Wednesday, September 23, 2009
The Nonfiction Files is a weekly journal of my adventures reading my toppling piles of nonfiction books. I won't be posting reviews, but rather my thoughts about what I'm reading, while I'm reading it.
this is a weekly feature started by elizabeth at need more shelves. i asked her if i could play along because i like her feature so much. i feel overwhelmed at times when faced with reviewing a nonfiction book. there is so much to cover, so many thoughts. she said yes and has also graciously allowed me to use her banner and format. she usually writes her files on wednesdays, so i am going to try to keep up with her and do the same.
my first book is Anne Sexton: A Biography.
synopsis from publisher:
anne sexton, who died at forty-five by her own hand in 1974, was, as she herself claimed, "the only confessional poet," and is one of the most widely read poets of recent decades. in this, the first biography, diane wood middlebrook reveals the rewards of ten years labor, unearthing the multiple truths of how anne sexton's deeply troubled life and powerfully candid work interacted. the result is a model of the biographer's art, a harrowing and uplifting tale of a gifted woman's life.
anne sexton grew up in a conventional middle-class massachusetts family, married in her teens, and worked for a while as a fashion model. her life displayed little to anticipate artistic achievement until after the birth of her second daughter, when she suffered a suicidal breakdown. her psychic identity was so severely threatened that even psychiatric intervention had little effect, until her therapist suggested one day that she might try writing poetry - an inspired idea, immediately acted on. sexton soon joined a writing group, which brought her into contact with her closest poetic friend, maxine kumin, and entry into the orbit of such poets as robert lowell, george starbuck, and sylvia plath, then living in boston.
from the day sexton began writing in 1956, her poetry and her inner life worked in tandem to give her eighteen years of wild productivity, which produced nearly a dozen books. among her achievements were a pulitzer prize for her third volume, live or die,fellowships, professorships, stardom in a performing musical group called anne sexton and her kind, attempt to write for the theatre, and a hectic emotional life which severely strained her husband, her daughters, and her lovers and friendss, including james wright, w.d. snodgrass, anthony hecht, tillie olsen, and others. in her later years she reached desperately toward religious belief.
middlebrook's story of anne sexton's life and work is a model of fairness and discernment. with special cooperation from the family, she has had privileged access to the records and testimony of sexton's principal psychiatrist and to the surviving family's records and memories, and has achieved a tender comprehension of sexton's life as a woman and keen insight into her work as a poet. anne sexton was the most bewitching and exasperating of women, as every page of this magisterial biography demonstrates. it is not a tale for children nor for the innocent, for sexton's complicity in her own self-destruction was the despair of her friends, to many of whom this biography will reveal more than they understood while sexton was alive.
i first became acquainted with the work of anne sexton after reading books on sylvia plath. sylvia plath was my obsession in high school and through college. i own and have read almost everything published by and about her. anne sexton wrote a poem about sylvia after her death. i don't know how i found this out, but i think it was my first sexton poem to read. i read her collection, live or die, and own the collected poems of anne sexton but haven't read them all. she fascinated me in a similar way that sylvia plath did. whereas, i know almost all there is to know about sylvia plath, i know next to nothing about anne sexton save for that she is another poet that killed herself.
in my reading so far, i was astonished to learn what a troubled personality she was. why i was shocked knowing she died by her own hand, i don't know. she didn't seem merely depressed. she seemed outright mad. i was also surprised to learn that she happened on poetry almost by accident. whereas, sylvia plath always wanted to be a poet, anne sexton happened upon it by way of her therapist.
i can't help but compare anne sexton to sylvia plath. they are forever linked in my mind due to my initial introduction, i suppose.
there is a foreword at the beginning by sexton's psychiatrist, dr. orne. i find it interesting that as mentally disturbed as anne sexton was, there was no official diagnosis for her. she didn't easily fit into any category. i am also fascinated by how atrocious her memory was. she really didn't remember anything. she reminds me of the story about nymphs i read as a child. they woke up each day innocent and unaware of the previous day. they only lived in the moment and couldn't recall anything that happened before. anne sexton seems to have been a bit like that. how strange that must be to not really know what happened, or what you think you know is so far off the mark. dr. orne eventually started taping their sessions so anne could listen to them immediately afterwards and take notes. she was also to take notes following the session before listening to the tapes describing what she recalled from the session. she was to compare what she heard on the tapes to her recollections of the sessions. her sessions sound so tedious but it seemed to work for her, for the most part.
anne sexton reminds me a bit of anais nin. partly because of her wildly skewed vision of the world and her interpretation of events and partly because of her wild promiscuity during her husband's travels. she seemed ill content to fill the shoes of the conventional 50's housewife.
i was also shocked to learn that her children were taken from her when, due to her sheer inablity to cope with motherhood and her tendency towards abuse. i don't know why this shocked me, but it did. maybe it's because i knew so little about her before starting this book. i knew she was troubled but i had no concept for the extent of her madness.
i look forward to reading about her transition from mentally ill housewife to acclaimed poet. i look forward to gaining more insight into her poetry and reading how her life crossed paths with other well-known poets.