Anne Sexton and the Poetry of Mental Illness

Anne Sexton was encouraged to write poetry by her psychiatrist, a Dr Martin Orne, who she consulted following bouts of mental illness – depression and a suicide attempt in 1956. Already a mother of two daughters, the former fashion model gradually began to write poetry following her ‘rebirth at 29.’

By Christmas 1956 she had created 37 poems, learning as she went along, pouring her experiences into a variety of poetic forms.

It took only three years for her to publish her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), poems that contain some of the most personally direct lines ever written, on topics that at the time of publication, were seldom exposed. This was a remarkable debut because it dealt in the main with her experiences of mental illness and life in an asylum.

Basically what Anne Sexton tried to achieve through writing poetry was a form of self healing, a way of expressing deeply repressed emotion based on her experiences in her private and for a time institutionalized life.

By looking at some of her poems within the context of her life and illness, I hope I can shed some light on her struggle to come to terms with such challenges.

Anne Sexton’s work will always be judged in the shadow of the fact that she took her own life, by asphyxiation in her garage at home. It’s not for us to try to understand why she did this – it was a seemingly rational act following a routine lunch with her old friend, poet Maxine Kumin – the only option is to read her work.

As she herself said to her oldest daughter Linda, ‘Talk to my poems.

Although many poets had written so called ‘confessional’ poems in the early to late 1960s, Anne Sexton brought a new dynamic edge to the genre by publishing poems on all kinds of previously taboo topics.

Abortion, menstruation, drug addiction, medication, sex, erotic fantasy, religion, suicide, family abuse and death – she wrote about it all with a brave, some would say, excessively manic voice. No woman had pushed the boundaries of taste so far. It was as if Anne Sexton was exposing her whole life through her art, warts and all. Dark stories and all.

You only have to read the poem Wanting To Die, written in 1964, to know that here is an author unafraid of the open road that leads partly out of the darkness and wholely back into the same source of black.

Wanting To Die

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.

I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.

Then the almost unnameable lust returns.


Even then I have nothing against life.

I know well the grass blades you mention,

the furniture you have placed under the sun.


But suicides have a special language.

Like carpenters they want to know which tools.

They never ask why build.


Twice I have so simply declared myself,

have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,

have taken on his craft, his magic.


In this way, heavy and thoughtful,

warmer than oil or water,

I have rested,drooling at the mouth-hole.


I did not think of my body at needle point.

Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.

Suicides have already betrayed the body.


Still-born, they don’t always die,

but dazzled, they can’t forget a drug so sweet

that even children would look on and smile.


To thrust all that life under your tongue!—

that, all by itself, becomes a passion.

Death’s a sad bone; bruised, you’d say,


and yet she waits for me, year after year,

to so delicately undo an old wound,

to empty my breath from its bad prison.


Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,

raging at the fruit a pumped-up moon,

leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,


leaving the page of the book carelessly open,

something unsaid, the phone off the hook

and the love whatever it was, an infection.

This poem was written on February 3rd 1964 and sums up Anne Sexton’s approach to death. The fact that it was written a year after Sylvia Plath’s suicide on February 11th 1963, also by asphyxiation, is perhaps no coincidence.

Anne Sexton greatly admired her fellow poet, both had studied under Robert Lowell in Boston, and both incorporated deep personal issues into their creative work. They had vastly differing styles but the foundation – the strangeness of motherhood’s powerful emotional energy – lay in common ground.

Wanting To Die is one of Anne Sexton’s best poems. From the first stanza to the last of eleven, her language swings from the forthright to the cryptic and symbolic. The title itself is disturbing enough but the almost casual way she opens the poem suggests a familiar dialogue of the self is taking place.

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.

Or is she answering one of many questions asked by her therapist, Dr Martin Orne? It could be either. And what exactly can’t she remember? Is she journeying back into childhood, trying to pinpoint the memory of the first time she thought, I want to die?

Then the unnameable lust returns’



Lust is a powerful word to use in a poem like this. It ends the first tercet and sets the tone for the rest of the poem and for Anne Sexton’s life. Lust is the instinctive side of love, the carnal magnetism that draws people, helpless, into situations they perhaps think they can avoid but know they must eventually face.

The poem continues its journey into the world of the suicide, the third stanza offering us the idea that killing oneself is an ancient craft, related to the idea of supreme sacrifice for all of those we know and love. Choosing the word carpenter introduces the idea of Jesus Christ and the religious undertones are worthy of note.

Death is sweet, she’s waiting for the poet in all innocence, the body already betrayed (with the help of drugs); even a child would view the scene with a calm if rather macabre smile.

The last three stanzas encapsulate in powerful imagery the reasons why a suicide might leave the world of the living. For Anne Sexton death wants:

‘to empty my breath from its bad prison,

The poem suggests female suicide’s are often hungry for love (bread and kiss), angry and confused about their femininity and fertility (fruit and moon) and unable to return the love of others, which in the end is what destroys them.


Young girls in old Arabia were often buried alive next

to their fathers, apparently as sacrifice to the

goddesses of the tribes . . .

Harold Feldman, “Children of the Desert”

Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Review, Fall 1958


It was only important

to smile and hold still,

to lie down beside him

and to rest awhile,

to be folded up together

as if we were silk,

to sink from the eyes of mother

and not to talk.

The black room took us

like a cave or a mouth

or an indoor belly.

I held my breath

and daddy was there,

his thumbs, his fat skull,

his teeth, his hair growing

like a field or a shawl.

I lay by the moss

of his skin until

it grew strange. My sisters

will never know that I fall

out of myself and pretend

that Allah will not see

how I hold my daddy

like an old stone tree.

This is a short autobiographical poem disguised in a historical costume and culture. Anne Sexton must have read about this ancient Arabic practice and put herself in place of one of the unfortunate young girls buried alive with their father.

Appeasing the gods and goddesses involved the ultimate sacrifice in this case. The scenario must have resonated with the poet, the idea of a ‘pure’ death being attractive to Anne. The voice of the girl becoming more abstract as the poem progresses adds to the mystery.

Anne Sexton wrote many letters to friends, colleagues, poets and well wishers. You get a sense of her natural confidence and optimism in many of them;she comes over as a loving family oriented kind of person, full of stories from home, describing her latest work.

In others you know something dark might be unfolding.

One particular letter to her daughter Linda is extraordinarily moving. Anne Sexton is writing it telling her then 15 year old that she loves her, she’s never been let down by her and that when Linda is 40 she may be looking back thinking about her dead mother.

Anne Sexton, for most of her adult life, struggled to bridge the gap between a normal life and the unpredictable demands of her mental illness.

‘All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children. I was trying my damndest 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 white picket fences to keep the nightmare out.’

Her therapy and medication went some way towards stabilising her moods but couldn’t cure her depression, her constant need for reassurance.

She seemed never to recover emotionally from the loss of her beloved Nana in 1954 and both parents suddenly in 1959. Marriage and children were no consolation, adding to the tension and inner turmoil.

Poetry offered a way out. The publication of her first book in 1960 brought critical acclaim and a first step towards a sort of fame, at least within the poetic world.

By publishing this book Anne Sexton began her beautiful, brave and terrible inner journey, exposing her vulnerability to a new found readership.

Anne Sexton’s second published book, All My Pretty Ones (1962), established her as an up and coming poetic voice. Female critics largely praised its maturity and exploration of taboo subjects, whilst one male critic, James Dickey the poet, said:

‘It would be hard to find a writer who dwells more insistently on the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience.’

This was from the influential New York Times Book Review. You can sense that Anne Sexton’s poetry disturbed many male readers simply because of the subject matter – menstruation, abortion, femininity – yet it was her language and poetic form that were impressively harmonic.

Elizabeth Bishop became an admirer of the work and a copy of the book was sent to Sylvia Plath in England, herself undergoing transformative events in her own private and poetic life.

‘It is superbly masterful,’ she wrote back, ‘womanly in the greatest sense.’

This was in the summer of 1962. Sexton and Plath had become distant rivals of a kind. Their lives intertwined in a somewhat asynchronous fashion.

Both had studied under the confessionalist mentor Robert Lowell in Boston, both had gone through therapy and both were in the process of turning their poems into a personal mythology.

Just a few months later, in February 1963, following a traumatic break from husband Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath would take her own life and thereby upset Anne Sexton’s plans for her own tragic demise.

When Anne Sexton heard about the suicide she declared to her therapist:

‘That death was mine!’

For my friend, Ruth, who urges me to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession

Concerning your letter in which you ask

me to call a priest and in which you ask

me to wear The Cross that you enclose;

your own cross,

your dog-bitten cross, no larger than a thumb,

small and wooden, no thorns, this rose—


I pray to its shadow,

that gray place

where it lies on your letter … deep, deep.

I detest my sins and I try to believe

in The Cross. I touch its tender hips, its dark jawed face,

its solid neck, its brown sleep.


True. There is

a beautiful Jesus.

He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.

How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!

How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!

But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.


All morning long

I have worn

your cross, hung with package string around my throat.

It tapped me lightly as a child’s heart might,

tapping secondhand, softly waiting to be born.

Ruth, I cherish the letter you wrote.


My friend, my friend, I was born

doing reference work in sin, and born

confessing it. This is what poems are:

with mercy

for the greedy, they are the tongue’s wrangle,

the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.

This poem is free flowing and has a logical if not desperate delivery within a rough form. It’s a straightforward reply to a friend who has kindly given the speaker a cross to wear perhaps because the friend thought the poet needed a little help spiritually!!

Anne Sexton sums up the situation when she declares ‘need is not belief’ that is, she knows she’ll never have faith in the cross and what it represents. But being open minded she’s willing to wear it.

She has instead poetry to help heal the spiritual wounds. Poems are forgiving, they speak for themselves and are magical, like a star.

Anne often thought of herself as a rat when she was ill.

In 1966 Live or Die helped boost Anne Sexton’s popularity. The following year it won her the Pullitzer Prize and her career as a performance poet took off. She formed a rock band, Anne Sexton and Her Kind, and they provided backing as she read out her poems.

As with most things in her life, it wasn’t all plain sailing.

Some loved her performances, her ‘marvelous, throaty, classy voice‘ bringing just the right feel to her harrowing accounts of insanity and loss. Others hated them. Even her best friend Maxine Kumin found the readings ‘melodramatic and stagey‘ and she didn’t like the way Anne pandered to an audience.

All the time the chain smoking, pill popping poet was having to keep her mental illness in check. Just to perform she had go through a kind of anxious hell, hyping herself up so she could give the crowds what they wanted.

She knew how to pack them in, playing both the artist and the martyr.

Anne Sexton was so insecure at times she needed help just to go down to the local store. It makes you wonder if all the therapy she underwent had really done her any good at all?

Meanwhile her marriage was beginning to show cracks. She admitted that when poetry became a major force in her life her failings as a mother and wife were accentuated.

Anne Sexton’s popularity and reputation displeased her husband and caused friction in the household where her two daughters vied for attention, not always of the proper kind. But, if there were desperate lows in Anne Sexton’s life this period between 1966 and 1969 could be seen as a high.

Audiences loved her, her poetry was critically praised and she had some semblance of a family life.

‘…you realize a poem is buried there somewhere (in the unconscious)….there is a lot of unconscious truth in a poem. As you see me now, I am a lie.’

Anne Sexton

Live or Die is a title Anne Sexton might have chosen to confirm the enormous struggles that were going on within her. It’s as if the book is an ultimatum.

There must have been a part of her that believed in the cathartic nature of writing poetry. If she could cleanse herself from within by writing poems, perhaps her mental and spiritual anguish would subside? If it were only that simple.

Yet the book as a whole does contain the story of a quest, a journey down deep into the darker corners of the soul. The poet uses simile, metaphor and figurative language to evoke a sense of myth and religious significance. Poem after poem contain symbol and image – tree, fish, the Sun, water in the form of rain,river and ocean, caves and angels – the speaker mixing actual experience with fairytale and fiction.

The Addict is a straightforward poem about taking different sorts of tablets, given a religious twist in a style somewhat tongue in cheek. ‘Don’t they know that I promised to die!/I’m keeping in practice.

Live is a rambling free verse poem to her family, with the shifting Sun a symbol of purity and life.

In Consorting with Angels the speaker, tired of being a woman, describes a dream where Joan (Joan of Arc?) is sacrificed and, in a new Jerusalem, gender is no more.

Those Times – an autobiographical free verse poem about growing up –‘the little childhood cruelties‘ and into a woman and mother. Not one of her best but has some powerful imagery.

Menstruation at Forty – this is all about fertility and the monthly cycle given the Sexton treatment – at forty she begins to accept that procreation might be over and no more children = a kind of death.

Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman – a poem to her daughter Linda, about growing up and becoming a woman. With many symbols and a fairytale atmosphere. Intimate poem, from a mother to her baby.

Anne Sexton’s 1969 book might be said to be her most open and explicit. It contains some good poems and some that are on the borderline. Yet it broke new ground again for women,exploring taboo subjects such as masturbation and touch.

Loving the Killer – tells of a recent trip to Africa which she undertook with her husband. The speaker equates hunting with love, blood and ancestral loss. I will eat you slowly with my kisses/even though the killer in you/has gotten out.

For My Lover, Returning to His Wife – this poem tells of the lover’s wife, the bearer of his children,the solid foundation of his life – the monument which he climbs – whilst the speaker all the time compares herself to paint: As for me, I am a watercolor./I wash off.

Transformations is Anne Sexton’s re-telling of 17 Brothers Grimm fairy tales. She uses simile, metaphor and her modern wit to first unsettle the reader, then provoke and tickle them into submission. You’ll either love or hate these transformations because they completely do away with notions of ‘happily ever after’ and idyllic situations.

They are the work of a middle aged witch – Anne Sexton herself.

Each tale is preceded by an introductory poem, some dark and twisted, some spicy and sour, some creepy and farcical.

Once there was a witch’s garden

more beautiful than Eve’s

with carrots growing like little fish,

with many tomatoes rich as frogs,

onions as ingrown as hearts,

the squash singing like a dolphin

and one patch given over wholly to magic –



Lurking beneath the surface of these re-told tales is a quest for a life truth. As in all Sexton’s work the ideal is always questioned, the fever charts held up for all to see and compare.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,

and thus they met and he declared his love.

What is this beast, she thought,

with muscles on his arms

like a bag of snakes?

What is this moss on his legs?

What prickly plant grows on his cheeks?

What is this voice as deep as a dog?

Yet he dazzled her with his answers.

Yet he dazzled her with his dancing stick.

They lay together upon the yellowy threads,

swimming through them

like minnows through kelp

and they sang out benedictions like the Pope.

In Briar Rose she describes the girl’s awakening, not by a handsome Prince,

but my father

drunkenly bent over my bed,

circling the abyss like a shark,

my father thick upon me

like some sleeping jellyfish.

Here we have an autobiographical sketch intended to shock the reader into realising that, far from life being a dream fairy tale, life can sometimes be a nightmare.

Anne Sexton’s re-working of the Brothers Grimm offers a new perspective: she brings a fresh dose of reality mixed with a veiled malevolence so the reader can strip down the original tale to reveal…..

What voyage this, little girl?

This coming out of prison?

God help –

This life after death?

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Anne Sexton kept busy as a poet right up until her death, despite her many ‘lives’ all vying for supremacy. She published The Book of Folly and The Furies, and posthumous works included The Death Notebooks and The Awful Rowing Towards God.



She remains an enigma. As with all tragic artists, questions of whether her life fed her art or vice versa will continue to be open ended. Anne Sexton – Anne Gray Harvey – seemed very much aware of her strengths and vulnerabilities.

Her poems are still very popular. If you read contemporary reviews by younger people they are mostly positive and, as with Sylvia Plath, there is an enormous amount of interest shown in her writings.

She took confessional poetry to a new and slightly frightening place, dark in the corners yes, shocking and explicit, yet offering fresh emotional discoveries for the reader.

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1960 To Bedlam and Part Way Back

1962 All My Pretty Ones

1966 Love or Die

1969 Love Poems

1972 Transformations

1972 The Book of Folly

1974 The Death Notebooks

1975 The Awful Rowing Toward God

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