Poet Biographies

Anne Sexton: Poetry as Therapy

Anne Sexton was a talented, but troubled, 20th-century American poet. She captured raw, intense emotions in her work, using vivid, unsettling imagery. Despite her turbulent life, Sexton’s poetry has stood the test of time, captivating and confounding readers to this day.

Anne Sexton Stylistic Portrait

Anne Sexton is remembered today as a leader of the “confessional” poetry movement alongside other voices such as Sylvia Plath. Her work is emotionally poignant and often painful. The poet Maxine Kumin once described her work:

She openly wrote about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction.

Maxine Kumin on Anne Sexton

This was at a time when none of these topics were considered suitable for poetry. Sexton was a pioneer in this sense. She confronted her mental illness in a way that was still surprising for readers. Her work is just as powerful today as when it was written in the mid-1900s.

It is said that Anne Sexton used poetry as a form of self-therapy, tackling taboos and various darker themes, such as adultery, addiction, and more, in her writing. The brutal honesty of her work connected deeply with those who also felt lost and had the same sense of emptiness that Sexton did. Despite her success, being a finalist for National Book Award twice, she never could get away from a life of torment and tragically ended her own life at the age of 45.

Life Facts

  • Anne Sexton was born in November 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts.
  • In 1948, she married Alfred Muller Sexton, with whom she remained until 1973.
  • Her first book was ‘To Bedlam and Part Way Back.’
  • In 1967, she won the Pulitzer Prize for ‘Live or Die.’
  • She committed suicide by locking herself in the garage with the car in 1974.

Interesting Facts

  • Her full birth name was Anne Gray Harvey.
  • Sexton’s first child was born in 1953 and named Linda Gray, followed by Joyce Ladd Sexton in 1955.
  • She received a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
  • Sexton co-wrote four children’s books.
  • She suffered from post-partum depression after the birth of her second child.

Famous Poems

  • ‘After Auschwitz’ is a powerful reaction piece written by a speaker who is filled with anger over the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. She judges the men who did nothing in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust and then reigns herself back, hoping that God has not heard all that she’s said.
  • A Witch’s Life’ is a confessional poem that speaks on the difficulties of aging. The speaker looks back on her life and remembers a woman whom she and the other children in the neighborhood used to call a “witch.” Now, she sees how unfair this is and even sees the features of the “witch” in her own life. Despite the process of aging, the poem concludes on a slightly more optimistic note.
  • For My Lover Returning To His Wife’ contains a mistress’s description of the relationship between her lover and his wife. The speaker describes the relationship that she thinks her lover has with his wife. She fits perfectly into his life, and this worries the speaker. She’d like to play a more important role in her lover’s life but thinks perhaps that he should return to the woman he’s married to. 
  • ‘From the Garden’ expresses a speaker’s desire to take some time alone in the quiet of the garden with her partner. The speaker addresses her “beloved” and tells them that they need to come with her to see the flowers and the view from this more pleasant, natural place. There, they can contemplate life and perhaps renew their emotions for one another.
  • ‘The Truth the Dead Know’ is a moving poem that describes the poet’s own emotions in reaction to the death of her parents. She talks about how she attended the funeral but, after that, had no desire to participate anymore in the ceremonies around death. She expresses the need to take some time away and heal.

Early Life and Marriage

Anne Sexton was born in November 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts. Her full birth name was, Anne Gray Harvey, and her parents were Mary Gray Harvey and Ralph Churchill Harvey. She had two older sisters and spent most of her youth in Boston. Despite having a seemingly normal childhood, she actually had a rocky relationship with her parents and could be considered abusive.

As a young girl, she was enrolled in Rogers Hall boarding school in Lowell, Massachusetts, and then later at Garland Junior College. Soon after this, she began work as a fashion model for Boston’s Hart Agency. In 1948, she married Alfred ‘Kayo’ Sexton II. The couple remained together until their divorce in 1973. Sexton was known to have had many affairs during her marriage. Sexton gave birth to her first child, a girl named Linda Gray Sexton, in 1953.

Career and Mental Illness

In 1954, Sexton suffered her first manic episode. This breakdown was followed up with a second in 1955 after the birth of her second child, Joyce Ladd Sexton. She was suffering from postpartum depression, and she had to be admitted to a neuropsychiatric hospital. In 1956, her troubles pushed her to suicide attempts. 

After a recommendation from her therapist Dr. Martin Orne, it was here that she first began to write poetry. She also started keeping a journal and developed her mature writing style in it. Her first pieces were accepted by publications such as Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker. 

She wrote about her psychiatric struggles, and her first book, ‘To Bedlam and Part Way Back,’ was published in 1960. During her lifetime, her work was extremely popular; she had many achievements and was the recipient of awards such as the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, Shelley Memorial Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1967, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die.

Later Life and Death

She collaborated with several remarkable artists throughout her life, including a jazz-rock group that added Anne Sexton’s poetry to their music. In 1969, Sexton’s play, Mercy Street, was produced.

On October 4, 1974, after having lunch with Maxine Kumin, with whom she co-wrote four children’s books, Sexton locked herself in the garage. She put on her mother’s old fur coat, took off her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, and started the engine of her car. She died due to carbon monoxide poisoning. She was buried at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts.

Influence from other Poets

Anne Sexton was notably influenced by writers such as Sylvia PlathRobert Lowell, and Maxine Kumin. After joining writing groups in Boston, following her discovery of her ability to write, she became good friends with Plath, Lowell, George Starbuck, and later Kumin. 

Apart from Plath, and Lowell, her prose tends to be compared to other confessional poets such as John Berryman and W.D. Snodgrass

As one of the greatest confessional poets of all time, Anne Sexton’s poetry certainly inspired a more honest and open approach to personal storytelling for poets to this day.


What kind of poetry did Anne Sexton write?

Anne Sexton was a confessional poet, writing about her own life experience and the thoughts that she had. She addressed a number of issues, such as addiction, adultery, sex, abortion, and more. She was seen as the leader of the confessional movement, as poetry written about such taboo subjects, especially at the time, was something new and refreshing.

When was Anne Sexton first published?

Anne Sexton’s first book, and volume of poetry, was published in 1960. The work “To Bedlam and Part Way Back” was met with critical acclaim. It was then followed up with her book “All My Pretty Ones” in 1962.

What are the important works of Anne Sexton?

Some of the major works of Anne Sexton are considered to be “The Death Notebooks,” “Awful Rowing Toward God,” “45 Mercy Street“, “Live or Die,” “All My Pretty Ones,” and “Love Poems.”

Was Anne Sexton a feminist?

Although she didn’t self-identify as a feminist heavily herself, many consider her work as an insight into female issues at a time when society was a mainly male-dominated place. Through her writing, she raises awareness of what women go through in the privacy of their own minds and homes.

What did Anne Sexton suffer from?

Throughout her life, Anne Sexton suffered from a number of mental disorders and mental breakdowns. Most notably, she had bipolar disorder.

How old was Anne Sexton when she died?

Tragically, Anne Sexton was only 45 years old when she ended her life. After years of mental torment, she died from carbon monoxide poisoning in 1974 after running her car engine while in a locked garage.

William Green Poetry Expert
Will created Poem Analysis back in 2015 and has a team of the best poetry experts helping him analyze poems from the past and present. Although he has a background in Automotive Engineering, having worked for McLaren testing supercars, Will has a keen eye for poetry and literature.

Leave a Comment

Share to...