Anne Sexton (1928-1974)

    Contributing Editor:
    Diana Hume George

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Anne Sexton's poetry teaches superbly. It is accessible, challenging, richly textured, and culturally resonant. Her work is equally appropriate for use in American literature, women's studies, and poetry courses. The selections in this text represent many of the diverse subjects and directions of her work.

    Three problems tend to recur in teaching Sexton; all are interrelated. First, the "confessional school" context is troublesome because that subgenre in American poetry is both misnamed and easily misunderstood; Sexton has been the subject of inordinately negative commentary as the first prominent woman poet writing in this mode. Second, contemporary readers, despite the feminist movement, often have difficulty dealing with Sexton's explicitly bodily and female subject matter and imagery. Finally, readers often find her poetry depressing, especially the poems that deal with suicide, death, and mental illness.

    If the course emphasizes historical context, a sympathetic and knowledgeable explanation of resistance to the confessional mode is helpful. (Ironically, if historical context is not important to presentation of the material, I suggest not mentioning it at all.) Academic and public reactions to the women's movement, even though Sexton did not deliberately style herself as a feminist poet, will help to make students understand the depth and extent of her cultural and poetic transgressions. The third problem is most troubling for teaching Sexton; teachers might emphasize the necessity for literature to confront and deal with controversial and uncomfortable themes such as suicide, mortality, madness. A discussion of the dangers of equating creativity and emotional illness might be helpful, even necessary, for some students. It's also important to demonstrate that Sexton wrote many poems of celebration, as well as of mourning.

    Students often want to know how and why Sexton killed herself. They want to disapprove, yet they are often fascinated. I recommend one of two approaches. Either avoid the whole thing by not mentioning her suicide and by directing students toward the poems and away from Sexton's life; or engage the issue directly, in which case you need to allow some time to make thoughtful responses and guide a useful discussion that will illuminate more than one life and death.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    A balanced presentation of Sexton would include mention of her major themes, most of which are touched upon in the selection of poems here: religious quest, transformation and dismantling of myth, the meanings of gender, inheritance and legacy, the search for fathers, mother-daughter relationships, sexual anxiety, madness and suicide, issues of female identity.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    The problem of placement in the confessional school can be turned into an advantage by emphasizing Sexton's groundbreaking innovations in style and subject matter. Sexton's early poetry was preoccupied with form and technique; she could write in tightly constrained metrical forms, as demonstrated in To Bedlam and Part Way Back and All My Pretty Ones. She wrote in free verse during the middle and late phases of her poetic career. Most important is her gift for unique imagery, often centering on the body or the household.

    Original Audience

    Many of Sexton's readers have been women, and she has perhaps a special appeal for female readers because of her domestic imagery. She also found a wide readership among people who have experienced emotional illness or depression. But Sexton's appeal is wider than a specialist audience. She is exceptionally accessible, writes in deliberately colloquial style, and her diversity and range are such that she appeals to students from different backgrounds.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Among other confessionals, she can be discussed in context with Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, W. D. Snodgrass. Among women poets, she shares concerns of subject and style with Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, Alicia Ostriker, and, in a different way, Maxine Kumin. It's also appropriate to mention her similarities to Dickinson, another female New England poet who wrote in unconventional ways about personal subjects, religion, and mortality. Because she was a religious poet whose work is part of the questing tradition, she might be usefully compared with John Donne and George Herbert. Since many of her poems are spoken from the perspective of a child speaker, the standard literary tradition for comparative purposes can include Blake and Wordsworth, Vaughan and Traherne. Extra-literary texts that illuminate her work include selections of psychoanalytic theory, especially Freudian.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. I try to avoid giving students a predisposition to Sexton, and instead discuss difficulties and questions as they arise in discussion.

    2. (a) Examine the range of Sexton's subject matter and poetic style.

    (b) Pick a theme in a Sexton poem and trace it in other poems she wrote.

    (c) In what sense is Sexton a religious poet? A heretic?

    (d) Examine several surprising, unconventional images from several Sexton poems. What makes them surprising? Successful?

    (e) If Sexton is confessional, what is it that she is confessing?

    (f) Compare one of Sexton's "Transformations" with the original version in the Brothers Grimm.

    (g) Select another poet with whom Sexton can be compared, such as a confessional poet, a feminist poet, a religious poet, and discuss similarities and differences in their perspectives.

    (h) What are some of the possible uses for poetry that speaks from the perspective of madness or of suicide?


    Excellent articles on Sexton are most readily available in recent and forthcoming anthologies of criticism. Instructors can select articles that bear most directly on their concerns.

    Sexton: Selected Criticism, edited by Diana Hume George, University of Illinois Press, 1988, includes many previously published articles from diverse sources in addition to new criticism, as does Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale, edited by Steven E. Colburn, University of Michigan Press, 1988.

    Original Essays on Anne Sexton, edited by Frances Bixler, University of Central Arkansas Press, 1988, contains many new and previously unpublished selections.

    Critical Essays on Anne Sexton, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin, G. K. Hall, 1989, includes a number of reviews as well as essays and reminiscences.

    J. D. McClatchy's Anne Sexton: The Poet and Her Critics, Indiana University Press, 1978, is the original critical collection.

    Diane Wood Middlebrook's Anne Sexton: A Biography was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1991.

    Critics who specialize in Sexton or who have written major essays on her, whose works will be found in most or all of the above anthologies, include Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Diane Wood Middlebrook, Diana Hume George, Estella Lauter, Suzanne Juhasz, and Linda Wagner-Martin.