From Hart and Leininger's Oxford Companion to American Literature:
Sexton, Anne (1928-74) , poet who lived in her native Massachusetts and traced her ancestry to Mayflower Pilgrims, but whose writing is concerned not with heritage or religion but very frankly with her firsthand experience. Her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), was the outcome of a nervous breakdown. The poems in All My Pretty Ones (1962) are equally revealing. The same characteristics are evident also in the lyrics of Live or Die (1966, Pulitzer Prize) and Love Poems (1969). Her dark, bitter views of life are evident in Transformations (1971), retellings of the Grimms' fairy tales; The Book of Folly (1972), poems and prose parables; and The Death Notebooks (1974), which were followed by the poems in The Awful Rowing toward God (1975), published after her suicide. 45 Mercy Street (1976), Words for Dr. Y (1978), and The Complete Poems (1981) are posthumous collections of poems. A Self-Portrait in Letters appeared in 1977. In 1985 was published No Evil Star, a collection of essays, interviews, and other prose.
From The Norton Anthology of American Literature:
Anne Sexton's first book of poems, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), was published at a time when the label confessional came to be attached to poems more frankly autobiographical than had been usual in American verse. For Sexton the term confessional is particularly apt. Although she had abandoned the Roman Catholicism into which she was born, her poems enact something analogous to preparing for and receiving religious absolution.
Sexton's own confessions were to be made in terms more startling than the traditional Catholic images of her childhood. The purpose of her poems was not to analyze or explain behavior but to make it palpable in all its ferocity of feeling. Poetry "should be a shock to the senses. It should also hurt." This is apparent both in the themes she chooses and the particular way in which she chooses to exhibit her subjects. Sexton writers about sex, illegitimacy, guilt, madness, and suicide. Her first book portrays her own mental breakdown, her time in a mental hospital, her efforts at reconciliation with her young daughter and husband when she returns. Her second book, All My Pretty Ones (1962) takes its title from Macbeth and refers to the death of both her parents within three months of one another. Later books act out a continuing debate about suicide: Live or Die (1966), The Death Notebooks (1974), and The Awful Rowing toward God (1975—posthumous)., titles that prefigure the time when she took her life (1974).
Sexton spoke of images as "the heart of poetry. Images come from the unconscious. Imagination and the unconscious are one and the same." Powerful images substantiate the strangeness of her own feelings and attempt to redefine experiences so as to gain understanding, absolution, or revenge. These poems poised between, as her titles suggest, life and death or "bedlam and part way back" are efforts at establishing a middle ground of self-assertion, substituting surreal images for the reductive versions of life visible to the exterior eye.
Anne Sexton was born in 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts, and attended Garland Junior College. She came to poetry fairly late—when she was twenty-eight, after seeing the critic I. A. Richards lecturing about the sonnet on television. In the late 1950s she attended poetry workshops in the Boston area, including Robert Lowell's poetry seminars at Boston University. One of her fellow students was Sylvia Plath, whose suicide she commemorated in a poem and whose fate she later followed. Sexton claimed that she was less influenced by Lowell's Life Studies than by W. D. Snodgrass's autobiographical Heart's Needle (1959), but certainly Lowell's support and the association with Plath left their mark on her and made it possible for her to publish. Although her career was relatively brief, she received several major literary prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die and an American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship. Her suicide came after a series of mental breakdowns.
Anne Sexton at The Poetry Foundation