Anne Sexton 1928–1974
[Born Anne Gray Harvey] American poet, playwright, children's writer, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Sexton's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10.
Anne Sexton is among the most celebrated and tragic 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 poetry, Sexton underwent a rapid metamorphosis from suburban housewife to major literary figure during the early 1960s. Her first three volumes of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), All My Pretty Ones (1962), and Live or Die (1967), garnered critical acclaim and established her reputation as an important poet. Subsequent volumes, especially Love Poems (1969) and Transformations (1971), won her a large public audience, as did her popular appearances at poetry readings. A gifted, glamorous, and deeply troubled woman, Sexton's art and life—punctuated by her suicide—converged with the convictions of the contemporary feminist movement, drawing attention to the oppressive, circumscribed existence of women in American society.
Born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts, Sexton was the youngest of three daughters raised by her parents, a housewife and the owner of a prosperous wool company, in an upper middle-class home near Boston. Sexton graduated from Rogers Hall preparatory school for girls in 1947, 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 in 1948, an impulsive marriage that endured separations and infidelities until their divorce in 1973. From 1949 to 1952 Sexton worked as a model, lingerie salesperson, and bookstore clerk while Kayo served in the Navy Reserve during the Korean War. She gave birth to their first daughter, Linda Gray, in 1953, followed by a second, Joyce "Joy" Ladd, in 1955. After the arrival of Joyce, Sexton received psychiatric treatment for severe depression, followed by a period of hospitalization and a suicide attempt in 1956. Sexton suffered bouts of suicidal depression throughout the rest of her life, necessitating continual psychotherapy and subsequent hospitalizations. Upon the suggestion of her psychiatrist, Sexton began writing poetry during her recovery in 1956. The next year she joined a poetry workshop headed by John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education, where she befriended Maxine Kumin. Sexton's first published poem, "Eden Revisited," appeared in The Fiddle-head Review in 1958. During the same 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 participated in the Bread Loaf Writers Conference on a Robert Frost fellowship. Her first volume of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, received a National Book Award nomination in 1960, as did her second volume, All My Pretty Ones, winner of the Levison Prize from Poetry magazine in 1962. Selected Poems (1964), published in England, consists of poetry from both To Bedlam and Part Way Back and All My Pretty Ones. After an appointment at the Radcliffe Institute from 1961 to 1963, Sexton travelled to Europe on an American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowship in 1963. She received a Ford Foundation grant for residence with the Charles Playhouse in Boston in 1964. During this time, Sexton also collaborated with Kumin on Eggs of Things (1963) and More Eggs of Things (1964), the first of several children's books followed by Joey and the Birthday Present (1971) and The Wizard's Tears (1975). Her next major volume of poetry, Live or Die, received a Pulitzer Prize and Shelley Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1967. Shortly after the publication of Love Poems in 1969, she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to work on her only dramatic work, Mercy Street, produced Off-Broadway by the American Place Theatre in 1969. In the next years she published additional volumes of poetry, including Transformations, The Book of Folly (1972), The Death Notebooks (1974), and The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975), which she completed only months before her death. 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.
Regarded 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. Inspired by years of intensive 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, during which she lost custody of her children. "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. Other poems, notably "You, Doctor Martin," "Music Swims Back To Me," and "Ringing the Bells" relate Sexton's experiences and emotional state while hospitalized. "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward," which involves an unwed mother who prepares to abandon her illegitimate child, alludes to Sexton's guilt at having lost her own children. Another significant poem from the volume, "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further," is Sexton's response to poet 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. Entitled after a line from Shakespeare's Macbeth, this volume contains the oft-anthologized poems "The Truth the Dead Know," written upon the death of her father, "All My Pretty Ones," "The Abortion," and "Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound," all of which probe emotions surrounding 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 of 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 the well known poems "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, a collection of loosely reinterpreted Grimm fairy tales, Sexton relies upon biting satire and dark humor to shatter the notion of happy or conventional endings. For example, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" portrays the heroine as vindictive and vain, "Rapunzel" involves a lesbian relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel, and "Briar Rose," based on the Sleeping Beauty story, features a young girl haunted by the incestuous advances of her father. 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 Fathers" and "The Jesus Papers" in The Book of Folly, "The Death Baby" and "O Ye Tongues," a sequence of psalms, in The Death Notebooks, and "The Rowing Endeth," the final poem of The Awful Rowing Toward God 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 one of the most significant American poets 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 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 personal experience and taboo sexual topics into art, others condemn such themes as exhibitionistic and inappropriate. As poet 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. Though Love Poems and Transformations were Sexton's best-selling and most popular volumes during her life, her critical reputation rests largely upon the poems of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, All My Pretty Ones, and Live or Die. Renowned for her heavily revised verse in earlier volumes, most critics note Sexton's declining artistic discipline in hastily composed later volumes such as The Book of Folly, The Death Notebooks, and The Awful Rowing Toward God. A celebrity and trenchant poetess whose frank discussion of sex and mental illness offered liberating honesty for many, Sexton remains among the most important female poets of her generation.