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Biographer of Ann Sexton Studies Driven Poet's Life

July 20, 1986|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO — . . . I would like a simple life

yet all night I am laying

poems away in a long box.

It is my immortality box,

my lay-away plan,

my coffin.

--Anne Sexton, 1972

Anne Sexton, a Boston housewife who became a major figure in contemporary American poetry, was certifiably mad. In 1956, on the eve of her 28th birthday, she made the first of 10 suicide attempts. Several months later she began writing poetry. Ten years later, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry volume, "Live or Die."

On Oct. 4, 1974, Sexton finally took her own life: Taking no chances with pills, always in the past her chosen method for attempted self-destruction, she closed herself in her garage and turned on the car ignition. Her last volume of poems was published the next year; it was called "The Awful Rowing Toward God."

Two Major Audiences

During her lifetime Sexton had two major audiences. One was women, who identified with the frustration and lack of fulfillment expressed by Anne Sexton, housewife. The other was the mentally ill, who in Sexton's poetry found for the first time a soul mate who shared their silent agony.

But acclaim was not immediately universal, and among the skeptics was Diane Middlebrook, who now teaches poetry and feminist criticism and chairs the feminist studies program at Stanford University. Middlebrook, herself a poet, has been chosen by Sexton's daughter to write her mother's biography, scheduled for publication in November, 1988.

But as a graduate student at Yale in the early '60s, Middlebrook acknowledges, "I felt very snooty toward Anne Sexton. I thought of her as a housewife poet, the sort of poet who appeals to housewives, not to graduate students."

Doubly Critical

Middlebrook, who belonged to the if-you're-popular-there-must- be-something-wrong-with-you school of poetry criticism, was doubly critical, she said, because Sexton "wrote about being a housewife. I thought, 'That's what I've been trying to get away from by going to graduate school,' right?"

By 1972, Middlebrook said, she was being pressured by her women students at Stanford to teach courses about women but "at first I was very defensive about this. I said, 'I just teach great poetry. If a woman's a great poet, I teach her.' But I didn't. I didn't teach any women poets." When she decided she owed it to her students and herself to do so, she nevertheless made a conscious decision not to teach either Sexton or Sylvia Plath.

"I really disapproved of their suicides," Middlebrook said. "The connection between creativity and suicide in their lives always seemed to me to be an obstacle in talking about their writing. I was projecting that people would read the poetry as though it were sort of a script leading to a suicide and you'd never be able to detach the poetry from the death."

Indeed, Middlebrook says now, she thinks that is a problem, but she now perceives that, for her, the larger problem was her own inability to deal with "the connectiveness between madness and creativity, self-destruction and fame as an artist. Those are very difficult subjects to me."

No less a figure in poetry than Robert Lowell wrote the cover squib for Sexton's first book, "To Bedlam and Part Way Back." Its poetry is what Middlebrook terms "radically self-revealing, self-disclosing," poems that told of madness and a longing for death and a quizzing of life in a way with which women could identify.

In Sexton's poetry, Middlebrook said, "Madness serves as a kind of metaphor for feeling trapped in an identity that other people attribute to you that you don't feel inside. Sexton's poetry really tapped that. I think women who felt really repressed and oppressed by their housewives' roles saw it as a dramatic kind of breaking out of an inner frustration."

In her view, these women were also attracted to Sexton's energy: "She was very good-looking, very actressy, a powerful presence onstage and she had a great sense of humor. When she'd get up in front of people and start saying these things--and she also just looked so great--there was a feeling of empowerment that came to women audiences from her."

Sexton's rise to fame came at about the time, Middlebrook noted, that Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique" and there were the first rumblings of feminism. "The culture was ready for this," Middlebrook said, "and Sexton was one of its voices."

Poetry as Therapy

Sexton also found a third significant audience--therapists, who saw the effect of her poetry on their patients. (Sexton's own therapy, which began in 1956 and continued until her death, was, Middlebrook said, a textbook example of a patient running "roughshod" over her many therapists.)

Not only did Sexton's narcissistic character disorders make her difficult to treat, Middlebrook said, but her therapy "was foxed by her drug addictions, particularly her alcoholism. She was clearly an alcoholic. She'd say, 'I'm a drunk, not an alcoholic.' Poets are drunk but people who are in treatment are alcoholics, right?"

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