ANNE SEXTON Biography - Famous Poets and dancers


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Sexton, Anne Gray Harvey (9 Nov. 1928-4 Oct. 1974), poet and playwright, was                       
born in Newton, Massachusetts, the daughter of Ralph Harvey, a successful woolen                   
manufacturer, and Mary Gray Staples. Anne was raised in comfortable middle-class                   
circumstances in Weston, Massachusetts, and at the summer compound on Squirrel                     
Island in Maine, but she was never at ease with the life prescribed for her. Her                   
father was an alcoholic, and her mother's literary aspirations had been                           
frustrated by family life. Anne took refuge from her dysfunctional family in her                   
close relationship with "Nana" (Anna Dingley), her maiden great-aunt who lived                     
with the family during Anne's adolescence. Sexton's biographer, Diane                             
Middlebrook, recounts possible sexual abuse by Anne's parents during her                           
childhood; at the very least, Anne felt that her parents were hostile to her and                   
feared that they might abandon her. Her aunt's later breakdown and                                 
hospitalization also traumatized her.                                                             
Anne disliked school. Her inability to concentrate and occasional disobedience                     
prompted teachers to urge her parents to seek counseling for her--advice her                       
parents did not take. In 1945 they sent her to Rogers Hall, a boarding school in                   
Lowell, Massachusetts, where she began to write poetry and to act. After                           
graduation she briefly attended what she called a "finishing" school. Anne's                       
beauty and sense of daring attracted many men, and at nineteen she eloped with                     
Alfred "Kayo" Sexton II, even though she was engaged to someone else at the time.                 
Then followed years of living as college student newlyweds, sometimes with their                   
parents. Later, during Kayo's service in Korea, Anne became a fashion model. Her                   
infidelities during her husband's absence led to her entering therapy. In 1953                     
Anne gave birth to a daughter, and Kayo took a job as a traveling salesman in                     
Anne's father's business.                                                                         
Depressed after the death of her beloved Nana in 1954 and the birth of her                         
second daughter in 1955, Sexton went back into therapy. Her depression worsened,                   
however, and during times when her husband was gone, she occasionally abused the                   
children. Several attempts at suicide led to intermittent institutionalization,                   
of which her parents disapproved. During these years, Sexton's therapist                           
encouraged her to write.                                                                           
In 1957 Sexton joined several Boston writing groups, and she came to know such                     
writers as Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, George Starbuck, and Sylvia Plath. Her                     
poetry became central to her life, and she mastered formal techniques that                         
gained her wide attention. In 1960 To Bedlam and Part Way Back was published to                   
good reviews. Such poems as "You, Doctor Martin," "The Bells," and "The Double                     
Image" were often anthologized. Like such other so-called confessional poets as                   
W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell, Sexton was able to convince her readers that                   
her poems echoed her life; not only was her poetry technically excellent, but it                   
was meaningful to the midcentury readers who lived daily with similar kinds of                     
fear and angst.                                                                                   
In 1959 Sexton unexpectedly lost both of her parents, and the memory of her                       
difficult relationships with them--so abruptly ended--led to further breakdowns.                   
Poetry seemed the only route to stability, though at times the friendships she                     
made through her art, which led to sexual affairs, also were unsettling. Her                       
marriage was torn by discord and physical abuse as her husband saw his formerly                   
dependent wife become a celebrity.                                                                 
In 1962 Sexton published All My Pretty Ones. So popular was her poetry in                         
England that an edition of Selected Poems was published there as a Poetry Book                     
Selection in 1964. In 1967 Sexton received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for                       
Live or Die (1966), capping her accumulation of honors such as the Frost                           
Fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference (1959), the Radcliffe Institute                   
Fellowship (1961), the Levinson Prize (1962), the American Academy of Arts and                     
Letters traveling fellowship (1963), the Shelley Memorial Prize (1967), and an                     
invitation to give the Morris Gray reading at Harvard. To follow were a                           
Guggenheim Fellowship, Ford Foundation grants, honorary degrees, professorships                   
at Colgate University and Boston University, and other distinctions.                               
Sexton's reputation as poet peaked with the publication of Love Poems (1969), an                   
off-Broadway production of her play Mercy Street (1969), and the publication of                   
prose poems in Transformations (1972). Clearly her most feminist work, the                         
pieces in Transformations spoke to a different kind of reader. The Sexton voice                   
was now less confessional and more critical of cultural practices, more inclined                   
to look outside the poet's persona for material. In 1963 Sexton had traveled in                   
Europe, and in 1966 she and Kayo had gone on an African safari. In 1970 she had                   
helped him start a business of his own after he broke associations with her                       
father's former company. Contrary to her seemingly confident public manner,                       
however, Sexton was heavily dependent on therapists, medications, close friends--particularly     
Maxine Kumin and, later, Lois Ames--and lovers. Continual depressive bouts,                       
unexpected trance states, and comparatively frequent suicide attempts kept her                     
family and friends watchful and unnerved. Finally, in 1973, Sexton told Kayo she                   
wanted a divorce, and from that time on a noticeable decline in her health and                     
stability occurred as loneliness, alcoholism, and depression took their toll.                     
Estranged from many of her former friends, Sexton became difficult for her                         
maturing daughters to deal with. Aware that many of her readers did not like the                   
religious poetry that she had recently begun writing with her more personal                       
themes, Sexton became nervous about her poetry. Readings had always terrified                     
her, but now she employed a rock group to back up her performances. She forced                     
herself to be an entertainer, while her poems grew more and more privately                         
sacral. In 1972 she published The Book of Folly and, in 1974, the ominously                       
titled The Death Notebooks. Later that year, she completed The Awful Rowing                       
toward God, published posthumously in 1975. Divorced and living by herself,                       
Sexton was lonely and seemed to be searching for compassion through love affairs.                 
She continued to be in psychotherapy, from which she evidently gained little                       
solace. In October 1974, after having lunched with Maxine Kumin, Sexton                           
asphyxiated herself with carbon monoxide in her garage in Boston.                                 
Other posthumous collections of her poems include 45 Mercy Street (1976) and                       
Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (1978), both edited by                       
Linda Gray Sexton. The publication of Sexton's work culminated in The Complete                     
Poems in 1981. Sexton also wrote important essays about poetry and made                           
insightful comments in her many interviews. She understood the fictive impulse,                   
the way the writer uses both fact and the imagination in creation; and, like                       
Wallace Stevens, she saw her art as the "supreme fiction," the writer's finest                     
accomplishment. Much of what Sexton wrote was in no way autobiographical,                         
despite the sense of reality it had, and thus criticisms of her writing as "confessional"         
are misleading. She used her knowledge of the human condition--often painful,                     
but sometimes joyous--to create poems readers could share. Her incisive                           
metaphors, the unexpected rhythms of her verse, and her ability to grasp a range                   
of meaning in precise words have secured Sexton's good reputation. Though                         
comparatively short, her writing career was successful, as was her art.