| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
(1928 - 1974)
Anne Gray Harvey Sexton was born in Newton,
Massachusetts, the third daughter of Mary Gray and Ralph Harvey. Sexton’s
great-uncle had been governor of Maine, and her grandfather, editor of Maine’s
Lewiston Evening Journal, was a respected journalist. The family’s primary
emphasis by the time of Sexton’s birth was mercantile; Sexton’s father and,
later, her husband were both wool merchants. The Harveys lived in Boston
suburbs during the year and on Squirrel Island, Maine, during summers. Her
childhood was both privileged and difficult. Sexton felt she could not fulfill
her family’s expectations, which were both high and vague. She was implicitly
expected to marry at the right time and to behave decorously—neither of which
she did—but not necessarily to distinguish herself professionally or
Harvey was a spirited and demanding child, a romantic and popular adolescent,
an undistinguished student (she attended a finishing school for women in
Boston). In 1948 she eloped with Alfred Sexton, to whom she remained married
until 1973. Shortly after the births of each of her two daughters (in 1953 and
1955), Sexton was hospitalized for the recurring emotional disturbances that
continued to plague her for the rest of her life. After a suicide attempt in
1956, on the advice of her doctor, she began writing poetry. In 1957, Sexton
enrolled in John Holmes’s poetry workshop, Boston, where she met Maxine Kumin,
her closest personal friend. In 1958–59
she was a student in Robert Lowell’s writing seminar at Boston University,
where she met Sylvia Plath.
first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), was controversial and established
Sexton’s reputation as a confessional poet. Popularity and something
approaching notoriety accompanied Sexton’s poetic career. She received numerous
awards, including a nomination for the National Book Award; fellowships from
the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Ford Foundation, and the
Guggenheim Foundation; several honorary doctorates; and in 1967, the Pulitzer
Prize for Live or Die. She taught at Harvard and Radcliffe, lectured at
Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, held the Crashaw Chair at Colgate University,
and was a full professor at Boston University by 1972. Her celebrated readings
on the poetry circuit were criticized as the flamboyant, dramatic performances
they were. When Sexton killed herself in 1974, she was still professionally
successful and productive. Diane Wood Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: A Biography
tells readers much more about a life that seems, but clearly is not, fully
disclosed in the poetry.
used the personal to speak to cultural concerns, many of which apply to women’s
conflicts and transitions in modern American society. If Lowell and Snodgrass
are the fathers of confessional poetry, Sexton is perhaps its first mother. The
gender distinction is worth making. Snodgrass gave her “permission,” as she
phrased it, to write about loss, neurosis, even madness, but no one had
extended the permission to write about such experiences from a female point of
view. For that bold stroke there was no precedent. Many feminist poets and
critics find in her work a set of resonant and enabling myths, as well as a
critique of those that disabled Sexton herself.
early work was preoccupied with formal structure and lyric discipline, while
the later work became what critics have variously called surreal, mythic, or
visionary. Anne Sexton’s poems articulate some of the deepest dilemmas of her
contemporaries about their—our—most fundamental wishes and fears.
Diana Hume George|
The Pennsylvania State University/Behrend College
In the Heath Anthology
Somewhere in Africa
To Bedlam and Part Way Back
All My Pretty Ones
Live or Die
The Book of Folly
The Death Notebooks
The Awful Rowing Toward God
45 Mercy Street
Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters
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Photographs, a detailed biography, a list of works, and links.
Anne Sexton Audio Files
Audio files of Sexton performing with the musical group "Her Kind."
The Academy of American Poets
Biography, selected poetry, a list of works, and links.
Archival site containing nearly all of Sexton's poems available for reading online.