This Day In Literary History
On November 9th, 1928, the famous American poet Anne Sexton was born. She was born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts.
After graduating high school, Anne became a model for Boston's famous Hart Agency. In 1948, she married her husband, Alfred Sexton. She bore him two children and remained with him for twenty-five years.
Throughout her life, Anne Sexton suffered from severe mental illness. She suffered her first mental breakdown in 1954. After her second breakdown in 1955, she began seeing a therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, who diagnosed her with a condition now known as bipolar disorder.
It was Dr. Orne who suggested that Anne Sexton take up writing poetry. She decided to attend a poetry workshop, but was so nervous about it that she had a friend accompany her to the first session. The workshop was led by John Holmes - the poet, not the porn star.
It unlocked a talent Anne never knew she had; all of a sudden, her poems were being published in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and The Saturday Review.
She later attended Boston University, studying with Robert Lowell, alongside soon-to-be famous poets such as Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck. The Pulitzer Prize winning poet W.D. Snodgrass became Anne's literary mentor.
When her first poetry collection,To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published in 1960, it established her as one of the finest confessional poets of her generation.
In addition to her central themes of isolation, depression, and despair, she was a modernist poet ahead of her time - one of the first widely published female poets to write openly, honestly, and graphically about taboo subjects such as menstruation, abortion, adultery, and masturbation.
Anne Sexton's third poetry collection, Live or Die (1968), won her a Pulitzer Prize. Around this time, she became a counterculture celebrity. She would perform live readings accompanied by a jazz-rock group.
The ensemble billed itself as Anne Sexton and Her Kind. The name of her band, "Her Kind," is also the title of one of her most famous poems, which appeared in her first poetry collection. It was the signature piece of her performances:
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Unfortunately, while Anne's fame and fortunes grew, her mental illness grew worse. She committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning (she locked herself in her garage and started her car with the windows open) at the age of 45.
During her short life, Anne Sexton wrote over a dozen poetry collections and a play. She also co-wrote four children's books with her friend, Maxine Kumin.
After Anne's death, her troubled life would become the subject of controversy when her former therapist, Dr. Orne, gave biographer Diane Middlebrook audiotapes of his therapy sessions with Anne.
Middlebrook's biography - published with the approval of Anne's daughter Linda - revealed many troubling details, including the fact that Anne had been sexually abused by her mother and that a second personality called Elizabeth had emerged while Anne was hypnotized.
Anne's mother and some relatives vehemently denied that any abuse took place and accused her therapist of planting false memories during their hypnotherapy sessions, which involved the administration of sodium pentothol.
Other relatives, including Anne's daughter Linda, confirmed that Anne had been abused by her mother. The biography is still hotly debated to this day, as is the issue of whether doctor-patient confidentiality should remain in effect after the patient dies.
Anne Sexton's eighth poetry collection, The Awful Rowing Toward God, was published posthumously in 1975. The title came as a result of her meeting with a Catholic priest who had told her, "God is in your typewriter."
Quote Of The Day
"The beautiful feeling after writing a poem is on the whole better even than after sex, and that's saying a lot." - Anne Sexton
Today's video features a complete recording of Anne Sexton's final public reading, taped at Goucher College in 1974. Enjoy!