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Anne Sexton: A Biography

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  3,834 ratings  ·  115 reviews
Anne Sexton began writing poetry at the age of twenty-nine to keep from killing herself. She held on to language for dear life and somehow -- in spite of alcoholism and the mental illness that ultimately led her to suicide -- managed to create a body of work that won a Pulitzer Prize and that still sings to thousands of readers. This exemplary biography, which was nominate ...more
Paperback, 411 pages
Published October 27th 1992 by Vintage (first published September 16th 1991)
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Average rating 4.17  · 
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Feb 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018
Focusing in particular upon the poet's rise to literary stardom, Anne Sexton is a carefully constructed biography that overviews the life of one of the most engaging American writers of the midcentury. In terms of structure and style, Middlebrook takes few risks with her work; the biographer's decision to draw from Sexton's therapy tapes in characterizing her subject, though, has generated controversy since she first published the biography in 1991. Something might be gained from considering exc ...more
Jan 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: i-own, poets
An interesting read, to say the least. About 8 or 9 years ago, several of my friends, after reading some pieces I wrote, said that my words reminded them of Sexton. I had never heard of her but at some point bought a volume of her collected works. Flicking through it one day last year, I realised I needed to know who this woman was so that I could understand what force drove the poems. This book certainly helped me understand the force and a lot of the imagery that Sexton uses in her work.

And n
Dec 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Hard to reconcile the poet from the woman. Anne definitely lived for her poetry. I always say, " I only feel alive when I'm writing a poem." Anne must have felt that way, too. Her last year was difficult, lonely, full of breakdowns & not writing. The psychiatry of the day was not very helpful: nothing seemed to help her but Thorazine--and that blocked her writing-energy. So she kind of had to choose-medication & stability or poetry & madness. It was a difficult life. I too felt relief and cried ...more
It's a bit hard to imagine what another Anne Sexton biography might look like. I read this for the first time maybe two or three years ago, and remember thinking: 'what else could I possibly find out about AS's life?' This time around, however, I began to notice subjective directions Middlebrook had taken, paths, perhaps, another biographer would more powerfully emphasize or maybe ignore altogether. You can certainly hear the preference for a pseudo-psychoanalytic reading of her life and poetry ...more
Nov 03, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
I have to begin by saying the use of tapes from Anne's therapy sessions without her permission is extraordinarily unethical and unfair, no matter how much an exhibitionist the poet was. I often cringed at the revelations extracted from these transcripts—we really should not have access to this information, even though it illuminates so much about the subjects of her poetry. There are limits to what we should know about other people—ironic to say this here, considering Anne left no personal subje ...more
Oct 23, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry-corner
Anne Sexton at the peak of her popularity was the ultimate rock star poet, complete with drivers, secretaries, SRO poetry readings, record smashing book sales, Pulitzer Prize Awards, and make out sessions in the back seat of her limo on the way to her readings. The only poet who outdid her in terms of popularity and sales was the inane Rod McKuen.

Before you poets turn green with envy just remember that this was a married mother of two, a needy nymphomaniac who slept with one of her psychiatrists
Renee Kiser
Aug 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
“My goals may be unrealistic- but how can i find the limit of what I can do if I am satisfied with mediocrity? In the field I have chosen , to be halfway is to be nothing. There is no point in being half a poet. [... My] poetry has got to be so good that people who shrug will read and not forget the feeling of their shrug.” In poetry, Sexton found a true and proper home for her powers of invention. Through “ the talking cure” she came to understand that the symptoms of her mental illness were lu ...more
Kate Forsyth
Jul 31, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, poetry
Anne Sexton is an American poet most famous for her intense, shocking and autobiographical poems and for having committed suicide, much like her friend Sylvia Plath. She had spent most of her 20s fighting depression and suicidal thoughts, and her therapist suggested she begin to write poetry to help her express her feelings. The suggestion was like a match to paper. Anne Sexton took fire, and wrote obsessively. Within a remarkably short time, she was one of America’s best known poets and had won ...more
Feb 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: any one who is curious to learn more about Anne Sexton.
Shelves: biography
This is a great book. It really makes me feel like I'm right there with Anne and her family. When the book describes her hard at work, writting poem after poem, it's like you are hunched over the typewriter with her. I can no longer just casually pick up this book to read on a lazy day; my head has to be in the right space, but I hope that I'll be able to do that again sometime soon. Perhaps in the summertime when the weather is fine and the sun is shinning I'll make my way back to this lovely b ...more
May 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Biographies often inflate their subject or focus on the sensational aspects. The sensational aspects of the subject, mentioned in the book blurb - the incest, the infidelities, the psychiatrist tapes are not the focus of the book. The incest is hedged and takes up just a few pages. The infidelity was an open secret. The author explains at the beginning that initially she thought she'd use the tapes more than she ended up. None of these things are new, they are all Sexton's poems.

I typically don
Jul 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
A fascinating and shocking biography of the controversial poet Anne Sexton. Struggling with complicated mental illness, Sexton began writing poems about her experiences as a form of therapy. She quickly experienced success as her poems were printed in leading publications such as The New Yorker. These poems were at times shocking, brutal and above all confessional. She became one of the leading confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s along with the likes of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. Her ...more
Jan 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
Feeling insane? Read this and feel better about yourself.
Writer's Relief
Dec 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
Diane Wood Middlebrook’s ANNE SEXTON: A BIOGRAPHY tells the intricate story of how the poet turned to writing to keep from killing herself. Through detailed therapy notes and transcripts, interviews with friends and colleagues, and personal files and letters, this biography chronicles Sexton’s life from her youth in Massachusetts until the suicide that took her life. Middlebrook explores Sexton’s time as a “socially acceptable” housewife, her disintegration into an abusive mother and seductress, ...more
Katie Marquette
Mar 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
A fascinating read. I recently read Ian Hamilton's biography of Robert Lowell and gave it the same rating, but I think Middlebrook wrote a far better, more detailed biography. Anne Sexton was a complicated woman. She didn't start writing poetry till age 29 ('her rebirth at 29' she called it) and never went to college, although she would go on to receive three honorary doctorates. Her family life was difficult growing up and there is reason to suspect she was sexually abused. I have never been wi ...more
Jun 27, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: crazy local-poet types who don't think less of a person based on their mental illness
in a lot of ways, anne sexton reminds me of myself... if things had gone much, much worse in my earlier life... and if my issues went unchecked and untreated. she was beautiful, but lived a life full of insecurity, which is what so many of the women i know battle with daily. the so-called "confessional" aspect of her poetry was reinforced by the true-life experiences that fueked this creative, demented mind, making her poetry (which i already loved) come alive with new meaning.

this book was beau
Lisa Gallagher
Middlebrook is simply a first-rate biographer. She manages to piece together all the ragged threads of Anne Sexton's life and work: the possible sexual abuse as a child, the postpartum depression that led to her first hospitalization, the affairs, the alcoholism, the immense talent and the galloping madness that would ultimately take the poet's life in 1974. There is so much background information here: Anne's surviving family, her doctors and her fellow poet-friends all provide much needed and ...more
Jan 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this insightful biography of one of my favourite poets. Although I do think it could have explored her actual poems a bit more and perhaps provide a schedule of her daily life, it was filled with many interesting and important details (highlighted by the extensive bibliography & sources used). I think I read somewhere that this is one of the most accurate biographies of Anne Sexton which I guess is true because Middlebrook evidently made sure to get in touch with as many people ...more
Jan 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An absolutely mesmerizing biography--the best I feel I've ever read. Middlebrook deftly captures all that is dark and light, horrible and laudable, about Anne Sexton and arranges a remarkably coherent narrative of such a difficult figure. My absolute favorite part of the book is Middlebrook's descriptions of Sexton's writing process. She explains quite well how a mad housewife could transform herself into a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. I wish I had read this book a decade ago. Also, Anne Sexton ...more
Kitty with Curls
One of my grandmother's oldest friends was Sexton's closest friend at Smith & afterward. Also knew Plath & J.C. Oates. Now she has disappeared & won't talk to anyone from the old days, especially writers.

I don't blame her at all.

Other than that, I really enjoyed the description of the end of AS's life, especially what happened to her teaching & how her students responded to her disintegration.
Jun 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
This biography acted as my main reference when analysing a number of Sexton's poems. It's extremely comprehensive, and Middlebrook's writing truly captures the delicate intricacy of Sexton's life. I'd recommend this to anyone who's wanting to understand Sexton's poems in greater context.
Oct 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
"I am torn in two, but I will conquer myself. I will take scissors and cut out the beggar. I will take a crowbar and pry out the broken pieces of God in me."
Jun 07, 2019 rated it liked it
In Britain Anne Sexton is the American poetess who is still unfairly cast in the shadow of Sylvia Plath. This biography was published nearly 30 years ago within a wave of new publications that reappraised Plath’s poetry through the lens of psychoanalytical theory. Yet here with Sexton, Diane Wood Middlebrooks unique task was placing her poetry in relation to Sexton’s actual psychoanalytical therapy tape recordings; recordings that the poet’s estate gave Middlebrook full access to. Even now this ...more
Becky Osmon
Jun 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
A well-written, researched and thoughtful account of a complicated woman's life. I remember the first time I read one of Sexton's poems (in a highschool english class in the 90s) - I'd never read anything like it - so raw and emotional and angry. And then to learn that she was a housewife without advanced education who didn't start writing until after she had kids was pretty inspiring. But now I can't separate her art from the woman that she was (from more recent accounts it sounds like this boo ...more
Nicola Pierce
Jan 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Pure genius - both the poet and her biographer. Actually, this may well be the best written and most intelligent biography I've ever read. Middlebrook's research is impeccable as is her own interpretations of facts, figures and poetry. She brings her all to this telling of the 'mad' life of Anne Sexton whilst keeping herself firmly in the background. Just brilliant! And I really appreciated the smattering of photographs throughout.
Lee Yahnker
Jan 14, 2019 rated it it was ok
Way too detailed. I like biographies but found the way through this book was to skip the part about her poems. I’m surprised she was able to keep her affairs secret from her husband.
As it was I skimmed the last 100 pages.
Flora Crew
I enjoyed reading this biography of Anne Sexton. She was quite a character as well as a poet. She also took some very heavy duty drugs such as Thorazine. I had not been aware of that aspect of her life prior to reading the book. It was sad to read about but also addicting.
Mar 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Well crafted writing. Hate/love relationship with Anne sexton now, but really enlightening
Lorelei Rhine
Middlebrook is my favorite biographer, I am sad that the world no longer will get to explore new works.
Jun 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Incredibly fascinating biography.
Aug 15, 2019 added it
A hard one.
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Middlebrook, who taught at Stanford for 35 years, was perhaps best known for Anne Sexton: A Biography. Its intense scrutiny of the poet's life made it "one of the turning points of late 20th-century biography," according to the newspaper. Middlebrook published several other well-received biographies and works of criticism, and was known for funding various arts organizations and literary salons f ...more

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