Anne Sexton: A Poet of Personal Conflict and Self-Expression
“Live or die, but don’t poison everything”. These words were said by Anne Sexton, a 20th century poet, whose poems dealt with the complexities of her tragic personal life, including the dysfunctional and often disturbing relationships with her children, husband and parents. Born to a wealthy family in Massachusetts in 1928, Sexton dealt with severe depression all throughout adulthood and actually began writing her poems as a coping mechanism, first suggested by her therapist at the time. She was consumed by the idea of death, especially her own impending one, an obsession of hers which largely influenced much of her work. She specialized in confessional poetry, a style that emerged and found popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, also seen in the works of other famous poets at that time such as Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. Finding enormous success within her genre, Sexton joined the celebrity ranks of poets as the poems she had begun writing as a hobby became a full-time occupation with an unexpectedly large audience. However, some did not welcome this new style of confessional poetry because of the sense of intense intimacy Sexton’s poems created through their connection with her personal life. Despite the criticism she received, Sexton left a legacy as leading pioneer to the genre following her tragic suicide in 1974, at the age of forty-five. Through her brutally honest poetry, Sexton was able to portray themes most relevant to her life by creating a sense of duality between the themes in her poems and her reality while also addressing her most violent fears and desires.
In the poem Words, Sexton utilizes several literary devices to create a sense of duality in the role words or language play in her life, recognizing that while her poetry saved her in many ways it still remains her worst enemy. Sexton depicts words as the necessary foundation to her own sanity, stating “they can be as good as fingers(…) as trusty as the rock(…) the trees, the legs of summer(…) the sun, its passionate face”(6-7, 13-14). By creating these comparisons with nature through metaphorical language, Sexton suggests that words are the very essence of life and not just an essential basis for her but also the functionality of society. The comparisons to nature also emphasize the constant and inescapable presence of words in her life. Following her declaration of love for words in line 10, the tone of the poem shifts as Sexton introduces words as an antagonist as well as her lover. She warns that while she will always have an undying love for words, they often fail her. “Sometimes I fly like an eagle but with the wings of a wren”(20-21). Here, she describes how words harbour a dangerous capability and can certainly be used as weapons. In the final line she states “words and eggs must be handled with care. Once broken they are impossible to repair.”(24-26). The fragility, instability and transience of words can also be interpreted as Sexton’s sanity and the dependence she had on words. With this poem, she accepts the tragic love story she shares with words/poetry in her life as a sort of necessary evil because despite the harm they cause, they are ultimately the only thing keeping her alive.
Old, written by Sexton in 1960s, deals with her struggle in accepting the inevitability of the loss of youth as she paints old age in a tragic light, revealing her own fears of aging. Confrontational in nature, Sexton’s poems allow her to face the biggest fears, among them the fear of aging and gradual decline in quality of life. She is not afraid of death as a concept, but the natural process of aging terrifies her, as confirmed by this poem. Her fear is addressed in the first few lines, in which she talks of the hardships of old age. Next, the leading image of the poem is introduced, as Sexton states that “death starts like a dream”(5). She then goes on to draw a picturesque image of her vibrant life in the days of her supposed carefree youth, as the poem begins to detach itself from the reality of dying a slow, painful death. In line 7 Sexton nostalgically speaks of a time where she and her sister “are young and we are walking”(7). This is a stark contrast to the situation at the beginning of the poem, one of death and decay, to the dream in which she finds herself, where youth and growth reign. In the last few lines, Sexton is drawn out of her dream world by the harsh reality of impending death. The poem ends with “in a dream you are never eighty”(18), a final attempt by Sexton to emphasize her distaste for aging. Tragically, Sexton took her own life in 1974 but a link between the revelations of this poem and her suicidal thoughts, eventually driving her to actually commit suicide, can be found, as Sexton may have killed herself to avoid aging and finding herself in the same predicament as the self-portrayal of herself in Old.
Throughout her entire life, Sexton dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts, as portrayed in a raw portrayal of her most desperate desire in Wanting to Die. In this poem, she talks honestly and openly about her ongoing battle with suicidal thoughts and depression. Much like in Words, she personifies the subject of the poem, in this case suicide or death generally, and gives it a sense of duality, painting it as an enemy to be fought as well as a friend who can be trusted. In the first two stanzas, Sexton shares the overwhelming desire to die that consumes her every thought with the reader. She compares the act of committing suicide to a “voyage”(2), one that she possesses an “unnameable lust”(3) for, something she describes as out of her control at this point in her battle with depression. In the third stanza, Sexton personifies suicide or the overwhelming desire she has to commit suicide, mostly as a coping mechanism in helping her fight the temptation. She depicts the internal struggle between life and death within her mind through metaphorical imagery such as labelling suicide as “the enemy”(11) in one line and later contradicting that label completely, calling it “magic”(12). Imprisoned by her own thoughts as well as those of society, she dreams about the finality of death, at this point a fantasy for her. She even goes so far as to compare suicide or suicide attempts as “a drug so sweet, that even children would look on and smile”(20-21). It’s drug-like quality can be recognized in the fact that Sexton is addicted to the thoughts of her own suicide and the children metaphor introduces innocence to the equation and defines the simplicity of her desire to die. In the end, for her the only logical option was death because after a lifetime of hosting a tortured mind, death was the ultimate relief and she believed the deserved the peace. Looking back on this poem today, it is obvious Sexton attempted to portray the impossible battle she struggled with internally as suicidal thoughts consumed her psyche completely, eventually killing her in 1974.
Sexton illustrated her personal battle with suicidal thoughts she struggled with for many years through her poetry, it being the only outlet where she could vent honestly on the themes that caused the most distress for her without fear of judgement. In this way, her poetry saved her by staving off many of her suicidal thoughts and causing a distraction. However, in the end the appeal of emptiness and finality she envisioned in death won her over, bringing an end to an internal struggle that had raged within her since her teenage years. This duality becomes especially apparent in poems like Wanting to Die and Words, in which friend and foe merge into one, confusing and unrecognizable collection of thoughts for Sexton to ponder.
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“Live or die, but don’t poison everything”. These words were said by Anne Sexton, a 20th century poet, whose poems dealt with the complexities of her tragic personal life, including […]