It’s the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Anne Sexton (1928) (books by this author). Sexton was best known for poems that explored mental illness, female sexuality, and death. She once wrote: “Live or die. Make up your mind. If you’re going to hang around don’t ruin everything. Don’t poison the world.”
Sexton grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with an abusive, alcoholic father and a cold mother. Her great-aunt, whom she adored, went mad and died in a nursing home. Sexton suffered from mental illness, most likely what we now call bipolar disorder, and her education was shoddy at best. She once told her friend, poet Maxine Kumin, that the only thing she learned at boarding school was how to make a white sauce.
She tried modeling, and then married at 19 and had two children. She said: “All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children. […] I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.”
Sexton started therapy, and her doctor suggested she try writing. She said: “I wrote my first poem in 1957 or 1958. I was watching television, a program on the form of the sonnet and I said, ‘I can do that.’ So I wrote a poem. It wasn’t very good and I didn’t offer it for publication.” She decided to enroll in poetry workshops, and ended up meeting Sylvia Plath. They became great friends and after class at Boston University, they would go for drinks at the Ritz Hotel. Sexton said, “We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric bulb, sucking on it.”
Sexton was best friends with the poet Maxine Kumin. When they first met, Sexton called Kumin “the frump of the frumps” and Kumin dismissed Sexton as “a little flower child, the ex-fashion model […] totally chic.” They started attending poetry readings together and even came up with titles for each other’s poetry collections. They talked so often on the phone that they eventually had a second, secret line installed, so they wouldn’t invoke the ire of their husbands.
Her first book, To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960), was a sensation. Sexton wrote about menstruation, madness, and sexual politics at a time when women weren’t supposed to be writing about those things. Sometimes her raw honesty cost her friends. The poet Louis Simpson said, “‘Menstruation at Forty’ was the straw that broke this camel’s back,” referring to one of her more personal poems.
She became very popular during the 1960s, giving readings at college campuses and even starting her own rock band, Anne Sexton and Her Kind. But the toll on her mental health was great, and she had numerous breakdowns and suicide attempts. She said, “In the field I have chosen, to be halfway is to be nothing.”
Anne Sexton died by suicide in 1974. She wrapped herself in her mother’s old fur coat and climbed into her car and left it running.
Anne Sexton said: “Writers are such phonies: they sometimes have wise insights but they don’t live by them at all. That’s what writers are like … you think they know something, but usually they are just messes.”
And, “The beautiful feeling after writing a poem is on the whole better even than after sex, and that’s saying a lot.”
Anne Sexton’s books include All My Pretty Ones (1962), Live or Die (1966), and 45 Mercy Street (1969).