In This Article Anne Sexton

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Biographies and Memoirs
  • Primary Texts
  • Correspondence
  • Reception
  • Criticism of Poetry and Practices
  • Feminism and Psychiatry
  • Critical Essays
  • To Bedlam and Part Way Back and All My Pretty Ones
  • Live or Die and Love Poems
  • Transformations
  • The Book of Folly and The Death Notebooks
  • The Awful Rowing Toward God, 45 Mercy Street, and Words for DR. Y
  • Anne Sexton, The Complete Poems

American Literature Anne Sexton
by
Linda Wagner-Martin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0031

Introduction

Anne Gray Harvey Sexton (b. 1928–d. 1974), born in Newton, Massachusetts, was the third daughter of an established and moderately wealthy family. One ancestor had been the governor of Maine, and her grandfather was editor of the Lewiston Evening Journal. Women’s lives in the family were more ornamental than professional, and the beautiful Anne saw no route into a career. In 1948 she eloped with Alfred Sexton, a wool merchant like her father, after she had attended a finishing school in Boston. The Sextons had two children, Linda and Joy, and, after each was born, in 1953 and in 1955, Anne experienced breakdowns—the term “postpartum depression” was not yet common. During her hospitalizations, her mother-in-law cared for the little girls. But after her suicide attempt in 1956, her therapist suggested that Anne begin writing; language interested her. Her career as a poet began then, aided by her close friendship with the poet and novelist Maxine Kumin; writing courses with John Holmes and Robert Lowell; and friendships with George Starbuck, Sylvia Plath, and others. Instant publication led to instant recognition that Sexton was a unique “confessional poet,” and in 1960 her first book of poems appeared. To Bedlam and Part Way Back launched what became a truly meteoric career. All My Pretty Ones followed in 1962, and Sexton brought out Selected Poems in 1964. In 1966 her third collection, Live or Die, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. By the time of this award Sexton was in demand for poetry readings. Her performative abilities brought out the remarkably distinctive voices of the poems. A Sexton reading became an experience, and she grew to be something of a rock star in the poetry world. Always restless, she sought comfort through love affairs, alcohol, therapy, and her steadfast friendship with Kumin, whose house was connected with hers by a private telephone line. Sexton had won fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute; she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London; she was nominated for the National Book Award; she taught at Harvard and Radcliffe, lectured at Breadloaf, held the Crashaw Chair at Colgate University, and was a full professor at Boston University. She was the Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard. Pressure to continue these successes coupled with unsatisfactory psychiatric counseling and a divorce from her husband in 1973 led to increasing instability, and in November 1974 Sexton committed suicide.

General Overviews

The comparative paucity of scholarly studies on Sexton and her work reveals the pattern of her surprising initial fame, which began to diminish to a plateau even before her death. Then in a continued decline as Sexton became frequently paired with Sylvia Plath, Sexton’s reputation was harmed by two critical concerns: questions about the quality of her last writing, in which a new religious bent surfaced, and the appearance on the poetry scene of The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, published in 1980 and the posthumous recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1981. It was as if critics had decided that there could be only one woman poet from midcentury, and readers were increasingly choosing to praise the oeuvre of Plath instead of that of Sexton. The first monograph on Sexton’s work was Marras 1984, followed by what became the primary scholarly reading, George 1987. Morton 1988 and Hall 1989 led to the “confessional” focus of McGowan 2004 and Gill 2007. Because of this comparative scarcity of book-length attention Sexton’s oeuvre has benefited from key essays, such as Kammer 1980 and Johnson 1984.

  • George, Diana Hume. Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

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    Reads Sexton as an icon of 20th-century malaise and attributes her poetic abilities to the disarray of her psyche. George does not lean heavily on feminist readings; for her Sexton is a somewhat masculinized Everyman writer. Her themes in this text influenced most readings to come.

  • Gill, Jo. Anne Sexton’s Confessional Poetics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.

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    After aligning Sexton’s early work with others of the “confessional” school, Gill proceeds to give a cultural reading to each collection. Less biographical and more contextual, her work with Sexton’s oeuvre carries the hint of the British reader, which Gill is, in that US customs and practices at midcentury seem somewhat puzzling to her.

  • Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Anne Sexton. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

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    Following the series format, Hall nonetheless reads the Sexton oeuvre closely and accurately. She employs biography where useful, all the while downplaying the role autobiography plays in the creation of this body of writing.

  • Johnson, Greg. “The Achievement of Anne Sexton.” Hollins Critic 21.2 (1984): 1–13.

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    Stresses that Sexton writes a poetry of “life,” not confession, and that she adopts what Johnson calls “a world of health, of childlike wholeness.” Sexton as a poet seems far removed from either Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath.

  • Kammer, Jeanne H. “The Witch’s Life: Confession and Control in the Early Poetry of Anne Sexton.” Language and Style 13 (1980): 29–35.

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    Without diminishing Sexton’s accomplishments as a poet, Kammer modifies the then-prevalent reliance on either autobiography or feminism and reads the first three collections of poems as their own interconnected testament. Like Sexton, she uses the concepts of witch and witchcraft with irony.

  • Marras, Emma. Anne Sexton, Her Confessional Self. Udine, Italy: Industrie Grafiche del Bianco, 1984.

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    Sees Sexton as the most thoroughly “confessional” of the midcentury group and ties each poem to some autobiographical scene or event. The author begins with the theory of both M. L. Rosenthal and A. R. Jones and does not deviate, but she sometimes misreads certain of the poems.

  • McGowan, Philip. Anne Sexton and Middle Generation Poetry: The Geography of Grief. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

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    Sees that the misnomer of “confessional” has “thwarted” progress in the study of Sexton’s work. Reads carefully selected poems to open up the oeuvre and provide access to her landscape of grief. Uses Helen Vendler’s readings.

  • Morton, Richard Everett. Anne Sexton’s Poetry of Redemption: The Chronology of a Pilgrimage. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1988.

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    Arranged by each of Sexton’s books, Morton’s study emphasizes the mysticism of the last collections. He questions whether or not Sexton’s work was intended to be “outside poetic traditions” or “disingenuous.” Reads each collection and, unlike some critics, does not avoid the last three books.

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