Anne Sexton Analysis


(Poets and Poetry in America)

ph_0111206437-Sexton.jpg Anne Sexton in 1967. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

With little formal training in literature, Anne Sexton emerged as a major modern voice, transforming verse begun as therapy into poetic art of the first order. Important for refining the confessional mode, experimenting with new lyrical forms, and presenting themes from the female consciousness, Sexton had the controversial impact of any pioneering artist. Despite periodic hospitalization for depression, ultimately culminating in her suicide at age forty-six, Sexton contributed richly to her craft, receiving much critical recognition and traveling widely.

Awarded fellowships to most of the major writing conferences, Sexton worked closely with John Holmes, W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Kumin, and others. She taught creative writing at Harvard, Radcliffe, and Boston University, and she served as editorial consultant to the New York Poetry Quarterly and as a member of the board of directors of Audience magazine. She won the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1962, and her second collection of poetry, All My Pretty Ones, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1963. In 1967, she received the Shelley Memorial Award and a Pulitzer Prize for her fourth collection, Live or Die. Sexton also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969 and many honorary degrees from major universities.

Although most critics believe the quality of her work deteriorated toward the end of her life, by that time, she had achieved success...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Contrast Anne Sexton’s attitude toward her father in “All My Pretty Ones” with Sylvia Plath’s in “Daddy.”

How is it possible that reading about painful struggles like Sexton’s can give pleasure?

How does one explain Sexton’s rejection of confession as a religious exercise while practicing it as a poetic one?

What do Sexton’s epigraphs contribute to the poems that they introduce?

Does Sexton avoid morbidity in her poems about death?

What changes in poetic form marked Sexton’s poetry as her writing career proceeded?


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Furst, Arthur. Anne Sexton: The Last Summer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A collection of Furst’s photos of Sexton with letters and unpublished drafts of Sexton’s poems written during the last months of her life, as well as previously unpublished letters to her daughters.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Anne Sexton. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This useful introduction to Sexton examines her poetry and its chronological development. Worth noting is the chapter “Transformations: Fairy Tales Revisited.”

McClatchy, J. D. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. A collection of documentary and interpretative material—overviews, reviews, and reflections—on Sexton, including what are thought to be three of her best interviews. The volume sets out to establish a balanced critical perspective on this poet’s work and includes reprints of journals.

McGowan, Philip. Anne Sexton and Middle Generation Poetry: The Geography of Grief. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2004. An upper-level, advanced analysis of Sexton’s poetry with little biographical focus. Includes a bibliography and index.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. Middlebrook’s biography of Sexton is based on tapes from Sexton’s therapy sessions and the intimate revelations of Sexton’s family. Middlebrook explores Sexton’s creativity and the relationship between art and mental disorder.

Sexton, Linda Gray, and Lois Ames, eds. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. A compilation of the best and most representative letters written by Sexton, who was an exceptional correspondent. Contains a wonderful collection of letters, arranged chronologically and interspersed with biographical details, and providing much insight about this poet’s imagination.

Steele, Cassie Premo. We Heal from Memory: Sexton, Lorde, Anzaldúa, and the Poetry of Witness. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Addresses the ways society carries a history of traumatic violence, from child sexual abuse, through slavery, to the transmission of violence through generations and the destruction of nonwhite cultures and their histories through colonization.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Sexton. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. A volume of selected critical essays, gathering early reviews and modern scholarship, including essays on Sexton’s poems and her life. All the essays offer significant secondary material on Sexton; the introduction by Wagner-Martin is helpful, giving an overview of Sexton’s poems.