Anne Sexton Sexton, Anne (Vol. 123) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To Bedlam and Part Way Back (poetry) 1960
All My Pretty Ones (poetry) 1962
Eggs of Things [with Maxine Kumin] (juvenilia) 1963
More Eggs of Things [with Maxine Kumin] (juvenilia) 1964
Selected Poems (poetry) 1964
Live or Die (poetry) 1966
Love Poems (poetry) 1969
Mercy Street (drama) 1969
Joey and the Birthday Present [with Maxine Kumin] (juvenilia) 1971
Transformations (poetry) 1971
The Book of Folly (poetry) 1972
O Ye Tongues (poetry) 1973
The Death Notebooks (poetry) 1974
The Awful Rowing Toward God (poetry) 1975
The Wizard's Tears [with Maxine Kumin]...

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Suzanne Juhasz (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seeking the Exit or the Home: Poetry and Salvation in the Career of Anne Sexton," in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Indiana University Press, 1979, pp. 261-8.

[In the following essay, Juhasz explores Sexton's creative urge as both a curse and cathartic force in her life. Juhasz maintains that Sexton's dual identity as housewife and poet proved a source of inspiration and despair.]

If you are brought up to be a proper little girl in Boston, a little wild and boycrazy, a little less of a student and more of a flirt, and you run away from home to elope and become a proper Boston bride, a little...

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William H. Shurr (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anne Sexton's Love Poems: The Genre and the Differences," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 10, 1980, pp. 58-68.

[In the following essay, Shurr discusses the composition and central motifs of Love Poems. According to Shurr, in Love Poems Sexton "merges the possibility of the ancient genre of erotic love poetry with the immediacy of modern experience."]

At least half of Anne Sexton's published volumes of poetry show a tight unity of construction. Though virtually all of the poems were published separately in various periodicals, and thus each can stand by itself as a complete poem, in the collections they are brought into programmatic relation...

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Diane Wood Middlebrook (essay date December 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Housewife into Poet: The Apprenticeship of Anne Sexton," in New England Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 4, December, 1983, pp. 483-503.

[In the following essay, Middlebrook examines Sexton's artistic development from suburban mother to celebrated poet, focusing on the significance of her literary mentors, particularly her relationship with John Holmes.]

In April 1960, Anne Sexton for the first time wrote "poet" rather than "housewife" in the "occupation" block of her income tax return. Married since 1948, mother of two daughters, Sexton had been publishing poetry for three years. The change in her status as citizen was significant for Sexton and for American...

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Diana Hume George (essay date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Is It True? Feeding, Feces, and Creativity in Anne Sexton's Poetry," in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 68, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 357-71.

[In the following essay, George explores the psychoanalytic significance of infant feeding, nurturance, and excretion in Sexton's poetry, especially as evident in O Ye Tongues. According to George, "In her version of the emergence of poetic consciousness, the infant's ambivalent attachment to feces becomes a metaphor for fertilization of the imagination and for the creation of a sustaining self."]

This is an essay on beginnings and endings, feces and fruit, in the poetry of Anne Sexton. I will end it in...

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William H. Shurr (essay date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mysticism and Suicide: Anne Sexton's Last Poetry," in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 68, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 335-56.

[In the following essay, Shurr discusses the significance of Sexton's increasing religiosity and impending suicide revealed in The Awful Rowing Toward God.]

Schweigen. Wer inniger schwieg rührt an die Wurzeln der Rede.


And Rilke, think of Rilke with his terrible pain.

—Anne Sexton

When Anne Sexton died in 1974, she had just produced what she intended to be her final book of poems. The...

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Diana Hume George (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetic Heroism of Anne Sexton," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 33, Nos. 3-4, 1987, pp. 76-88.

[In the following essay, George examines the significance of forbidden knowledge, incest, and psychic guilt in Sexton's poetry. George contends that Sexton's truth-seeking resembles that of the mythical Oedipus of Greek tragedy and psychoanalytic theory.]

Not that it was beautiful,
but that I found some order there.
There ought to be something special
for someone
in this kind of hope.
This is something I would never find
in a lovelier place, my...

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Liz Porter Hankins (essay date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Summoning the Body: Anne Sexton's Body Poems," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, Summer, 1987, pp. 511-24.

[In the following essay, Hankins explores Sexton's response to patriarchal oppression and search for feminine identity in her portrayal of the female body. According to Hankins, "Her body poetry represents her journey to herself, for in accepting and learning to love her body, she is accepting and learning herself."]

Robert Boyers so aptly said of Anne Sexton, "There is something awesome, even sublime in a woman who is not afraid to sound crude or shrill so long as she is honest, who in her best work sounds neither crude nor shrill precisely because...

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Diane Wood Middlebrook (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anne Sexton: The Making of 'The Awful Rowing Toward God,'" in Rossetti to Sexton: Six Women Poets at Texas, edited by Dave Oliphant, University of Texas at Austin, 1992, pp. 223-35.

[In the following essay, Middlebrook discusses Sexton's friendship with James Wright and the composition The Awful Rowing Toward God.]

Between 10 and 30 January 1973, Anne Sexton wrote—"with two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital"—an entire volume of poems. Eventually titled The Awful Rowing Toward God, this proved to be the last book Sexton saw into print. A few hours after correcting the galleys on 4 October 1974, she committed suicide....

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Mikhail Ann Long (essay date Spring-Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "As If Day Had Rearranged Into Night: Suicidal Tendencies in the Poetry of Anne Sexton," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 39, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1993, pp. 26-41.

[In the following essay, Long examines Sexton's preoccupation with death and suicide as an integral feature of her writing. According to Long, "Her poems clearly reflect her understanding of, and attempt to come to terms with, her mental illness and suicidal behavior."]

as if day had rearranged
into night and bats flew in the sun.

Was Anne Sexton's poetry primarily about the nature of the closed world of...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Gallagher, Brian. "The Expanded Use of Simile in Anne Sexton's Transformations." NMAL: Notes on Modern American Literature 3 (1979) Item 20.

Examines the narrative and allusive function of similes in Transformations.

George, Diana Hume. "Anne Sexton's Suicide Poems." Journal of Popular Culture 18, No. 2 (Fall 1984): 17-31.

Explores the articulation of suicidal longing in Sexton's poetry and public disdain for self-inflicted death.

George, Diana Hume. "How We Danced: Anne Sexton on Fathers and Daughters." Women's...

(The entire section is 298 words.)