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Anne Sexton

1928–1974

Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts, on November 9, 1928. She attended boarding school at Rogers Hall Lowell, Massachusetts, where she first started writing poetry. She attended Garland Junior College for one year and married Alfred Muller Sexton II at age nineteen. Sexton and her husband spent time in San Francisco before moving back to Massachusetts for the birth of their first daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, in 1953.

After her second daughter was born in 1955, Sexton was encouraged by her doctor to pursue an interest in poetry that she had developed in high school. In the fall of 1957, she joined writing groups in Boston that introduced her to many writers such as Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. She published her first two books, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) and All My Pretty Ones (1962), with Houghton Mifflin.

In 1965, Sexton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London. She then went on to win the 1967 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her third collection, Live or Die (Houghton Mifflin, 1966). In total, Sexton published nine volumes of poetry during her lifetime, including Love Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1969), The Book of Folly (Houghton Mifflin, 1973) and The Awful Rowing Toward God (Houghton Mifflin, 9175). She also authored several children's books with Maxine Kumin.

Sexton received several major literary prizes including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the 1967 Shelley Memorial Prize, the 1962 Levinson Prize, and the Frost Fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. She taught at Boston University and Colgate University, and died on October 4, 1974, in Weston, Massachusetts. Her papers are collected and housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
 


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

To Bedlam and Part Way Back (Houghton Mifflin, 1960)
All My Pretty Ones (Houghton Mifflin, 1962)
Selected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1964)
Live or Die (Houghton Mifflin, 1966)
Love Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1969)
Transformations (Houghton Mifflin, 1971)
The Book of Folly (Houghton Mifflin, 1973)
The Death Notebooks (Houghton Mifflin, 1974)
The Awful Rowing Toward God (Houghton Mifflin, 1975)
45 Mercy Street (Houghton Mifflin, 1976)
Words for Dr. Y.: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (Houghton Mifflin, 1978)
The Complete Poems 1981 (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)

Prose

Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters(Houghton Mifflin, 1977)
No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose (University of Michigan Press, 1985)

Anne Sexton
Photo credit: Rollie McKenna

By This Poet

5

Her Kind

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.

The Truth the Dead Know

For my Mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my Father, born February 1900, died June 1959
Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June.  I am tired of being brave.

We drive to the Cape.  I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch.  In another country people die.

My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely.  No one's alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.

And what of the dead?  They lie without shoes
in their stone boats.  They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped.  They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

No matter what life you lead
the virgin is a lovely number:
cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,
arms and legs made of Limoges,
lips like Vin Du Rhône,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes
open and shut.
Open to say, 
Good Day Mama,
and shut for the thrust
of the unicorn.
She is unsoiled.
She is as white as a bonefish.

Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
Her stepmother,
a beauty in her own right,
though eaten, of course, by age,
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.
Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.
The stepmother had a mirror to which she referred--
something like the weather forecast--
a mirror that proclaimed 
the one beauty of the land.
She would ask,
Looking glass upon the wall,
who is fairest of us all?
And the mirror would reply,
You are the fairest of us all.
Pride pumped in her like poison.

Suddenly one day the mirror replied,
Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true,
but Snow White is fairer than you.
Until that moment Snow White
had been no more important
than a dust mouse under the bed.
But now the queen saw brown spots on her hand
and four whiskers over her lip
so she condemned Snow White
to be hacked to death.
Bring me her heart, she said to the hunter,
and I will salt it and eat it.
The hunter, however, let his prisoner go
and brought a boar's heart back to the castle.
The queen chewed it up like a cube steak.
Now I am fairest, she said,
lapping her slim white fingers.

Snow White walked in the wildwood
for weeks and weeks.
At each turn there were twenty doorways
and at each stood a hungry wolf,
his tongue lolling out like a worm.
The birds called out lewdly,
talking like pink parrots,
and the snakes hung down in loops,
each a noose for her sweet white neck.
On the seventh week
she came to the seventh mountain
and there she found the dwarf house.
It was as droll as a honeymoon cottage
and completely equipped with
seven beds, seven chairs, seven forks
and seven chamber pots.
Snow White ate seven chicken livers
and lay down, at last, to sleep.

The dwarfs, those little hot dogs,
walked three times around Snow White,
the sleeping virgin.  They were wise
and wattled like small czars.
Yes.  It's a good omen,
they said, and will bring us luck.
They stood on tiptoes to watch
Snow White wake up.  She told them
about the mirror and the killer-queen
and they asked her to stay and keep house.
Beware of your stepmother,
they said.
Soon she will know you are here.
While we are away in the mines
during the day, you must not
open the door.

Looking glass upon the wall . . .
The mirror told
and so the queen dressed herself in rags
and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White.
She went across seven mountains.
She came to the dwarf house
and Snow White opened the door
and bought a bit of lacing.
The queen fastened it tightly
around her bodice,
as tight as an Ace bandage,
so tight that Snow White swooned.
She lay on the floor, a plucked daisy.
When the dwarfs came home they undid the lace
and she revived miraculously.
She was as full of life as soda pop.
Beware of your stepmother,
they said.
She will try once more.

Looking glass upon the wall. . .
Once more the mirror told
and once more the queen dressed in rags
and once more Snow White opened the door.
This time she bought a poison comb, 
a curved eight-inch scorpion,
and put it in her hair and swooned again.
The dwarfs returned and took out the comb
and she revived miraculously.
She opened her eyes as wide as Orphan Annie.
Beware, beware, they said,
but the mirror told,
the queen came,
Snow White, the dumb bunny,
opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time.
When the dwarfs returned
they undid her bodice,
they looked for a comb,
but it did no good.
Though they washed her with wine
and rubbed her with butter
it was to no avail.
She lay as still as a gold piece.

The seven dwarfs could not bring themselves
to bury her in the black ground
so they made a glass coffin
and set it upon the seventh mountain
so that all who passed by
could peek in upon her beauty.
A prince came one June day
and would not budge.
He stayed so long his hair turned green
and still he would not leave.
The dwarfs took pity upon him
and gave him the glass Snow White--
its doll's eyes shut forever--
to keep in his far-off castle.
As the prince's men carried the coffin
they stumbled and dropped it
and the chunk of apple flew out
of her throat and she woke up miraculously.

And thus Snow White became the prince's bride.
The wicked queen was invited to the wedding feast
and when she arrived there were
red-hot iron shoes,
in the manner of red-hot roller skates,
clamped upon her feet.
First your toes will smoke
and then your heels will turn black
and you will fry upward like a frog,
she was told.
And so she danced until she was dead,
a subterranean figure,
her tongue flicking in and out
like a gas jet.
Meanwhile Snow White held court,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
and sometimes referring to her mirror
as women do.

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