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All Her Pretty Ones, and then some..
An interpretation of the poetry of Anne Sexton
Anne Gray Harvey was born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1928. After attending one year of college, she eloped and married Alfred “Kayo” Sexton at the age of nineteen. They had their first daughter in 1953, and shortly after, in 1954, Anne Sexton was diagnosed with postpartum depression. Sexton was soon admitted to Westwood Lodge, a neuropsychiatric hospital. One year later, after the birth of her second daughter, she suffered a second breakdown and returned to the hospital. Her children then went to live with her husband’s parents. That same year, on her birthday, she made her first attempt at suicide.
Shortly after her first attempt, her doctor encouraged her to pursue her interest in poetry as a way to open up and let many of her feelings reach the surface. It was that talent, her passion for writing that gave Sexton the courage to live with her depression for as long as she did. Nevertheless, in 1974 at the age of 46, Anne Harvey Sexton gave up, ending her successful writing career and losing her lifelong fight against depression.
Because of her constant feelings of unhappiness and misery, Sexton’s writing revolved around death, dying, and suicide. Despite such dreary subjects, she was able to write quite a few effective poems throughout her life. In order to analyze the most important elements of poetry in Sexton’s writing, I chose four poems from The Complete Poems: “The Starry Night”, “Her Kind”, “Suicide Note”, and “Wanting to Die”. The most important elements of poetry used by Sexton are her repetition of “I” and her many uses of simile and metaphor. Although she never neglects to incorporate other important elements such as symbolism, irony and rhyme, the two above stand out above the rest and help develop the true meaning of the poetry of Anne Sexton.
“The Starry Night” is basically a poem describing and relating her own life to the famous painting, Starry Night, by Vincent van Goh. She believes that peace exists in that painting and that dying in that state of mind is the way that she wants to go. Using the elements of poetry, she expresses that basic theme of dying and being in a better place. Sexton magnificently uses elements such as voice, diction, figure of speech, and symbolism to create a dramatic view of how she wants to die and how she sees her much anticipated death as hopefully being peaceful and solemn.
Figurative language, as opposed to literal language, is used in “The Starry Night.” The author purposely hints around about what she is trying to say. She also uses simile in the poem; for example, ” one black-haired tree slips up like a drowned woman into the hot sky” and ” to push children, like a god, from its eye.” These phrases are used to signify what these objects look like, not to describe exactly what they are. Personification is also used in this poem. Words such as “boil” are used when describing the sky and “bulges” when talking about the moon. These inanimate objects are given lifelike characteristics because they further explain how real this scene truly is. She is depicting a scene of night, of peacefulness and serenity. Therefore, the poet uses certain words and phrases to make the effectiveness of the poem more concrete. Sexton’s desire to die is easier to understand when she uses figurative comparisons because she uses these to create universal feelings in her writing.
Symbolism is one of the most important elements of “The Starry Night”. In Sexton’s poem, she uses many symbols to help describe her feelings. The “black-haired tree” represents her because it is the only object noticed in the town, or rather, in society. She is visualizing the town and seeing herself there, being alone and gazing out into the sky. She also uses allusions to show how evil and tormented she feels. The poem reads, “The night boils with eleven stars.” The eleven stars symbolize the eleven good Disciples of Christ, and she is the twelfth evil one, Judas. She also creates symbols when using personification because she portrays the power of the moon, the sky and the wind, the “unseen serpent”. She describes the wind a second time as “that great dragon” that she wants to be engulfed by. Each time Sexton uses symbolism, she creates a distinct image of how she wants to die. She uses these images to allow the reader to transform her somewhat confused ideas into a more tangible and more readable poem.
In “Her Kind”, Sexton also uses repetitions of “I”. The poem sets up a single persona identified with madness but separated from it through insight (Middlebrook 114). The form of this poem is interesting because, in each stanza, she uses two different points of view. The witch (stanza one), the housewife (stanza two), and the adulteress (stanza three) are the three persons who act out the events described. After each acts, the “I” repeats at the end of each stanza to agree or interpret the actions of each view. Sexton, the persona, is simply agreeing to and somehow watching these events take place.
Another interesting element in “Her Kind” is a second use of repetition in the last two lines of each stanza. In the first five lines of each stanza, Sexton describes the situation using one of the three points of view. To finish each section, she says, “A woman like that is ” and “I have been her kind”. She does this to reiterate the importance of her agreement to the other three views – the witch, the housewife, and the adulteress. Also, every other line rhymes in each stanza. This is interesting because, unlike many poems that we see, the rhyming words aren’t necessarily at the end of the sentence. Sexton uses enjambment, allowing phrases to continue to the next line, while simultaneously keeping each stanza symmetrical in rhyme.
Simile isn’t as prominent in “Her Kind” as it is in many of Sexton’s other poems because the organization of personas doesn’t allow for many other elements to stand out. However, she does use metaphors in describing the three points of view in each of the three stanzas. For example, in the second stanza she “fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves”. Sexton could be comparing worms and elves in the woods to her husband and children at home. Altogether, the collaboration of different repetitions and metaphors in this poem helps us gain a better understanding of the message that Sexton is trying to demonstrate – that she understands what it’s like to be “her kind”.
Between her first suicide attempt and her final one, Sexton wrote at least twenty poems dedicated to explaining what it feels like to want, or need, to die (George 126). The poem, “Wanting to Die”, is one of these attempts to explain that feeling. In describing those needs, Sexton uses a great deal of simile and metaphor to get her point across. The first two lines of the poem are calm and distant, but the third immediately shifts to the desire for death. In the second stanza, a metaphor is used to give an illusion of things that are normally considered “worth living for”. She says, “I know well the grass blades you mention, the furniture you have placed under the sun.” The third stanza continues with another metaphor in which she compares suicides to carpenters such that carpenters simply ask “which tools, they never ask why build”.
This poem continues with simile and metaphor in each stanza as Sexton tries to explain what wanting to die is like to someone who only wishes to live. An interesting metaphor is used in the eighth stanza. The line reads, “To thrust all that life under your tongue! – that, all by itself, becomes a passion.” Ending life is compared to taking pills and implies that it can become a habit eventually, or a passion.
In the final stanza, we are left with an understanding of one’s will to die and why life isn’t always most favorable. In a sense, “Wanting to Die” is just another suicide attempt. Of course, no matter what the final stanza implies, we are satisfied in being given an explanation of the desire to die, written in a way so that others can relate to and try to understand where Anne Sexton was coming from.
The final poem analyzed for the purposes of this paper was “Suicide Note,” a highly controversial poem of Sexton’s. It is very much like many of her other suicide poems, but it is so carefully constructed in the form of a note left to a “dear friend” that it is said to have possibly been her very own note left before her final and successful attempt. The irony is that “Suicide Note” was actually written ten years before she committed suicide. If she is indeed the persona in this poem, as many tend to believe, it is extremely hard to form an opinion as to whether or not this was a real suicide note written by her and for her own suicide.
After reading the first stanza of this poem, one is immediately aware of what thoughts are taking place in the persona’s mind. She uses symbols such as worms, fields and blood to set the scene for death. After revealing the intentions of the note, the persona introduces the “dear friend” to whom she is speaking. In the following stanzas, Sexton compares her suicide to that of God because he “rode calmly into Jerusalem in search of death.” In the final stanzas, the persona says goodbye and attempts to justify committing suicide once more. The poem reads, “So I will go now without old age or disease, wildly but accurately .” This is only another reference to the earlier statement made about God traveling in search of death – He went willingly and healthily, not of old age or anywhere near unanticipated death.
To conclude the discussion of “Suicide Note,” it is important to once again consider the use of “I” in the poem. The majority of Sexton’s poems contain the first person perspective, possibly to infer that she is indeed the persona of her poetry. However, she also uses different perspectives in other poems, such as the different points of view in “Her Kind.” Nevertheless, “Suicide Note,” whether an actual suicidal letter or just another poem explaining the longing for death, is indeed an important poem to read when analyzing and gaining further understanding of the writing of Anne Sexton.
In conclusion, Anne Sexton’s poetry basically revolves around the theme of death and dying to hopefully go to a better place. Throughout her life, she believed that she was destined to be unhappy and live in sorrow. She used her poetry to paint pictures of her misery, her longing to be at peace, and her desire to simply “split from her life.” As we know, Anne Sexton eventually got what she was wishing for when she committed suicide in her garage. Although her life was indeed tragic and somewhat mysterious, her poetry reveals a great deal to us today. Her expertise in using poetic elements to successfully relate to theme is quite unique. “The Starry Night”, “Her Kind”, “Wanting to Die” and “Suicide Note” are prime examples of that fact. She simply wrote about her life and its miseries and presented it, using the elements of poetry, so that everyone could understand what she was longing for.
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