Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts, and spent most of her life near Boston. In 1945, Sexton began attending a boarding school, Rogers Hall, in Wayne, Michigan. For a time as a young woman, she modeled at Boston’s Hart Agency. She eloped in 1948 with Alfred Muller Sexton, known as ‘Kayo.’ Before their divorce in the early 1970s, she had two children with Kayo: Linda Gray Sexton, later a novelist and memoirist, and Joyce Sexton.Sexton spoke candidly about her battle with depression, which she fought for most of her life. Her first breakdown took place in 1954. After a second breakdown in 1955, she met Dr. Martin Orne at Glenside Hospital, who encouraged her to take up poetry, and she enrolled in her first poetry workshop, with John Holmes as the instructor.
After the workshop, Sexton experienced remarkably quick success with her poetry, with her poems accepted by The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the Saturday Review.
Sexton’s poetic life was further encouraged by her mentor, W.D. Snodgrass, whose poem, ‘Heart’s Needle’ encouraged her to write ‘The Double Image, ‘ a poem significant in expressing the multi-generational relationships existing between mother and daughter.
While working with Holmes, Sexton encountered Maxine Kumin, with whom she became good friends throughout the rest of her life. Kumin and Sexton rigorously critiqued each other’s work, and wrote four children’s books together.
She attended a poetry workshop with Sylvia Plath, taught by Robert Lowell in 1957. Later, Sexton herself taught workshops at Boston College, Oberlin College, and Colgate University.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the manic elements of Sexton’s illness began to affect her career. She still wrote and published work and gave readings of her poetry. She also collaborated with some musicians who were working to put some of her prose to music.
Sexton is the modern model of the confessional poet. She was inspired by the publication of Snodgrass’ ‘Heart’s Needle.’
Sexton helped open the door not only for female poets, but for female issues; Sexton wrote about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, then adultery before such issues were even topics for discussion, helping redefine the boundaries of poetry.
The title for her eighth collection of poetry, The Awful Rowing Toward God, came from her meeting with a Roman Catholic priest who, although he refused to administer the last rites, did tell her: ‘God is in your typewriter, ‘ which gave the poet the desire and willpower to continue living and writing for some more time.
After several attempts, Sexton committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide in 1974.
She is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery & Crematory in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts.
Anne Sexton’s Published Books:
To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960)
All My Pretty Ones (1962)
Live or Die (1966) – Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1967
Love Poems (1969)
The Book of Folly (1972)
The Death Notebooks (1974)
The Awful Rowing Towards God (1975; posthumous)
45 Mercy Street (1976; posthumous)
Words for Dr. Y. (1978; posthumous)
Loving me with my shows off
means loving my long brown legs,
sweet dears, as good as spoons;
and my feet, those two children
let out to play naked. Intricate nubs,
my toes. No longer bound.
And what’s more, see toenails and
all ten stages, root by root.
All spirited and wild, this little
piggy went to market and this little piggy
stayed. Long brown legs and long brown toes.
Further up, my darling, the woman
is calling her secrets, little houses,
little tongues that tell you.There is no one else but us
in this house on the land spit.
The sea wears a bell in its navel.
And I’m your barefoot wench for a
whole week. Do you care for salami?
No. You’d rather not have a scotch?
No. You don’t really drink. You do
drink me. The gulls kill fish,
crying out like three-year-olds.
The surf’s a narcotic, calling out,
I am, I am, I am
all night long. Barefoot,
I drum up and down your back.
In the morning I run from door to door
of the cabin playing chase me.
Now you grab me by the ankles.
Now you work your way up the legs
and come to pierce me at my hunger mark
Admonitions To A Special Person
Watch out for power,
for its avalanche can bury you,
snow, snow, snow, smothering your mountain.Watch out for hate,
it can open its mouth and you’ll fling yourself out
to eat off your leg, an instant leper.Watch out for friends,
because when you betray them,
as you will,
they will bury their heads in the toilet
and flush themselves away.Watch out for intellect,
because it knows so much it knows nothing
and leaves you hanging upside down,
mouthing knowledge as your heart
falls out of your mouth.
Watch out for games, the actor’s part,
the speech planned, known, given,
for they will give you away
and you will stand like a naked little boy,
pissing on your own child-bed.
Watch out for love
(unless it is true,
and every part of you says yes including the toes) ,
it will wrap you up like a mummy,
and your scream won’t be heard
and none of your running will end.
Love? Be it man. Be it woman.
It must be a wave you want to glide in on,
give your body to it, give your laugh to it,
give, when the gravelly sand takes you,
your tears to the land. To love another is something
like prayer and can’t be planned, you just fall
into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief.
if I were you I’d pay no attention
to admonitions from me,
made somewhat out of your words
and somewhat out of mine.
I do not believe a word I have said,
except some, except I think of you like a young tree
with pasted-on leaves and know you’ll root
and the real green thing will come.
Let go. Let go.
Oh special person,
this typewriter likes you on the way to them,
but wants to break crystal glasses
when the dark crust is thrown off
and you float all around
like a happened balloon.