Image Map

Feministory: Anne Sexton, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet

feministory logo in red and orange. Scripty font reads Adventures in Feministory with a silhouette on either side of a woman holding a lasso and a protest sign

Anne Sexton was born in Newton, Masachusetts in 1928. Sexton was the youngest of three daughters and quickly earned the title of the wild child. At seventeen, her parents sent her to Rogers Hall Boarding School in Lowell, Massachusetts to try and cure the rebellious side in her. After graduating from school, Sexton attended what she would later call a "finishing school" before she met and eloped with Alfred Sexton II in 1948. For a short time after their marriage, she modeled for a small agency. But after her husband was sent to Korea for a time, Sexton gave up modeling to be like a typical '50s housewife—but she was anything but.

anne sexton

In 1953 and then again in 1955, the Sexton family had two daughters, Linda Gray and Joyce Ladd. Following the birth of her children, Sexton experienced postpartum depression and was institutionalized. She began seeing a therapist regularly and was encouraged to write to relieve her emotions. It was then that her poetry took off.

Sexton began attending poetry workshops where she made friends with fellow poet, Maxine Kumin. Sexton and her friend Maxine wrote poetry together and helped critique each other's work. Sexton continued to improve her poetry and attended a graduate writing program at Boston University in 1958 where she met Sylvia Plath

 In 1959, Sexton won the Audience Poetry Prize and published her first book of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back. In 1962 she published her second book, All My Pretty Ones. Following the release of her second book, Sexton and Maxine Kumin wrote a series of children's books together. Sexton continued to gain recognition and praise for her writing and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London in 1965. In 1966, she published a book of poetry titled Live or Die, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize (joining her are the five women and 16 men whose wins were today).

Following her rise in literary recognition, Harvard awarded her an honorary Phi Beta Kappa, making her  the first woman ever to join and be recognized. She published yet another book, Love Poems, all the while working on a play called Mercy Street. Sexton became a professor of literature and creative writing at Boston University and in 1973 she completed her final pieces of literature—The Awful Rowing Towards God and The Death Notebooks

to bedlam

Sexton's amazing poetry often dealt with issues of gender, motherhood, abortion, and sexuality that made some see her work as controversial. Her poem "In Celebration of My Uterus," for example, mimics the format of Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself." Whitman's poem celebrates the body through the male form. However, in her version, Sexton reverses this association of using men's bodies to represent humanity as a whole and evokes images of the yoni as an entity that is powerful and beautiful on its own.

Another poem by Sexton, "The Double Image," deals with her institutionalization and the effects of her suicide attempts on her relationship with her mother, but it also gives perspective on the relationship between mothers and daughters as connected. She weaves together the complex narrative from her mother, to her, to her daughter, Joy, to whom she writes, "I made you to find me."

The end of her story is tragic and well known: In 1974 Sexton put on her mother's old fur coat, drank some vodka, and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning by running her car in her garage.

Sexton's death cut short the poetry of an amazing artist. Anne Sexton's writing is not only beautiful and complex, but is a feat all the more impressive since she gained recognition in a literary canon that was (and still is) largely dominated by male artists.

Previously: Elizabeth Catlett

Guess what? Subscriptions to Bitch—our award-winning, 80+ page print quarterly—are 20% off to help us reach our $25,000 funding goal by September 30. Pitch in to support feminist media: Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Daughter

Didn't she sexually and emotionally abuse her daughter? I think in presenting her as a feminist icon that deserves discussion and consideration.

Mercy Street

Peter Gabriel wrote the song Mercy Street in honour of Anne Sexton. A beautiful and haunting song.

Child abuser

Anne Sexton is no feminist icon of mine. She horrifically abused her daughter. I don't want to hear any excuses about her being "troubled" or "haunted" or "complicated." If it were a male poet who abused his daughter we wouldn't be giving him a pass, so she doesn't get one either.

Abuse Allegations

Thank you for bringing this matter of the abuse allegations to light in the comments. In my research of Sexton I hadn't come across this issue of molestation of her daughter. Unfortunately, a lot of people leave out the stories of molestation and the abuse in biographies (which were the sources that I read when writing this post). I feel like this is especially true that writers leave out these stories when it comes from someone whose work we admire from an artistic point of view. I am sorry that I was another writer who glossed over this story and silenced the voice of the victim yet again. I do take this issue seriously and I am glad you informed me of it.

However, from an artistic point of view, I do think that Sexton's poetry does have feminist and literary merit and should not be overlooked. While sexual abuse is never okay, I do think there is value in Sexton's work and, from a literary perspective, she is an important female to be remembered for her professional accomplishments.

Morgan Hecht 

Former New Media Intern

Have you heard of our comments policy?