Category Archives: Anne Sexton

‘The Starry Night’ by Anne Sexton

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.

This poem is inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night. It begins with a quote from a letter written by Van Gogh, which says that, despite himself, he has a deep, “terrible” need for religion, and that it is when he feels this need that he goes out and “paint[s] the stars”. I think there is something profound here about man’s need for something eternal and sacred. Though Van Gogh didn’t want religion in his life, he nevertheless had a need for the sacred. By creating art — by going out and painting the stars — Van Gogh was in effect immortalising the beauty of the world. He was acknowledging the transcendent power of beauty. Though he may not necessarily feel the presence of the Divine, a painter understands eternity, and s/he understands the holiness of beauty.

Van Gogh was a tortured, troubled artist just as Sexton was. When you look at ‘Starry Night’, the painting, there is such movement in the brushstrokes, and such turbulence — almost violence — in the thick swirling sky with its “eleven stars”, boiling in the “hot sky.” I love Sexton’s description of the painting, with the “black-haired tree” slipping up “like a drowned woman into the hot sky”. This particular description really struck me. When you look at the painting you will see that the tree does indeed look as though it were made of hair. There is something so dark and sinister about that image — it’s so “alive”, and “it moves”, as Sexton writes. I love the way the night “boils” in the poet’s description, because that is exactly how the painting looks to me.

The refrain “This is how I want to die” is repeated twice in the poem. It is a sort of mantra, and is central to the meaning of this poem in my view. I know that I always bring everything back to Keats, but this reminds me of his Ode to a Nightingale. In Nightingale, the poet listens to the beautiful sound of the bird’s voice (which represents the eternal beauty of Poetry and Art) and feels that this would be the perfect moment to die:

“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain,/ While thou art pouring forth thy soul/ In such an ecstasy!”

I think Sexton is expressing something similar, here. However, there is of course more violence in Sexton’s desire for death, which I think reflects her suicidal nature and the fact that she would eventually commit suicide. Sexton does not want to simply “cease upon the midnight with no pain”; she wants to be “sucked up by that great dragon, to split/ from my life with no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry.” Sexton wants to be a part of the violent narrative. She wants to be a part of the mythology — the world where the “old, unseen serpent swallows up the stars”. There is religious imagery here with the serpent (the devil), and the moon pushing children “like a god, from its eye”. I think perhaps that — in the same way that Van Gogh painted the stars because he had a “terrible need” for something eternal and sacred — Sexton wanted to die in a glorified way — through suicide, as a tortured poet  – in order to join the hosts of dead poets that are immortal because their stories and their work is eternal. Perhaps this poem expresses a sense that Sexton felt suicide would be dramatic and violent and would immortalise her.

My final thought on this poem is to do with the final words: “no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry”. This part of the poem seems extremely violent to me. Sexton is expressing her deep, dark desire to part with life, but she goes further… The “no flag” part suggests to me that the poet is saying she wants to die not as a martyr, or for any particular cause — not holding up the flag of patriotism, or religion (or even the white flag of surrender.) No, the poet does not want to die as a victim (perhaps that is part of the attraction of suicide to her). She also writes that she wants to die with “no belly”. This is an interesting image, which is clearly linked to the poet’s femininity (the belly being the home of the womb and the place in the body where life starts.) Is Sexton saying here that she wants to die with no belly — with no gender? Sexton did have children in reality, I think maybe three or even more, I can’t remember. In any case, here she is expressing a desire to die without producing more life in the process; she wants her belly — her ability to reproduce — to be gone. I think that is is mostly about not wanting to be defined by her womanhood, but rather by her abilities as a poet. There might also be a sense here in which she is saying that she wants her creative production to stop (as it would, at her death) — to be final and untouchable.  Finally, the poet writes “no cry”. I think that these final words come back again to the idea of surrender. I think Sexton is saying that she does not want to die a victim, with a “cry” of pain or defiance. She wants to go willingly, bravely, and on her own terms.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘After Auschwitz’ by Anne Sexton

Anger,
as black as a hook,
overtakes me.
Each day,
each Nazi
took, at 8:00 A.M., a baby
and sauteed him for breakfast
in his frying pan.

And death looks on with a casual eye
and picks at the dirt under his fingernail.

Man is evil,
I say aloud.
Man is a flower
that should be burnt,
I say aloud.
Man
is a bird full of mud,
I say aloud.

And death looks on with a casual eye
and scratches his anus.

Man with his small pink toes,
with his miraculous fingers
is not a temple
but an outhouse,
I say aloud.

Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say those things aloud.

I beg the Lord not to hear.

I don’t think many readers will fail to be shocked by this poem. Its grotesque images and daring treatment of subject matter that seems untouchable for a poet certainly shocked me when I first read it.

But I think the subject matter is carefully chosen specifically to that end – to shock and hold our attention. The words “Auschwitz” and “Nazi” can never fail to do that. Spell-like, these words are capable of instilling horror even in those who were born decades after the events, because they conjure visions of man’s worst atrocities; a vision of pure evil; the Devil inside us. I think Sexton is using the imagery of the Holocaust to amplify (and in some strange sense that I can’t quite qualify, to validate) her own personal trauma. Plath does the same thing in her poetry (Daddy is the perfect example). Of course, this poem (as the title suggests) is a response to Auschwitz. However, I think it is also a more general reaction to Man’s inhumanity, and perhaps also the inhumanity of men. Sexton was surely influenced by the Vietnam War, which was going on at the time of writing, and by events in her own life, such as her divorce, and her struggle with depression.

The first emotion in the poem – and the first word – is “Anger”. “Anger,/ as black as a hook,/ overtakes me”. We begin with an intensely personal moment, where the speaker feels completely overwhelmed and surpassed by her anger. Then, as though moving the camera lens away from herself, the poet states, almost incongruently, that “Each day,/ each Nazi” sautéed a baby “for breakfast,/ in his frying pan”. This image is painfully, disgustingly, unbearably visual. For me, this first stanza is as if Sexton starts out trying to express her own anger, and then (perhaps to avoid discussing what has made her angry) thrusts this horrifying image in our faces as if to say – ‘look: Man is evil, and this proves it’.

“And death looks on with a casual eye”, writes Sexton. This phrase is repeated twice in the poem, and each time death is performing a banal, repulsive action such as “pick[ing] the dirt under his fingernails” and “scratch[ing] his anus”. I think these images of death are repeated to deliver a sense of the banality of death and senseless inhumanity, but also to convey that evil is not only in action, but in theinaction of bystanders who witness evil and do nothing to stop it. In this case, those bystanders, looking on with a casual eye, are also “death” – also murderers.

Notice that the images of Man in this piece are all of a corrupted creature that once had the potential to be something beautiful. For example, he is described as a “flower/ that should be burnt”, a “bird full of mud” and “not a temple/ but an outhouse”. I can’t help but think of Sexton’s own relationship here, and consider that these lines might just as well be accusing the betrayer in a broken relationship. The repetition of the word “Man” in this piece is hard to ignore. Clearly, Sexton is using it in the universal sense of ‘mankind’, but for me that insistent repetition also delivers a strong anti-male vibe – as though this were the voice of a betrayed, disillusioned, heartbroken woman – and I think again of Sexton’s personal life.

In the final verse we are given some biblical sounding commandments for the new world after Auschwitz. The first is, “Let man never again raise his teacup.” I think this commandment refers to civilities; let us never again pretend to be sophisticated or civilised after what has happened. The second is, “Let man never again write a book.” Philosophy, poetry, science, acting educated… all these things seem ridiculous to the traumatised speaker; Man is not an intellectual being but a brute and a monster. The poet goes on to forbid Man from ever “put[ting] on his shoe” – from dressing himself up as anything other than an animal – and from “rais[ing] his eyes,/ on a soft July night”. Perhaps this final commandment forbids Man from looking for God, marvelling at the stars, or finding beauty in nature. After all – after Auschwitz – it is evident that Man is an abomination of nature, and does not deserve God’s forgiveness.

“I say those things aloud”, writes Sexton. I find this phrase intriguing because she does not say ‘these things are true’. She is simply saying them aloud. She is just daring to voice her anger, air her thoughts. The final line, “I beg the Lord not to hear”, is vital and telling, and sort of saves the whole poem from being utterly depressing. The whole poem has been expressing the notion that Man is a monster that deserves to die, and then at the end she admits that she begs God not hear her prayer. Despite everything, she does not wish to visit the same inhumanity that has sparked this poem, on the perpetrators – on Man. She begs God not to hear. She is desperately hoping that there might be some possibility of salvation.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Her kind’ by Anne Sexton

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

This poem conjures up a few feminine stereotypes, doesn’t it? These are the mythical categories society has created for women over the centuries, and which I think certainly still exist: the witch, the mother, the madwoman, the whore. As women, we are all pushed, warped or crammed to fit into one or many of these categories at some point during our lives. I love Anne Sexton’s tone, it’s so cutting and sharp. If you listen to her reading this poem on YouTube or the Poetry Archive you will hear her clipped, unsentimental voice which so perfectly accentuates that tone. She recognises that she has inhabited all of these feminine constructs, and invites us to do likewise.

The first construct is the witch — “possessed”, “lonely”, “twelve-fingered”; “I have been her kind”, Sexton affirms. “A woman like that is not a woman, quite”. Society has a very clear idea about what makes a woman a woman. And a witch is a ‘non-woman’. We have all been “her kind”, because any woman could be labelled a witch: women of the “night”, “haunting the black air” (these could be prostitutes, or even any woman who choses to go out at night), “lonely” women (those who are ostracized or outcast for whatever reason), and “twelve-fingered” women (this is of course an image of a witch but it also makes me think of any woman who does not fit in physically, or look like Marilyn Monroe). A witch could also be any woman whose talent or power is a threat. Writers, artists, scientists, sportswomen… any woman who threatens to be brilliant, to outshine a man. Remember that Sexton was writing in the sixties and seventies, and though the ideas in this poem are still relevant today, the world was obviously very different when she was writing.

The second stanza is about the wife or mother construct. There she is, organising the domestic furniture of “skillets, carvings, shelves,/ closets, silks…” and “fixing the suppers for the worms and the elves”; she is behaving as a wife and mother should — cleaning and tidying and cooking for her family. There is also a sense of keeping order, as she recreates the wild, magical place (the “warm caves in the woods”) into a recognisable, conventional home with all the modern necessities. She is “rearranging the disaligned”. “A woman like that is misunderstood” says Sexton. Because the mother/wife figure is so busy recreating herself as a perfect version of that construct, her needs, her interests, her talents and her personality are overlooked — she is “misunderstood.” Again the refrain, “I have been her kind” tells us that Sexton herself has lived this reality. Anne Sexton suffered from severe depression after the births of each of her children, and had a nervous breakdown which led to her hospitalisation in 1955.

The last stanza makes me think of a mixture of all these constructs, but most of all that of the madwoman, “riding in your cart”, waving her arms at “the villages going by”. These images, coupled with the “flames” biting her thigh, help to create the idea of a witch being burned at the stake. You get a sense of a disgraced woman, an outcast. “A woman like that is not ashamed to die”, says the poet. Why is she not ashamed to die? Because there are no pretences any more — she is waving her “nude arms” at the villagers — everybody knows her disgrace. “I have been her kind”. Anne Sexton died by suicide. That makes this ending so tragic to me because it makes me feel like she never felt understood, she felt trapped by a construct, a postcard image of what she was meant to be an yet she couldn’t live up to it. It makes me feel like she thought herself as having been disgraced, paraded past the villagers to be burned, a failure. It’s so sad. Society has definitely changed for the better, but these feminine ideals still exist and continue to exist in our minds, and will do for a long time to come, I am sure.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh