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This article is taken from PN Review 87, Volume 19 Number 1, September - October 1992.Broken Trust
ONE OF THE NEW terrors of death'. In these words John Arbuthnot, with a fine Augustan turn of phrase, described the catch-penny lives of the famous which appeared on the streets of London only days after their subjects had died. The 18th century may be distant; but the phrase is apt.
Recent changes and shifts in the craft of biography - the tendency of detail to obscure purpose and the rapidity with which misery is brought to market - all these make Arbuthnot's remark seem more prophetic than irascible. It has reached a point where a certain style of biography does more than simply obscure its subject. It actually throws us off course, muddying our earlier impressions without clarifying our later ones. And yet the biographer who does this may not be ill-disposed or corrupt or even unsympathetic. They may simply be writing the biography which is current. Never before, it seems to me, has the craft of telling a life held so much power to obscure a life.
An increase in readership, a demand for detail, an impatience with the complexity of perspective - these are dark offerings from the age of communications. They do not help the biographer - especially the literary biographer - to keep their nerve. And in no case is a literary biographer's nerve so crucial as when they are setting out to describe a life which involves a new poise of the ancient elements of human drama and artistic expression. The life of the woman poet, I believe, is one of these.
And yet far from becoming clearer as time goes on - as more women poets die, as books are written about them - it seems the opposite is actually occurring. The life of the woman poet - Sylvia Plath is an obvious case - is getting further and further enmeshed in psycho-revelation and marketable analysis. We need to ask why. We need to review a process which may well be defacing a wonderful and important story.
Let me argue the point a bit further. I think it can be maintained that while poetry is a dwelling to which few seek or gain access in its own time, biography, on the other hand, is an open house. It plays host to tensions, fashions, fictions. It throws huge parties for transient ideas. As a literary form there is even something a bit mysterious and raffish about it in its own time: like Gatsby, it could be either a central figure or a charlatan.
Now let me put metaphor aside and get to cases. The trouble I think occurs when this open, not to say familiar, form encounters an age like ours. An age which is a ferment of re-statement and de-construction; an age in which a harsh agenda of communications has been reinforced by a fickle marketplace. And there is probably no idea, no social and figurative concept which is more in the process of being re-stated and de-constructed at the moment than that of womanhood. Social upheaval, feminist debate, political re-alignment are all part of this. It may well be that it is not so much women as the idea of women - with all the outworks attending an idea - which is being reconsidered. And yet, on the other side, every magazine, every tabloid announces that the old generic of womanhood has resisted a great deal of new thinking. Within this contradiction - between the claims of a fresh ideology and the commercialism of a tired stereotype - may lie some of the trouble. After all, biography with its gift for metabolizing the complex into the dramatic - a true gift in the right hands - cannot always resist re-stating the contradiction as a false resolution.
If there is indeed an intersection between new developments in biography, and the old craft of poetry and the disrupted concept of womanhood, then there is a very volatile compound in the making. Recent biographies of women poets bear this out. Some of them - I am thinking again of Plath - have been outright distortions. In them, as I said before we witness the bizarre spectacle of the narrative of a life eclipsing its truth.
Richard Holmes, himself an eloquent writer about poets and their lives, puts it this way in his book Footsteps. The great appeal of biography seems to lie, in part, in its claim to a coherent and integral view of human affairs. It is based on the profoundly hopeful assumption that people really are responsible for their actions, and there is a moral continuity between the inner and the outer man.'
Moral continuity. The inner and outer man. These seem terms and phrases from a better time. The fact is, we live in the age of psycho-biography. There is a continual pressure on biographers to construe the inner life as the psycho-sexual personality; the outer life then dwindles to little more than its consequence. I am not for a moment proposing that these are not important, persuasive colours in the portrait. But there are times - and this is where biography needs all its skills, and the biographer all his or her composure - when the moral continuity between inner and outer world occurs despite the sexual nature of the subject; or in defiance of it. There are also occasions especially when a new type of biography is being undertaken - and the life of the woman poet is a fairly recent type of biography - when this sort of analysis is simply not an accurate angle of vision.
One of the problems may well be that in our time the woman poet is an emblematic figure. I mean this as a historical comment. There was a moment, at the beginning of the 19th century when the Romantic poet - fresh from his encounter with new ideologies and industrial upheaval - was also an emblematic figure. There was another moment, at the start of this century, when the Modernist poet became an emblem. What I mean by this is that the Romantic and Modernist poets, in their time, internalized the questions and stresses of the form very much as the woman poet does now. She has entered the discourse at an oblique angle. She has disrupted its assumptions, as the romantic and modernist poet did before her. The actual piece-by-piece value of her statement, in each individual case, is a matter for scrutiny and argument. But almost regardless of this, she is a radicalizing force. She brings to an elite and hierarchic form the tensions and stresses of historic silence. And this is only one of several possible subversions open to her. Her themes may include her gender and they may not be - perhaps should not be - limited to it. Nevertheless, the very fact of her gender is disruptive of the settled and centuries-long relation between poetic expression and the female image. All in all, the fact of the woman poet, as well as the features of her poems, requires careful and challenging analysis.
Biography would once have been a natural place for this. The problem now is that biography is blurring into psycho-biography; and the second is as poor a vehicle as the first was good. The great task psycho-biography has set itself over recent years has been to compose a pointillist portrait from infinite pin-tips of detail. The .contemporary psycho-biography is thick with detail: street-names, assignations, letter-dates, hotel bills, car licences - all the formidable debris of daily life is what this sort of biography is well-fitted for. Where a biographer was once - as Strachey so obviously was - an investigator with critical acumen, the contemporary psycho-biographer is often a flat-foot: a private detective sifting mounds of detail for a much smaller purpose.
In all this - book by book, biography by biography, revelation by revelation - something almost unseen has been happening. A rift has been opening between the two great and integral functions of biography: the critical and documentary. The separation of the critic and biographer - the sundering of one from the other - may yet be the most serious deprivation psycho-biography forces on the literary discourse. It is a separation which is especially ominous for further discussion of the life of the woman poet. It will be an enormous irony if, in the new age of feminism, the documentation of a woman poet's womanhood, within a biography, distorts the careful investigation of her achievement.
All of this is made current again by the publication of a life of Anne Sexton by the American critic and academic, Diane Wood Middlebrook. It was published last year amid controversy. Advance information that the book would avail of psychiatric tapes concerning Sexton's relation with her daughter - which verged on the abusive - caused disagreement about the ethics concerning both psychotherapy and biography. The foreword to the book is written by her therapist. The appendix to it contains some of the recorded tapes of that therapy. All in all, it seems to me that once again the demands of psycho-biography are a priority here: that this narrative occurs in the intensive ethos of a genre which has made the secular and psycho-sexual the chief sources of the revelation of personality. This, in turn, has obscured the difficult and elusive intersection between a gifted woman and her gift, between a troubled woman and her art.
Two things need to be said at the outset. The first is that Diane Wood Middlebrook is a fine, careful, well-disposed writer. Her material may be sensational; she is not a sensationalist. Her tone is dignified, her marshalling of the facts both scholarly and compelling. The second thing which needs to be said is more simple - but nevertheless complex in its consequences: Anne Sexton was a poet. And this is why the biography was written in the first place. Sexton's first book of poetry, published in 1960, called To Bedlam and Part Way Back, canvassed the new and demotic expression of suffering which had entered American poetry with the publication of Robert Lowell's Life Studies in the 'fifties. Unlike Robert Lowell, Sexton's work is problematic. There is a shadow-land between self-expression and art. The shadows have deepened in that poetic territory since the 1950s. Nor am I one of the people who uses the term confessional poetry in a disparaging way; far from it. There are important issues there of form and formalization, of the moment when private conflict enters the poem and is no longer hostage to the erosions of time and space. The problematic area in Sexton's work seems to me a useful opportunity for exploring this wider space; nor does it seem likely to me that her achievement can be invigilated without doing this.
The consequence from stating the obvious - that Anne Sexton was a poet - is that such an assertion calls Diane Middlebrook's biographical strategy into question. This book narrates Sexton's life. But which life? The existence of sexuality, of pain? Of crisis and recovery? Or that much more elusive, inner life where these things are mysteriously formalized and where that formalization becomes a new emblem of experience? It seems to me at least arguable that one story without the other is incomplete, not to say a distortion.
The fact is, Sexton wrote a difficult poetry: not difficult because it allows little access, but because it provides so much. In books like All My Pretty Ones and Live Or Die, which came out in 1967, she tests and occasionally exasperates the line beyond which personal statement lapses into private language. Add to this that her themes are lived almost as soon as they are written - raising awkward and necessary questions of which ordained which - and you have a valuable opening for argument in which a new view of womanhood can be used to analyse shifts in the aesthetic; and the reverse. This has to be done. It is a critical function without which the biographical enquiry runs the risk of distortion. It is the more important, and the more of a challenge at this moment when the life of the woman poet is a fairly new discovery in biography. Indeed the life of the woman artist in general is a recent field of exploration. Because of this, there is no pre-existing critique. There is no store laid down of assumption and imagery which was there in the lives of the Romantic poets - and the Augustans and the Moderns for that matter - and which the biographer of the contemporary male poet can so easily avail of; and to such good effect. For this reason, the critique which can inhere in literary biography, which makes it so illuminating at its best, is all the more necessary now in making a biographical blueprint of the connection between a woman's poetry and her life.
I don't feel this balance is offered here. I am especially uneasy about the final paragraph of Diane Middlebrook's preface. Discussing her access to the therapy tapes and her use of them, she writes:
Sexton was not a person with a strong sense of privacy. She was open and impulsive: many people found her exhibitionistic, and some of the people who lived with her found her outrageously, immorally invasive. But her lack of reserve had a generous side as well, which was, I think, connected to her spirituality. If suffering like hers had any use, she reasoned, it was not to the sufferer. The only way an individual's pain gained meaning was through its communication to others. I have tried to honor that attitude of Sexton's in writing about her life.
I don't doubt the compassion of all this. But it seems to me it puts the reader on notice that the final impression given by this book will be of a troubled woman whose poetry was accessory to and occasionally pretext for her upheavals. The centrality of the creative process is not clear. Yes - the book seems to say - she was a poet. Yes, that poetry narrated her experience. And then we return again to the experience. It is a swift and, I think, simplified circuit. But the reality is complex. Anne Sexton's life ended tragically, with her suicide in 1974, when she was forty-five. Diane Middlebrook has edited Sexton's poems. She has a critical interest in those poems. Yet this narrative marches relentlessly on, through love affairs, therapy sessions, psychological upsets. The opening sentence of the book - in the foreword written by Martin Orne - is: 'I recall clearly my first therapy session with Anne Sexton'. I am just about willing to accept the good faith of this. I am open to the argument - although I am also open to the other view - that the therapeutic material could not be ignored. But even if I concede that all this discussion of personal behaviour and private morbidity, is essential in context. Even if I allow that it does not trivialize the woman, I still believe it obscures the poet.
Yet I don't feel it is so much Diane Wood Middlebrook's scholarship, or even her project, which is at fault. She is a sympathetic scholar. She is a careful assembler of the context. 'A well-written life' said Carlyle 'is almost as rare as a well-spent one'. By Carlyle's lights, this may be a rare book. What seems to me wrong is the genre of biography. The presumption of readership, the stresses of the marketplace, the new interest in psycho-sexual personality - these have all dictated that the critical function has been superseded and the documentary one is now dominant. In such a narrative - which cried out for careful unravelling of the poetic from the private, of the behavioural from the artistic, of the social from the aesthetic personal - this is a crucial loss. It is one which - if it is a harbinger of future losses - has implications for the craft of biography as well as for that of the woman poet. If the woman poet is a central figure in the poetic discourse; she is also now, I believe, a test case in the biographical narrative.
The critical discourse within a literary biography was, after all, not just a disposable motif. It was one of the ways in which the relation between biographer and subject was established. This is Richard Holmes again; he writes:
The possibility of error is constant in all biography and I suspect that it is one of the elements which gives the genre its peculiar psychological tension. I do not speak here of simple errors in documentation; or even less of the deliberate slanting of an account. I mean that the reader can see, from the outside, an honest relationship developing between biographer and subject, and the deeper this becomes the more critical are those moments of areas in which misunderstanding becomes evident.
At the point where the reader believes he can see more truly or fairly into the state of the case than the biographer himself then the very nature of the book he is reading seems to change. Essentially the dramatic nature of the biography - its powers of re-creation - are fatally undermined. The literary illusion of life, the illusion that makes it so close to the novel, is temporarily or permanently weakened. In short, where the biographical narrative is least convincing, its fictional powers are most reduced. Where trust is broken between biographer and subject it is also broken between reader and biographer.
Increasingly - or so it seems to me - the demands of psycho-biography and the true illumination of the life of the woman poet are on a collision course. Psycho-biography, responding to the new age, takes a complex view of womanhood but offers a naive view of art. It is good on the sexual, the psychological, the social; it is poor on the mysterious, the private, the spiritual. It is strong on the generic and weak on the individual. In recent biographies of woman poets - I am particularly thinking of Plath - the woman has been highlighted while the poet has been lost. In such books I have followed, with a real feeling of loss, just that process Holmes speaks of. I have seen the biographer break a trust with the subject, by simplifying a wonderful achievement into an obsessive confessional. And so the trust has been broken between myself as reader and the biographer as writer. The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once said 'A Poet's biography is his poetry. Anything else can only be a footnote'. It needs to be added, however, that footnotes are accurate, painstaking and, above all, faithful to the source.
Note: 'Broken Trust' was delivered on a Radio 3 talk earlier this year.
This article is taken from PN Review 87, Volume 19 Number 1, September - October 1992.