“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.”
Anne Sexton was an American poet and playwright born on November 9, 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts. Sexton grew up in a middle-class family, but her father was an alcoholic and caused them a dysfunctional home life. During her childhood, and into her adult life, Sexton developed a relationship with her great aunt Anna Dingley. Sexton was not a successful student, and after several incidents of disobedience in school, her parents sent her to a boarding school, where she began writing her first poems. At age nineteen, she eloped, marrying Alfred Sexton, although she was engaged to someone else at the time. Sexton then began a career as a fashion model and had several extramarital love affairs during her husband’s service in Korea. These incidents, followed by the birth of her daughters and Anna Dingley’s death, prompted Sexton to seek therapy for depression, a mental illness she combated for the rest of her life.
It was Sexton’s therapist, however, who encouraged her to begin writing poetry again. At age twenty nine, Sexton enrolled in a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. Due to Sexton’s mental illness, her poems are deeply autobiographical, focusing on her personal feelings and experiences (including suicidal attempts, episodes of madness, and residence in mental hospitals). Critics scrutinized the confessional style of Sexton’s early works, including To Bedlam and Part Way Back and All My Pretty Ones, arguing that Sexton’s poetry was too connected with her firsthand experience, lacked artistic control, and, as one critic stated, was “little more than a kind of terribly serious and determinedly outspoken soap-opera.” Other critics felt Sexton’s raw, naked style indicated a lack of technical strength. As one critic wrote for Punch magazine: “the recital of grief and misery becomes embarrassing…the poetic gives way to the clinical and confessional.”
Sexton’s Transformations represented a stylistic shift, possibly due to the intense criticism of her earlier works. In this poetry, Sexton retold Grimm’s fairy tails, using them as a basis to criticize cultural formalities, particularly those that inhibit women. Critics praised Transformations. One critic argued that by using artificial plots and characters, Sexton was better able to draw her readers into the work, making them more vulnerable to Sexton’s personal nightmares.
Sexton’s later works, including The Death Notebooks, The Awful Rowing toward God, and 45 Mercy Street, returned to her earlier confessional style and were consequently criticized even more heavily by critics. Bombarded by the critics and her inability to overcome depression, Sexton committed suicide in 1974. Today Sexton remains famous for her raw and honest poems, bringing women’s issues, including menstruation, pregnancy, motherhood, and abortion, into public poetry and refusing to succumb to critics’ discouragement.