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Groundbreaking Book: Live or Die by Anne Sexton (1966)


Born in 1928, Anne Sexton described her family as "hostile," and her early life encompassed a vast range of experience, including finishing school, a stint as a fashion model, and a turbulent marriage. In 1954, she was diagnosed with postpartum depression and suffered her first mental breakdown. She was admitted to Westwood Lodge, a psychiatric hospital to which she would repeatedly return for help.

Encouraged by her doctor to pursue her interest in writing, Sexton enrolled in a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education in the fall of 1957. A year later she joined Robert Lowell's writing workshop at Boston University along with Sylvia Plath. Deeply influenced by the Confessional poems that Lowell was writing, Sexton began crafting her own intimate portraits. She quickly gained a reputation for her unusually honest poetry, and her forthright, unflinching attention to feminist themes and the body.

Her most celebrated collection, Live or Die, is a fictionalized memoir of her recovery from mental illness. Each poem is dated as she moves from the opening lines of "And One for My Dame," to the closing lines of "Live." In the author’s note, she says that the poems were written chronologically, "despite the fact that they read like a fever chart for a bad case of melancholy." Although the recovery mapped within the volume was not complete, the poems do not portend her suicide in 1974, just eight years later. While there is cause for sadness in these poems, there is celebration as well.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Live or Die includes many of Sexton's most well-known poems, including "Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman," and "Wanting to Die," and "Sylvia’s Death," in which she writes to Plath: "Thief!--/how did you crawl into/ crawl down alone/into the death I wanted so badly and for so long."

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