In treatment, her therapist encouraged her to write and in 1957 Sexton joined writing groups in Boston that eventually led her to friendships and relationships with the poets Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, George Starbuck, and Sylvia Plath. As Sexton told Beatrice Berg, her writing began, in fact, as therapy: “My analyst told me to write between our sessions about what I was feeling and thinking and dreaming.” Her analyst, impressed by her work, encouraged her to keep writing, and then, she told Berg, she saw (on television) “I. A. Richards [a poet and literary critic] describing the form of a sonnet and I thought maybe I could do that. Oh, I was turned on. I wrote two or three a day for about a year.” Eventually, Sexton’s poems about her psychiatric struggles were gathered in her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), which recounts, as James Dickey wrote, the experiences “of madness and near-madness, of the pathetic, well-meaning, necessarily tentative and perilous attempts at cure, and of the patient’s slow coming back into the human associations and responsibilities which the old, previous self still demands.”
Sexton’s work is usually grouped with other Confessional poets such as Plath, Lowell, John Berryman, and W. D. Snodgrass. In an interview with Patricia Marx, Sexton discussed Snodgrass’s influence: “If anything influenced me it was W. D. Snodgrass’ Heart’s Needle.... It so changed me, and undoubtedly it must have influenced my poetry. At the same time everyone said, ‘You can’t write this way. It’s too personal; it’s confessional; you can’t write this, Anne,’ and everyone was discouraging me. But then I saw Snodgrass doing what I was doing, and it kind of gave me permission.” Sexton’s books after To Bedlam and Part Way Back included All my Pretty Ones (1962), Live or Die (1966), which won the Pulitzer Prize, Love Poems (1969), the play Mercy Street (1969). Transformations (1972), a series of retellings of Grimm’s fairy tales is often described as her least overtly “confessional” and most feminist work. Sexton’s last published collection was The Death Notebooks (1974); posthumously published volumes included The Awful Rowing toward God (1975), 45 Mercy Street (1976), and Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (1978).
Sexton’s work was enormously popular during her lifetime and she was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Frost Fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, the Levinson Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Prize, and an invitation to give the Morris Gray reading at Harvard. She also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the Ford Foundation, honorary degrees, and held professorships at Colgate University and Boston University. Despite her many achievements, critical discussions of her work tended to focus on the apparently autobiographical elements of her verse. Dickey’s admonishment of Sexton’s second book was somewhat typical: “Miss Sexton’s work seems to me very little more than a kind of terribly serious and determinedly outspoken soap-opera.” Yet Sexton’s canniness about the power of fiction, the uses of fact and imagination, and the poem—or poet—as essentially performance mean that no simple equations between poet and poem, life and art, can be drawn. In an early essay on both Bedlam and Pretty Ones, Beverly Fields argued that Sexton’s poetry is mostly misread. She contended that the poems are not as autobiographical as they seem, that they are poems, not memoirs, and she went on to analyze many of them in depth in order to show the recurrent symbolic themes and poetic techniques that she felt make Sexton’s work impressive. Recent scholars such as Gillian White have focused on Sexton’s manipulation of voice and audience to suggest her work bears more, or different, scrutiny than it has previously received.
One of Sexton’s earliest champions, Erica Jong, reviewing The Death Notebooks assessed Sexton’s poetic significance and contended that her artistry was seriously overlooked: “She is an important poet not only because of her courage in dealing with previously forbidden subjects, but because she can make the language sing. Of what does [her] artistry consist? Not just of her skill in writing traditional poems… But by artistry, I mean something more subtle than the ability to write formal poems. I mean the artist’s sense of where her inspiration lies… There are many poets of great talent who never take that talent anywhere… They write poems which any number of people might have written. When Anne Sexton is at the top of her form, she writes a poem which no one else could have written.”