Anne Sexton: New York Times obituary

October, 6, 1974, broadsheet newsprint issue of the New York Times.

Page 65. Ads for New York funeral chapels and funeral homes. Columns upon columns stacked with death notices. Three obituaries. Three headlines.

Zalman Shazar Is Dead at 84; President of Israel for 10 Years

Kenneth Goolagong Dead at 44; Tennis Star’s Father Hit by Car


WESTON, Mass., Oct. 5 (AP) —Anne Sexton, the poet who won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for her volume “Live or Die,” was found dead yesterday inside an idling car, parked in her garage.

“It was either suicide or natural causes,” Lieut. Lawrence Cugini, a police detective, said.

The poet, who was 45 years old, had recently been divorced from her husband, Alfred. Sur. vivors include two daughters, Linda and Joyce.

‘Bad Case of Melancholy’

A “confessional” poet, a disciple of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton fashioned her art out of anguish, breakdown and a preoccupation with death. Of the poems in “Live or Die,” for which Mrs. Sexton von the Pulitizer Prize, she said, “they read like a fever chart for a bad case of melancholy,”

“Live or die,” she wrote. “Make up your mind. If you’re going to hang around don’t ruin everything. Don’t poison the world.”

Her first book, “To Bedlam. And Part Way Back,” was published by the Houghton Mifflin Company in 1960. Thomas Lask, reviewing it in The New York Times, said: “It’s hub has a natural built‐in interest: a mental breakdown, pictured with a pitiless eye and clairvoyant sharpness.

Typical of the book’s merciless self‐examination are these lines from the poem “Ringing the Bells”:

And this is the way they ring the bells in Bedlam and this is the bell‐lady who comes each Tuesday morning to give us a music lesson and because the attendants make you go and because we mind by instinct, like bees caught in the wrong hive, we are the circle of the crazy ladies ...

Copyright © Houghton Mifflin, 1960

Mrs. Sexton’s second book, All My Pretty Ones,” was published in 1962. Like “No Bedlam,” it was acclaimed by by critics and helped establish her as one of America’s outstanding poets. Her work was ranked alongside that of Mr. Lowell and Sylvia Plath, the poet who died by suicide in 1963 and about whose death Mrs. Sexton wrote one of the poems in “Live or Die.”

“All My Pretty Ones” included the verses characterized by the critic M. L. Rosenthal in “The New Poets” as “the brief, perfect ‘The Starry Night’”:

The town does not exist except where one blackhaired tree slips up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.

The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.

O starry starry night! This is how I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.

Even the moon bulges in its orange irons to push the children, like a god, from its eye.

The old unseen serpent swallowed up the stars.

O starry starry night! This is how I want to die: into that rushing beast of night.

sucked up it, that great dragon, to split from my life with no flag, no belly, no cry.

Copyright © Houghton Mifflin, 1961

Updated the Grimms

Mrs. Sexton’s “Love Poems” was published in 1969; “Transformations,” often ‐ macabre verse updatings of the Grimms’ fairy tales, in 1971, and “The Book of Folly” in 1972. Her most recent work was “The Death Notebooks.”

In 1969, “Mercy Street,” a play by the poet, was presented in New York at the American Place Theater. Clive Barnes, reviewing it in She Times, said:

“‘Mercy Street’ is the story of a woman searching her way home from the valley of madness. The personal voice is there: When Daisy [the heroine] says, ‘I don’t know any prayers, or any lullabies either,’ it is a voice for a generation.”

Anne Harvey Sexton was born in Newton, Mass., on Nov. 9, 1928. She grew up in Wellesley, Mass., where she went to school.

“I wrote my first poem in 1957 or 1958,” Mrs. Sexton later recalled. “I was watching television, a program on the form of the sonnet and I said, ‘I can do that.’ So I wrote a poem. It wasn’t very good and I didn’t offer it for publication.”

Thereafter, she became a frequent contributor to magazines. Her poems appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic and Saturday Review.

Received Awards

Mrs. Sexton held the Robert Frost Fellowship at the summer writers conference in Bread Loaf, Vt., and was a scholar with Radcliffe College’s New Institute for Independent Study from 1961 to 1963.

She received a Guggenheim award in 1969, a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1964‐65 and in 1965 the first literary magazine travel grant under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. In 1965 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London. She held honorary doctorates from Tufts, Regis College and Fairfield University.

Mrs. Sexton taught at Wayland (Mass.) High School in 1967–68, served as a professor on the faculty of Boston University from 1970 to 1972 and was Cranshaw Professor of Literature at Colgate University in 1972.

“I begin a poem with a phrase or an idea,” she once explained, “and then there is sudden interruption of my whole life.”

The poet, whose work was so largely devoted to the theme of death, gave to the last poem in “Live or Die” the title “Live.” It begins:

Well, death’s been here for a long time ...

And it ends: I say Live, Live because of the sun, the dream, the excitable gift.

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