Columns > Published on November 10th, 2016

Happy Birthday, Anne Sexton

Anne Gray Harvey Sexton was born Nov. 9, 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts to a woolen manufacturer. Her life was fraught with unhappy relationships and a downhill battle with depression, but to read her writing is to glimpse the mind of a remarkable woman whose work demonstrated the convalescent powers of the written word. Her writing began as a form of therapy and it has endured long past her suicide at the age of 46. 

To Bedlam

Themes in Sexton's work confront isolation, sadness and death as well as imagery specific to women's lives.

Sexton first began to write poetry when she was sent by her parents to a boarding school in Lowell. She married Alfred "Kayo" Sexton II at the age of 19, and it was her infidelities to him while he was serving in Korea that first led her to seek therapy. Her depression deepened over the years following the birth of her second child, and Sexton was institutionalized for a time.

In 1955 she met Dr. Martin Orne, who encouraged Sexton to pursue poetry. It was during this period of her life that she wrote the poetry collection To Bedlam and Part Way Back, which was released in 1960 to critical acclaim. It was followed by All My Pretty Ones, Live Or Die, Love Poems, and her most feminist work, Transformations, among others. She also formed a jazz group called Her Kind that set music to her poems as a way of making readings more bearable.

Themes of Isolation

The themes in Sexton's work confront isolation, sadness and death as well as imagery specific to women's lives. She is called a confessional poet, being one of a number of artists in the 1950s and 60s to write in a personal manner in the form of “I.” Sylvia Plath and W. D. Snodgrass, both of whom were acquainted with Sexton, are two other examples of this form of poetry. Like many of the confessional poets, Sexton paid close detail to technical quality and prosody of her work. In her words, poetry should “almost hurt.”

Sexton's life ended in October of 1974. After having lunched with Maxine Kumin, Sexton is said to have put on her mother's coat, removed all of her rings and asphyxiated herself with carbon monoxide in her garage in Boston.

The story of Anne Sexton is important not just for the work she created as an individual, but for its plunge into the darkest side of mental illness. Sexton created despite and because of her depression, but her poetry never glamorizes its effect on her writing process.

So, happy birthday, Anne Sexton. The world lost a talented poet far too early.

Photo by Anne Adrian

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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