Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton

Sexton, Anne (Harvey), 1928-74, American poet, b. Newton, Mass. Educated at Garland Junior College and at Radcliffe, she worked briefly as a fashion model in Boston. Her "confessional poetry" is highly autobiographical, marked by irony and lyrical emotion, and often dwells on themes of madness and death. Her first work, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), deals in personal terms with her efforts to retain her sanity. Other works include Selected Poems (1964, 1988), Live or Die (1966; Pulitzer Prize), Love Poems (1969), Transformations (1971), The Book of Folly (1973), The Death Notebooks (1974), the posthumous The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975), and The Complete Poems (1981). Sexton died at 46, an apparent suicide. Her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, is a novelist and essayist.

See D. W. Middlebrook, Anne Sexton: A Biography (1991); J. D. McClatchy, ed., Anne Sexton, the Artist and Her Critics (1978); L. G. Sexton, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton (1994).

Anne Sexton (November 9, 1928, Newton, MassachusettsOctober 4, 1974, Weston, Massachusetts), born Anne Gray Harvey, was an American poet and writer.

Personal life

Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts, and spent most of her life near Boston, Massachusetts. She was born to Louis Harvey and Mary Gray Staples. In 1945, she began attending a boarding school, Rogers Hall, in Lowell, Massachusetts. For a time as a young woman, she modeled at Boston's Hart Agency. Although she was already engaged to someone else, in August 1948 she eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton, known as "Kayo." The couple drove from Massachusetts to North Carolina, where the legal marrying age was 18. Before their divorce in the early 1970s, she had two children with Kayo: Linda Gray Sexton, later a novelist and memoirist, and Joyce Sexton. Controversy was stirred with the posthumous public release of tapes recorded during Sexton's psychotherapy (and thus subject to doctor-patient confidentiality), in which Sexton revealed the attempted incestuous rape of her daughter. In this case the crime is confirmed by her daughter, although no legal action was ever taken.

Illness and subsequent career

Sexton suffered from complex mental illness. Her first manic episode took place in 1954. After a second breakdown in 1955, she met Dr. Martin Orne, who was to become her longtime therapist, at Glenside Hospital. Orne diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, but his competence to do so is called into question by his early use of unsound psychotherapeutic techniques. During sessions with Sexton he used hypnosis and sodium pentothal to recover supposedly repressed memories, while actually using suggestion to implant false memories of childhood sexual abuse, known to be untrue from interviews with her mother and other relatives. Her essential problem seems to have been a poor ego-separation from her mother and resultant feelings of worthlessness with a compensatory narcissism on a grandiose scale. Sexton believed she was not valuable except in her ability to please men and told Orne in her first interview that her only talent might be for prostitution. He later told her that his evaluation showed that she had a creative side and encouraged her to take up poetry. Though she was very nervous about it and needed a friend to make the phone call and accompany her to the first workshop, she enrolled in her first poetry workshop with John Holmes as the instructor. Writing poetry became part of her therapy and her livelihood.

After the workshop, Sexton experienced remarkably quick success with her poetry, with her poems accepted by The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and the Saturday Review.

Sexton's poetic life was further encouraged by her mentor, W.D. Snodgrass, whom she met at the Antioch Writer's Conference in 1957. His poem, "Heart's Needle", about his separation from his three year old daughter, encouraged her to write "The Double Image," a poem significant in expressing the multi-generational relationships existing between mother and daughter. "Heart's Needle" was particularly inspirational to Sexton because at the time she first read it her own young daughter was living with her mother-in-law. Sexton began writing letters to Snodgrass and they soon became friends.

While working with Holmes, Sexton encountered Maxine Kumin, with whom she became good friends throughout the rest of her life. Kumin and Sexton rigorously critiqued each other's work, and wrote four children's books together.

With Sylvia Plath, she attended a poetry workshop taught by Robert Lowell in 1957. Plath and Sexton remained friends. This relationship is alluded to in the poem "Sylvia's Death" written after Plath's suicide. Later, Sexton herself taught workshops at Boston University, Oberlin College, and Colgate University.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the manic elements of Sexton's illness began to affect her career. She still wrote and published work and gave readings of her poetry. She also collaborated with some musicians, forming the group Anne Sexton and Her Kind, who were working to put some of her writing to music.

Content and themes of work

Sexton is the modern model of the confessional poet. She was inspired by the publication of Snodgrass' Heart's Needle. Her work encompasses issues specific to women such as menstruation and abortion, and more broadly masturbation and adultery, before such subjects were commonly addressed in poetic discourse.

The title for her eighth collection of poetry and one of her last writings, The Awful Rowing Toward God, came from her meeting with a Roman Catholic priest who, although unwilling to administer the last rites, did tell her: "God is in your typewriter," which gave the poet the desire and willpower to continue living and writing for some more time. Her last writings expressed her strange hunger for death: The Death Notebooks and The Awful Rowing Toward God.


On October 4, 1974 Sexton had lunch with Kumin to review Sexton's most recent book, The Awful Rowing Toward God. Upon returning home, she locked herself in her garage, started the engine of her car and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

In an interview over a year before her death she explained she had written the first drafts of The Awful Rowing Toward God in twenty days with "two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital." She went on to say that she would not allow the poems to be published before her death.

She is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery & Crematory in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts.


  • Audience magazine's annual poetry prize (1959)
  • Poetry magazine's Levinson Prize (1962)
  • National Book Award nomination for All My Pretty Ones (1963)
  • American Academy of Arts and Letters' traveling fellowship (1963)
  • Ford Foundation grant (1963)
  • Shelley Memorial Prize for Live or Die (1967)
  • Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Live or Die (1967)
  • Guggenheim Foundation grant (1969)
  • Tufts University's Doctor of Letters (1970)
  • Crashaw Chair in Literature from Colgate University (1972)


  • To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960)
  • All My Pretty Ones (1962)
  • Live or Die (1966) - Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1967
  • Love Poems (1969)
  • Mercy Street, a 2-act play performed at the American Place Theatre (1969)
  • Transformations (1971) ISBN 0-618-08343-X
  • The Book of Folly (1972)
  • The Book of Miguel Flores' Dad (1972) ISBN 0-395-14014-5
  • The Death Notebooks (1974)
  • The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975; posthumous)
  • 45 Mercy Street (1976; posthumous)
  • Words for Dr. Y. (1978; posthumous)

Children's books

all co-written with Maxine Kumin

  • 1963 Eggs of Things (illustrated by Leonard Shortall)
  • 1964 More Eggs of Things (illustrated by Leonard Shortall)
  • 1974 Joey and the Birthday Present (illustrated by Evaline Ness)
  • 1975 The Wizard's Tears (illustrated by Evaline Ness)


  • British musician Peter Gabriel wrote a song, "Mercy Street", dedicated to Sexton in 1986.
  • Conrad Susa composed an opera called Transformations, based on Sexton's collection of poems by the same name.
  • Dave Matthews has said that the song "Grey Street", from the album Busted Stuff (2002), is inspired by Sexton.
  • During a 2007 concert in Boston, Morrissey stated that he felt privileged to "trod the same streets as Anne Sexton. She died for you, you know. And for me."
  • Aimee Mann mentions Sexton in song "Stranger Into Starman" from her album Smilers (album).
  • On her 1999 release of Zipless, Vanessa Daou includes a song entitled "Dear Anne Sexton" written by poet Erica Jong.


Further reading

  • Diane Wood Middlebrook Anne Sexton: A Biography, 1992, ISBN 0-679-74182-8
  • Linda Gray Sexton Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother 1994.
  • Philip McGowan Anne Sexton & Middle Generation Poetry: The Geography of Grief [2004]
  • Paula M Salvio Anne Sexton: teacher of weird abundance, ISBN 0-791-47097-0
  • Jo Gill Anne Sexton's Confessional Poetics [2007]

External links

Spanish translation.Raùl Racedo,Argentina

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