Sexton, Anne (1928–1974)
Sexton, Anne (1928–1974)
Sexton, Anne (1928–1974)
Major modern American poet who was one of the chief architects of the confessional school of poetry before her death by suicide. Name variations: Anne Gray Harvey. Born Anne Gray Harvey on November 9, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts; committed suicide on October 4, 1974; daughter of Ralph Churchill Harvey and Mary Gray (Staples) Harvey (both of whom were descended from prominent New England families, in Massachusetts and Maine, respectively); attended a Wellesley public school prior to being sent to Rogers Hall, a boarding school for girls in Lowell, Massachusetts, until, at age 19, she went to the Garland Finishing School for Women in Boston; married Alfred Muller Sexton II; children: Linda Gray Sexton (b. July 21, 1953); Joyce Ladd Sexton (b. August 4, 1955).
Poetry's Levinson Prize for All My Pretty Ones (1962); traveling fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1963); elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1965); travel grant from the Congress of Cultural Freedom (1965); Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Live or Die (1967); honorary Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard (1968) and from Radcliffe (1969); Guggenheim fellowship (1969); honorary Litt.D. from Tufts University (1970) and Fairfield University (1972); Crashaw Chair in Literature at Colgate University (1972); honorary Litt.D. from Regis College (1973); served on Pulitzer Prize jury (1973).
To Bedlam and Part Way Back (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960); "Dancing the Jig," in New World Writing (Vol. 16, 1960); "Classroom at Boston University," in Harvard Advocate (Vol. 145, November 1961); "On 'Some Foreign Letters,'" in Poet's Choice (ed. by Paul Engle and Joseph Langland, NY: Dial, 1962); All My Pretty Ones (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962); "The Last Believer," in Vogue (Vol. 15, November 1963); (with Maxine Kumin) Eggs of Things (NY: Putnam, 1963); (with Kumin) More Eggs of Things (NY: Putnam, 1964); Selected Poems (London: Oxford University Press, 1964); "The Barfly Ought to Sing," in Triquarterly (Vol. 7, Fall 1966); Live or Die (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966); (foreword) Aliki Barnstone's The Real Tin Flower: Poems About the World at Nine (NY: Collier-Cromwell, 1968); Poems by Thomas Kinsella, Douglas Livingstone and Anne Sexton (London: Oxford University Press, 1968); Love Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969); (with Kumin) Joey and the Birthday Present (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1971); Transformations (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971); "The Letting down of the Hair," in The Atlantic Monthly (March 1972); The Book of Folly (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972, includes unpublished story "The Ballet of the Buffoon"); "The Freak Show," in American Poetry Review (Vol. 2, no. 3, May–June 1973); "A Small Journal" ("All God's Children Need Radios"), in Ms. (November 1973); The Death Notebooks (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974); The Awful Rowing Toward God (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975); (ed. by Linda Gray Sexton) 45 Mercy Street (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975); (with Kumin) The Wizard's Tears (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1975); (ed. by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames) Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977); Words for Dr. Y.: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978, includes "The Ghost," "The Vampire," "The Bat or To Remember, To Remember"); "Journal of a Living Experiment," in Journal of a Living Experiment: A Documentary History of the First Ten Years of Teachers and Writers Collaborative (ed. by Phillip Lobate, pp. 44–75, NY: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1979); The Complete Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981); (ed. by Steven E. Colburn) No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985); (ed. by Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George) Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988).
One of the most important English-speaking poets of the mid-20th century and a founding mother of the variously celebrated and maligned confessional school of poetry, American writer Anne Sexton was, above all, a woman of contradictions. Having reached the pinnacle of poetry both artistically and professionally quite young in her career, she nevertheless succumbed to the demons of despair when she took her own life after numerous failed attempts. Poet and housewife, public performer and private agoraphobic, Sexton lived a bifurcated life: she was at once a disciplined, methodical, incisive poet who honed her craft and shrewdly marketed herself, and a disorganized, helpless, and needy woman who was propped up and sustained by the caretaking efforts of family and friends. It is no wonder that she spent the better portion of her 46 years tortured by life and flirting with death, branded, as she was from the onset of adulthood, by the mystery and the mischief of mental illness.
Surely the words will continue, for that's what's left that's true.
The youngest of three daughters, Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey, into an affluent household on November 9, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Her father Ralph Churchill Harvey, who was born on February 7, 1900, went from being a well-heeled drummer to owning a thriving wool business. Unlike his stodgy banker-father before him, Ralph nurtured a taste for the pleasures of a lavish social life, an ambition his socialite wife apparently shared, according to biographer Diane Middlebrook . Her father's cavalier attitude and fondness for the good life did not soften his parenting style, however, at least as Sexton remembered it. In therapy, she recalled his asking her to leave the table because he was disgusted with her acne, and insisting that the girls be dressed up and presentable at all times. Ralph Harvey showed no signs of the mental instability exhibited by his father, who suffered a breakdown following the collapse of a banking venture in Puerto Rico, or his sister, Frances Harvey , who committed suicide at age 69, ironically, one year after her famous niece's own suicide.
Anne's mother Mary Staples Harvey , born March 14, 1901, was the only child of the aristocratic Dingley-Staples family. She was descended from a long line of notable New England journalists and politicians, and her father Arthur Gray Staples, a writer, was the editor and publisher of the Lewiston Evening Journal. Mary Harvey evidently inherited her father's penchant for writing, and he saw to it that she was well educated, first at a private boarding school and then at Wellesley College. Father and daughter enjoyed a close relationship, reading together and listening to Red Sox games on the radio, and she displeased him when she met and married Ralph Harvey two years into college. Mary did not complete college, but she did write poetry, an occupation that later placed her in competition with her poet daughter.
Despite fond memories of childhood summers on Squirrel Island, Maine, in the company of the maternal side of the family, Sexton did not have a happy childhood. Close to neither mother nor father, she also shared little in common with her older sisters: Jane Harvey (b. 1923) and Blanche Harvey (b. 1925). As adults, both chafed at Sexton's airing of private family matters in public, as well as her depiction of an unhappy childhood. Interestingly, however, both the eldest Jane and the youngest Anne would commit suicide by middle age. The children were reared in a strictly regulated household under the close supervision of a nanny-nurse who saw to it that the Harvey girls were the well-groomed and well-behaved children demanded by their father. With her brash behavior and careless appearance, Sexton apparently took exception to this expectation, and as a result, she was often banned from the family dining room and required to take her meals in the kitchen. Her defiance was an early indication that she had an "attitude" and a matching style all her own.
The Harvey girls attended Brown Elementary School and Wellesley Congregational Church, although the family was not in the least religious. The parents apparently adored each other, yet remained distant from the children who competed for their attention. Their time spent on Squirrel Island was the happiest for Sexton, and it was during these summers that she delighted in playing her favorite role as actress on the family-made stage. Perhaps it was here that she first developed her sense of the dramatic and those theatrics that would later render her public poetry readings so moving and memorable. In those years, Sexton was most fond of her maternal great-aunt Anna Ladd Dingley , who led an unusually unconventional life for a woman of her time, working as a journalist and traveling around Europe. Sexton's namesake and very likely her first love, "Nana," as Anne called her, moved into the Harvey household when Anne was 11 and her mother Mary was away nursing her own father Arthur Gray Staples. After her grandfather's death in April 1940, childhood summers at Squirrel Island regretfully came to an end for Anne.
But the wool business in the Depression era was booming, and Ralph Harvey built a lavish
home for his family in Weston, another Boston suburb. The easy wealth led to squandering and excess, and both parents took up drinking as a main occupation until Ralph admitted himself to a treatment center. By 1950, he would stop drinking altogether, but not before his company showed signs of his neglect. These years also made their mark on Sexton, who remembered her father as having been a mean drunk who mistreated her.
She was also having problems at school—she skipped a grade, only to have to repeat another one, and shortly after her grandfather's death she had to be hospitalized for constipation. It was advised at this time that Sexton should undergo psychological counseling—perhaps a sign of things to come—but the family failed to heed the advice. During this time, Nana came to be a friend and mother-replacement for Anne, their relationship solidified by Nana's continual presence after joining the household. But her close companionship with Nana, who served as a key stabilizing factor in her life, would deteriorate owing to two simultaneous developments—Anne's activities outside the home in her teenage years, and Nana's mental decline after she lost her hearing (c. 1941). Yet another event prefiguring things to come in Sexton's own life occurred when her beloved Nana had to be hospitalized and treated with electroshock therapy (c. 1943). Anne's "loss" of Nana came at a time when her father's drinking was at its worst, and just as his own father suffered yet another breakdown. She also felt guilty for having separated herself from Nana in her quest to have an identity outside the household, and this twin pain of loss and guilt returned to plague Sexton in later life.
Nevertheless, a blossoming and rebellious Sexton galloped through her teens and took up the pastimes of smoking, drinking, and flirting. She was tall, slim, elegant, and crazy about boys, which is reportedly what prompted her anxious parents to send her off to boarding school. At Rogers Hall in Lowell, Massachusetts, Anne continued her minor study in boys, while participating in school activities, including plays, basketball, and cheerleading. She also wrote "Cinquains" for the school literary magazine, and her poetry became a point of contention between her and her mother who laid claim to the title of family poet. Mary Harvey's skepticism (and perhaps her jealousy) put an end to Anne's writing for a decade, when Mary had her daughter's poems examined for authenticity. Where boys were concerned, however, Sexton's spirits were not dampened. Several infatuations, one steady boyfriend, and an engagement later, Anne met and eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton II, whom she called Kayo, while she was attending the Garland Finishing School in Boston. She was 19 at the time of their elopement to Sunbury, North Carolina, which occurred at the suggestion of her mother when it was thought that Anne might already be pregnant.
Sexton's parents might well have been relieved that their somewhat loose and uncontrollable daughter was finally settling down, but Kayo's parents were disappointed, especially after he quit medical school and the distasteful financial dependence that came with it. The young couple lived, unhappily, between the homes of both families until they got their own apartment. Kayo worked in the family wool business while Anne took on odd jobs, including selling lingerie. She got on well with her sister-inlaw, Joan Sexton , and the two did some modeling work; Anne had the svelte figure and dramatic features of a model, but her acne was problematic. More problematic was her relationship with Billie Sexton , her mother-in-law, who viewed Anne as lazy and self-indulgent. Indeed, Anne was not adapting well to the constraints of married life, and for a time she had a romance with a Harvard surgeon and friend of Kayo's. Just as Mary Harvey had taken matters in hand by persuading Anne to elope, here, too, she took control by arranging for Anne to see a therapist, Dr. Martha Brunner-Orne , and Anne gave the surgeon up. This early infidelity, however, was a sign of things to come, as Sexton's 25-year marriage was peppered with similar romances and affairs.
In 1950, Kayo enlisted in the Naval Reserves, leaving Anne behind with a job in a bookstore and a struggle with her need for romance and adventure. A reunion with Kayo left her pregnant with their first child, and she joined him for a time at his base in San Francisco. Returning home to Weston, buoyed by an apparently recovered Nana living nearby, Anne awaited the birth of Linda Gray Sexton which came on July 21, 1953. With the help of Mary Harvey, the Sextons purchased their first home after Kayo returned to civilian life and a salesman's job for his father-in-law's wool company. By the time of her second child's birth on August 4, 1955 (Joyce Ladd Sexton ), Anne was 27 and showing signs of the mental illness that would shadow her for the next 19 years. Her beloved Nana had died the previous year, and Anne suffered from severe postpartum depression after Joy's birth. Kayo's frequent business trips left her alternately melancholy and crazed, and Linda Gray Sexton, in Searching for Mercy Street, claims that her mother was physically abusive to her during these times. Depression, especially in Kayo's absence, was exacerbated by the agoraphobia that Anne suffered, a condition which persisted throughout her life. Her terror of being in places outside the home, unless they were routine and familiar, oddly contrasted with the public life, such as readings and teaching, that came later with her success as a poet. On the homefront during the children's younger years, it was Billie who accommodated Sexton's neurosis by chauffeuring the children, shopping for their clothes, and running household errands. Increasingly, as her poetry pulled her into public places, she used alcohol to anaesthetize and prepare herself. Throughout her life, however, her inability to function normally and in a caretaker's role, particularly in Kayo's absences, established a lifelong pattern of family intervention. Kayo's father helped finance her therapy, first with Dr. Brunner-Orne and later with Brunner-Orne's son Dr. Martin Orne. She began treatment with Martin Orne in 1956, after the first of what would prove to be a series of suicide attempts and subsequent hospitalizations (some lasting months at a time), and it was he who prompted her to resume writing poetry. During these early years of marriage, Sexton's illness rendered her unfit to cope with the children, so Joy lived with Kayo's mother Billie while Linda was shunted off to live with Anne's sister Blanche and husband. Linda remembered this period as a terrifying one, both because of the extensive separation from her mother and the physical and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her exacting uncle. Joy evidently fared better under the nurturing eye of Billie whom she came to see as her "second mother."
Although Sexton experienced brief periods of recovery, stimulated in large part by her avid interest in writing the poetry which Orne advised for therapeutic reasons, she and the household never returned to—if indeed it ever had been in—a "normal" state. The children were eventually returned to her care, but Kayo's absences and Anne's inability to deal with her daughters and daily wifely duties was a prescription for family disaster. "I was trying my damndest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up," observed Sexton. "But one can't build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out." She was diagnosed with everything from insomnia to anorexia and rage to suicidal impulses; moreover, quite possibly, writes Middlebrook, "BIOchemical imbalances … intensified the underlying psychological vulnerabilities that were the primary focus of her therapy." But whatever the origin or precipitating factors, whether post-partum depression or the alleged lack of her mother's attention and love, Sexton suffered from a mental illness from which she could periodically escape through her poetry, but from which she could never finally recover.
Her renewed interest in poetry stimulated her interest in returning to school, an enterprise Mary Harvey refused to support because she was already underwriting a good portion of Anne's medical expenses. But by 1958 Sexton found other ways to educate herself, through reading books of psychology and participating in poetry workshops where she had the good fortune to work with the likes of such experienced mentors as John Holmes, W.D. Snodgrass, and Robert Lowell. Over time, Sexton educated herself, and what began as a form of therapy quickly turned into her main preoccupation, her art, and her life. While she battled her emotional demons, she grew as a poet. Experiences that would have been painful for a well-adjusted individual, such as her mother's breast cancer surgery and, two years later, her death on March 10, 1959, followed hard by her father's death due to a stroke three months later, were exacerbated by Sexton's emotional illness. The family learned to accommodate her growing absorption in writing; and the invariable relapses and their constancy, combined with the invaluable assistance of Kayo's mother in managing the home, enabled the little-educated, middle-class wife and mother of two to develop into a first-rate poet. For a time at least, the healthy blend of treatment, medication, and poetry gave Sexton's life meaning and kept her alive. But it was not without regret that she placed her art before her "female" duties: "I realize with guilt, that I am a woman, that it should be my husband, or my home—not writing. But it is not—I love the children but am not feminine enough to be all lost in their care." Sexton might not have judged herself so harshly (nor been judged so harshly by society) had she been living with today's more enlightened standards, but this was the 1950s when a woman's place was in the home and the domestic sphere was no place for a poet.
In the poetry workshops, Sexton formed invaluable relationships, and chief among these was her relationship with lifelong friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin , whom she met at the poetry seminar directed by John Holmes at Boston University that both attended in 1957. Radcliffe-educated Kumin, according to Middlebrook, was the first to recognize Sexton's talent and potential as a poet. They shared their poetry and looked after their children together; they participated in workshops and talked daily on the telephone critiquing each other's work and supporting one another, and they collaborated on children's stories. In 1958, Sexton also had the good fortune of meeting and working with poet W.D. Snodgrass at the Antioch Writers' Conference, thanks to the scholarship she earned with her promising work. She then continued studying under Robert Lowell at Boston University, and it was there that she befriended the then little-known Sylvia Plath , whose fate as unhappy housewife and confessional poet infatuated with death would be curiously similar to Sexton's. But it was the combined influence of Kumin and Snodgrass that was most influential in Sexton's early development as a confessional writer who transformed autobiographical experiences into art. With their help, she found a first-person voice and a form appropriate to her imagination, which was fueled by her ceaseless wrestling match with the devil of madness. Other mentors and advisers followed in this early period, such as the poet (and later her lover) James Wright, with whom she sustained an extensive correspondence, and George Starbuck, another short-term lover, who spent long hours with her and Plath at the Ritz Bar talking poetry.
Even as Sexton's poetry saved her, it also robbed her of domestic contentment, particularly as her husband Kayo's disapproval of her activity and her new bohemian friends mounted. Linda recalled the trepidation caused by the frequent eruptions between her parents that often began with too many drinks before dinner and ended in Anne being beaten by a furious and frustrated Kayo. Theirs was evidently a co-dependent and mutually abusive relationship—although her abuse came from her quick tongue, and his from his fast fists—but Anne's ongoing therapy and Kayo's short-term treatment failed to alter the dynamics between them. Anne needed Kayo who labored under the strain of performing the domestic duties that Anne neglected; and Kayo apparently needed her, for he ultimately resigned himself to Anne's ambitions and infidelities.
The year 1959 brought yet another loss when Anne's father-in-law was killed in a car accident. Shortly thereafter, a pregnant Anne convinced Kayo that she should get an abortion, as, very likely, he was not the child's father. Her "professional" relationship with mentor James Wright also turned personal, and at one point Sexton managed to spend several days with him at a workshop in Montauk, Long Island. Once again, the children were left in the care of her inlaws, Billie and Joan. On another occasion, and owing to yet another recognition of her talent, Sexton left home to attend the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers Conference as a Robert Frost fellow. An emergency surgery to remove her appendix and an ovary later that year did not dampen her enthusiasm or slow her progress—she was well on the way to meet her destiny as poet "extraordinaire."
Between the workshops and the breakdowns, the suicide attempts (or pseudo-suicide attempts), the domestic conflict and the affairs, Sexton was working hard at crafting her poetry and sculpting a new and timeless identity. To Bedlam and Part Way Back was published in 1960. It took little more than two years to write and was largely based on her experience in a mental institution. This first volume of poetry, which was nominated for a National Book Award, found both an audience and favor among critics, despite the newness of the confessional mode and the cynicism with which some viewed it. Perhaps Sexton herself best answered such cynicism when she exclaimed: "The difference between confession and poetry? is after all, art."
A writer with a decidedly female voice and consciousness, writing in a period of pre-feminism and eschewing such labels, Sexton nevertheless understood how the constraints of gender interfered with art. She connected her poetry to her marginalized position as a woman and a housewife, even though she refused to take a political position on the matter. Perhaps her illness, rebellion against convention, and numerous infidelities were a passive-aggressive response to such limitations. In any event, tellingly, of the four up-and-coming female poets of her day—Maxine Kumin, Adrienne Rich , Sylvia Plath, and Sexton—it was Sexton, writes Middlebrook, who tapped the limitations "women felt in conforming to prevailing feminine stereotypes." In this way, Sexton, the non-feminist, ironically modeled herself after her own mother, whom she berated for being distant and self-absorbed.
Within two years, Sexton followed the success of her first book with another success, All My Pretty Ones, in 1962. The "mature artist" by 1962, she continued to use her poetry to tussle with the unorthodox themes of "mental illness, sexual love, and spiritual anguish," writes Middlebrook, reaching a wide and appreciative audience as a result. Her second volume won Poetry's Levinson Prize the year it appeared, and the following year it won the coveted National Book Award. Another relapse and hospitalization came sometime after the book appeared in print, but, like Humpty Dumpty, Sexton continued to work and continued to pull herself back together with the help of her psychotherapist, steadfast family, and a cadre of colleagues and friends. While pursuing her vocation as a poet, she embarked on another career, that of teaching poetry in workshops, first at Harvard University in 1961 and then at Radcliffe College. Along with her friend Maxine Kumin, she was also awarded one of the first poetry scholarships for Independent Study at Radcliffe Institute, an experimental program for married, educated women. In addition to these achievements, Sexton received the first traveling fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In her second year under scholarship at the institute, Sexton met and befriended another budding American housewife-writer, Tillie Olsen . By 1962, then, Sexton was well on her way to establishing herself among the new literary elite, an activity that brought financial as well as public rewards which boosted Sexton's self-esteem. Her success and the corresponding ebullience that it brought carried her through her most extended period of recovery, from about 1963 to 1967—a gift paradoxically earned by her mental illness.
Traveling was always a challenge for the agoraphobic Sexton. But loath to turn down the honor associated with the first travel fellowship, she agreed to accept it, only to share it with Sandy Robart , a friend and neighbor who accompanied her—as friends often did—on her trip to Europe. The report of her friend and fellow poet Sylvia Plath's death on February 12, 1963, did not deter Sexton from undertaking the trip, but she did write the poem "Wanting To Die." In it, she expresses her kinship with Plath and foreshadows the enigmatic death-desire that linked them: "But suicides have a special language,/ Like carpenters they want to know which tools./ They never ask why build."
Her upbeat spirits during the trip notwithstanding, Sexton's planned 12-month tour was cut short by a weather-change in Venice, punctuated by a brief affair in Rome, and she returned home. By November, Sexton was again suicidal. She was readmitted to the hospital, and this time the twin addictions to alcohol and sleeping drugs were added to her death-addiction. A short-term recovery was soon followed, however, by a far-reaching setback when Orne took a position at the University of Pennsylvania after seven years as Sexton's therapist. In the remaining years of her life, Sexton found several stand-ins, including her friend, the psychiatrist Ann Wilder , who lived in San Francisco, followed by several other nearby professionals, but she never found as satisfactory a replacement. Her relationships with Wilder, and later, with an official psychiatrist, complicated matters when they turned romantic and sexual. Nevertheless, while her mental health declined and her alcoholism worsened, Sexton plodded on.
Under the "professional" care of the doctor who conducted an unethical affair with Sexton while she was in therapy, and for which she paid—Anne continued writing and garnering accolades. Her Selected Poems was published in London in 1964, and the following year saw her elected to the Royal Society of Literature. She was also reworking a play, Mercy Street, that was originally underwritten by a Ford Foundation grant and produced at the Charles Playhouse in Boston in 1963. The play, a pet project of Sexton's, housed many of the ghosts, either real or imagined, of Sexton's past, including a father-daughter relationship bordering on incest and a great-aunt gone mad for having witnessed it. Her work on the play, which was eventually successfully produced off-Broadway, gave Sexton an opportunity to work in the theater for which she seemed to have a flair, as the theatrics she employed in her numerous public readings demonstrated. By the 1970s, she had raised her reading fees to a whopping $1,000 and distinguished herself by not being a stuffy or prosaic poetry reader; instead, she was "dressed to the nines" and ever the performance artist with an entourage always in tow.
On the homefront, the children had grown, and in an unhealthy role-reversal Anne became overly involved with, and more dependent on, them, particularly on Linda, her eldest. In Searching for Mercy Street, Linda relates the emotional demands that her mother placed upon her, which occasionally veered toward sexual abuse. In one instance, Linda had to cut her vacation at riding camp short to return home and care for Anne who was unable to be alone; her therapist was away on vacation at the time, and on these occasions, writes Middlebrook, "Sexton caused her family great distress by insisting on the priority … of her needs." In late adolescence Linda felt it necessary to extricate herself from her needy and unbalanced mother, an effort that brought pain as well as difficulty to Anne.
Her mental illness, though kept in check, was never far away, but neither were the tributes earned by her work. Another relapse and suicide attempt in July 1966 was followed by yet another award—a grant from the Congress of Cultural Freedom, which she used to treat Kayo to a trip to Africa and Europe. That same year also saw the publication of her fourth volume of poetry, Live or Die, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry the following year as well as the Shelley Memorial Prize. But 1966 closed on a down-turn for Sexton when she fell and broke her hip the same day she turned 38 years old. A nine-month convalescence followed, during which time she was cared for by a nurse and admirer of Sexton's poetry, Joan Smith . By this time Sexton had other hired help as well, including Jean Moulton , her secretary, and a housekeeper, Mary LaCrosse . She had also contracted the services of a literary agent to help manage the demand for public performances and to market her play. Despite the fact that the novel she had begun never materialized, her professional life as usual was on a roll, while her private life faltered.
The next eight years were, similarly, alternately productive and problematic. By 1967, she was earning a steady salary as a lecturer at Boston University, a position that ultimately became a full professorship on the strength of her work and accomplishments. Her reputation was solidified by the Pulitzer, and her popularity grew with an increased demand for her to "perform" her readings; and perform them she did with her legendary cigarette, husky voice, long legs, and carefully timed dramatic pauses. She was invited to do a reading of her poetry at the International Poetry Festival of London (1967), along with such renowned poets as W.H. Auden and John Berryman. Indeed, over the seven years remaining of her life, the acclaim and honors accorded Sexton accrued, and her work-pace and output never wavered, regardless of her trance-like fugue episodes, the depression and breakdowns, the desperate affairs and emotional setbacks, and the persistent agoraphobia and eventual estrangement from her husband and daughters. Harvard honored her with a Phi Beta Kappa (1968), as did Radcliffe (1969). In 1968, she performed in a touring rock group that adapted her poetry, and she returned to her own origins as a writer when she started offering poetry workshops at McLean Hospital, a mental institution. In this venture, she was assisted by Lois Ames , a psychiatric social worker whom she started seeing professionally, and in whose care she remained until her death. Her fifth book, Love Poems, appeared in 1969, after the contents had first been published individually in magazines. The poems elicited attention and some negative criticism because of their sexual explicitness, particularly relating to her affairs with married men. Shrewdly marketed, however, it came out on Valentine's Day and sold 4,000 copies in the first month. The same year, she worked on the American Place Theater production of her play Mercy Street, accepted a Guggenheim fellowship, and led poetry workshops at Oberlin College. Then came a spate of honorary doctorates, from Tufts University, Fairfield University, and Regis College, along with a Crashaw Chair in Literature at Colgate University. The year 1970 saw another suicide attempt, but 1971 saw yet another volume of poetry, Transformations, which was an adaptation of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and inspired by daughter Linda's fondness for them. Besides Love Poems, it was one of her most popular books, despite its witch-narrator and dark, ribald tone. In 1973, it was adapted and produced as an opera by the Minnesota Opera Company.
Sexton's health continued to fluctuate: her weight ballooned as a result of the thorazine she took and a broken hip, and her neediness increased, especially after the "official" psychiatrist ended their affair for the last time. The year 1971 saw another suicide attempt and, six months later, a repeat stay at Westwood Lodge. But her enthusiasm for work and infidelities did not flag. Between her writing, workshops, public appearances, and flings with men (usually admirers, poets and/or academics), she provided individual tutorials to fledgling poets. But she was increasingly estranged from her daughters who were building a "normal" life away from her, and dissatisfied with Kayo who adopted a posture of emotional and physical distance, despite the periodic rages that spurred physical abuse and frightened Sexton. By 1972, Sexton felt compelled to end her nearly 25-year relationship with Kayo, but despite the hired help she did not find her primary caregiver so easy to replace. She lived alternately with the Kumins and devoted neighbors, Loring and Louise Conent —who also helped to care for Joy and to support Linda, now at Harvard—as well as with other committed friends. Ultimately, however, even though Sexton was considered a warm and attentive friend, virtually everyone tired of the demands that her emotional instability placed upon them. She reignited a final, hopeful romance with Philip Legler, a married man and an academic, and the relationship seemed to spur a rebirth of sorts in Sexton, especially when they started plotting to run away together. But his obligations to his family ultimately overrode his passion for Anne. News of this sent Sexton into a tailspin that included several overdose attempts, requiring yet another hospitalization, this time at the Human Resource Institute of Boston.
Sexton worked manically until about 1973, publishing The Book of Folly in 1972, and two years later, just months before her death, The Death Notebooks. By 1973, the writing slowed, while her loneliness and alcohol intake increased, a sure-fire prescription for despair, especially for Sexton who lived with despair like an ever-present roommate. The therapists and caregivers came and went, and the family stayed away. On October 4, 1974, Anne Sexton killed herself by sealing the garage door and running the engine of her 1967 red Cougar; the exhaust fumes finished the job that the overdose of prescription pills never quite did. Her daughter Linda, whom she made her literary executor, graduated from Harvard and became a writer; Joy earned a nursing degree at Simmons College; and Kayo remarried and moved back into the home he had shared with Sexton.
Posthumous publications included The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975), 45 Mercy Street (1976), Words for Dr. Y. (1978), and The Complete Poems (1981). In all, in her short but dazzling and industrious career, Anne Sexton produced ten volumes of poetry and one play, and prior to the 1990s, Houghton Mifflin reportedly had sold one-half million of her volumes. Sexton left ample evidence of her life behind, including journals, mementoes, scrapbooks and correspondence. None of these artifacts, however, nor the accounts of those who worked with her and loved her, could finally or fully explain the emotional illness that plagued her life and certified her suicide. But she did leave her poetry, a testament to the preeminence of the art born of her illness, and as she herself said: "Surely the words will continue, for that's what's left that's true."
King Barnard Hall, Caroline. Anne Sexton. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1989.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Sexton, Anne. Collected Poems. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
——. A Self-Portrait in Letters. Edited by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
Sexton, Linda. Searching for Mercy Street. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1994.
Anne Sexton's papers are housed in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
Kathleen Waites Lamm , Associate Professor of English and Women's Studies, Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida