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Deadliest Writer # 3: Catfight Edition: Anne Sexton vs Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

September 15, 2011 \am\30 9:04 am

The one you’ve all been waiting for. It was bound to happen. Enough of these dead white male poets in the ring, let the ladies show them how it’s done.  And what better lady poets, huh?

First up (age before beauty, in this one I think) ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING. No, don’t roll your eyes, that lady was a FINE poet– did you know she wrote a whole verse novel about prostitution, rape and the restrictions of gender roles? Well, you would if you’d read anything other of hers than Sonnet 43.

In the opposite corner we have the one and only ANNE SEXTON. Now, Plath might be the first and obvious choice for crazy confessional girl poet, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Sexton. Possibly because she was hot, possibly because of this poem.

ROUND ONE- Fighting Style

Barrett Browning: Victorian. Social commentary. The sonnet.

Sexton: Confessional.

ROUND TWO- Short Range Weapon

Sexton: coming into any contact with Sexton would also require coming into contact with her considerable mental instability. Her many breakdowns and suicide attempts point to bi-polar disorder, yet her therapist used a range of slightly dubious psychotherapeutic techniques including hypnosis and sodium pentothal to recover supposedly repressed memories of childhood abuse. So what we have here is a bundle of emotional problems that could well translate into some pure physical rage. And EBB is a bit of frail creature given the lifelong mystery illness that rendered her an invalid, so Sexton is bound to have the upper hand when it comes to dirty tactics. Plus Anne usually wore her hair short, so she’d have the advantage in hair-pulling too.

Barrett Browning: you might not think that weak little love poet EBB would have much means of deflection for Sexton’s whack of crazy. However, EBB had dealt with a fair amount of messed up emotional crap, including her father’s paranoia that there was ‘bad blood’ in the family (read, ‘black blood’– he suspected that one of his plantation-owning ancestors of having offspring with a slave). As a result he wouldn’t allow his kids to marry. Given that EBB eventually eloped with Robert Browning, a man six years her junior (you go, you cougar, Lizzie), I don’t think she’d have much time for this shit. In other words, EBB is no stranger to the quick get away and could avoid Sexton’s daddy issues as well as she dodged her own– by running away.

ROUND THREE- Long Range Weapon

Barrett Browning: It may not be the most effective weapon in hand-to-hand combat, but EBB sure would be great at smack-talk, given she knew a gazillion languages. Well, at least Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian and French. That is a lot of exotic swear-words. Given AS’s less than stellar mental stability at times, this could prove a surprisingly brutal ploy.

Sexton: EBB might have Sexton beat when it comes to smarts, but Anne was a Grade A babe. She modelled. She went skinny dipping. She had affairs. She wrote poetry about masturbation. This is a lady who, in the immortal words of Jenna Maroney, really could use her sexuality as a secret weapon. There are enough girl-on-girl implications here that I’m just gonna let your imaginations take on this one.

ROUND FOUR- Special Weapons

Barrett Browning: being one of the most celebrated poets of her day meant that EBB had a fairly large posse of admirers. She was even a serious contender for Poet Laureate (though the honour went to Tennyson, preventing a woman from taking the post in England until the recent appointment of Carol Ann Duffy). Perhaps her most loyal follower (apart from the fellow, Robert, that she eloped to Italy with) was Flush, her spaniel. Flush was no ordinary dog. How many dogs do you know that have a biography written by Virginia Woolf?

Sexton: EBB might have her loyal spaniel, but she did not have a jazz troupe on speed dial. ‘Her Kind’ collaborated with Sexton to put her poems to music. Also, it was noted during Sexton’s various stays in mental health institutions that she had a particular talent for mimicking the symptoms of other patients. If this really were a videogame, she’d have the power to absorb the powers of others. Which is pretty darn unbeatable.


EBB’s multi-lingual taunts would whip Sexton into a frenzy, leading her to pounce of the largely defenceless EBB, possibly because she imagined her to be her mother. Despite Flush’s loyal doggy efforts, Sexton would keep beating the crap out of her. EBB’s loyal followers would do little to stop the brutal attack, because Anne is a hottie and usually they’d have to go to some gin-soaked opium brothel to see this kind of action. EBB would briefly escape and elope somewhere. Leaving Anne to drink away her anger, possibly find some guy to bone and plan her next move. EBB is safe, FOR NOW.

But then again it is also possible that their shared substance abuse and struggles to be taken seriously as poet in a male dominated scene (nice to see a hundred years of progress, huh?) could mean EBB and Sexton end up HUGGING IT OUT. And isn’t that the kind of sisterly outcome we all want?
Ha no of course not, Sexton clearly wins. She’d be on EBB like white on rice and probably hurt her dog too.

  1. rebunting permalink
    September 15, 2011 \am\30 9:25 am 9:25 am


    • Caroline Crew permalink
      September 15, 2011 \am\30 9:50 am 9:50 am

      Why thankyou, you are my new favourite!

  2. September 15, 2011 \pm\30 5:02 pm 5:02 pm

    I spluttered tea everywhere. that was like not-breathing laughter. I love both of these poets and this is just perfect.

    Also you’re welcome for that youtube link. :P


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