About Anne Sexton

From Maxine Kumin's Foreword:

Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey on November 9, 1928 in Newton, MA. She attended public school in Wellesley, spent two years at Rogers Hall preparatory school, and one year at Garland Junior College in Boston. Just before her twentieth birthday, she eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton II (nicknamed Kayo), enrolled in a Hart Agency modeling course, and lived briefly in Baltimore and San Francisco while her husband served in the Navy. In 1953, she returned to Massachusetts, where Linda Gray Sexton was born.

Her first breakdown was diagnosed as postpartum depression, which occured in 1954, the same year her beloved great-aunt Anna Ladd Dingley, the Nana of the poems, died. Anne took refuge in Westwood Lodge, a private neuropsychiatric hospital that was frequently to serve as her sanctuary when the voices that urged her to die reached an insistent pitch.

The facts of Anne Sexton's troubled and chaotic life are well known; no other American poet in our time has cried aloud publicly over so many details. While the frankness of these revelations attracted many readers, especially women, who identified strongly with the female aspect of the poems, a number of poets and critics -- for the most part, although not exclusively, male -- took offense. . . Sexton's work rapidly became a point of contention over which opposing factions dueled in print, at literary gatherings, and in the fastnesses of the college classroom.

Though the reviewers were not always kind to Anne's work, honors and awards mounted piggyback on one another almost from the moment of the publication in 1960 of her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back. The American Academy of Letters Traveling Fellowship in 1963, which was awarded shortly after All My Pretty Ones was published and nominated for the National Book Award, was followed by a Ford Foundation grant as resident playwright at the Charles PLayhouse in Boston. In 1965, Anne Sexton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in Great Britain. Live or Die won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1967. She was named Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard in 1968 and accorded a number of honorary doctoral degrees.

Anne basked in the attention she attracted, partly because it was antithetical to an earlier generation's view of the woman writer as "poetess," and partly because she was flattered by and enjoyed the adoration of her public. But behind the glamorously garbed woman lurked a terrified and homely child, cowed from the cradle onward, it seemed, by the indifference and cruelties of her world. Her parents, she was convinced, had not wanted her to be born. Her sisters, she alleged, competed against and won out over her. Her teachers, unable to rouse the slumbering intelligence from its hiding place, treated her with impatience and anger. Anne's counterphobic response to rejection and admonishment was always to defy, dare, press, contravene. Thus the frightened little girl became a flamboyant and provocative woman; the timid child who skulked in closets burst forth as an exhibitionist declaiming with her own rock group; the intensely private individual bared her liver to the eagle in public readings where almost invariably there was standing room only.

Women poets in particular owe a debt to Anne Sexton, who broke new ground, shattered taboos, and endured a barrage of attacks along the way because of the flamboyance of her subject matter which, twenty years later, seems far less daring. She wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction at a time when the proprieties embraced none of these as proper topics for society. . . her very frankness succored many who clung to her poems as to the Holy Grail.

In 1975, Anne Sexton committed suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning.

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