10 Poems by Anne Sexton, Confessional Poet

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton (1928 – 1974) proclaimed that she was “the only confessional poet” some time before taking her own life at the age of forty-five. Following is a sampling of 10 poems by Anne Sexton, as complex and talented an artist as they come.

Her good friend Sylvia Plath, whose poetry stands squarely in the realm of the confessional movement, might have taken issue with that. Anne felt a great kinship with Plath, and like her, often expressed a death wish in her poems.

In this roundup, you’ll find the first stanza or two of the following poems, with links to the poems in full, plus links to analyses of most of the individual poems.

  • A Curse Against Elegies
  • Again and Again and Again
  • The Ambition Bird
  • Wanting to Die
  • More than Myself
  • The Fury of Sunsets
  • Her Kind
  • Barefoot
  • Red Roses
  • 45 Mercy Street
 

This excellent overview analysis of Sexton’s body of work is highly recommended if you’re just getting acquainted with her work. It begins:

“A college dropout turned housewife, fashion model, and jazz singer, Anne Gray Harvey Sexton is an unusual source of self-revelatory verse that prefaced an era of modernist confessional.

An ambivalent feminist, she spoke for the turmoil in women who despised the housewife’s boring fate, yet she suffered guilt over ventures into angry complaint and personal freedom.

A relentlessly honest observer capable of springing from disillusion to flashes of perception, she celebrated physical details of womanhood … Long parted from religion, she retained the fault-consciousness and self-loathing of Roman Catholicism.”

From the time she started writing poetry as a way to recover from a mental breakdown, her writing and her inner life were joined. 

Anne likely suffered from bipolar disorder, then called manic depression. As she struggled to come to terms with her mental illness, her therapist suggested that she begin to write.

Joining some Boston-area writing groups was fortuitous. Anne connected with established poets like Maxine Kumin, who became a lifelong friend. The two women regularly critiqued one another’s poetry and wrote four children’s books together.

Anne also studied with Robert Lowell and George Starbuck.  Learn more about the trajectory of her writing career and growth as a poet in our biography of Anne Sexton. From that synergy emerged a period of wild creativity that resulted in more than a dozen collections and a Pulitzer Prize. 

 

 

The art of confessional poetry

In an analysis of Sexton within the genre of confessional poetry, Dr. Ruwayda Jassim Muhammad offers these observations:

“The events of Sexton’s life are revealed in her poems — her breakdown, time in a mental hospital, her therapy, her troubled marriage (ending in divorce, her affairs, and her relationship with her two daughters became transparently the stuff of her poetry, and her verse became far more direct than that of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath as confessional poetry.

… Dianne Middlebrook defined characteristics and distinctive voice that is understood to be the voice of the poet himself or herself, writing: ‘Its principle themes are divorce, sexual infidelity, childhood, neglect and the mental disorders that follow from deep emotional wounds received early in life.

A confessional poem contains the first-person speaker, and always seems to refer to a real person in whose actual life real episodes have occurred that cause actual pain, all represented in the poem.

Yet, her poetry should not be regarded as a mere recording of her experiences — in a essay on both To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) and All My Pretty Ones (1962), Beverly Fields argued that Sexton’s poetry is mostly misread; she argued that the poems are not as autobiographical as they seem — that they are poems, not memoirs.

She went on to analyze many of them in depth in order to show the recurrent symbolic themes and poetic techniques she felt made Sexton’s work impressive.

… Most critics agree on the fact that Sexton wrote about wanting to die … from a very personal point of view. According to Diane Hume George, there are ‘at least twenty poems primarily explaining what it feels like to want, or need, to die …

She viewed death as a state which exists in life; it is ‘here,’ i.e., in life and all the time; so to her, death and life are inseparable.”

See many more of Anne Sexton’s most iconic poems at Poetry Foundation. All poems may be found in Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems, 1981.

 

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A Curse Against Elegies

Oh, love, why do we argue like this?
I am tired of all your pious talk.
Also, I am tired of all the dead.
They refuse to listen,
so leave them alone.
Take your foot out of the graveyard,
they are busy being dead …

. . . . . . . . . .

Anne Sexton Poem fragment

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Again and Again and Again

You said the anger would come back
just as the love did.

I have a black look I do not
like. It is a mask I try on.
I migrate toward it and its frog
sits on my lips and defecates.
It is old. It is also a pauper.
I have tried to keep it on a diet.
I give it no unction …

. . . . . . . . . .

Anne Sexton

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The Ambition Bird

So it has come to this –
insomnia at 3:15 A.M.,
the clock tolling its engine

like a frog following
a sundial yet having an electric
seizure at the quarter hour …

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Wanting to Die (1981)

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 …

 

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Anne Sexton Books

Anne Sexton on Bookshop.org*
Anne Sexton page on Amazon*
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More Than Myself

Not that it was beautiful,
but that, in the end, there was
a certain sense of order there;
something worth learning
in that narrow diary of my mind,
in the commonplaces of the asylum
where the cracked mirror
or my own selfish death
outstared me . . .

. . . . . . . . . .

The Fury Of Sunsets

Something
cold is in the air,
an aura of ice
and phlegm.
All day I’ve built
a lifetime and now
the sun sinks to
undo it …

. . . . . . . . . .

 

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 …

 

. . . . . . . . . .

Barefoot

Loving me with my shoes off
means loving my long brown legs,
sweet dears, as good as spoons;
and my feet, those two children
let out to play naked. Intricate nubs,
my toes. No longer bound.
And what’s more, see toenails and
all ten stages, root by root.
All spirited and wild, this little
piggy went to market and this little piggy
stayed. Long brown legs and long brown toes …

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Red Roses

Tommy is three and when he’s bad
his mother dances with him.
She puts on the record,
“Red Roses for a Blue Lady”
and throws him across the room.
Mind you,
she never laid a hand on him.
He gets red roses in different places,
the head, that time he was as sleepy as a river,
the back, that time he was a broken scarecrow,
the arm like a diamond had bitten it,
the leg, twisted like a licorice stick,
all the dance they did together,
Blue Lady and Tommy …

. . . . . . . . .

 

45 Mercy Street (a fragment)

In my dream,
drilling into the marrow
of my entire bone,
my real dream,
I’m walking up and down Beacon Hill
searching for a street sign –
namely MERCY STREET.
Not there …

I try the Back Bay.
Not there.
Not there.
And yet I know the number.
45 Mercy Street …

. . . . . . . . . .

 

More about the poetry of Anne Sexton

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*These are Amazon Affiliate and Bookshop.org links. If the product is purchased by linking through, Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

3 Responses to “10 Poems by Anne Sexton, Confessional Poet”

  1. I have been directed to these pieces of poetry by watching a program about Peter Gabriel who is a huge fan of Anne Sexton, and used her as an inspiation for the song Mercy Street. Great music inspired by amazing poetry.J

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