Anne Sexton’s Witchy Poetry


“I have gone out, a possessed witch, haunting the black air, braver at night; dreaming evil, I have done my hitch.”

April is National Poetry Month!

Today, we explore Anne Sexton (1928-1974), an American writer most famous for her dark expressive style known as “confessional poetry”. Sexton’s verses often revealed the personal details of her life, which was marked by bouts of depression, hospitalizations, suicide attempts and bi-polar disorder.

She was born Anne Gray Harvey on November 8, 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts, the daughter of  Mary Gray Harvey and Ralph Churchill Harvey. She was educated at boarding school in Lowell and worked as a model for the Hart Agency in Boston.  There is, reportedly, some evidence that she may have been abused as a child. At the tender age of nineteen, Anne married Alfred Muller Sexton II. They had two children, Linda Gray Sexton and Joyce Ladd Sexton.

In 1954, after the birth of her second daughter, Anne suffered postpartum depression and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orne,  encouraged her to write poetry as a form of therapy. She joined several writers groups and eventually developed friendships with literary greats such as Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. They exchanged ideas in salons and discussion circles.

Her writing did not go unnoticed. During her lifetime, Anne Sexton was the recipient of numerous awards. These included: the Frost Fellowship, the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, the Levinson Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Prize, and an invitation to read at Harvard. She also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the Ford Foundation and honorary degrees. She held professorships at Colgate University and Boston University. In 1967 she won a Pulitzer prize for her book Live or Die.

Yeah, that’s a LOT of accomplishments. especially for someone with bi-polar disorder!

Nonetheless, all of it meant little.  As it turned out, Live or Die was a prophetic title. Anne took her own life in 1974.

The story of her death is as follows: On October 4, 1974, Anne had lunch with Maxine Kumin. They discussed revisions for Anne’s manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God, scheduled for publication in March 1975. Upon returning home, Anne put on her mother’s old fur coat and drank a glass of vodka.

She then  removed all her rings, locked herself in her garage and started the engine of her car. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Weirdly, in an interview a year before her death, Sexton had requested that she did not want her poems from The Awful Rowing Toward God to be published until after she died.  She also claimed she had written the book “in 20 days with two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital.”

To this day Sexton’s work remains acclaimed in literary circles. Her haunting and vivid lyrics are not easily forgotten. This short poem, Her Kind, uses medieval witch and fairy tale imagery as metaphors for women’s roles, expectations, and the alienation they can bring. Critics have interpreted it as an exploration of death and sexuality.

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.

What do you think of Anne Sexton and her poetry? Let me know in the comments!




23 comments on “Anne Sexton’s Witchy Poetry

  1. I was so pleased to find this ‘tribute’ to Anne Sexton. Of all confessional poets she is my favorite. Thank you, enjoyed!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I tend to think poets like Sexton and Plath as well as novelists like Virginia Woolf are not taken to heart as much as they were in the 60s and 70s. Perhaps because “depression” is now considered “curable” by drugs? Or they are no longer fashionable as “tragic women” are not in style, women are more in survival/action rather than suffering mode. I’m not sure; but they resonate with me very strongly, and I’m glad to see a Sexton post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Annabelle, glad you liked it! You may be right — we do tend to hear less about these “tragic women” in these 3rd wave feminist (??) times. And yet Plath and Sexton haunt me… I could not resist this witch poem 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] via Anne Sexton’s Witchy PoetryWhat a beautiful but sad story. […]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fall Fraust says:

    I’ve not heard of Confessional poetry. Her work is honest and authentic, which makes it all the more alluring to me. Annes’ death was tragic and curious, in that she appears to have had a productive and inspiring day, with regard to discussing the publication of her work, yet went home, took her rings off, put her mothers fur on, and ended her life. Thanks for the interesting read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, so glad you liked it! She was an interesting woman… the Confessional style was considered a “school of poetry”, named for exactly what it was– confessional details about the poet’s life. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Vicky V says:

    Those opening lines sent a delicious chill down my spine – so evocative of the dark power of the witch. What a wonderful poet and one I had not heard of before. Looks like I’ll be reading some poetry!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. johncoyote says:

    Thank you for sharing Anne’s work. A great writer lost too soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. KT Workman says:

    I have not read Anne Sexton’s work, but after reading your post, will definitely do so!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Anne’s Awful Rowing Toward God is a lifetime favorite poem of mine. I remember a wonderful video of her in the 1960s when I was in college and she was still alive. She was a bright and vibrant soul. In more recent years, I have followed her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton’s work. Her mother’s illness affected her profoundly and her writing is good and very moving. Anne Sexton truly opened up the poetic conversation about women’s reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree! Her poetry is really moving. (Even folks that normally do not like poetry seem to like Anne Sexton’s.) Tragic about her death, but, as you say, she did open conversations about women’s realities. Thanks so much for your comments!


  9. […] via Anne Sexton’s Witchy Poetry — witchlike […]

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