Today’s poem is by Anne Sexton, who dutifully took on the role of suicidal female poet only to be upstaged by Sylvia Plath.
What’s with the whole suicidal female poet thing? Well, in a word, sexism. Poetry, said the male poets, was intrinsically masculine. Women couldn’t handle it. It was too wild, too dangerous; it took a man’s strength to grapple with the raw stuff of reality, blah blah blah. And when some young woman in the back of the room timidly raised her hand and said, “Well what about Anne Sexton?” Or Sylvia Plath, or whoever. “Her poems were real, weren’t they?” why, then, the male poets could say, “Yes, and look what happened to her! She allowed this primal male force into her mind and it broke her.”
And why did female poets play along with this twisted little game? Two reasons: (1) Peer pressure, and (2) it was the only game in town.
Anne Sexton’s “Starry Night” begins with an epigram from Van Gogh:
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.[The rest of this poem has been removed because it’s probably still in copyright. But you'll have no trouble finding it on the Web.]
--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.
Okay, did you understand that? Not if you haven’t seen Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous painting, “Starry Night.” It’s a wonderful painting, and most of the poem simply describes it. The sky boiling with eleven enormous stars, the moon bulging, the sense of rush and drama... It’s an ecstatic painting. It’s the night sky as a mystic caught in mid-vision might see it.
To this greatest of Van Gogh’s accomplishments, Sexton adds her own suicidal impulses. “The old unseen serpent” is the darkness, the wrongness she feels in the universe, that which calls for her to die, and she gives it full credit for making the painting so alive. (Van Gogh, however, would not have agreed; he would have told you the painting was cheerful and upbeat.) She lets you see how she feels about death: It would be an exciting rush into the unknown, an ecstatic surrender of “flag” (this can be interpreted any number of ways, but I’ll guess either responsibility or joy), “belly” (appetite, both for food and for sex), and “cry” (pain, obviously, but also emotions of all sorts).
So we’ve been given a glimpse into a part of life most people don’t experience -- an almost orgiastic urge to die. Well, you don’t have to agree with the impulse to admire the execution. After a suicide, one question the survivors ask themselves over and over is “Why?” How could he do that? Why did she do that?
This poem is a response. “Speaking strictly for myself,” Sexton says, “Here’s why.”
But if you haven’t seen the painting (especially you, Jason!), go to the library and find a book of Van Gogh’s oils and look at it. Not at all depressing. Quite wonderful, in fact.