(b. 9 November 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts; d. 4 October 1974 in Weston, Massachusetts), Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and performer, popular in the 1960s for her dramatic flair and controversial confessional writing.
Born Anne Gray Harvey, Sexton was the youngest of three daughters born to Mary Gray Staples, a homemaker with unfulfilled literary aspirations, and Ralph Churchill Harvey, the owner of a successful woolen mill. Although the family was wealthy, Sexton had a painful home life (including possible sexual abuse) as a child and gravitated toward her great-aunt ("Nana" Anna Dingley) for comfort and security.
Sexton attended public schools in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and then Rogers Hall, a girls' preparatory school in Lowell, Massachusetts, from which she graduated in 1947. Hoping to transform their disobedient daughter into a proper lady, Sexton's parents sent her to the Garland School in Boston, a finishing school for women. There Sexton met and, on 16 August 1948, eloped with Alfred Muller "Kayo" Sexton II. The Sextons later bought a home in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts, and had two daughters.
The Sextons may have appeared to be an idyllic 1950s suburban family, but Sexton's continuing anxiety and depression were never far from the surface. During her husband's service in Korea, she engaged in occasional infidelities (which continued throughout their marriage) and abuse of the children. In 1955 she began psychiatric treatment for what was initially diagnosed as postpartum depression. Although managed at times, her condition worsened through her short life, leading to several suicide attempts and intermittent institutionalization. In 1956 her psychiatrist, Dr. Martin T. Orne, encouraged Sexton to use poetry writing as part of her therapeutic process. This was the beginning of Sexton's remarkable career as a so-called confessional poet.
Sexton always saw a close relationship between writing and psychotherapy. Her most successful poetry translates her "private terrors" (as she put it) into public forms. The unusual beginnings of her work, on the analyst's couch, portended not only her poetry's range but also the ways in which it was received. On the one hand, it was praised for its raw feeling, gutsy candor, and confessional intimacy. On the other hand, it was condemned for its lack of decorum, both personal and poetic. Sexton's work appeared just at the right time. With its dramatic secrecy, its flamboyant gestures, and its willingness to address taboo issues (particularly women's sexuality), her poetry was perfectly calibrated for the 1960s.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sexton set out to transform herself from a suburban housewife and part-time model into a serious poet. She enrolled in writing courses and joined workshops around Boston where she met poets such as George Starbuck, John Clellon Holmes, and Maxine Kumin. Sexton's work progressed with help from W. D. Snodgrass (whose autobiographical poem "Heart's Needle" is generally considered the first confessional work) and Robert Lowell (perhaps the most respected contemporary poet in America at the time). Through Lowell's writing seminar at Boston University, Sexton also met Sylvia Plath, to whom her personal subjects, biting tone, and dark obsessions are often compared. Indeed, when Plath committed suicide in 1963, a decade before she did, Sexton reportedly remarked to her doctor, "That death was mine!"
Lowell was instrumental in helping Sexton publish her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), a poetic treatment of her descent into, and partial recovery from, madness. This first book establishes Sexton's most identifiable persona, the "mad housewife," and also one of her primary themes: the death impulse. "Suicides have a special language," she writes in "Wanting to Die," "Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build." As with Plath and other so-called extremist artists, the insistent closeness of death is part of what gives the work its charge. As Sexton wrote in a 1963 letter, "The soul is … a human being who speaks with the pressure of death at his head."
Having little academic background, Sexton continued to professionalize herself through her appointment, in 1961, as an artist/scholar at the newly founded Radcliffe Institute. Here she was first exposed to feminist thought, reading work from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own to Betty Friedan's controversial 1960s manifesto of the women's movement, The Feminine Mystique. This education was crucial to the kind of poetry Sexton would produce throughout the 1960s, with its assertive focus on female experience. Characteristic poems with titles such as "The Abortion" and "Menstruation at Forty" unabashedly treated the secret subjects of women's lives—from marital and family relations to incest, adultery, and abuse. Her forthrightness made Sexton extremely popular in some circles and equally reviled in others. Whatever the judgment, one of her legacies was to give women's experience an important place in contemporary poetry. In this respect, Sexton paved the way for much of the feminist poetry of the coming decades. While other writers were concentrating on overtly political themes centered on the Vietnam War, Sexton proved her assertion that "poems of the inner life can reach the inner lives of readers in a way that anti-war poems can never stop a war."
All My Pretty Ones (1962), Sexton's second collection, was another popular success, and, like her first volume, it was nominated for the National Book Award. It continues her confessional themes and deals movingly with personal experiences of loss. This was a subject of some urgency to a poet who had lost not only her beloved great-aunt in 1954, but also both her parents to unexpected illnesses in 1959.
In May 1963 Sexton was awarded a traveling fellowship by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which she used to tour Europe for three months. Her popularity spread quickly, and in 1964 Britain's prestigious Oxford University Press published Selected Poems. This led to her election as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, London, in 1965. Among Sexton's other awards and honors during the decade are the Levinson Prize (1962), the Shelley Memorial Prize (1967), and the Pulitzer Prize (1967) for her third volume, Live or Die. She was also the recipient of several honorary doctoral degrees and professorships at Colgate University and Boston University.
Despite all these successes, Sexton's mental condition worsened. In the mid-1960s her psychiatrist began audio-taping their therapy sessions as a way of helping the patient recall material she might later repress. The tapes became important raw material for Sexton's poetry, which continued to push the boundaries of privacy. As well, the tapes, which were released by her doctor after Sexton's death, became the centerpiece of a controversy surrounding Diane Wood Middlebrook's Anne Sexton; A Biography (1991). The decision to release the tapes, which contain intimate revelations about Sexton's many extramarital affairs (including one with her second psychiatrist), her alcoholism, and her sexual abuse of her own daughter, sparked controversy in both literary and psychiatric circles for its perceived disregard of doctor-patient privilege.
Therapy informed not only Sexton's poetry but also her decade-long work on a play that uses the psychoanalytical process as its model and incest as its central image. This work went through three distinct drafts: "The Cure" (1962), "Tell Me Your Answer True" (1964), and finally Mercy Street (1969)—the only version actually produced. Performed at the American Place Theatre in New York, the play was praised for its lyrical language but criticized for its weak theatrical form.
In a more successful mixture of poetry and performance, Sexton began adding music to her already extremely popular readings. Anne Sexton and Her Kind, a chamber rock group that began when one of Sexton's students set several of her poems to music, was an attempt to capitalize on the huge audience for the popular poets of the 1960s such as Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Decked out in glamorous evening wear, Sexton chanted her poetry to the accompaniment of a five-piece band. The group's first performance in Boston (July 1968) was a benefit for Eugene McCarthy's bid for the presidency. In the late 1960s, the poetry circuit of American university campuses had become a booming and lucrative business, and Sexton had become a star of the circuit, to the consternation of more academic and serious-minded friends such as Kumin. As Sexton reached for an ever larger audience, the quality of her work declined, according to many critics. Her last books of the decade, Love Poems (1969) and Transformations (1971), were best-sellers but received little critical attention.
The 1970s saw a worsening of Sexton's mental and physical health. Her alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs isolated her from friends and family. In 1973, after her children had departed for college, she asked her husband for a divorce. It had long been evident from public and private records that Sexton was planning her own death, and despite the efforts of many people close to her to prevent such an act, she committed suicide. On 4 October 1974, after a lunch with Kumin during which they corrected the galley proofs of Sexton's final book, The Awful Rowing Toward God, Sexton returned home, closed the door of her garage, and asphyxiated herself with carbon monoxide. She was cremated, and her ashes were interred in August 1976 at the Sexton family plot at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
Although Sexton's importance as a cultural figure of the 1960s seems assured, her status as a major poet and innovator is somewhat less certain. Critics have argued that the confessional label has unfairly confined Sexton, but the fact is her success was crucially tied to the self-revelation and self-performance at the heart of confessional writing. In a memorial essay, Erica Jong described Sexton as "a woman without skin" who "had so little capacity to filter out pain that everyday events often seemed unbearable to her." The ability to turn pain into print, to embody this odd skeletal figure, part witch, part helpless child, will likely be the final legacy, the achievement and the tragedy, of Sexton's art.
All of Sexton's papers are held by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the University of Texas at Austin. Her correspondence, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977), is edited by Linda Gray Sexton, her daughter (and literary executor), and Lois Ames. Linda Gray Sexton has also published a telling personal memorial, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton (1994). Diane Wood Middlebrook's Anne Sexton: A Biography (1991) is an extremely readable and useful authorized biography. The major critical work is Diana Hume George, Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton (1987). Collections of essays include J. D. McClatchy, Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics (1978); Frances Bixler, Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton (1988); Steven E. Colburn, Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale (1988); Diana Hume George, Sexton: Selected Criticism (1988); and Linda Wagner-Martin, Critical Essays on Anne Sexton (1989). The only extensive bibliographic source is Cameron Northouse and Thomas P. Walsh, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: A Reference Guide (1974). No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose was edited by Steven E. Colburn (1985). Sexton's Complete Poems were published in 1981, and Selected Poems was edited by Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George in 1988. Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Washington Post (both 6 Oct. 1974) and in Time (14 Oct. 1974).
Born 2 November 1928, Newton, Massachusetts; died 4 October 1974, Weston, Massachusetts
Daughter of Ralph and Mary Staples Harvey; married Alfred M. Sexton II, 1948 (divorced); children: two daughters
Although Anne Sexton's childhood included winters with her beloved great-aunt at the spacious family residence in Weston, Massachusetts, as well as happy seaside summers in Maine, Sexton was a demanding, rebellious child who felt rejected by her upper-middle class parents. Her impulsive marriage in 1948 to Alfred Sexton weathered many years of crises before it ended in divorce in 1973. Sexton's sudden bouts of suicidal depression, which for several years necessitated separating her from her two small daughters, continued throughout her life, as did her psychiatric care in and out of mental hospitals. All of these problematic relationships form the basis of much of her poetry.
Discovering her poetic interests at age twenty-eight, this attractive housewife from the suburbs of Boston began studying under mentors such as Robert Lowell. Sexton taught at Boston University from 1970 until she took her life at the age of forty-five.
In To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), Sexton probed the intensely personal terrain of madness, guilt, and loss. As she undertakes her poetic journey from madness to partial sanity, her most frequent voice is that of the helpless, dependent child searching into the past for the lost parents and the disinherited self. Her two most famous Bedlam poems, "You, Doctor Martin" and "Ringing the Bells," capture the helpless childishness of mental patients who are "like bees caught in the wrong hive." "Pushing their bones against the thrust / of cure," these "foxy children" are dependent on the godlike doctor of the "oracular / eye," who oversees the protective order of their lives. However, the bell-ringing therapy shows that this order is only the regulated passivity of patients directed by the bell-lady's commands. Like the rows of moccasins they make—"waiting on the silent shelf"—the patients are the "moving dead." Bedlam also contains numerous elegies to the beloved dead moving through the poet's memories. In two remarkable mother-daughter poems, "The Double Image" and "Division of Parts," Sexton becomes a female Oedipus investigating the "appalling truths" of identity and guilt. While many readers objected to her subject matter, the raw power of the Bedlam poetry quickly established Sexton as a new and signifi-cant "confessional" poet.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Live or Die (1966), religious parallels tend to universalize the dilemma of the "mad" persona; thus in "For the Year of the Insane," Sexton tries to overcome the passivity which keeps her "locked in the wrong house" but fumbling for a fragmented prayer to Mary, the "tender physician" who could heal the spiritual sickness of the "unbeliever." A new voice of awareness and self-irony is also heard. In one of her best poems, "Flee on Your Donkey," Sexton realizes her madness has lost its "innocence." All the years of "dredging" dreams, "like an old woman with arthritic fingers, / carefully straining the water out," have only brought her back to the same "scene of the disordered senses," the "sad hotel" or mental institution from which she urges herself to flee. This book ends on an affirmative note: "I say Live, Live because of the sun, / the dream, the excitable gift."
Probably most notable are her poems on womanhood. In "Those Times…, " Sexton remembers childhood humiliations and how she "hid in the closet" waiting "among shoes / I was sure to outgrow" while she "planned my growth and my womanhood." The joyous lyric "Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman" is addressed to her daughter who is about to discover that "women are born twice." The frustrations of being female are the focus of poems like "One for My Dame," "Man and Wife," and "Menstruation at Forty," frustrations which, in "Consorting with Angels," culminate in Sexton's weariness with the "gender of things"—her own and that of the "men who sat at my table, / circled around the bowl I offered up."
Sexton's interest in the religious drama of self led to an only moderately successful psychodrama, the one-act play Mercy Street (produced at the American Place Theatre, New York City, 1969) as well as several experimental short stories. More successful was Conrad Susa's freeform operatic adaptation of Transformations (1971), Sexton's colloquially rendered poetic fairytales, which was produced by the Minneapolis Opera Company in 1973 and televised in 1978. These experiments foreshadow some of the characteristics of Sexton's later poetry: the looser poetic-prose line, the bold image, and the informal interpretations of mythic characters and situations.
Although Sexton's poetry has sometimes been labeled bathetic or hysterical, the startling force of the hyperbolic image is her forte. In her best poetry, Sexton explores the intensely personal but also universal conflict between the creative and self-destructive selves, a schizophrenic drama controlled by formal metrical patterns and casually placed rhymes. The elegiac voice searches for the lost, original self that has been tainted with experience and repressed in shame.
Although the frankness of her approach and the rather limited range of her autobiographical themes will continue to alienate some readers, Sexton attained a significant ranking among contemporary confessional poets.
All My Pretty Ones (1962). Eggs of Things (with M. Kumin, 1963). More Eggs of Things (with M. Kumin, 1964). Selected Poems (1967). Poems (with D. Livingston and T. Kinsella, 1968). Love Poems (1969, 1989). Joey and the Birthday Present (with M. Kumin, 1971). The Book of Folly (1972). O Ye Tongues (1973). The Death Notebooks (1974). The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975). The Wizard's Tears (with M. Kumin, 1975). 45 Mercy Street (edited by L. G. Sexton, 1976). Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (edited by L. G. Sexton, 1977, 1991). No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose (1985). Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (edited by D. W. Middlebrook and D. H. George, 1988, 1991).
Contributor of poetry to: What Did Miss Darrington See? An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction (1989); No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Newly Revised and Expanded (1993); Eight American Poets: Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, James Merrill: An Anthology (1994, 1997); Nature's Ban: Women's Incest Literature (1996); Splash! Great Writing About Swimming (1996); An Anthology of Great U.S. Women Poets, 1850-1990: Temples and Palaces (1997); and others.
Barnard, C. K., Anne Sexton (1989). Bixler, F., et al, eds., Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton (1988). Colburn, S. E., ed., Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale (1988). Donovan, J. A., Her Kind: Personae in Anne Sexton's Poetry (dissertation, 1993). George, D. H., Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton (1987). George, D. H., ed., Sexton: Selected Criticism (1988). Hall, C. K. B. Anne Sexton (1989). Hedges, E., and Fishkin, S. F., eds., Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism (1994). Heyen, W., ed., American Poets in 1976 (1976). Hungerford, E., ed., Poets in Progress: Critical Prefaces to Thirteen Modern American Poets (1967). Lacey, P. A., The Inner War: Forms and Themes in Recent American Poetry (1976). Markey, J., A New Tradition? The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich: A Study of Feminism and Poetry (1988). McClatchy, J. D., ed., Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics (1978). Middlebrook, D. W., Anne Sexton: A Biography (1991). Mills, Jr., R. J., Contemporary American Poetry (1966). Morton, R. E., Anne Sexton's Poetry of Redemption: The Chronology of a Pilgrimage (1988). Northouse, C., and Walsh, R. P., Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: A Reference Guide (1974). Phillips, R., The Confessional Poets (1973). Plimpton, G., ed., Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (revised edition, 1998). Rosenthal, M. L., The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (1967). Seduction and Theory: Readings of Gender, Representation, and Rhetoric (1989). Sexton, L. G., Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton (1994). Shaw, R., ed., American Poetry Since 1960:Some Critical Perspectives (1973). Showalter, E., et al, eds., Modern American Women Writers (1993). Smith, S. E., Serious Daring: Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (dissertation, 1998). Wagner-Martin, L., Critical Essays on Anne Sexton (1989).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Poetry Criticism (1991). Twayne's Women Authors on CD (CD, 1995).
Anne Sexton Reads (audiocassette, 1999). Boston Phoenix (Nov. 1994). Centennial Review (Spring 1975). Contemporary Literature (Fall 1992). In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry (audio cassette & CD, 1996). Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis (Winter 1992). Literature and Psychology (1993). Mythlore (Winter 1994). NMAL (Summer 1979). WRB (Apr. 1995).
—KATHLEEN L. NICHOLS
Nationality: American. Born: Anne Gray Harvey, Newton, Massachusetts, 9 November 1928. Education: Garland Junior College, 1947-48. Family: Married Alfred M. Sexton II in 1948 (divorced 1973); two daughters. Career: Fashion model, Boston, 1950-51; teacher, Wayland High School, Massachusetts, 1967-68; lecturer in creative writing, 1970-71, and professor of creative writing, 1972-74, Boston University. Scholar, Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, 1961-63; Cranshaw Professor of Literature, Colgate University, 1972. Contributor to periodicals, including Harper's, New Yorker, Partisan Review, and Nation.Awards: Audience Poetry prize, 1958-59; Robert Frost fellowship, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, 1959; Levinson prize, Poetry, 1962; American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship, 1963-64; Ford Foundation grant for year's residence with professional theater, 1964-65; first literary magazine travel grant, Congress for Cultural Freedom, 1965-66; Shelley memorial award, 1967; Pulitzer prize, 1967, for Live or Die; Guggenheim fellowship, 1969. Litt.D.: Tufts University, 1970, Regis College, 1971, and Fairfield University, 1971. Member: Royal Society of Literature (fellow); Poetry Society of America; New England Poetry Club; Phi Beta Kappa (honorary member). Died: Suicide, 4 October 1974.
To Bedlam and Part Way Back. 1960.
All My Pretty Ones. 1962.
Selected Poems. 1964.
Live or Die. 1966.
Poems, with Thomas Kinsella and Douglas Livingstone. 1968.
Love Poems. 1969.
The Book of Folly. 1972.
O Ye Tongues. 1973.
The Death Notebooks. 1974.
The Awful Rowing toward God. 1975.
The Heart of Anne Sexton's Poetry (3 vols.; includes All My Pretty Ones, Live or Die, Love Poems ). 1977.
Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories. 1978.
Complete Poems, 1981. 1981.
Selected Poems of Anne Sexton. 1988.
Love Poems of Anne Sexton. 1989.
43 Mercy Street (produced New York, 1969). 1976.
Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters (correspondence). 1977.
No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose. 1985.
Other (for children)
Eggs of Things, with Maxine W. Kumin. 1963.
More Eggs of Things, with Kumin. 1964.
Joey and the Birthday Present, with Kumin. 1971.
The Wizard's Tears, with Kumin. 1975.*
… about Anne (stage production), 1986, from a compilation of Sexton's poems.
Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: A Reference Guide by Cameron Northouse and Thomas P. Walsh, 1974; Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics, edited by J. D. McClatchy, 1978; "Seeking the Exit or the Home: Poetry and Salvation in the Career of Anne Sexton" by Suzanne Juhasz, in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, 1979; "The Hungry Beast Rowing toward God: Anne Sexton's Later Religious Poetry" by Kathleen L. Nichols, in NMAL, 3, 1979; "Housewife into Poet: The Apprenticeship of Anne Sexton," in New England Quarterly, 56(4), December 1983, pp. 483-503, and Anne Sexton: A Biography, 1991, both by Diane Wood Middlebrook; "Anne Sexton's Suicide Poems," in Journal of Popular Culture, 18(2), Fall 1984, pp. 17-31, "How We Danced: Anne Sexton on Fathers and Daughters," in Women's Studies, 12(2), 1986, pp. 179-202, and Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton, 1987, all by Diana Hume George; "Anne Sexton Remembered" by Maryel F. Locke, in Rossetti to Sexton: Six Women Poets at Texas, edited by Dave Oliphant, 1992; Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton by Linda Gray Sexton, 1994; Anne Sexton by S. L. Berry, 1997.* * *
Anne Sexton is known as a "confessional poet," a term coined in the 1960s to describe a half dozen American poets (mostly male) who seemed to put more of their private lives into their poems than was customary at the time. Her work is also, as Alicia Ostriker noted in Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, an important part of a body of poetry by women that emerged in the early 1960s, poetry that "illuminates the condition of women and therefore of humanity in an unprecedented way." Sexton wrote of her body ("In Celebration of My Uterus," "Menstruation at Forty") and of intimate female experience (abortion, masturbation) and situations ("Housewife," "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife"). She explored motherhood (often subversively), female sexuality, anger, and submission and, above all, breakdown, madness (To Bedlam and Part Way Back was her first collection, and the theme continued), the longing for death, and, especially in her last work, a longing for God the Father and his divine Son. Why, then, would Sexton, a New England WASP to boot, be included in a reference guide to literature on the Holocaust?
The answer lies in the poet's intense experience of evil and in the way she represented it in her poems. Evil was first felt as inner. One need not know that Sexton killed herself at the age of 46 to see that she sporadically, but increasingly, felt herself to be unworthy, crazy, bad. In Sexton, as in other women poets of the time, anger against the traditional condition of women, supposedly happy as procreators not creators, was often turned back against the self. Sometimes in earlier work, like the famous "Her Kind," she defiantly affirmed her status as "not a woman, quite"—"a possessed witch." Later, in "Loving the Killer," she saw herself as needing and loving the man who killed her; it is significant that she called him "my Nazi,/with your S.S. sky-blue eye." (Seven years earlier, in "The House," World War II in her family merely meant "rationed gas for all three cars.") In her last books self-destructive desire is accompanied by a proliferation of images suggesting inner evil ("the rat inside of me," "a bellyful of dirt," a "dead heart") and by multiple allusions to the Holocaust, signifying the evil both outside and within, public and private. In the posthumously published "Uses" she imagined and identified with the Jewish speaker, whose father was gassed, whose "Mama died in the medical experiments/they had stuffed a pig into her womb." (Note how the killing and violation of Jews is here associated with male violation of women.)
At the same time Sexton's poetry came to focus more and more on a difficult religious quest. In "Hurry Up Please It's Time" (The Death Notebooks ), where Ms. Dog (clearly Sexton but also perhaps "God" spelled backwards) struggles with God, her mother "sent away my kitty/to be fried in the camps." In "For Mr. Death Who Stands with His Door Open" (The Death Notebooks ), time itself is a "Nazi Mama with her beer and sauerkraut." In The Awful Rowing toward God , a collection written in two and a half weeks, whose religious passion "swept [her] up" and whose galleys she proofread the very day she committed suicide, Sexton produced what is arguably the most moving Holocaust poem in the English language: "After Auschwitz."
If the themes of Sexton's poetry are desperately serious, the poems are written in familiar American English ("Ms. Dog" and "Mr. Death" are typical), often close to ordinary speech. They are full of the objects of material culture (toilet seats, coffee mugs, Coke, frozen haddock) and names from popular culture (Joe DiMaggio, Skeezix, Long John Nebel), and they are often quite funny—sometimes savagely ironic, sometimes darkly funny, and sometimes just funny. Paradoxically, while her early verse may be the most "confessional," it often uses regular meters, rhymes, and is closer to the American academic poetry fashionable in the 1950s than to, say, the poetic experiments of Paul Celan . Yet as her poetry became more grounded in general myth, beginning with Transformations (the 1971 collection in which she retold Grimm's fairy tales), it became looser in form. The 10 wonderful "Psalms" in The Death Notebooks use the long free lines of the King James Bible and of the mad eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart, whom she imagined as a kind of twin. The Awful Rowing toward God is in free verse. Sexton increasingly appears as a highly original religious poet, very American, who found a way to write like a woman and who found in the Holocaust objective signs of her own sense of evil.
See the essay on The Awful Rowing toward God.
A number of creatively eminent individuals have taken their own lives, including John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and many other writers. The large number of such cases suggests that there may be a functional relationship between creativity and psychological health. This relationship seems to vary across domains, with the rate of suicide especially high in certain groups of artists, suggesting that there may be something unique to those domains that either draws suicide-prone persons into the domain or has an impact on the individual such that suicide is considered and often attempted.
The American Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Anne Sexton took her own life in 1974 via carbon monoxide poisoning before reaching the age of fifty. Her life and work are especially interesting because her poetry was clearly tied to her own psychiatric treatment. She began writing with only moderate formal education (a high school diploma), but after being published she was given honorary degrees from several universities, including Tufts, Radcliffe, and Harvard. While she is probably best known for Live or Die (1966), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Sexton also received acclaim for The Awful Rowing towards God (1975), The Death Notebooks (1974), The Book of Folly (1972), Mercy Street (1969), Love Poems (1969), All My Pretty Ones (1962), To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960), Transformations (1971), and several volumes of selected and collected poems.
Sexton was born in Massachusetts on November 9, 1928, to Mary Gray Staples and Ralph Churchill Harvey, who were known to drink regularly and sometimes heavily. They were somewhat prominent and quite socially active. Scholars suggest that they may have valued their social engagements over their family responsibilities. There is some evidence that Sexton's mother was jealous about her very early writing. Sexton did not have obvious creative aspirations, but instead seemed to think more about a family of her own. At one point her mother accused her of plagiarism and had that particular writing examined. It was deemed to be original, but many scholars suggest this incident affected Sexton's relationship with her mother. When Sexton reported feelings of guilt about her childhood, she focused on the relationship she had with her grandmother. She admitted to feeling responsible for the failure of this relationship.
Sexton had two older sisters. Biographers have noted that Sexton and her sisters were not especially close to one another, and her position as the youngest child in the family has been underscored. Research on family structure, including birth order, often suggests that an individual's expectations and worldview are associated with ordinal positioning within the family; interestingly, it is frequently the middle-born child who grows up to be the creative rebel. Sexton was socially active as a teenager, but also showed signs of a preoccupation with death. She was active in extracurricular activities, including athletic teams and cheerleading.
Sexton's aunt on her father's side attempted suicide in early childhood, lived several decades in an apparently stable marriage, and eventually committed suicide just before she turned seventy. The family believes that if her aunt's suicide had any sort of influence on Sexton, it was probably informational (e.g., the aunt modeling suicide) rather than genetic.
Sexton eloped with Alfred Mueler Sexton II when she was twenty years old, maintaining the view that she would become a traditional housewife. She apparently got along no better with her mother-in-law than she did her own mother. There were instances of various kinds of misbehavior, ranging from cigarette smoking to angry outbursts in the home of her in-laws. There were also instances of depression, especially after the birth of her two children: Linda in 1953 and Joyce in 1955. Sexton's first attempted suicide was not long after the birth of her second child. Although Sexton had planned to be a housewife and mother, she had difficulties coping with life, especially when her husband was away on business, falling into bouts of depression during the times he was gone.
Sexton was a bit of a rebel and nonconformist, or at least had difficulty with certain social norms. There is, for example, some indication that she was promiscuous, and she eloped with Alfred after knowing him for a very brief period of time—and while engaged to a different man. Scholars note that this type of behavior was not unusual given Sexton's creative temperament.
Other researchers suggest that the social and historical milieu of Boston in the 1950s was a factor in Sexton's troubled life. Sexton's expectation of being a housewife could easily have reflected social norms and pressures rather than a true inclination and intrinsic interest. Perhaps Sexton had a creative drive that she could not reconcile with the pressures placed on her to move in a more conventional direction. Depression could have easily resulted from the incompatibility between her creative temperament and social expectations.
Sexton was apparently addicted to sleeping pills and perhaps also to alcohol, further evidencing serious psychiatric disorders. At one point she had an affair with one of her therapists, further supporting the idea that she was not bound by most social norms.
Another explanation for Sexton's suicide involves the domain of poetry. Poets often invest a great deal of themselves into their work. Even if the poetry is eventually critically acclaimed, the writing of poetry can be quite stressful because on one hand the individual exposes a great deal of herself, and on the other hand the individual is working alone in an area where feedback is often quite delayed. The delayed gratification may have been particularly difficult for Sexton because she manifested many strong social needs.
Biographers place great emphasis on Sexton's psychiatric treatment, which was significant as evidenced by the content of her poetry. And, it is possible, given her nonconformism, that Sexton suffered from a borderline personality disorder. There are reports of her schizophrenic language, for instance, as well as her tendency to enter some sort of trance at the end of her psychiatric treatment sessions. She apparently did not want to end the sessions, perhaps because of emotional and social needs.
Sexton's increased reputation as a poet seemed to cause a new kind of marital difficulty. There were reports that her husband did not appreciate her work, and additional suggestions that her schedule, required by her publishing and the promotion of her work, caused friction at home.
See also: Suicide Influences and Factors: Gender
Ludwig, Arnold. The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy. New York: Guilford Press, 1995.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Sexton, Anne. The Awful Rowing towards God. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
Sexton, Anne. The Death Notebooks. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
MARK A. RUNCO
A contemporary American poet, Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was best known for the relentlessly autobiographical nature of her poetry and for her personal "confessional" voice, which led some fans to believe, mistakenly, that everything she wrote had actually happened to her.
Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey on November 9, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts. The youngest of three daughters born to prosperous parents, Sexton began writing poetry as a result of an emotional breakdown that led to serious depression. Her first of several suicide attempts was an overdose of Nembutal. Despite a lasting relationship with her psychiatrist, Martin Orne, Sexton lived a troubled life. As part of her therapy, Orne suggested Sexton write poetry, and she did. She eloped with and married Alfred Muller "Kayo" Sexton, II, on August 16, 1948.
Sexton began writing seriously in 1957, publishing To Bedlam and Part Way Back in 1960, a collection that won her significant praise for a first book. Though she received little formal training in poetics, claiming to learn meter by watching I. A. Richards on television, her poetry has notable formal sophistication. She is best known for the intensely personal quality of her work that early mentors, including John Holmes, tried to discourage in her. Sexton wrote about subjects that were previously unexplored in poetry, such as abortion, menstruation, and the allure of suicide for her. At a time when the most critically acclaimed poetry was considered "representative" of the human condition, Sexton wrote unabashedly about herself, writing on topics that some found "embarrassing" and others didn't even consider appropriate for poetry. Also noteworthy was the fascination with death that her poetry reveals, a fascination she shared with friend and fellow poet Sylvia Plath, whom she met while taking a writing seminar with Robert Lowell at Boston University. Previously, in a Holmes workshop, Sexton had met and struck up an important and lasting friendship with the poet Maxine Kumin. Kumin was the one with whom Sexton shared her ideas and early drafts of poems. In 1967 Sexton received the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die (1966) as well as the Shelley Memorial Prize. Other significant awards included a 1969 Guggenheim Foundation grant to work on her play Mercy Street and the American Academy of Arts and Letters travel grant in 1963.
Though there is much scholarly disagreement about which poets should be included in what M. L. Rosenthal labeled the "confessional" school of poetry—so named because of the confessional quality in the work—no one seems to argue with Sexton's placement therein. Others sometimes grouped with her as confessional poets include Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, and Theodore Roethke. While this label is used disparagingly at times to describe Sexton's work, it is certainly an appropriate label, though Rosenthal actually fashioned it for Lowell rather than Sexton.
Despite frequent stays in a mental hospital and continual psychiatric therapy, Sexton published seven poetry collections in her lifetime with three more published post-humously. Her best work is probably found in All My Pretty Ones (1962), which bears an epigraph from Shakespeare's Macbeth. In that collection, too, Sexton professes her commitment to personal, confessional poetry in "With Mercy For The Greedy," writing:
I was born doing reference work in sin, and born confessing it. This is what poems are
Among her best-known poems are "Her Kind," after which Sexton named the band with which she later performed; "The Abortion"; "Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound"; "In Celebration of My Uterus"; and "The Ambition Bird."
Notable in her work is the collection published in 1971 titled Transformations. In these poems Sexton retells some well-known Grimm's fairy tales from the perspective of "a middle-aged witch, me," creating some comic moments and leading to some surprising conclusions that are not part of the original tales.
Sexton was an enormously popular reader on the poetry reading circuit. So popular was she, in fact, that she was able to command reading fees far in excess of those most poets received at the time. She was a glamorous woman— her early career before writing poetry included a brief stint as a model—and she had many fans, both inside and outside academia. Many thought of her as a celebrity first and a poet second.
Sexton made her final—this time successful—suicide attempt on October 4, 1974.
Sexton's works include: To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), All My Pretty Ones (1962), Live or Die (1966), Love Poems (1969), Transformations (1971), The Book of Folly (1972), The Death Notebooks (1974), The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975), 45 Mercy Street (1976), and Words for Dr. Y.: Uncollected Poems (1978). Her poems have also been collected in The Complete Poems (1981). Also of interest is Sexton's No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose (1992), edited by Steven E. Colburn.
Further information about her life and work can be found in Diane Wood Middlebrook's Anne Sexton: A Biography (1991). Reviews of her work and critical essays can be found in Diane Hume George's Sexton: Selected Criticism (1988); Linda Wagner-Martin's Critical Essays on Anne Sexton (1989); and Steven E. Colburn's Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale (1988). Sexton's The Complete Poems also contains a useful introduction to the poet by her friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin. □