Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey. After attending public school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, she went to a prep school and then, for a year, to Garland Junior College. She married Alfred Muller Sexton and worked briefly as a model. Her daughter Linda was born when Sexton was twenty-five. Sexton is often called a “confessional” poet (as are W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath, who were her friends). Many of her poems indeed include the word “confession” or comparable religious language, yet the label is somewhat misleading. Despite displaying moments of remorse, her verse more often celebrates than bemoans unconventional behavior. Readers have admired her courage in breaking taboos, in struggling “part way back” from madness, and in admitting all that she did. Rather than furnishing accurate confessions, she changes details skillfully for dramatic effect.
Many of her best poems tailor autobiography to accentuate similarities between herself and literary characters or historical figures. For example, she began all her public readings with her poem “Her Kind,” which identifies her with persecuted witches. In an interview with Barbara Kevles, Sexton explained that she thought of herself as being “many people,” including the “Christ” (of another of her poems), whose pain she felt as she wrote it. She spoke of mystical visions accompanied by the same sensations she felt when composing poetry.
The salvation she sought may have been momentarily attained through the poetic experience of adopting a persona or role. It distanced her from daily problems and permitted her to look at herself from new vantage points. She longed to be a character living in an imaginary place of forgiveness and reconciliation that she termed “Mercy Street” (in her more pious moments she fervently prayed for it to be real). Assuming...
(The entire section is 766 words.)