‘The Art of Dying’ death and suicide in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and Anne Sexton’s ‘Live or Die’

How are death and suicide represented in selected poems in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Anne Sexton’s Live or Die

Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were two of the most important voices of American Confessional poetry. Their work has received much critical attention and has been discussed and analyzed extensively. Both poets earned the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: Sexton for her poem collection Live or Die in 1967 and Plath posthumously for the Collected Poems in 1982, published by Ted Hughes. The Confessional poetry genre we identify them with, dealt with taboo topics that were not previously discussed in poetry, such as addiction, mental health and interpersonal relationships. Its main purpose was to give to personal experiences and negative feelings a new artistic significance through the creative craft of poetry. Plath and Sexton, as two of the main representatives of this type of poetry, included in their writings much of their personal problems with mental illness and family relationships, creating a poetry characterized by emotional intensity. They both attempted suicide, spent time in institutions and dealt with depression, struggles they incorporated into their poetry. They both, however, created a poetry that can be read and understood freed from their personal struggle. For this reason, there has been an intense debate between literature academics whether Plath and Sexton’s poetry should be analyzed by looking at those personal struggles. Many argue that their life should not dominate the academic discussions of their poetry, while others find it hard not to see the interrelation between the two. This essay will discuss in which ways Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton incorporated their obsession with death and suicide with the use of poetic devices in selected poems from their Ariel and Live or Die poem collections, and how the poets differ in their use of language.

To begin with, Sylvia Plath reflects in her poem “Lady Lazarus” her obsession with death and suicide by using repetition, and by alluding to her own life, particularly her first suicide attempt. This poem might be considered as part of her Holocaust poems, with evident allusions to World War II; however, half the poem is dedicated to the speaker’s process of dying. The speaker reassures the reader about her talent in dying, “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well” (lines 43-45), while we detect some biographical details such as the age, “I am only thirty.” (line 20). Plath was indeed thirty years old during the composition of this poem, which reflects her obsession with including many autobiographical elements when talking about death. Likewise, the personal pronoun “I” is repeated 22 times in total in the poem, and according to a study by Stirman and Pennebaker, which used a proprietary computer program to track word use in popular poets, “linguistic predictors of suicide can be discerned through text analysis” (qtd. In Turpin and Fuhrman, 488). They discovered that this extensive use of personal pronouns and self-references in a person’s poetry is “evidence of suicidal potential”, concluding that especially Plath’s work “was a good candidate for this analytical method” (qtd. In Turpin and Fuhrman, 488). Her linguistic and stylistic choices, the repetition of the “I” and her allusions to her personal life prove, therefore, her obsession with death and suicide. According to Smith, Plath is moving towards “enacting her own poetic dramas.” (327), especially when she includes several personal details about her early suicide attempt when she was twenty years old. In the poem, the speaker divides her life in three decades, referring to her current state as “[…] Number Three. / What a trash / To annihilate each decade,” (lines 22-24). While she describes her life’s decades, she refers to something that happened in each one: “The first time it happened I was ten”, (line 35) “The second time I meant / To last it out and not come back at all” (lines 37-38). That “it” alludes to her own suicide, since Plath was twenty years old when she attempted suicide. She took her mother’s sleeping pills and lay under the house for three days. In the poem, “They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls” (lines 41-42), two lines that relate to the fact that she was unconscious under her house, while her family was looking for her. The purpose was to “not come back at all” (line 38), a line that reinforces the irreversibility of her intentions and the obsession she had with dying. McClave reassures us that Plath is seeking in this poem “to wreak destruction, to perpetuate her vision of death.” (463), while Britzolakis states that the voice we read in Ariel, and consequently in this poem too, “was marked above all by its proximity to her [Plath’s] suicide” (107). Those two statements confirm how Plath was obsessed with writing about death, and how difficult it is to read this poem independent from her suicide attempt and her death. It is established, therefore, that Plath has used repetition and allusion in “Lady Lazarus” that prove her obsession with death and suicide.

In addition, Plath’s poem “Ariel”, includes characteristics of melancholy and Plath’s obsession with death and suicide with the use of metaphors. In “Ariel” the speaker begins with a “stasis in darkness” (line 1), an intense and grave remark that is reinforced by her discussion about her “dead hands” and “dead stringencies” (line 21). Those metaphors Plath employs, amplify the melancholic and somber mood of the poem’s core. While the poem focuses on a melancholic narration, it ends with the speaker reassuring she is “the arrow, / The dew that flies / Suicidal” (lines 27-29), an ethereal dark force that has been transformed and is now released into the world. Her intense metaphors are, as Smith states, “unexpected, startling, often upsetting” (Smith 324), but nevertheless, they are used to indicate how Plath merged her life and work, how those two became “interchangeable and indistinguishable” (Smith 336). This melancholic discouragement that is evident in the poem, alternates with a sense of triumph, strengthening the belief of instability that characterized Plath’s life. Thus, the speaker is a “lioness”, an “arrow”, she is a “Godiva” who transforms the darkness into light, “Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning” (lines 30-31). As Britzolakis indicates, Plath’s “dejection of the melancholic is unstable; it has a tendency to alternate with states of exultation or triumph” (121). This melancholy that alternates with small triumphs, evident also from the metaphors used, functions also as proof of Plath’s obsession with death.

Moving on to Plath’s poem “Tulips”, the paradox of low self-worth, the metaphor of surrender, and the intense imagery of hospitalization indicate Plath’s own experience of her institutionalization for depression and confirm her death obsession. The speaker indicates her belief of low self-worth by utilizing a paradox, “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions” (line 5). Throughout the poem a sense of resignation is exhibited, “I didn’t want any flowers. I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.” (lines 30-32). The speaker wants to “be utterly empty”, a metaphor employed to demonstrate a sense of surrender, especially when combined with the imagery of institutionalization: “I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses / And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons” (lines 6-7). The combination of this intense hospital imagery and the speaker’s surrender alludes to the fact that when Plath composed this poem in March of 1961, she had suffered a miscarriage and shortly after she was hospitalized for an appendectomy. However, the imagery in this poem, as Thurston states, can also refer to Plath’s own institutionalization for treatment for depression (151-152). Thus, the biographical details we know for Plath’s life, demonstrate how she incorporated in her Ariel poetry, with the help of certain poetic devices, her personal obsession with depression and suicide.

As far as Sexton is concerned, her poem “Sylvia’s Death” includes many autobiographical elements of Sexton’s life, which with the use of repetition and imagery confirm Sexton’s intense obsession with death. Plath and Sexton met at Boston University during a poetry class they both followed in 1959. They became friends and inspired each other. When Plath committed suicide in 1963, Sexton composed a poem solely for Plath’s death. The poem “Sylvia’s death” represents Sexton’s reaction to Plath’s suicide: the speaker’s attitude towards Plath’s death is somehow of jealousy and disappointment, “Thief! – how did you crawl into, / crawl into alone / into the death I wanted so badly and for so long” (lines 15-18). The speaker craves for death “so badly and for so long”, that she cannot accept that Sylvia has died first; she feels betrayed. The speaker admits her desire for dying, while she refers to the relationship with Plath and their discussions on dying, creating an imagery of them meeting in Boston: “the one we talked of so often each time / we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston” (lines 21-22). Reading these lines, the speaker becomes Sexton herself, since it is difficult not to see their real friendship represented in the poem. Sexton also struggled with depression and mania, and in the poem, the speaker’s obsession with death and suicide inescapably alludes to Sexton’s own thoughts of dying. As Harris tells us in his biography of Sexton, she began writing poetry after her own psychiatrist recommended her to express her feelings through writing due to her unstable mental state (par. 2). Furthermore, Sexton’s extensive use of the word “death” (used 9 times in the poem), creates a macabre imagery where death is present everywhere. Sexton refers to Plath’s death as an “old belonging”, something she and Plath always owned and always wanted to experience (line 66). As Solomon states, for Sexton death becomes “a desperate desire” in her writing, and this desire becomes “a disembodied force” and “an attraction” that does not depend on reason (268). This death desire is evident here, especially with the help of word repetition and death imagery, confirming Sexton’s obsession with dying.

Sexton reflects on suicide and death in her poem “Suicide Note”, with the help of metaphor and simile. The speaker of the poem meditates on death, “I will enter death / like someone’s lost optical lens” (lines 22-23); she wishes to enter the state of dying and the power of the simile, “like someone’s lost optical lens” (line 23), is used to support the extent in which the speaker desires death. At the same time, the speaker reassures the reader with the help of a metaphor that death is inescapable, “But surely you know that everyone has a death, / his own death, / waiting for him” (lines 69-71). The speaker points out that death is an entity to be owned, it is innate and originates from within us, reinforcing her obsession in seeing death everywhere. The whole poem is written in a special “suicidal idiom” whose main function is the re-creation of the state of mind of suicide, as George writes (25). This “suicidal idiom” refers to the language Sexton uses that is focused on the metaphorical suicide the speaker experiences. This poem is supposed to be a suicide note, only it is not and its poetic devices prevent it from becoming one. Moreover, death here is inevitable, but it is also a choice: “So I will go now / without old age or disease, / wildly but accurately, / knowing my best route.” (lines 72-75). That “best route” is for the speaker the death she always craved for: suicide. The obsession with death is exhibited by employing a metaphor and a simile, while death’s inevitability and the choice of dying through suicide dominate the poem. That “suicidal idiom” is transformed into a universal language that explains the intensity of the emotion. Ultimately, this poem self-destructs, it becomes “a kind of suicide attempt” (George 25). Thus, Sexton is using here certain poetic devices and language that reflect her intense obsession with suicide and death.

Continuing with Sexton’s poem “Wanting to Die”, the poet expresses her obsession with death with the help of personification and imagery. For the speaker of the poem, “[…] suicides have a special language” (line 7) that not everyone understands. In this poem, suicide is personified and it takes the plural form: “Suicides” (line 18) that betray and “suicides” (line 28) that possess a power to act. This “suicidal idiom” that we mentioned before, also evident here, welcomes the reader to experience the discussion about suicide (George 25). Furthermore, the speaker reassures the reader about the condition of death, “Death’s a sad bone;” (line 24), and its liberating force, “and yet she waits for me, year after year, / to so delicately undo an old wound, / to empty my breath from its bad prison.” (lines 25-27). Death is personified as a powerful “she”, it has a personality and a purpose; it waits for the speaker to unburden herself from old wounds and surrender to death’s will. This intense imagery strongly leads us to assume that, as the title of the poem also suggests, the speaker expresses a strong will to die and escape life. As Solomon states, Sexton’s life and consequently her poetry “is determined by her death” (268), which confirms how difficult it is not to see the poem as a reflection of Sexton’s own mania with death and suicide; the poem inescapably alludes to her own suicide in 1973. Thus, the personification and imagery that Sexton employs, prove the poet’s obsession with death and suicide.

Although both poets share their obsession with death and suicide, they have some compelling differences in the way they used poetic devices to talk about that death obsession. For both women, poetry was an escape; for Sexton, poetry provided her a way to escape her madness (Harris, par. 7), while for Plath writing poetry functioned as a “catharsis for repressed feelings” (Nikcevic-Batricevic, Duric, and Krivokapic 2212). One of the main difference between the two, is the way in which they employed their poetic language. To begin with Sexton, she has proved that she is not afraid to employ intense repetitions in order to strengthen her obsession with death, as we have seen in “Sylvia’s Death”. She is also not afraid to explore multiple poetic devices, even in a few lines, such as in “Wanting to Die” (lines 25-27), where we find personification, metaphors and alliteration. Her language is pure, rough and honest. She confronts how she feels and she is not afraid to even personify death in order to demonstrate its importance in her poetry. Sexton uses her poetry to express and communicate her own point of view and interpretation of death in her life, transforming in the end, her bold “suicidal idiom” into a language that everyone can understand. Plath, on the other side, was more reserved in her words and explored in a greater extent the power of metaphor in her poems, especially the ones that contain autobiographical elements. It is not about communicating an idea or a feeling and expressing it through words, it is about the absence of a “distinction between drama and life.”, there is no “aesthetic distance,” between the two (Smith 327) because Plath proves that she is also living what she writes in her Ariel collection. Moreover, she is more attentive to her choice of words; she constructs her imagery and her metaphors with great caution as in “Ariel”, where the still point is the “red / Eye” (lines 30-31) or in “Lady Lazarus” (lines 22-24). Only a few words – “red / Eye” and “annihilate” – contain great emotional intensity and meaning. Plath’s language is more cryptic and allegorical. Her choice of words and poetic devices makes it harder to understand and decipher her poetry.

Through the analysis and close readings of Plath and Sexton’s poems, but also by closely looking at their lives, this essay has established the ways in which both poets used the power of poetic devices in order to demonstrate their obsessions with death and suicide and how they differ in their language use. Their poetry is illuminating in understanding the mind of the depressed, the mind of people who suffer in their struggle to defeat their own demons. It would be interesting to see how their poetry contributed in the discussion about mental illness throughout the years, did they initiate or encourage the conversation for mental illness and if yes in which ways? Even if both poets were unable to escape their own demons – they both committed suicide – we can say with certainty that they were devoted to their poetry, because they both knew that “poetry remains a form of art, it brings another type of truth” (Panagiotou fractalart.gr).


Works Cited List

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George, D. H. “Anne Sexton’s Suicide Poems.” The Journal of Popular Culture 18.2 (1984): 17–31. Wiley Online Library. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

Harris, Jan. “Plath, Sylvia.” Literature Online Biography. 2008. Literature Online. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

Harris, Jan. “Sexton, Anne.” Literature Online Biography. 2003. Literature Online. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

Nikcevic-Batricevic, Aleksandra, et al. “Map of Reading and Re-reading: Many Voices, Female Voices, Plath’s Voices.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies. 4. 11. (2014): 2209-2214. Literature Online. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. London: Faber and Faber, 1965. Print.

Thurston, Michael. “Psychotherapy and Confessional Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Poetry. Ed. Walter Kalaidjian. (2015): 143-154. Cambridge Core. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Turpin, Jeff P., Fuhrman, Robert W. “Adaptive and Maladaptive Poetry: in Plath, Roethke, Kunitz, and Moraga.” Style 46:3/4 (2012): 479-99. Literature Online. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Sexton, Anne. The Complete Poems. New York: 1981. Print.

Smith, Pamela A., and Sylvia Plath. “The Unitive Urge in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath.” The New England Quarterly 45:3 (1972): 323–339. JSTOR. Web. 29 May 2017.

Solomon, B. R. ““O My Hunger! My Hunger!”: Death in the Poetry of Anne Sexton*.” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 2.4 (1972): 268–284. Wiley Online Library. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

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