Anne Sexton was an influential American poet who was known for her highly personal and confessional poetry, dealing primarily with her long battle with depression, suicidal tendencies and various intimate details of her private life. One of her best works was ‘Live or Die’, published in 1966, which was a collection of poems mostly in free-verse and rhythm. This book won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. It is interesting to note that her writing began only as a therapy, as her therapist encouraged her to write about her thoughts and feelings. It was her poems about her psychiatric struggles which led to her writing and publishing books. The victim of a troubled childhood, she suffered from psychological issues throughout her life. A difficult marriage and the birth of her children only worsened her mental health. Despite living a life of materialistic comfort, she had never experienced true happiness. A series of volatile sexual affairs further complicated her life which ended tragically at the age of 45.
- Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey on 9 November 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts. Her father was Ralph Harvey, a successful woolen manufacturer and her mother was Mary Gray Staples.Though she was raised in comfortable middle-class circumstances in Weston, Massachusetts, she was not at all happy with her life. Though she didn’t have a good relationship with her parents, she shared a close bond with her maiden great aunt ‘Nana’ (Anna Dingley), who lived with the family during her adolescence.She used to strongly dislike school, and lacked the ability to concentrate. At the age of 19, she got married to Alfred ‘Kayo’ Sexton II. She gave birth to her first child in 1953, and second one in 1955.After the birth of her first daughter, she suffered her first breakdown and was admitted to a neuropsychiatric hospital. Her depression worsened after the birth of her second daughter and she sought therapy once again.It was during the treatment that her therapist urged her to start writing about her thoughts and feelings. This led to her joining various writing groups, which in turn led to her friendship with many other poets like Robert Lowell, George Starbuck and Sylvia Plath.Career
- Attending a poetry workshop led by John Holmes marked the beginning of her literary career. A good number of her poems was accepted by ‘The New Yorker’, ‘Harpers’ Magazine’ and ‘Saturday Review’. Later she went to Boston University to study and soon she mastered the techniques of poetry which led to her gaining widespread attention.She met W.D. Snodgrass, a well-known American poet at the Antioch Writer’s Conference in 1957. They became close friends and he used to inspire as well as encourage her in writing poetry. Around this time she also met Maxine Kumin; they became good friends and wrote four children’s books together.In an interview, Anne Sexton discussed the influence Snodgrass had on her and her work. She claimed to be strongly influenced by Snodgrass’s ‘Heart’s Needle.’ She also talked about how everyone criticized and discouraged her. They used to think her works were too personal and confessional and advised her to change her writing style. But Snodgrass’s works gave her the inspiration to continue writing in her own style.In 1960, her collection of poetry ‘To Bedlam and Part Way Back’ was published, which received much appreciation and positive reviews.In the late 1960s, having lost both her parents unexpectedly, her mental issues increased which began to affect her career severely. However, she continued to write poems as well as get her works published. She also worked together with a group of musicians and formed a jazz-rock group that used to add music to her poetry. In addition, she worked together with Barbara Swan, a well-known American painter and illustrator, who illustrated many of the books she wrote.With the publication of her books ‘Love Poems’ (1969) and ‘Transformations’ (1971), she gained quite a good reputation. ‘Transformations’, which was one of her feminist works, showed her becoming less of a confessional writer and more of a critic of cultural practices, and more inclined to look outside her own persona for material.She used to write openly about subjects like menstruation, abortion, incest, adultery, and drug addiction at a time when none of those topics were considered proper topics for poetry. This made her a subject of controversy.Major Works
- Anne Sexton’s most famous work was ‘Live or Die’ for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Some of the poems are in free verse, while others are in rhythm. The poems, which were written in chronological order are mainly about Sexton’s troubled relationships with her mother and her daughters, and the way she dealt with her mental illness.She wrote ‘Transformations’ a book of poem-stories which was a strange retelling of seventeen Grimms fairy tales, like ‘Snow White’, ‘Frog Prince’, and ‘Red Riding Hood.’ The retelling of these popular tales was accomplished in a very personalized way that was much appreciated by the critics.She wrote ‘The Awful Rowing Toward God’ which was published posthumously in 1975. Her meeting with a Catholic Priest who had given her the willpower and desire to continue living and writing, inspired her in writing this book. She also analyzed various things in this book like the existence of God, as well as the meaning of life.Awards & Achievements
- Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1967 for her book ‘Live or Die’.She was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.She was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and also held professorships at two reputed universities of America: Colgate University and Boston University.Personal Life & Legacy
- Anne Sexton got married at the age of nineteen to Alfred Muller Sexton II. The couple had two daughters. The marriage was a difficult one marred by insecurity and abuse. She did not have a good relationship with her children as well and is said to have resorted to abusing them on several occasions.One of the main reasons behind her mental illnesses was believed to be sexual abuse by her parents during her childhood, which led to fear and trauma from an early age.She had shared some tapes with her doctor, which were released after her death. Those tapes are said to have revealed her inappropriate behavior towards her daughters.She also allegedly had an affair with one of her therapists, which was another reason for controversy during her lifetime. It is believed that this affair might have been the reason behind her suicide in 1974.She committed suicide on 4 October 1974. She locked herself in her garage and started the engine of her car and died by carbon monoxide poisoning.
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