The deeply influential poet who stood at the forefront of examining the constrictions upon gender during the era in which she lived as a vital element of her poetry is perhaps paradoxically known to the world as Anne Sexton. Sexton was the name that Anne Harvey took upon her vows of marriage to Alfred Muller Sexton II. The idea of such a leading voice in the feminist poetry movement of America publishing under her husband’s last name might seem somewhat counter-intuitive, indeed, until the realization dawns that publishing as Anne Harvey would still have meant being known by a man’s name. And in the case of her abusive father, a man whose name was best left to gather dust in the archives of historical footnotes.
That abuse at the hands of her father eventually led Sexton to seek psychotherapy for the clinical depression which haunted her life and work. The realization of Sexton’s struggle to channel her mental instability into literary form comes in the form of poetry that transforms the pain of low self-esteem into brilliant insight into the darker aspects of motherhood, sexuality, and a near-constant teetering on the brink of suicide. Writing poetry was, in fact, an act of desperation encouraged by the physician treating her depression. Once she began the therapeutic process of refashioning the disturbing events of her life which led to bouts of madness and acts of self-destruction, a new world opened up.
Under the tutelage of renowned poet Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton became known as one of the leading confessional poets of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her first collection with a title directly referencing the treatment of mental illness, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, appeared in 1960. Six years later Live or Die took home the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Never one to shy away from controversial subjects, references to incest permeate throughout Sexton’s verse, informed by alleged accounts of being victimized herself by both that abusive father and an aunt who lived with them. Since her recollections of that particular abuse often contain conflicting accounts, it is not known for sure whether her mental instability resulted from actual cases of incest or whether her obsession with the incestuous themes is symptomatic of her mental instability.
From a literary standpoint, of course, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. The intensity and power of Sexton’s poetry stems directly from her willingness to confront the demons causing her depression rather than to do what so many others do: turn out the lights and hide. The brutal honesty of her confessional poetry is proof enough that inside her mind every single instance of incest and every other form of abuse which helped to shape and form her fragmented mental state was palpably and viscerally real and true and factual.
That those demons which drove Anne Sexton to the heights of creativity also eventually led her to the depths of destruction only confirms that reality. In 1974, Anne Sexton committed suicide at the age of 45.