Anne Gray Harvey was born in 1928 in Weston, Massachusetts, the third of three daughters. Her father, Ralph Churchill Harvey, was a businessman and her mother, Mary Gray Staples, a socialite. Sexton conformed to the stereotype of a youngest child, often acting out and rebelling against her parents to get attention. Her frenetic activity and craving for attention continued through her high school years, which were otherwise unremarkable. Like many young women of her social class during mid-century, Sexton went to finishing school instead of college, and in 1948, she married Alfred Muller Sexton II, nicknamed "Kayo."
Sexton's engagement with poetry came only after she had given birth to her two children: Linda Gray Sexton in 1953 and Joyce Ladd Sexton in 1955. After the birth of her second child, Sexton was diagnosed with post-partum depression and prescribed medication. Over the next few years, she went in and out of hospitals and received regular psychiatric treatment. With the encouragement of her therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, Sexton began writing poetry, and in 1957, she enrolled in a poetry workshop with the beat writer John Clellon Holmes. During the next few years, she took part in workshops led by poets Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass and met many of the writers who would help shape her career, including George Starbuck and Maxine Kumin. It was in Lowell's workshop that Sexton befriended the poet Sylvia Plath. After her publication of To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), a collection of poems detailing her mental illness, Sexton developed a reputation as a confessional poet with a raw, fearless, often funny voice. Along with Plath, John Berryman, and Lowell, confessional poets who wrote during the 1950s and 1960s, Sexton made art out of mental and emotional anguish. Her poem "Courage," included in her last collection of poetry, The Awful Rowing Toward God, provides a glimpse into the pain—and the joy—of Sexton's struggles.
In the fifteen or so years that she wrote, Sexton published ten collections of poetry, a play, essays, and short stories. Her most popular collections include All My Pretty Ones (1963), Live or Die (1966), Transformations (1971), and The Death Notebooks (1974). She was also one of the most sought performers of her poetry on the college reading circuit, known for her dramatic presentation. For a short time, she even had her own rock group, named Anne Sexton and Her Kind. A heavily decorated poet, Sexton won a Pulitzer Prize, received the Shelley Memorial Award, and was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She took her own life on October 4, 1974.