Bookish Birthdays: Anne Sexton
9th Nov 2011
The youngest of three daughters, she grew up in a large house with servants and a summer compound in Maine.
However, Anne’s upbringing was far from happy: her father, a woollen manufacturer, fell into alcoholism, and her mother’s own literary ambitions went unfulfilled.
Anne’s closest relationship was with her unmarried great aunt, Anna Dingley, and she was devastated when her beloved ‘Nana’ suffered a nervous breakdown and was removed to an asylum.
In 1948, Anne eloped with Alfred Sexton, known as ‘Kayo’. They had two young children and in 1954 Sexton suffered her first manic episode.
A year later, she entered the Glenside Hospital. Her analyst, Dr Martin Orne, encouraged Anne to write as a form of therapy.
Anne was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. During their sessions, Dr Orne employed hypnosis and drugs to uncover supposedly repressed memories – including disputed allegations of childhood sexual abuse.
Dr Orne’s treatment methods – and his decision to release tapes of his sessions with Anne to a biographer – proved highly controversial.
Sexton began attending writers’ workshops in Boston and met other emerging poets including Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, and Maxine Kumin, with whom she wrote four children’s books.
Anne’s first poetry collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published to acclaim in 1960, followed by The Starry Night (1961), All My Pretty Ones (1962), and Live or Die, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967.
Anne’s poetry is often labelled as ‘confessional’. She rebelled against the term, describing herself as a ‘storyteller’. In her best work, Sexton explored a world of love and madness, inhabited by a modern suburban housewife who seemed, at first glance, to have it all.
By the late 1960s, Anne Sexton – a glamorous, charismatic figure – was performing in her own jazz-rock band. She wrote four more volumes of poetry: Love Poems (1969); Transformations (1971); The Book of Folly (1972); and The Death Notebooks (1974.)
In her best work, Sexton explored a world of love and madness, inhabited by a modern suburban housewife who seemed, at first glance, to have it all.During this period, Anne also produced a play, Mercy Street. However, her confidence was shaky, and her reasoning impaired by decades of addiction, to alcohol and prescribed medication. In her final years, Sexton became estranged from friends due to her volatile behaviour.
In 1973, Anne Sexton divorced her husband. On October 8th 1974, after revising a final manuscript, The Awful Rowing Towards God, she put on her mother’s fur coat, and committed suicide by inhaling gas from the engine of her car.
Since Anne’s death, two more books of her poetry have appeared; 45 Mercy Street (1976), and Words for Doctor Y (1978). Her Complete Poems are now available in a single volume, as well as a shorter Selected Poems. Her letters are published in A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977), and her prose is collected in No Evil Star (1978.)
The line between Sexton’s life and art has too often been overlooked. ‘Anne Sexton is one of the writers by whom our age will be known and understood in times to come,’ Erica Jong wrote in an obituary for the New York Times:
‘Some people – including other poets – were embarrassed by her poetry and sought to denigrate it, perhaps because it was so naked and painful that it exposed the hypocrisies they lived by (and even, at times, wrote by).’