“Everyone in me is a bird
I am beating all my wings”
― Anne Sexton, Love Poems
Anne Gray Harvey was born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1928. She attended Garland Junior College for one year and married Alfred Muller Sexton II at age nineteen. She enrolled in a modeling course at the Hart Agency and lived in San Francisco and Baltimore. In 1953 she gave birth to a daughter. In 1954 she was diagnosed with postpartum depression, suffered her first mental breakdown, and was admitted to Westwood Lodge, a neuropsychiatric hospital she would repeatedly return to for help. In 1955, following the birth of her second daughter, Sexton suffered another breakdown and was hospitalized again; her children were sent to live with her husband’s parents. That same year, on her birthday, she attempted suicide.
She was encouraged by her doctor to pursue an interest in writing poetry she had developed in high school, and in the fall of 1957 she enrolled in a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. In her introduction to Anne Sexton’s Complete Poems, the poet Maxine Kumin, who was enrolled with Sexton in the 1957 workshop and became her close friend, describes her belief that it was the writing of poetry that gave Sexton something to work towards and develop and thus enabled her to endure life for as long as she did. In 1974 at the age of 46, despite a successful writing career–she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for Live or Die–she lost her battle with mental illness and committed suicide.
Like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, W. D. Snodgrass (who exerted a great influence on her work), and other “confessional” poets, Sexton offers the reader an intimate view of the emotional anguish that characterized her life. She made the experience of being a woman a central issue in her poetry, and though she endured criticism for bringing subjects such as menstruation, abortion, and drug addiction into her work, her skill as a poet transcended the controversy over her subject matter.
A Selected Bibliography
Poetry and Prose (collections and novels)
- 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 performed at the American Place Theatre (1969), published by Broadway Play Publishing Inc.
- Transformations (1971) ISBN 0-618-08343-X
- The Book of Folly (1972)
- The Death Notebooks (1974)
- The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975; posthumous)
- 45 Mercy Street (1976; posthumous)
- Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters, edited by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames (1977; posthumous)
- Words for Dr. Y. (1978; posthumous)
- No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose, edited by Steven E. Colburn (1985; posthumous)
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)
Portrait of an Old Woman on the College Tavern Wall
Anne Sexton, “Portrait of an Old Woman on the College Tavern Wall” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr.
Diane Middlebrook’s interview on Anne Sexton biography
“One for My Dame.” by Diana Hume George
The identification of a woman’s husband with her father remains implicit in the first two volumes, where it is hinted at, leapt beyond, or discussed at one remove through mythology, anthropology, or the buffer of an extra generation. In Live or Die, Sexton’s third volume, that identification is made explicit for the first time. The speaker’s father was “a born salesman” who sold wool and a born talker “in love with maps,” who “died on the road.” Her husband also sells wool, also travels on the road:
And when you drive off, my darling,
Yes, sir! Yes, sir! It’s one for my dame,
your sample cases branded with my father’s name,
your itinerary open,
its tolls ticking and greedy,
its highways built up like new loves, raw and speedy.
This is a world where women stand and wait—”I sit at my desk/each night with no place to go”–while men explore and conquer, “greedy” for the open road and all it represents: freedom, independence, possession, the familiarly “raw and speedy” litany. The salesman father and husband of Sexton’s real life symbolize a cultural axiom she would later explore in Transformations, where the fairy-tale world is one of masculine and feminine principles meeting and conflicting. The man brings home “one for his dame,” who sits and waits while he conquers a world in which the highway inflicted on the countryside is the equivalent of the penis entering the body of nature–always a woman’s body. The “new loves” allude to the infidelity inherent not only literally in the salesman’s life but figuratively in the desertion of the wife or daughter for that new love, the road that is always open, offering adventure.
In “Mother and Jack and the Rain,” a child speaker becomes the daughter figure of “One for My Dame,” in which the woman was both wife and daughter. The speaker
went to bed like a horse to its stall,
. . . .
and heard father kiss me through the wall
and heard mother’s heart pump like the tides.
The fog horn flattened the sea into leather.
I made no voyages, I owned no passport.
I was the daughter. Whiskey fortified
my father in the next room. He outlasted the weather,
counted his booty and brought
his ship into port.
Rain is here the replacement for the snow in “Letter Written.” (The sexual encounters of Sexton’s fathers and daughters take place in a medium of fluid or fire or music or flight.) Sexton continues the mercantile motif of “One for My Dame,” this time in a portrayal of an unseen, but vicariously felt, primal scene. Identifying with the mother, the daughter feels the father’s kiss and inhabits the mother’s heart that pumps “like the tides,” the final destiny of rain. Once again, woman is the medium for man’s journeying, the water buoying his ship. The wry metaphor of shipping brings an unlikely note of humor to the scene of parental intercourse, in which the sailor’s booty is the mother’s body. The sexual act is one of conquering and possession, as “raw and speedy” as the highways of “One for My Dame.”
From Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reprinted by permission of the author.