...in 1960, Massachusetts poet Anne Sexton had her first collection of poems published, To Bedlam and Part Way Back. Just before the manuscript was to go to press, she made major changes in "Her Kind," a poem that had been rejected by literary journals, and included it in the book. From then on, she began all her readings with this poem. She formed a band called "Anne Sexton and Her Kind" to accompany her. Anne Sexton achieved great literary success, winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1966 but never overcame the mental illness from which she suffered all her adult life. In 1974 she committed suicide. She was 46 years old.
In the late 1950s, a woman living a conventional life in the suburbs of Boston was doing what ordinary housewives were not supposed to be able to do: Anne Sexton was writing riveting poetry. Some derided it as overly confessional; others admired it for the truth they found in her words, but no one could miss the poet's gift or her pain.
Born in Newton, Massachusetts, on November 9, 1928, Anne was the youngest of three girls. Family members recall that from an early age, Anne showed a love for the dramatic, often entertaining them with skill and humor. The family lived in affluent Wellesley, where her parents led an active social life, going out most evenings. This appears to have left their daughters vying for parental attention. Her father's wool business grew even during the Depression, and in 1941, the family moved into a home in Weston that included seven bathrooms among its other luxuries.
Although financially secure, the family was emotionally fragile. Both Sexton's parents drank heavily. Her father would go into tirades when drunk, and Anne felt these were most often directed at her. Her Great Aunt Anna, "Nana," who lived with the family, provided Anne with emotional stability, but even her support cracked. Like several other members of Anne Sexton's family, Nana had a nervous breakdown and was removed from the home. Although her great aunt recovered, the event had a huge impact on Anne, a young teenager at the time.
To all outward appearances, however, Anne was a normal adolescent busy with friends and school. Always flirtatious, she spent her teenage years in a quest for a husband. Anne and Alfred Muller Sexton II, called "Kayo," met in July 1948. The following month, when 19-year-old Anne was afraid she might be pregnant (she was not), her mother encouraged her to elope. The couple was married on August 16, 1948. Their first daughter Linda was born in 1953, Joy two years later.
Anne Sexton found herself ill-suited for the role of mother and housewife prescribed for American women in the 1950s. She loved her children but was unable to cope with their needs. When she began to abuse Linda, she sought psychiatric treatment and was diagnosed with postpartum depression. Therapy was not enough; in November 1956, she tried to commit suicide. It would be the first of many attempts.
Her psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orne, suggested that writing poetry would help Sexton to understand herself. With his encouragement, she began writing. Nevertheless, in May 1957, she attempted suicide again. She later recalled that Dr. Orne visited her in the hospital and said, "You can't kill yourself, you have something to give. Why if people read your poems, they would think, 'There's somebody else like me!' They wouldn't feel alone." Sexton explained that this was the point when she finally felt she had "found something to do with [her] life."
That winter she took part in a writing workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. There she met fellow poets Maxine Kumin and George Starbuck, who would become close friends. In 1958 she was accepted in Robert Lowell's writing seminar at Boston University. Lowell became her mentor, and Sexton's career took off.
To Bedlam and Part Way Back, published in 1960, drew unusual attention for a first book of poetry. The New York Times critic wrote that the theme had "a natural, built-in interest: a mental breakdown, pictured with a pitiless eye and clairvoyant sharpness." Sexton's work continued to receive wide acclaim; in 1966 she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her third collection, Live or Die.
Anne Sexton's flamboyant personality and early love of acting made her a wonderful promoter of her own writing. She developed a reading style, wrote biographer Diane Middlebrook, "that eventually made her one of the most memorable performers on the poetry circuit."
In the late 1960s she sometimes sang her poems accompanied by a band. A poet with a devoted following, she attracted large audiences to her readings. Women, in particular, were drawn to the themes in Sexton's writing mother-daughter relationships, female identity, sexual anxiety, madness and suicide, spiritual quests.
Sexton taught poetry workshops, first at Wayland High School, then at McLean Hospital in Belmont, a psychiatric facility, and later at Boston University, where in 1970, she was appointed lecturer in the faculty of creative writing. Two years later, BU promoted her to full professor.
Sexton's emotional life remained tumultuous. Writing poetry may have brought her "part way back" from bedlam but never all the way. Ongoing psychiatric treatment did not spare her from periods of severe depression and self-doubt. Sometimes she would commit herself to a mental hospital; on other occasions, she tried to kill herself. She had a number of affairs, and, in 1973, she and Kayo Sexton were divorced.
Her dependency on prescription drugs and alcohol deepened, as did her feelings of isolation and loneliness. On October 4, 1974, Anne Sexton took her own life.
Anne Sexton: A Biography, by Diane Wood Middlebrook (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1991).