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Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton was an American poet, known for her highly personal, confessional verse.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her book Live or Die. Themes of her poetry

include her long battle against depression and mania, suicidal tendencies, and various intimate

details from her private life, including her relationships with her husband and children. In order

to understand this poetry, it is necessary to understand the life of the author

Sexton told her own life like a fairy tale in interviews, often repeating the same words

verbatim as if she had memorized them. Her story was of the oppressed young artist who was

forced into the stereotype of the perfect housewife and mother, then, unable to live up to that

ideal, she became broken and suicidal until she found her savior, poetry. She went from mad

housewife to star. In reality, her life was full of pain, abuse, and self-indulgence, and in the end

poetry could not save her from herself. Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey on November

9, 1929, in Massachusetts, the youngest of three girls. Her parents were very much a part of the

well-to-do, partying, self-indulgent culture of the time. She felt that she was neglected by her

parents and in constant competition with her sisters, always losing.

Sexton spent much of her childhood covering in the closet of a room in which she was

kept by a plastic gate, and she used that room as a major image in many of her poems; the roses

on the wall became blood clots and the limbs outside the window, tongues urging her to die. Her

father was an alcoholic and stayed drunk more and more often as Anne grew up, often verbally

abusing her in front of others until her trust in his love was destroyed. The one person in her life

to whom she felt close was her great-aunt, Anne Ladd Dingley, Nana, as Anne called her, who

came to live with them when Anne was young. Anne spent all of her time at home with Nana,

who became the major friend and mother-figure in Annes life until Anne became interested in

boys. She began to spend much less time with Nana, and during that time Nanas mental health

deteriorated. By the time Anne was fifteen, Nana had been institutionalized for insanity, and

Anne would identify with and blame herself for that illness for the rest of her life. After this,

Annes own depression and unusual preoccupation with insanity and death began to surface even

more. In one incident she had a date to go to a hill behind her house. When the boy arrived,

Anne was not home, and he found her lying at the bottom of the hill, unconscious and bleeding

from the head. After carrying her to the house, he discovered that the blood was fake, as was her

unconsciousness. Anne had dramatized her own death just to see how he would react, and to her

it seemed to be a good joke.

In her adolescence, Annes main goal was to attract boys, which led her parents to send

her to an all-girls school. Anne still managed to have many boyfriends, and she began writing

poetry as a teenager after a painful break-up with her first love. She pursued this poetic interest

intently, writing several poems a day for a few months, but she stopped after her unsupportive

mother accused her of plagiarizing Sara Teasdale. Anne was engaged her senior year in high

school and began planning a big wedding to fulfill her long-time wish to be married. While she

was engaged, however, she met and fell in love with Alfred Muller Sexton II. They had a brief

affair and then, at her mothers encouragement after false pregnancy suspicions, they eloped at

nineteen years old.

By the time they were 27, Anne and Kayo had two daughters, Linda Gray Sexton and

Joyce Ladd Sexton, and their family was complete. Shortly after the birth of her second child,

Anne began having bouts of depression and anxiety attacks which eventually developed into an

extreme dread of being alone with her children because she constantly worried for their safety

.Her condition worsened quickly, and she began neglecting Linda and sometimes had sudden

attacks of rage that led Anne to slap Lindas face or to choke her. Fearing her own behavior,

Anne no longer trusted herself with her children and confided in her family for help.

Following her initial breakdowns, despite therapy and medication, Anne had several more

breakdowns, was hospitalized, and made numerous suicide attempts. In 1956, Anne began

seeing the psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne. He tried, as many therapists had, to help her break

through her difficulties and find a sense of self-worth, but their sessions resulted in little

progress. She told him once that the only talent she might have would be for prostitution; she

could make men feel powerful sexually, but that was her only worth. One day, she saw a program

on television in which a Harvard professor was lecturing on sonnets. Anne noted the form and

wrote several poems that night. She brought her work to Dr. Orne, who was quite pleased and

encouraged her to continue writing. Receiving his approval, she wrote three to four poems every

day. In these poems, Anne brought out and understood the causes and effects of her illness with

which she had not yet come to terms. More than that, writing poems gave her a purpose and gave

her life value. Her long-time friend Maxine Kumin said in a forward to Sextons Complete

Works that poetry was what kept Anne alive for the eighteen years following this.

In 1957, Dr. Orne persuaded Anne to enroll in John Holmess poetry workshop in

Boston. This was a huge step for a woman who had felt inadequate in school, had never gone to

college, and was recovering from a nervous breakdown, and finding people there who would

support her interest and feed her ambition, particularly Maxine Kumin, her successful career

began. The workshop would break off later into a private group of five poets who would meet

every other week for years, making literary history with such award-winning pieces as George

Starbucks Bone Thoughts, John Holmess The Fortune Teller, Kumins Halfway, and Sextons

To Bedlam and Partway Back (Shomer). However, Sexton gave the credit of the poet who

influenced her work the most to W. D. Snodgrass, whose book Hearts Needle tells of his

personal struggle in a custody battle for his daughter. The poems moved her and gave her the

courage to write about her own life. She began writing her first book, To Bedlam and Partway

Back, explicitly describing her madness and her hospitalization, though her mentor Holmes tried

to tame her and shy her away from such subjects that were still considered inappropriate for


Sexton wrote to Snodgrass, telling him about her writings and how she felt about his, and

they began exchanging letters regularly. Snodgrass helped her get into a class taught by Robert

Lowell, an accomplished poet who was breaking ground himself, writing a book on his own

mental illness. Within twelve years of writing her first sonnet, she was one of the most honored

poets in America: a Pulitzer Prize winner, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the first

female member of the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. On October 4, 1974, Sexton had

lunch with Kumin to revise galleys for Sexton's manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God,

scheduled for publication in March 1975 .On returning home she put on her mother's old fur

coat, removed all her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in her garage, and

started the engine of her car, committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. In an interview

over a year before her death, she explained she had written the first drafts of The Awful Rowing

Toward God in twenty days with "two days out for despair and three days out in a mental

hospital." She went on to say that she would not allow the poems to be published before her

death. She is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery & Crematory in Jamaica Plain, Boston,

Massachusetts. Sexton is seen as the modern model of the confessional poet. Maxine Kumin

described Sexton's work: "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 poetry." Sexton's work towards the end of the sixties has been criticized as "preening,

lazy and flip" by otherwise respectful critics.

Some critics regard her dependence on alcohol as compromising her last work. However,

other critics see Sexton as a poet whose writing matured over time. "Starting as a relatively

conventional writer, she learned to roughen up her line. ... to use as an instrument against the

'politesse' of language, politics, religion and sex." Much has been made of the tangled threads of

her writing, her life and her depression, much in the same way as with Sylvia Plath's suicide in

1963. Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov commented in separate obituaries on

the role of creativity in Sexton's death. Levertov says, "We who are alive must make clear, as she

could not, the distinction between creativity and self-destruction."

Her works: Poetry and prose.

Uncompleted Novel-started in the 1960s

To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960)

The Starry Night (1961)

All My Pretty Ones (1962)

Live or Die (1966) Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1967

Love Poems (1969)

Mercy Street, a 2-act play (1969),

Transformations (1971)

The Book of Folly (1972)

The Death Notebooks (1974)

The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975; posthumous)

45 Mercy Street (1976; posthumous)

Words for Dr. Y. (1978; posthumous)

No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose (1985; posthumous)

Children's books (all co-written with Maxine Kumin)

1963 Eggs of Things (illustrated by Leonard Shortall)

1964 More Eggs of Things (illustrated by Leonard Shortall)

1974 Joey and the Birthday Present (illustrated by Evaline Ness)

1975 The Wizard's Tears (illustrated by Evaline Ness)

Confessional poetry

Confessional poetry or 'Confessionalism' is a style of poetry that emerged in the United

States during the 1950s. It has been described as poetry "of the personal," focusing on extreme

moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously and

occasionally still taboo matters such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide, often set in relation

to broader social themes. It issometimes also classified as Postmodernism.The school of

"Confessional Poetry" was associated with several poets who redefined American poetry in the

1950s and 1960s, includingRobert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Allen

Ginsberg, and W. D. Snodgrass. In 1959 M. L. Rosen thal first used the term "confessional" in a

review of Robert Lowell's Life Studies entitled "Poetry as Confession",Rosenthal differentiated

the confessional approach from other modes of lyric poetry by way of its use of confidences that

went beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment. Rosenthal notes that

in earlier tendencies towards the confessional there was typically a "mask" that hid the poet's

"actual face", and states that Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself,

and it is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that

one ishonor-bound not to reveal. In a review of the book in The Kenyon Review, John

Thompson wrote, "For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a

conquest: what they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry."

There were however clear moves towards the "confessional" mode before the publication

of Life Studies. Delmore Schwartz's confessional long poem Genesis had been published in

1943; and John Berryman had written a sonnet sequence in 1947 about an adulterous affair he'd

had with a woman named Chris while he was married to his first wife, Life Studies and the

emergence of Confessionalism. Eileen, however, since publishing the sonnets would have

revealed the affair to his wife, Berryman didn't actually publish the sequence, titled

Berryman's Sonnets, until 1967, after he divorced from his first wife. Snodgrass' Heart's Needle,

in which he writes about the aftermath of his divorce, also preceded Life Studies. Life Studies

was nonetheless the first book in the confessional mode that captured the reading public's

attention and the first labeled "confessional." Most notably "confessional" were the poems in the

final section of Life Studies in which Lowell alludes to his struggles with mental illness and his

experiences in a mental hospital. Plath remarked upon the influence of these types of poems from

Life Studies in an interview in which she stated, "I've been very excited by what I feel is

the new breakthrough that came with, say, Robert Lowell's Life Studies, this intense

breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which I feel has been partly

taboo. Robert Lowell's poems about his experience in a mental hospital, for example, interested

mevery much." A. Alvarez however considered that some poems in Life Studies seemed more

compulsively concerned with the processes of psychoanalysis than with those of poetry; while

conversely Michael Hofmann saw the verbal merit of Lowell's work only diminished by

emphasis on what I would call the C-word, 'Confessionalism'.

Other key texts of the American "confessional" school of poetry include Plath's Ariel,

Berryman's The Dream Songs, and Sexton's To Bedlam and Part Way Back, though Berryman

himself rejected the label"with rage and contempt": The word doesn't mean anything. I

understand the confessional to be a place where you go and talk with a priest. I personally

haven't been to confession since I was twelve years old.

Another significant, if transitional figure was Adrienne Rich; while one of the most

prominent, consciously "confessional" poets to emerge in the 1980s was Sharon Olds whose

focus on taboo sexual subject matter built off of the work of Ginsberg. In the 1970s and 1980s,

some writers rebelled against Confessionalism in American poetry, arguing that it was too

self-indulgent. For instance, one of the foremost poets of the Deep Image school, Robert Bly,

was highly critical of what he perceived to be the solipsistic tendencies of Confessional poets. He

referenced this aesthetic distaste when he praised the poet Antonio Machado for "his

emphasis on the suffering of others rather than his own". However, many others writers during

this period, like Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, and Franz Wright, were strongly influenced by the

precedent set by Confessional poetry with its themes of taboo autobiographical experience, of the

psyche and the self, and revelations of childhood and adult traumas.

The poetic movement of New Formalism, a return to rhyme and meter, would also spring

from a backlash against free verse that had become popular in Confessional poetry. Another

poetry movement that formed, in part, as a reaction to confessional poetry included the Language



Must you leave, John Holmes, with the prayers and psalms

you never said, said over you? Death with no rage

to weigh you down? Praised by the mild God, his arm

over the pulpit, leaving you timid, with no real age,

whitewashed by belief, as dull as the windy preacher!

Dead of a dark thing, John Holmes, youve been lost

in the college chapel, mourned as father and teacher,

mourned with piety and grace under the University Cross.

Your last book unsung, your last hard words unknown,

abandoned by science, cancer blossomed in your throat,

rotted like bougainvillea into your gray backbone,

ruptured your pores until you wore it like a coat.

The thick petals, the exotic reds, the purples and whites

covered up your nakedness and bore you up with all

their blind power. I think of your last June nights

in Boston, your body swollen but light, your eyes small

as you let the nurses carry you into a strange land.

If this is death and God is necessary let him be hidden

from the missionary, the well-wisher and the glad hand.

Let God be some tribal female who is known but forbidden.

Let there be this God who is a woman who will place you

upon her shallow boat, who is a woman naked to the waist,

moist with palm oil and sweat, a woman of some virtue

and wild breasts, her limbs excellent, unbruised and chaste.

Let her take you. She will put twelve strong men at the oars

for you are stronger than mahogany and your bones fill

the boat high as with fruit and bark from the interior.

She will have you now, you whom the funeral cannot kill.

John Holmes, cut from a single tree, lie heavy in her hold

and go down that river with the ivory, the copra and the gold.

"Somewhere in Africa" is testimony to Sexton's power to preside over a proanssy with

confidence and clarity It is a powerful elegy on John Holmes, Sexton's teacher. Sexton asks to

Homles that, he must leave with the prayers and plams. He is adopted by death without any

hesitation. "Dead of a dark thing," he was "mourned as father and teacher" with "piety and

grace" and blessed with prayer?The voice becomes ironic when he is "praised by the mild God''

who leaves him "timid, with no real age.'' He is "whitewashed by belief, as dull as the windy

preacher." The world which he has worked to protect robs him of all powers. The simplicity and

writing that went from inside out ,this is what he was after was his opinion about writing poetry.

The poetic idea of sexton and John Holmes were indifferent. They were like the extreme

opposite, like mad and sane.Then she point out that his last published book was not unfamiliar

and his last words were unknown to her. The modern science has failed to save him from the

cancer, which affected his backbone.It was like the Bougainville ,the creeper with thrones. When

sexton sees Holmes last time in June at Boston,he was swollen lightly and his eyes were small.

In Sexton's another poem "The Operation," the speaker recalls details of her mother's cancer:

It grew in her as simply

As a child would grow as simply

As she housed me

once,fat and female

Her mother and she had the cancer on uterues. The "embryo/of evil" spreads in her and

she grows frail.When Holmes died,hiss naked body was filled with the flowers of red, white, and

purple in colour in corpus .According to traditional funeral, the colour of carnation flower

indicate various features .The red colour represents of symbol of respect, love, courage .The

white colour represent innocence, humility and rose or purple colour represent love, grace and


The readers are led to the exotic world of the poet as the nurses carry him into a "strange

land" where the God is "some tribal female who is known but forbidden." The prophetic poet

places the spirit of John Holmes in a place where the rituals of power will resurrect it into a

dream or mystery. The presiding god, a "woman of some virtue and wild breasts," resurrects him

whom the "funeral cannot kill." The prophetic voice reserves him for eternity in health as well as

in sickness. The poem begins as an elegy, moves toward a parable of the realm of poetry and end

as a prayer of incantation. The anatomy is graphically described to create a visual sensation. In

"Somewhere in Africa," the exotic land is presided over by a woman "naked to the waist," a

woman of "some virtue / and wild breasts". The images at once create strangeness and

femininity. Sexton identifies body with illness, sin and guilt.

At the end of the poem sexton tries to point out the rich culture of Africa, and her belief

that Africa is something a place like heaven. The gold, ivory, copra are the elements which

abundant in African soil. The African Mahogany is a symbol of strength and endurance. Poet

uses this symbol to of mahogany that Holmes will be safe and protective in that land. The poet

says that the African tradition and the belief of if one die he will reborn on land and his spirit will

stay forever. Sexton wants his mentor to be reborn to eternity forever.