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Anne Sexton began writing poetry at age twenty-eight as a form of psychotherapy; by the time of her suicide at age forty-five she had become a major figure in postwar American poetry. Her work was intimate, confessional, comic, formally complex, and psychologically acute; her popular public readings were spectacles of performance art. Admired by peers for her technical skill and compelling imagery, Sexton won most of the prizes available to American poets. She also gained, for a poet, an exceptionally wide audience of readers. Her poetry was distinctive in its straightforward treatment of mental illness and prosperous suburban life in the era of the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution in America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Poetry as Therapy
Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey on November 9, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts. She was educated in a variety of schools, both public and private, including a finishing school in Boston. She left after her first year to elope with Alfred Muller “Kayo” Sexton II, in 1948. After their marriage, Kayo Sexton joined Anne’s father’s wool business as a salesman, and the Sextons made their home in Newton Lower Falls and in Weston, Massachusetts. They had two daughters, Linda, born 1953, and Joyce, born 1956.
Shortly after the birth of her second child, Sexton began psychiatric treatment for what was initially diagnosed as postpartum depression. She became dangerously suicidal and was hospitalized, and her children were removed from her care. Her psychiatrist encouraged her to take up writing as a way of strengthening self-esteem. Sexton found writing poetry and engaging in psychotherapy to be oddly similar activities, each requiring a fine sensitivity to the ways language works, and the multiple meanings behind words. Writing, she later explained in a lecture, ”is like lying on the analyst’s couch, re-enacting a private terror, and the creative mind is the analyst who gives pattern and meaning to what the persona sees as only incoherent experience.”
Developing Her Talent
Having little background in literature and little training as a writer, Sexton enrolled in a night-school course at the Boston Center for Adult Education in 1957, where she met the poets Maxine Kumin, George Starbuck, and John Clellon Holmes. The four of them met regularly in an informal workshop after the course at the Boston Center ended; Sexton’s emerging talent flourished in the environment of their praise and criticism. She called her newfound purpose in life ”a kind of rebirth at twenty-nine.”
Sexton’s development as an artist got its first major push when she received a scholarship to the Antioch Writers’ Conference in the summer of 1958. There she studied with the poet W. D. Snodgrass, whose enthusiastic recommendation helped Sexton gain admission that fall to Robert Lowell’s writing seminar at Boston University. The poet, Sylvia Plath, also joined Lowell’s seminar that year, and she and Sexton became friends. Observing the positive impact that Plath’s suicide in 1963 had on her reputation as an artist, Sexton felt cheated that Plath got there first, telling her doctor, ”that death was mine!”
Lowell’s influence on Sexton’s career continued, as he helped her select the contents of her first volume, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) and get it published. The Boston publishing house of Houghton Mifflin accepted the book just as Lowell’s seminar was ending in May 1959, and he remained her American publisher throughout her career. Lowell’s blurb on the cover helped bring the book to national attention; the poems that spoke frankly and eloquently of mental illness, such as ”You, Dr. Martin” and ”Music Swims Back to Me,” were particularly singled out. Most of the reviews were respectful, and To Bedlam and Part Way Back was nominated for the prestigious National Book Award that year. Sexton had soared from complete obscurity to major recognition, a mere three and a half years after writing her first poems in therapy.
Expanding Beyond Home
Sexton’s career passed another significant milestone with her appointment in 1961 as a scholar of the Radcliffe Institute, founded that year to encourage college-educated housewives to reenter the intellectual labor force. Sexton was something of a ”maverick” among the Radcliffe scholars: she had no college education and had received her artistic training on the job. The two years Sexton spent as a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute provided her with the collegiality of a variety of other professional women and her first contact with feminist thought, which was undergoing a renaissance in the early 1960s. Under the influence of Olsen, Sexton discovered Virginia Woolfs A Room of One’s Own (1929), a feminist classic whose imagined idea of Shakespeare’s sister wondered whether, had Shakespeare been born a woman, the world would now have her poems and plays. Sexton also encountered Betty Friedan’s newly published book The Feminine Mystique (1963), which became a major topic of debate among the scholars.
Sexton’s next book, All My Pretty Ones (1962), strengthened her national reputation and garnered international attention as well. Despite her impressive achievements, Sexton continued to suffer from debilitating bouts of depression. Her condition had worsened in 1960 after the deaths of both her parents within a few months of one another; she was now seeing her psychiatrist three times a week. He began taping their sessions and required her to replay them and take notes. The years of taping (1961 to 1964) were to have a profound effect on Sexton’s writing, which became looser, more shaped by the rhythms of speech than by metrical norms. She also became interested in writing for the theater, an interest that resulted in three plays, all versions of the same story, in which a young woman, Daisy, seeks out refuge from her suicidal despair, first in religion, and then in psychotherapy.
Though only the third version of the play, Mercy Street (1969), was produced, and never published, dramatic writing would shape the rest of Sexton’s career. More and more, Sexton wrote poems that were dramatic monologues intended for performance—her own. Her third volume of poems, Live or Die (1966), contained a mixture of formal verse and a more rambling, associational mode of free verse that many critics saw as undisciplined. Poems that seemed shapeless on the page could be animated by a live reading, and the active poetry circuit of the time was lucrative for a poet who could please a crowd. Sexton, an exceptionally effective reader, had become, by the mid-1960s, a well-paid act. At rallies organized to protest the war in Vietnam, Sexton always read a poem celebrating the puberty of her elder daughter, Linda (”Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman”), which often seemed more to the point than work in a didactic or angry mode. By 1968, Sexton had added music to her performances. Traveling with a ”chamber rock” group christened ”Anne Sexton and Her Kind,” Sexton, dressed in a glamorous evening dress, chanted her poetry in well-rehearsed collaboration with five musicians playing flute, keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums. The group disbanded in 1971 after a handful of concerts, largely because Sexton found travel disorienting and fatiguing.
In Her Prime
In 1967 Live or Die was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Sexton, at thirty-eight, was in her prime. During the next three years she wrote the books that remain her best sellers: Love Poems (1969) and Transformations (1971). Love Poems gave American literature its first fully sexual heroine; its poems tell the story of an affluent wife and mother emboldened by the sexual revolution in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. Love Poems’s significance comes not just from the theme of adultery, but from its female point of view, which upends the tradition of women being punished for their adultery in literature, rather than empowered by it.
Sexton’s second most popular book was Transformations, which consists of seventeen narrative poems based on the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. A work of black humor narrated by ”a middle-aged witch, me,” it draws on Sexton’s years of psychotherapy in retelling the stories of such stories as ”Briar Rose” (which explains a daughter’s fear of going to bed), ”Rapunzel” (which accounts for a girl’s willing entrapment by a seductive older woman), and ”Snow White” (in which a cold, neglectful mother is punished). Transformations was a popular success, even if it received little critical attention and represented a departure from Sexton’s usual style: it contained no evidently ”confessional” poetry.
A number of teaching experiences—from public schools to a mental institution—led Sexton to take a position teaching creative writing at Boston University in 1970. By 1972, after receiving a number of honorary doctorates, Sexton was promoted to full professor. The following year she was appointed to a prestigious chair of poetry at Colgate University, which she held during the spring of 1972. But by the early 1970s, Sexton’s mental health, never secure, had begun deteriorating notice ably under the influence of alcohol and pills. The divorce from her husband of twenty-four years and a deepening sense of isolation only made things worse, and she began organizing her literary estate. She felt her death was imminent, but still had a few more books to complete. The Book of Folly (1972), with its surreal poems of the unconscious, is a foray into experimental form. The Death Notebooks (1974) investigates Sexton’s lifelong fixation on death. Her last book, The Awful Bowing Toward God (1975), was completed in a month-long whirlwind of writing; she finished correcting the proofs on October 4, 1974. That same afternoon she committed suicide by parking her car in her garage and letting it idle.
Works in Literary Context
Though poetry had long revolved around personal themes—love, mourning, etcetera—the 1950s ushered in a new kind of personal writing dubbed “confessional” poetry. Pioneered by such poets as W.D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell, both of whom served as teachers and mentors to Sexton, the genre allowed for a new honesty and directness, exploring and exposing the rawest, and at times, ugliest of emotional experiences. While confessional poetry allowed for a refreshing authenticity that could be just as cathartic for readers as it was for the poets, the confessional mode was not without its critics. Some thought it was undisciplined, with form and decorum seemingly thrown to the wind. Poets like Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg managed to fit their deeply autobiographical writing into traditional forms, and others, including Sexton, helped to redefine rhythm in the cadences of spoken language, and shifted new emphasis onto the sounds and suggestiveness of the words themselves.
Works in Critical Context
All My Pretty Ones
All My Pretty Ones, completed during Sexton’s term at Radcliffe, is often judged to be her best book, winning gratifying praise from many poets: Sylvia Plath wrote in a personal letter that it was ”womanly in the greatest sense,” and Elizabeth Bishop wrote in another letter that it was ”harrowing, awful, very real— and very good.” However, the book was savaged in Poetry by James Dickey for ”dwell[ing] … insistently on the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience.” Sexton’s art was always going to be judged more on content than on form.
Live or Die
Dissent among the reviewers continued with the appearance of Live or Die, Sexton’s best-known book. A Virginia Quarterly Review critic believed that Sexton was ”a very talented poet” who was perhaps too honest:
Confession, while good for the soul, may become tiresome for the reader if not accompanied by the suggestion that something is being held back. … In [Live or Die] Miss Sexton’s toughness approaches affectation. Like a drunk at a party who corners us with the story of his life, . . . the performance is less interesting the third time, despite the poet’s high level of technical competence.
Joel Conarroe, however, had a more positive view of Sexton’s candor. Miss Sexton is an interior voyager, describing in sharp images the difficult discovered landmarks of her own inner landscape. … Poem after poem focuses on the nightmare obsessions of the damned: suicide, crucifixion, the death of others. … It is, though, through facing up to the reality (and implications) of these things that the poet, with her tough honesty, is able to gain a series of victories over them. . . . All in all, this is a fierce, terrible, beautiful book, well deserving its Pulitzer award.
- Bixler, Frances, ed. Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1988.
- Conarroe, Joel. Eight American Poets: An Anthology. New York: Random House, 1994.
- George, Diana Hume. Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
- Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Anne Sexton. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
- McClatchy, J. D., ed. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
- Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
- Sexton, Linda Gray. Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton. New York: Little, Brown, 1994.
- Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Sexton. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.
- Poulin, A. Jr. ”A Memorial for Anne Sexton.” American Poetry Review, May/June 1975.
- Review of Live or Die. Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1967.
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