Death & Grief in Poetry
Anne Sexton reading Wanting to Die
Death is something that we as a society must encounter day in and day out. Not only do we have to find ways to cope with our loss, but with the mystery that surrounds death as well. This mysterious creature, death, takes it's victims by surprise and by victims I am meaning those who are afflicted by the death of someone close to them. Death doesn't only take the person walking down that road nearing an end, but it takes something away from the living. When we start to ponder the question what is death others arise such as what it feels like to die or does a person know when death is coming for them. Some people describe these thoughts through verse; whether it be voiced in a song or written in ink with poetic rhyme, people need a release to their grief and a way to answer their own questions. Poets use their imagination to try to understand death, almost to the point where imagination begins to cross paths with their reality.
Anne Sexton is known writer of death, many of her poems are centered around some kind of death. Whether it be her own will to die or those around her who have passed, she is consumed with this creature death. In one of her poems, "Wanting To Die", Sexton describes the thoughts that go through one's mind when they want to die. It's not far fetched to say she was even thinking about her own death. I'm sure her and Plath swapped a few near end experiences during their correspondences. The beginning of the poem starts with a narrator who seems to be just existing, not living their life just existing with no purpose or reason. And this seems reason enough to think of taking your own life: "Since you ask, most days I cannot remember / I walk in my clothing, unmasked by that voyage. / Then almost unnameable lust returns. / Even then I have nothing against life." Here Sexton describes someone who doesn't see the point in living and every now and then their old friend pays a visit and they plot their own death. The narrator claims that they have nothing against life, yet their reasoning for wanting to die is still unknown. Why do they feel the need to just cease to exist? Maybe the mundane everyday routine is just too much and they need some kind of thrill and maybe they can get that thrill from being the one in charge of their own death.
The narrator goes further to talk more in depth about suicides and the craft it takes to master. They describe suicides in a lottery kind of way where you have a 50/50 chance of living or meeting your maker. What I find interesting of her description is when she describes them as still-born: "Suicides have already betrayed the body. / Still-born, they don't always die, / but dazzled, they can't forget a drug so sweet / that even children would look on and smile." It's as if the narrator is getting some pleasure out of nearing death and bouncing back to life. It's almost like an adrenalin rush and is described as a drug that even children would relish in. It's an interesting way of describing suicide one that is dark, yet I find humor within the lines. Like the narrator is laughing at death.
In the last two stanzas the narrator describes the aftermath, and what the victim of suicide leaves behind: "Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet, / Raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon, / Leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss, / Leaving the page of the book carelessly open, / Something unsaid, the phone off the hook / And the love, whatever it was, an infection." Suicide is a difficult death for most to accept because it almost always leaves something unsaid, and leaves the loved ones wondering why or could I have helped. It's a puzzling way to die one that will infect your loved ones for many years always digging up old wounds. Because being taken by cancer or some natural death of old age is a death that can be explained and examined, but a suicide no one quiet understands it's reasoning.
Imitations of Drowning
In another poem by Anne Sexton, "Imitations of Drowning", she describes death as something that is feared. Of course everyone fears their own mortality, but it's a realization we all must come to terms with, and not necessarily embrace but accept and learn to get over the fear of dying so that you can live life to the fullest. In her poem she notes things like "fear of drowning, fear of being alone" as if death is something we know is lurking, but no one wants to speak of it. I am one of those introverts who has a wild imagination and as character describes I fear the worst when people say what's the worst that could happen. I automatically go over every scenario in which I could die or my loved ones could die and it is scary. The whole poem is centered around this fear of drowning and allowing death to win the battle and it seems to consume the narrator. In the beginning of the poem the fear sprouts in July and grows into dreams by August. It illustrates what can happen if you allow death to fester and swallow you up when you still have a pulse.
Further on in the poem Sexton describes death as a butcher; something that haunts you and teases you until you're gone: "And death, that old butcher, will bother me no more." Death is something that no matter how hard you try it will always linger in the back of your mind, "tugging the old string" as Sexton puts it. She also describes drowning as "dying awake", you can see yourself slipping away as that last gasp of breath leaves your lungs and is replaced by a rush of water. Something that seems like would only take seconds could last a lifetime. At the end of the poem Sexton adds a twist as always shocking her readers with the unexpected: "There is no news in fear / But in the end it's fear / That drowns you." What I like about this is she is possibly saying that if we allow this fear of drowning consume us our fear is what will drown us in the end. Perhaps she is saying that when we die, we die by the hands of our own fears.
In a poem written by Marie Howe, "Death, The Last Visit", Howe describes death as a sexual creature. She links death to an orgasm, something that brings pleasure and desire. It's as if when we die we will get this "sexual powerful" feeling of an intense moment, much like an orgasm. Howe makes it seem like death is a one way ticket into blissful happiness. You get that rush, that power and your body craves for more. Howe looks at death in a different view than most and brings a new sensual stage for this actor. In this poem she looks on the positive side of death, she focuses on things that feel good and have positive outcomes: "You could weep with gratefulness." "So sweet and slow you'll scream give it to me give it to me until it does." Not to mention all of the examples she uses to describe death are sexual references: "You'll taste your mother's sour nipple, your favorite salty cock / and swallow a word you thought you'd spit out once, and be done with." Death to her seems to be a sexual experience and something that shouldn't be taken for granted.
The last few stanzas are what really gives the reader this orgasmic experience. Maybe my mind is just living in filth, but when I read it I get this sexual voice of a woman having her final orgasm, one of many: "Nothing will ever reach this deep. Nothing will ever clench this hard. / At last (the little girls are clapping, shouting) someone has pulled / the drawstring of your gym bag closed enough and tight. At last / Someone has knotted the lace of your shoe so it won't ever come undone / Even as your turn into it, even as you begin to feel yourself stop, / you'll whistle with amazement between you residual teeth oh jesus / oh sweetheart, oh holy mother, nothing nothing nothing ever felt this good."
Whether it be about suicide, thoughts on death, or what it's like to die, all poets find some interesting spin to address death. In these three poems death is described in a variety of ways. Anne Sexton views suicide as being in control of death in her poem "Wanting To Die", and then views death as something that hunts us within our own fears in "Imitations of Drowning". Oh, and you can't forget the sexual desires of death Howe paints on her canvas. All powerful, all unique descriptions of the creature death.
Website of Marie Howe
Marie Howe "Death, the Last Visit"
A reading of Marie Howe's poem "Death, the Last Visit".