Last reviewed: June 2017
November 9, 1928
October 4, 1974
Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey. After attending public school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, she went to a prep school and then, for a year, to Garland Junior College. She married Alfred Muller Sexton and worked briefly as a model. Her daughter Linda was born when Sexton was twenty-five. Sexton is often called a “confessional” poet (as are W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath, who were her friends). Many of her poems indeed include the word “confession” or comparable religious language, yet the label is somewhat misleading. Despite displaying moments of remorse, her verse more often celebrates than bemoans unconventional behavior. Readers have admired her courage in breaking taboos, in struggling “part way back” from madness, and in admitting all that she did. Rather than furnishing accurate confessions, she changes details skillfully for dramatic effect.
Many of her best poems tailor autobiography to accentuate similarities between herself and literary characters or historical figures. For example, she began all her public readings with her poem “Her Kind,” which identifies her with persecuted witches. In an interview with Barbara Kevles, Sexton explained that she thought of herself as being “many people,” including the “Christ” (of another of her poems), whose pain she felt as she wrote it. She spoke of mystical visions accompanied by the same sensations she felt when composing poetry. Anne Sexton in 1967.
Anne Sexton in 1967.
The salvation she sought may have been momentarily attained through the poetic experience of adopting a persona or role. It distanced her from daily problems and permitted her to look at herself from new vantage points. She longed to be a character living in an imaginary place of forgiveness and reconciliation that she termed “Mercy Street” (in her more pious moments she fervently prayed for it to be real). Assuming poses also seemed to gratify a lifelong craving for stardom.
Hungry for attention, Anne, during her childhood, felt less close to her parents than to the doting great-aunt after whom she was named (Anna Ladd Dingley, called “Nana,” who became mentally ill late in life). Once an official at Sexton’s grade school recommended psychoanalysis for Anne, but she did not begin therapy until 1954, when depression after the birth of her daughter Linda kept growing worse. In 1956 came Sexton’s first suicide attempt—the culmination of a massive episode of depression after the birth of her second daughter, Joyce, nicknamed “Joy.”
Sexton’s analyst encouraged her to begin creative writing; for the first time since high school, she started to compose poetry. The next year brought a second suicide attempt but also a creative-writing seminar with John Holmes. There she met writer Maxine Kumin. In lengthy telephone conversations, they discussed each other’s works, and they later collaborated on four children’s books.
Sexton continued studying with Holmes until his death in 1962. In 1958 she also enrolled in a Boston University seminar taught by Robert Lowell. Another writer in that class was the poet most often compared with Sexton, Sylvia Plath. That year Sexton met W. D. Snodgrass at the Antioch Writers’ Conference.
Professional success came rapidly, but it was never enough to satisfy Sexton. There were also negative reviews, including one by the poet James Dickey that she carried with her in her wallet. By 1964 she was taking the prescription drug thorazine, but neither therapy nor drugs could free her from debilitating depression. There were further suicide attempts. On an autumn day in 1974, she lunched with Kumin, finished proofreading The Awful Rowing toward God, went home, shut herself in her garage, and killed herself.
She had by that time garnered many honors, including prizes from Audience and Poetry; fellowships or grants from Bread Loaf, the Radcliffe Institute, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Ford Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation; honorary doctorates from Tufts University, Regis College, and Fairfield University; a professorship from Boston University; the Crashaw Chair in Literature at Colgate University; membership in Phi Beta Kappa; a Shelley Memorial Award; and, most prestigious of all, the 1967 Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Nonetheless, after her first two books, critics increasingly complained of unevenness in her work. She had in fact begun revising less obsessively, but the middle of her career was graced with the most unified of her volumes, Transformations, an interweaving of her life with fairy tales. Her play Forty-Five Mercy Street (fictionalized autobiography organized in terms of an Episcopalian High Mass) appeared Off Broadway in 1969. Throughout her career, her public readings remained popular, and she succeeded in promoting musical adaptations of her works, ranging from what she called “chamber rock” to an opera.