Anne Sexton (1928-1974) is often grouped with such poets as Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and Robert Lowell as a leading figure in the so-called ‘Confessional Movement’. Born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts into an upper middle-class home, Sexton never felt comfortable with the conventional path this background laid out for her. She had a fraught relationship with her alcoholic business-man father, and her mother whose own literary ambitions had been thwarted by domestic life. Sexton’s formal education ended at Garland Junior College when she eloped with Alfred Muller ‘Kayo’ Sexton II at the age of nineteen. After her marriage, Sexton worked for a short time as a model, before giving birth to her first daughter in 1953 and a second in 1955. After both births she suffered depression which led to mental breakdown, hospitalisation and her first suicide attempt. The cyclical nature of her mental illness caused Sexton much anguish throughout her adult life. It was at the suggestion of her long-time therapist, Dr Martin Orne, that she began exploring poetry as a means of therapy. In 1957 Sexton enrolled in a poetry workshop in Boston where she met and formed a lifelong creative bond with the poet Maxine Kumin, and began to progress rapidly: some early poems were accepted by The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine. This was followed by significant encounters with W. D. Snodgrass, whose account of divorce and separation from his daughter in Heart’s Needle was to prove influential, and Robert Lowell whose writing class she enrolled in, along with Sylvia Plath who became a friend. The sudden loss of both her parents in 1959 and her subsequent breakdown emphasised the vital importance of poetry in her life as a source of stability and creative expression. Her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published in 1960 and was unflinching in the way it dealt with mental illness, a subject not often discussed in “polite society” at that time. The risky content and her already formidable formal control attracted critical praise and it was nominated for a National Book Award. All My Pretty Ones (1962) further illustrated Sexton’s aptitude for musical rhythms and striking imagery, as well as her continuing determination to break taboos in her work, including abortion. Her third book, Live or Die, a fictionalised account of her recovery from mental illness, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Despite this success, Sexton’s private life was becoming increasingly difficult. Her marriage, undermined by infidelity and her new-found fame, was in terminal decline and her mental stability was further compromised by an increasing reliance on pills and alcohol. Despite this, Sexton continued to produce groundbreaking work, such as the feminist critique of Transformations (1971) with its re-imagining of traditional fairy-tales. By 1973 however, Sexton was divorced and increasingly lonely and depressed. In October 1974 after having lunch with Maxine Kumin, Sexton went into her garage, turned on her car engine and asphyxiated herself with carbon monoxide poisoning. Three more collections appeared posthumously, the dark nature of which all lived up to Sexton’s dictum that poetry “should almost hurt”.

Sexton’s pioneering insistence on making the experience of being a woman the central issue of her poetry is seen to great effect in her famous poem ‘Her Kind’. Taken from her first collection, the poem was significant to Sexton who always opened her readings with it. Whilst ‘Her Kind’ draws on Sexton’s own experience it filters it through the language of folk lore and fairy-tale. Not only that but the poem presents Sexton both as the ‘I’ at the heart of the action – the witch, the homemaker, the adulteress – but also as an observer, the ‘eye’ who stands as a witness to her own suffering.

Despite the ‘Confessional’ label, Sexton described herself as a “storyteller”, who understood the difference between poetic and literal truth. So it is that in her introduction to ‘Ringing the Bells’, she describes this haunting account of a music therapy class for the mentally ill as “a kind of monologue”. ‘With Mercy for the Greedy’ and ‘Letter Written on a Ferry’, whilst drawing on her personal anguish, also reveal the extent to which she transformed subjective experience into art: listen to these poems’ subtle music, the way for instance, she ends each stanza of ‘Letter’ with a rhyme.

Sexton’s reading style emphasises the intimate aspect of her work: her wonderfully throaty voice is charismatic, taking the listener into her confidence. It was a technique she used to seductive effect in her public readings. However, the flamboyant persona shouldn’t overshadow the highly disciplined artist whose “lively, lonely telling of her truth” (Diana Hume George) illuminated many important issues of her time.

Recordings provided by kind permission of the BBC.

Poems by Anne Sexton

Her Kind – for BBC 100 - Anne Sexton
Ringing the Bells - Anne Sexton
Letter Written on a Ferry - Anne Sexton
With Mercy for the Greedy - Anne Sexton

Books by Anne Sexton