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Anne Sexton's Life

Linda Wagner-Martin

sextondesk.jpg (10939 bytes)Sexton, Anne Gray Harvey (9 Nov. 1928-4 Oct. 1974), poet and playwright, was born in Newton, Massachusetts, the daughter of Ralph Harvey, a successful woolen manufacturer, and Mary Gray Staples. Anne was raised in comfortable middle-class circumstances in Weston, Massachusetts, and at the summer compound on Squirrel Island in Maine, but she was never at ease with the life prescribed for her. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother's literary aspirations had been frustrated by family life. Anne took refuge from her dysfunctional family in her close relationship with "Nana" (Anna Dingley), her maiden great-aunt who lived with the family during Anne's adolescence. Sexton's biographer, Diane Middlebrook, recounts possible sexual abuse by Anne's parents during her childhood; at the very least, Anne felt that her parents were hostile to her and feared that they might abandon her. Her aunt's later breakdown and hospitalization also traumatized her.

Anne disliked school. Her inability to concentrate and occasional disobedience prompted teachers to urge her parents to seek counseling for her--advice her parents did not take. In 1945 they sent her to Rogers Hall, a boarding school in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she began to write poetry and to act. After graduation she briefly attended what she called a "finishing" school. Anne's beauty and sense of daring attracted many men, and at nineteen she eloped with Alfred "Kayo" Sexton II, even though she was engaged to someone else at the time. Then followed years of living as college student newlyweds, sometimes with their parents. Later, during Kayo's service in Korea, Anne became a fashion model. Her infidelities during her husband's absence led to her entering therapy. In 1953 Anne gave birth to a daughter, and Kayo took a job as a traveling salesman in Anne's father's business.

Depressed after the death of her beloved Nana in 1954 and the birth of her second daughter in 1955, Sexton went back into therapy. Her depression worsened, however, and during times when her husband was gone, she occasionally abused the children. Several attempts at suicide led to intermittent institutionalization, of which her parents disapproved. During these years, Sexton's therapist encouraged her to write.

In 1957 Sexton joined several Boston writing groups, and she came to know such writers as Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, George Starbuck, and Sylvia Plath. Her poetry became central to her life, and she mastered formal techniques that gained her wide attention. In 1960 To Bedlam and Part Way Back was published to good reviews. Such poems as "You, Doctor Martin," "The Bells," and "The Double Image" were often anthologized. Like such other so-called confessional poets as W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell, Sexton was able to convince her readers that her poems echoed her life; not only was her poetry technically excellent, but it was meaningful to the midcentury readers who lived daily with similar kinds of fear and angst.

In 1959 Sexton unexpectedly lost both of her parents, and the memory of her difficult relationships with them--so abruptly ended--led to further breakdowns. Poetry seemed the only route to stability, though at times the friendships she made through her art, which led to sexual affairs, also were unsettling. Her marriage was torn by discord and physical abuse as her husband saw his formerly dependent wife become a celebrity.

In 1962 Sexton published All My Pretty Ones. So popular was her poetry in England that an edition of Selected Poems was published there as a Poetry Book Selection in 1964. In 1967 Sexton received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Live or Die (1966), capping her accumulation of honors such as the Frost Fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference (1959), the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship (1961), the Levinson Prize (1962), the American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship (1963), the Shelley Memorial Prize (1967), and an invitation to give the Morris Gray reading at Harvard. To follow were a Guggenheim Fellowship, Ford Foundation grants, honorary degrees, professorships at Colgate University and Boston University, and other distinctions.

Sexton's reputation as poet peaked with the publication of Love Poems (1969), an off-Broadway production of her play Mercy Street (1969), and the publication of prose poems in Transformations (1972). Clearly her most feminist work, the pieces in Transformations spoke to a different kind of reader. The Sexton voice was now less confessional and more critical of cultural practices, more inclined to look outside the poet's persona for material. In 1963 Sexton had traveled in Europe, and in 1966 she and Kayo had gone on an African safari. In 1970 she had helped him start a business of his own after he broke associations with her father's former company. Contrary to her seemingly confident public manner, however, Sexton was heavily dependent on therapists, medications, close friends--particularly Maxine Kumin and, later, Lois Ames--and lovers. Continual depressive bouts, unexpected trance states, and comparatively frequent suicide attempts kept her family and friends watchful and unnerved. Finally, in 1973, Sexton told Kayo she wanted a divorce, and from that time on a noticeable decline in her health and stability occurred as loneliness, alcoholism, and depression took their toll.

Estranged from many of her former friends, Sexton became difficult for her maturing daughters to deal with. Aware that many of her readers did not like the religious poetry that she had recently begun writing with her more personal themes, Sexton became nervous about her poetry. Readings had always terrified her, but now she employed a rock group to back up her performances. She forced herself to be an entertainer, while her poems grew more and more privately sacral. In 1972 she published The Book of Folly and, in 1974, the ominously titled The Death Notebooks. Later that year, she completed The Awful Rowing toward God, published posthumously in 1975. Divorced and living by herself, Sexton was lonely and seemed to be searching for compassion through love affairs. She continued to be in psychotherapy, from which she evidently gained little solace. In October 1974, after having lunched with Maxine Kumin, Sexton asphyxiated herself with carbon monoxide in her garage in Boston.

Other posthumous collections of her poems include 45 Mercy Street (1976) and Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (1978), both edited by Linda Gray Sexton. The publication of Sexton's work culminated in The Complete Poems in 1981. Sexton also wrote important essays about poetry and made insightful comments in her many interviews. She understood the fictive impulse, the way the writer uses both fact and the imagination in creation; and, like Wallace Stevens, she saw her art as the "supreme fiction," the writer's finest accomplishment. Much of what Sexton wrote was in no way autobiographical, despite the sense of reality it had, and thus criticisms of her writing as "confessional" are misleading. She used her knowledge of the human condition--often painful, but sometimes joyous--to create poems readers could share. Her incisive metaphors, the unexpected rhythms of her verse, and her ability to grasp a range of meaning in precise words have secured Sexton's good reputation. Though comparatively short, her writing career was successful, as was her art.


Anne Sexton's papers are housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. The authorized biography is Diane Wood Middlebrook, Anne Sexton: A Biography (1991), controversial in part because of the information supplied by Sexton's first therapist. The major critical study is Diana Hume George, Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton (1987). Collections of criticism by various critics are Diana Hume George, Sexton: Selected Criticism (1988); 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); and Linda Wagner-Martin, Critical Essays on Anne Sexton (1989).

Cameron Northouse and Thomas P. Walsh published Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: A Reference Guide (1974), but no complete bibliography exists. Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diane Hume George coedited Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (1988), and Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames edited Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977). Steven E. Colburn edited No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose (1985), a collection of Sexton's previously published prose.

Source: ; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Sun Mar 18 18:01:55 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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