Sexton is among the most celebrated poets of the confessional school. Her highly emotional, self-reflexive verse, characterized by preoccupations with childhood guilt, mental illness, motherhood, and female sexuality, is distinguished for its stunning imagery, artistry, and remarkable cadences. An unlikely latecomer to the literary scene, Sexton underwent a rapid metamorphosis from suburban housewife to major literary figure in the early 1960s. Sexton's art and life—culminating in her suicide—converged with the convictions of the contemporary feminist movement, drawing attention to the oppressive, circumscribed existence of women in middle-class American society.
Born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts, Sexton was the youngest of three daughters raised in an upper-middle-class home near Boston. Her mother, a housewife and daughter of a published author, had aspired to be a poet in her own right, and Sexton struggled throughout her life with a sense of competition with her mother, a tension that routinely appears in Sexton's poetry. In 1947 Sexton graduated from Rogers Hall preparatory school for girls, where her first poetry appeared in the school yearbook. After a year at Garland Junior College, a finishing school in Boston, she eloped with Alfred Muller "Kayo" Sexton II. Following an impulsive marriage that endured separations and infidelities, the couple divorced in 1973. From 1949 to 1952 Sexton worked as a model—notably for the esteemed Hart modeling agency in Boston—as well as a lingerie salesperson and bookstore clerk while Kayo served in the Navy Reserve during the Korean War. Sexton gave birth to her first daughter, Linda Gray, in 1953, followed by a second daughter, Joyce Ladd, in 1955. After the arrival of Joyce, Sexton suffered from postpartum depression and attempted suicide for the first time in 1956. She was hospitalized and underwent psychiatric treatment, losing custody of her children after her release, when she was forced to return to her parents' home to live for a time. According to Sexton, these events precipitated her return to poetry writing after years of ignoring her interest and talent. Both her psychiatrist and a priest she went to for spiritual guidance supported her decision to write about her experiences. "God is in your typewriter," the priest reportedly told her. In 1957 Sexton joined a poetry workshop headed by John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education, where she befriended Maxine Kumin, who would also become a distinguished poet. The following year Sexton received a scholarship to attend the Antioch Writers' Conference to study under W. D. Snodgrass. Later that year, she enrolled in Robert Lowell's writing seminar at Boston University, where she was introduced to Sylvia Plath, and in 1959 she participated in the Bread Loaf Writers Conference with the assistance of a Robert Frost fellowship. Her first volume of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), received a National Book Award nomination, as did her second volume, All My Pretty Ones (1962), which also won the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine. After an appointment at the Radcliffe Institute from 1961 to 1963, Sexton received an American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowship and traveled to Europe. She received a Ford Foundation grant for residence with the Charles Playhouse in Boston in 1964. Sexton also collaborated with Kumin on a series of children's books. Her next major volume of poetry, Live or Die (1966), received a Pulitzer Prize and Shelley Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1967. Shortly after the publication of Love Poems (1969), she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to complete her only dramatic work, Mercy Street, produced off-Broadway by the American Place Theatre in 1969. The recipient of honorary degrees from Harvard and Radcliffe, Sexton gave frequent poetry readings and taught creative writing at Boston University from 1970 until her death. During the 1970s Sexton's mental and physical health deteriorated, exacerbated by addictions to alcohol and sleeping pills. She committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1974.
As a confessional poet, Sexton's writing is in many ways a candid autobiographic record of her struggle to overcome the feelings of guilt, loss, inadequacy, and suicidal despair that tormented her. Informed by years of psychotherapy, Sexton's carefully crafted poetry often addresses her uncertain self-identity as a daughter, wife, lover, mother, and psychiatric patient. Her first volume, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, consists of poems written shortly after her confinement in a mental hospital. "The Double Image," among the most accomplished works of the volume, is a sequence of seven poems describing Sexton's schism with her mother in the imagery of two portraits facing each other from opposite walls. "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward," which concerns an unwed mother who prepares to abandon her illegitimate child, alludes to Sexton's guilt over losing custody of her children. Another significant poem in the book, "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further," is Sexton's response to John Holmes's criticism of her transgressive subject matter, representing Sexton's defense of the confessional mode and her own poetic voice. The poems of All My Pretty Ones further illustrate Sexton's aptitude for invoking musical rhythms and arresting imagery. The volume contains the often-anthologized poems "The Truth the Dead Know," "All My Pretty Ones," "The Abortion," and "Letter Written on a Ferry while Crossing Long Island Sound," all of which concern feelings of loss. "With Mercy for the Greedy," also from this volume, anticipates Sexton's proclivity for Christian motifs in much of her subsequent work. The poems of Live or Die explore Sexton's ongoing vacillation between life and maternal responsibility and her attraction to suicide. Her obsession with death, a prominent recurring theme in all her work, is explicit in the poems "Sylvia's Death," about Sylvia Plath's suicide, and "Wanting to Die," countered by the life-affirming poem "Live" at the end of the volume. Also included are such well-known poems as "Flee on Your Donkey," "Menstruation at Forty," "The Addict," "Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman," a tender paean to her daughter, and "Somewhere in Africa," a eulogy on the death of Holmes. Less concerned with psychic trauma, Love Poems contains verse ranging from elegant depiction of erotic desire in "The Breast," "Song for a Lady," and "Eighteen Days Without You," praise for womanhood in "In Celebration of My Uterus," the pain of love's end in "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife," "You All Know the Story of the Other Woman," and "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator," and her relationship with her husband in "Loving the Killer." In Transformations (1971), a collection of loosely reinterpreted Grimms fairy tales, Sexton relied upon biting satire and dark humor to shatter the notion of happy or conventional endings. Sexton's late volumes reveal the poet's mounting anguish, coloring her work with an increasing morbidity and overriding religiosity. The themes of alienation, death, and deliverance are evident in "The Death of the Fathers" and "The Jesus Papers" in The Book of Folly (1972), "The Death Baby" and "O Ye Tongues," a sequence of psalms, in The Death Notebooks (1974), and "The Rowing Endeth," the final poem of the overtly religious volume The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975), in which the speaker arrives at "the island called God" to play a hand of cards with the deity himself. The balance of Sexton's poetry is collected in the posthumous volumes 45 Mercy Street (1976) and Words for Dr. Y (1978).
Sexton is recognized as a significant American poet of the postwar era. Widely praised for the forceful imagery, compelling associations, affective elegiac tone, and meticulously arranged tonal patterns of her best verse, she is considered among the most talented representatives of the first generation of confessional poets, along with Lowell and Plath. Critics frequently comment on the dual nature of Sexton's poetry as a cathartic process and destructive urge. While many find courage in Sexton's willingness to transmute painful experience and taboo topics into art, others have condemned such themes as exhibitionist and inappropriate. James Dickey wrote of Sexton's poems in his now-famous review of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, "One feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of such naked suffering." Despite the limitations of Sexton's unabashed self-scrutiny, many critics discern profound archetypal motifs in her work, particularly allusions to the Oedipus myth in themes of incest and the relentless search for forbidden truth and her complex handling of her own search for spiritual meaning in The Awful Rowing Toward God. A celebrity and trenchant poet whose frank discussion of sexuality and mental illness offered liberating honesty for many, Sexton remains among the most important female poets of her generation.