Word Wanderlust: Anne Sexton

I figured what better way to launch the new blog segment, “Word Wanderlust”, than focusing on one of my favorite poets, Anne Sexton. To be honest, I’d meant to do my first entry on my FAVORITE favorite poet, W.H. Auden, but I didn’t get the chance to grab my Auden collection this morning before catching the bus, and so I’ll have to make due with the poetry book I have, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J.D. McClatchy. Just a note about what I’m hoping “Word Wanderlust will be: I’ll break it down the poem to a slight extent, butt I’ll avoid any more major analysis because the “wanderlust” part of the segment is to remind and inspire to appreciate the beauty of the poetry simply as it’s beauty – one of my largest issues with being taught poetry at college is that so often people are trying to figure out WHY something is beautiful, rather than appreciating that it IS. Picking it apart is a wonderful exercise in improving personal ability, but that’s not what this is about.

The Starry Night
That does not keep me from having a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars. – Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother.

The town does not exist
Except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

There are a number of things that I find completely enamoring about this poem, the least of which is the sparseness of the poetics with which Anne Sexton writes. As her teacher Robert Lowell once said of Sexton, “her gift was to grip, to give words to the drama of her personality”. She started writing in order to provide a release from the mental breakdowns that afflicted her most of her life. She was a housewife and mother, and in the exploration of her own mental landscape she manages to bring the reader in with her – or, if nothing else, she spurs the audience to venture into their own mental landscapes.

Some of my favorite lines in the poem are the repetition of “this is how I want to die”, and the description of the tree as a “drowned woman into the hot sky”. I also continue to try and process exactly what the last stanza means – the first two stanzas of the poem seem to provide highly poetic descriptions of Van Gogh’s “Starry Starry Night” itself, whereas the last stanza seems to depart from the painting back to the inherent meaning at the bottom of the poem: modes of dying, or, in this case, the desire to die by art. Sexton’s visuals of being “sucked up by that great dragon” in order to “split from my life with no flag” impart this idea of being literally consumed by the work of art, both literally as through the physical death, and figuratively, as one finds themselves being consumed by the passion and beauty of the great art of the past greats.

Sexton uses a number of haunting images, everything from the previously mentioned “drowned woman” to the the “night boils”, “unseen serpent”, and “bulges”, all of which give ideas of over-satiation to the point of pain. The unseen serpent also give rise to Biblical references, which, while not necessarily central to the poem, is clearly important, as it echoes the epitaph at the beginning of the poem. But the darkness of the poem doesn’t at all detract from it’s beauty, which is a theme that runs throughout Sexton’s poetry. Along with her frankness, it’s one of the things most fascinating about her poetry.

This wasn’t the best possible entry that it could have been – I feel like I’m a little to scatterbrained to really articulate some of the things I love most about this poem as well as Sexton in general – but it was a powerful attempt as I continue to work out the kinks of “word wanderlust”. Happy reading!


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. lakyn
    Mar 08, 2010 @ 06:03:36

    I love the lines that keep repeating “this is how I want to die” as well. Its as if she is ready to die, but in a peaceful less painful way.


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