Anne Sexton was an influential American poet famous for her highly personal and confessional poetry. She had extensively used her knowledge of human conditions, particularly painful and sometimes joyous in her poetry. She earned reputation for her incisive metaphors and unexpected rhythm verses. The works of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and W. D. Snodgrass had a great influence on Sexton’s poetry. The central issue of her poems remained with her experience as a woman. She often faced criticism for bringing in topics like menstruation, abortion, and drug addiction into her work. Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry, Love or Die in 1967. She had written many famous books like, All My Pretty Ones, Love or Die, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, Love Poems, The Death Notebooks and The Book of Folly. In her short but successful literary career she made herself immortal in the American literary world.
Anne Sexton Childhood & Early Life
Anne Sexton was born on November 9, 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Ralph Harvey, a successful woolen manufacturer, and Mary Gray Staples. She was youngest of the three sisters. Anne hated school due to her inability to concentrate and occasional disobedience to the teachers. Her parents were asked to seek counsel for her, but unfortunately they didn’t seek any counseling. In 1945, at the age of seventeen, she was sent to the Rogers Hall, a preparatory school for girls, in Lowell in order to tame her wild nature and shape her into a proper woman. It was here that Anne began writing poetry. After completing her graduation, she attended the Garland School in Boston, a finishing school for women. In Garland School, she met and eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton II, also known as Kayo. She was nineteen at the time of marriage. Anne and Kayo moved to Hamilton, New York, where Kayo was attending Colgate, University. But the conditions at Hamilton didn’t favor the newlyweds and they were forced to move back to Massachusetts.
Kayo joined the naval reserve and was shipped to Korea. Meanwhile, Anne enrolled in modeling classes at Hart Agency and after completing the course became the fashion model for the agency. Her infidelities during her husband’s absence made her to enter in therapy treatment. In 1953, she gave birth to her first daughter, Linda Gray Sexton. The following year, Kayo was discharged from the service and returned home. The two purchased a home in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts and Kayo got a job as a traveling salesman in Anne’s father’s business. By the year 1954, Anne Sexton started having problems of recurring depression and began looking for counseling. In 1955, she gave birth to her second daughter, Joyce Ladd Sexton. With the starting of year 1956, her mental condition worsened which further led to her first psychiatric hospitalization and her first suicide attempt. Under the guidance and advice of her psychiatrist, Dr. Martin, Sexton went back to writing poetry. She entered in John Holme's poetry workshop, where she met Maxine Kumin. But her recurring depression crept back and she attempted suicide again in May, 1957. She was hospitalized but continued to write poetry.
In August of 1957, Sexton received a scholarship to Antioch Writers' Conference. The following year, in 1958, she enrolled in Robert Lowell's graduate writing seminar at Boston University. It was here that Sexton met Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck. During this phase of her life, poetry had become the soul of her living and she had mastered the formal techniques in poetry. Her work started getting recognition and Sexton was awarded with the Audience Poetry Prize in 1959. The next year she published her first poetry book, “To Bedlam and Part Way Back”. This book encouraged her to write more and gave her national recognition. But she was failing badly on emotional side. After the sudden death of her parents, she was emotionally broke. Her married life was facing turbulence with discord and physical abuse by his husband.
In 1962, Anne Sexton published her second poetry book, “All My Pretty Ones”. The book became immensely popular and following its success, she started working on four children's books with her longtime friend Maxine Kumin. In the time period between, August 22 to October 27, 1963, Sexton toured to Europe. The year 1964 saw a change in the medical history of Anne, her longtime psychiatrist moved to Philadelphia and she had to look for a new psychiatrist. The new psychiatrist placed her on drug, Thorazine, to control her depressions. Anne Sexton achieved an important distinction in 1965, when she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London. She received the esteemed Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for her highly appreciated book, “Live or Die”. She also received the Shelley Memorial Prize in the same year. Sexton continued her writing and teaching English literature at Wayland, Mass. High School.
In June 1968, she became the first woman in the long history of Harvard chapter to receive the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa. Sexton was at peak of her literary career in 1969, when she published the famous, “Love Poems” along with producing her play, “Mercy Street”. She began teaching a poetry seminar in Boston University, which was followed by her post of lecturer at Boston University. Sexton came up with a prose collection, “Transformations” in 1972. “Transformations” gave a different element to the readers. It was less confessional as compared to Sexton’s other creations and was more inclined towards her outer personality. Though Anne always presented herself as a strong, confident person in public, in actuality, she was heavily dependent on therapists, medications and close friends. In 1973, she took divorce from her husband, which was followed by considerable loss in health and state of loneliness, alcoholism, and depression.
In her last years, Sexton’s personal life dived further down. Her friends alienated from her and her maturing daughters became hard to deal for her. Not all was well in the professional front as well, as Sexton’s religious poems were not much appreciated by readers. Nervous and under-confident, she started collaborating with a rock group to back her poems. With the passage of time, she forced herself to be an entertainer whereas her poem became more and more privately sacral. Her final works included, “The Book of Folly” and “The Death Notebooks”. A few works of Sexton was published posthumously as well, which include “The Awful Rowing Toward God” published in 1975, “45 Mercy Street” (1976) and “Words for Dr. Y” (1978).
Anne Sexton married Alfred Sexton on August 16, 1948. The couple was blessed with two children, Linda Gray and Joyce Ladd. She took divorce from her husband in 1973.
On October 4, 1974, Sexton had her lunch with her old friend, Maxine Kumin. On her return, she had put on her mother’s fur coat, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in the garage and started the engine of her car, hence committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Sexton was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery & Crematory in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts.