Anne Sexton, née Harvey, was born in Newton, Massachusetts, the daughter of a prosperous wool merchant. She attended Garland Junior College, a Boston finishing school, for a year, and until she some years later began attending poetry workshops that remained the extent of her formal education. By the time of her suicide in 1974 she was a full professor at Boston University, had also taught at Harvard, Radcliffe, and Colgate, and had won fame for her poetry and such recognition as a Guggenheim Fellowship, honorary doctorates, and a Pulitzer Prize. Sexton is usually associated with the "Confessional" poets of the 1960s, along with Sylvia Plath, the early poetry of W. D. Snodgrass, and the Robert Lowell of Life Studies, but some critics have argued that such a classification limits her achievement and significance. In Sexton's later work, for these readers, the personal difficulties which she experienced in her own life as a woman, daughter, and mother, and out of which come many of the subjects of her poems, become more universally the problems of identity and social role in a middle-class culture intent on erecting stereotypes of women, and gender barriers to their achievement and emotional expression.
In 1948, after the year at Garland, Sexton eloped with and married Alfred Sexton, who later went to work in her father's business (they were divorced in 1973). A woman of striking appearance, she worked briefly as a model before giving birth in 1953 to the first of two daughters. Following the birth she suffered a mental breakdown and began the first of a number of hospitalizations for depression, anxiety, and suicidal impulses. The birth of her second daughter in 1955 was followed by another breakdown, a suicide attempt, and institutionalization. Out of her time in hospitals come such later poems as "Music Swims Back To Me," "Ringing the Bells," and "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward," poems that deal directly with feelings of chaos, despair, and alienation.
One of the doctors treating her suggested that she take a poetry workshop, and in the fall of 1957 she enrolled in John Holmes's class at the Boston Center for Adult Education. There she met poet Maxine Kumin, who became a lifelong close friend, and with whom she co-authored four children's story books. The following year she won a scholarship to the Antioch Writers' Conference to work with W. D. Snodgrass, whose poems in Heart's Needle (1959) she always acknowledged as an important influence. She subsequently enrolled in Robert Lowell's writing seminar at Boston University (at the beginning of 1959 Sylvia Plath also began attending the class). In the middle of the year both of Sexton's parents died, within four months of each other. Her 1962 poem "The Truth the Dead Know" records her feelings at her father's funeral, and begins:
Gone, I say and walk from church, refusing the stiff procession to the grave, letting the dead ride alone in the hearse. It is June. I am tired of being brave.
Sexton's ambivalent feelings about her father, variously angry and forgiving, form the subject of a number of her poems. "And One for My Dame," for example, from her second volume, parallels the selling careers of her father and husband, the nursery-rhyme title and subsequent narrative suggesting her reliance upon, and resistance to, a "master."
Sexton's first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, appeared in 1960 and was nominated for a National Book Award. Often centered upon raw, powerful emotions - connected to childbearing, hospital routines, her parents, her daughters, the presence of death, and her own breakdowns - the book gained Sexton immediate attention. In this book and subsequent poems she sometimes referred to herself as a "witch." "Her Kind," for example, begins "I have gone out, a possessed witch, / haunting the black air" and ends: "A woman like that is not ashamed to die. / I have been her kind." She continued attending workshops and classes, studying modern literature with Irving Howe and Philip Rahv at Brandeis that summer. Her second book, All My Pretty Ones (1962), was also nominated for a National Book Award, and in that year she won the prestigious Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine. All My Pretty Ones used as an epigraph a sentence from one of Franz Kafka's letters: "A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us" indicating the kind of direct confrontation that Sexton's poems seek with their subject matter.
Her third book, Live or Die, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967, and described a progress from sickness towards health that was not completely reflected in her own condition. Love Poems followed in 1969. The poems continued to be made out of the raw material of her life - personal difficulties, love affairs, and relationships to those closest to her - and moved towards a more open form than in her first books. She gave flamboyant, intense readings of her poetry in public, and in 1968 began accompanying her performances with a rock group, billed as "Anne Sexton and Her Kind." In 1969 her play Mercy Street, for work on which she had received a Guggenheim Fellowship, was produced off-Broadway.
Transformations (1971) retells a number of the Grimms' fairy tales in a ribald, wry manner, bringing in contemporary references, often using the stories to point up the implications of their treatment of women - as objects to worship and/or to subject to servitude. Snow White is a "china-blue doll" and none too bright in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Cinderella's story is equated with such escapist fantasies as winning the lottery or marrying a rich man, a story mocked by its lack of any connection to real life and by its questionable source - what "they say":
Cinderella and the prince lived, they say, happily ever after, like two dolls in a museum case never bothered by diapers or dust, never arguing over the timing of an egg, never telling the same story twice, never getting a middle-aged spread, their darling smiles pasted on for eternity. Regular Bobbsey Twins. That story.
The Book of Folly, which appeared the following year, was the last book Sexton published in her lifetime, and included a number of poems that mix personal and religious themes, as did the posthumously published The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975). On October 4, 1974, wrapped in her mother's fur coat, she shut herself inside the garage of her home with the car engine running and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. A posthumous volume of poems, The Death Notebooks, was published later that year, and a number of other volumes of uncollected poems followed. A Complete Poems appeared in 1981. The biography by Diane Middlebrook published in 1991, Anne Sexton: A Biography, produced some controversy because of its use of some of Sexton's confidential early medical records.
Was this article helpful?