Feministory: Anne Sexton, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet
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.
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.
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
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