Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822
Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey on November 9, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts. The third child of wealthy wool manufacturer Ralph Churchill Harvey and his wife, Mary Gray Staples, Anne was surrounded by luxury. The four-story Harvey house contained living quarters for maids, a cook, and a butler. Anne, however, felt overlooked and unwanted, and even as a child she developed a reputation for doing daring and drastic things just to be noticed. Later, she would write of her economically comfortable childhood with bitterness rather than nostalgia.
Her years in the public schools of Wellesley, Massachusetts, and then at the boarding school Rogers Hall were marked by episodes of rebelliousness. After graduation, she enrolled in the Garland School, a Boston finishing school. In 1948, before her twentieth birthday, she eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton II, a sophomore at Colgate University.
Anne and “Kayo,” as she called him, then led such a difficult life for five years or so that she must have at least at that time looked back with regret at her privileged childhood. The couple moved to Hamilton, New York, where Kayo attempted to finish his education, but financial pressures were extreme. Then Kayo joined the Naval Reserve and shipped out; Anne lived sometimes with her parents and sometimes with his, while she used her dazzling good looks to support herself by working as a model between his leaves.
In 1953, she gave birth to Linda Gray Sexton, her first child; she found this experience shocking and devastating. It now became apparent that Anne suffered from serious emotional troubles. Her illness was triggered by the birth of her first child, but it continued to plague her for the rest of her life. She was treated for depression and attempted suicide but seemed to be making a recovery when she became pregnant again. Her second daughter, Joyce Ladd Sexton, was born in August, 1955. Six months later, Anne was admitted to a mental hospital for several months, and the second child was sent to live with Kayo’s parents. Sexton’s discharge from the hospital was followed by another suicide attempt, but this time she found a new psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orne, who suggested she write about her problems as part of her therapy. Thus Sexton became a poet.
Sexton’s realization that she could exorcise her own demons and provide a moving experience for others through poetry prompted her to enroll in John Holmes’s poetry seminar at Boston University. There she met Maxine Kumin, a fellow poet who would inspire and encourage her and who would eventually coauthor children’s stories with her. Sexton also learned much from W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell, whose work was beginning to popularize the confessional mode of poetry. In 1960, her first collection of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published by Houghton Mifflin. The book’s poems chart her experiences through the crisis of mental illness and back toward health.
Her work gained attention within the poetry establishment instantly; although some critics panned it, no one ignored it. Sexton’s second book, All My Pretty Ones, appeared in 1962, again describing the mental illness but also focusing on the personal losses the author had suffered. The book was followed by prestigious awards and grants. Travel grants allowed Sexton to visit Europe and Africa, although her travels never seemed to provide satisfaction but instead left her depressed.
Her book Live or Die (1966) won for her the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1967. She received honorary degrees from a number of prestigious universities and a Guggenheim Fellowship; the woman who had dropped out of finishing school taught at Harvard and Radcliffe. Houghton Mifflin published Love Poems in 1969 and Transformations in 1971, and these books were widely reviewed. By then, it was clear that Sexton’s career was an unqualified success.
Yet Sexton did not find peace within herself. She wrote several more books and prepared them for publication during the last four years of her life, and all these show a struggle between despair and religious belief. The Book of Folly appeared in 1972. The Death Notebooks came out in 1974, the last year of her life. The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975) and her 1969 play, 45 Mercy Street (1976), were published posthumously, as was Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (1978). In these last books, Sexton’s earlier themes are recapitulated, but the element of personal turmoil is often represented by a battle between herself and a dimly understood God.
During these last few years, Sexton became more difficult to live with, and it became harder for her to live with others. In 1973, she withdrew from her marriage, against her husband’s will; she entered a hospital once more to be treated for depression. She refused most invitations, and her lifelong friendships dwindled. This time, no new outlet presented itself, as poetry had through the agency of Dr. Orne in 1956. On October 4, 1974, Sexton committed suicide by poisoning herself with carbon monoxide.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493
Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey, the daughter of upper-middle-class parents. She attended the public schools of Wellesley, Massachusetts and spent two years at Rogers Preparatory School and one year at Garland Junior College before marrying Alfred Muller Sexton, whose nickname, Kayo, provides the dedication for her first volume of poems. Although a strictly biographical approach to Anne Sexton’s work is dangerously limiting, the significant events of her life serve as major subjects and impetus for her art.
After her marriage, she worked briefly as a model at the Hart Agency of Boston. Then, when she was twenty-five, her first daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, was born. The next year, Anne Sexton was hospitalized for emotional disturbance, and several months later, she suffered the loss of her beloved great-aunt, Anna Ladd Dingley, nicknamed Nana, in various poems and remembrances. The next year, Joyce Ladd Sexton was born, but within months, her mother was again hospitalized for depression culminating in a suicide attempt on her twenty-eighth birthday.
Following her first suicide attempt, Sexton began writing poetry on the advice of her psychiatrist, Martin Orne, whose name appears in her first collection of poems. On the strength of her first work, she received a scholarship to the Antioch Writer’s Conference where she worked with W. D. Snodgrass. Then she was accepted into Robert Lowell’s graduate writing seminar at Boston University, soon developing friendships with Sylvia Plath, Maxine Kumin, and George Starbuck. The next year, Sexton’s parents died in rapid succession. She continued her work, attending the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and delivering the Morris Gray Poetry Lecture at Harvard, although she was hospitalized at intervals for pneumonia, an appendectomy, and an ovariectomy. In 1960, Sexton studied with Philip Rahv and Irving Howe at Brandeis University and developed a friendship with James Wright. She was appointed, with Maxine Kumin, to be the first scholars in poetry at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. In 1962, she was again hospitalized for depression, but by the end of the year, she had recovered and toured Europe on the first traveling fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She also received a Ford Foundation grant for residence with the Charles Playhouse in Boston.
In 1966, Sexton began a novel that was never completed. She again attempted suicide in July, 1966. In August, she took an African safari with her husband, but in November, she was hospitalized again when she broke her hip on her thirty-eighth birthday. In May of 1967, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. She taught poetry as a visiting professor in many schools and received many honorary degrees before again attempting suicide in 1970. In 1973, she divorced her husband during another period of hospitalization for depression. She continued to write and teach despite frequent intervals of hospitalization. In 1974, she committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her home.
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