Anne Sexton Sexton, Anne (Vol. 123)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 45,942 words.)