks because you get to see how their work lines up with their lives.  Who inspired that love poem you love?  Where did a recurring image in a writers' work come from?  Did this writer admire or personally know other writers that you like?  In my case, I discovered that Sexton was both a friend and a rival of Sylvia Plath.  In fact, Sexton felt upstaged by Plath's suicide in 1963, which makes a twisted kind of sense considering  that Plath won posthumous awards and recognition, and also considering that Plath "beat" her to the act.  
     Anyway, I enjoyed this book for its detail, for its incorporation of letters, poems, and psychoanalysis into the narrative, and for the insight it gave me into the life of a great poet.  I hoped when I started this book that I would learn some writing tips from Sexton, and I think that I did. Her life was often tragic and frustrating, but she made something special out of it in the form of her poetry.

     - Carly

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