I have known several people who have taken their own lives, or have attempted to. I have very mixed feelings about this devastating act: huge sympathy for the terrible isolation that you must feel to be making this choice, and a kind of anger on behalf of those who are left behind. I know someone whose boyfriend shot himself in front of her. There’s something about that flamboyant act of violence that makes me wonder, but at least he didn’t shoot her.
It worries me that in the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Suicide is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 (male and female). Suicide attempts are up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicides. (Stats from WHO via The Samaritans website)
Anne Sexton who died in 1974, would have been 88 this year. The high-priestess of the confessional mode made her female physicality and mental health a fundamental part of her poetics. She was brave, wild, domesticated, deeply troubled and at the forefront of the movement towards, and beyond, the confessional lyric. Love her or hate her, Sexton’s poems examine the beauty, chaos and pain of life.
On October 4, 1974, Sexton had lunch with fellow poet Maxine Kumin to revise galleys for Sexton's manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God, which had been scheduled for publication in March 1975. When she got back, she put on her mother's old fur coat, removed all her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka and locked herself in her garage. She started the engine of her car, committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 45 years old, and a Pulitzer prize- winning poet.
Sexton is not the only female poet or writer who chose to end her life: Sylvia Plath, Beatrice Hastings, May Ayim, Charlotte Mew, Virginia Woolf. (For a rather tasteless fashion shoot on this topic, and a discussion of the ethics of this see this Jezebel post) It’s quite a long list, although male writers are also prone to suicide. It almost seems to go with the creative, sensitive territory (see this research). However, many of these women also suffered from mental illness, and Sexton herself was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at an early age. In fact, the writing of poetry was suggested to her as a means to combat depression, and so perhaps it is not surprising that her work confronted previously taboo subjects:
"She wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction at a time when the proprieties embraced none of these as proper topics for poetry." Maxine Kumin
It’s both tragic and fascinating that the inner lives of women like Sexton become unbearable, and the release that writing affords ultimately fails. As Virginia Woolf said, in her last note to her husband:
“I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.” (you can read the whole note here)
It’s hard to imagine a mental state so acutely painful that it cuts through what we might think of as the paramount female virtues of nurturing and caring for others. Both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton left young children behind, clearly believing that their offspring would be better off without them. There is an element of self-sacrifice too – was Virginia doing this for Leonard, as much as for herself? Whatever the motivation, she was posthumously criticized for failing to “carry on”, putting up and shutting up being what was felt to be appropriate in a time of war.
Sexton’s personal life, laid bare in several biographies and memoirs, makes her a divisive figure: a privileged Pulitzer-winning poet adrift in a time of political and social upheaval. Prone to spin a yarn and tell her tales: can we really trust her? Come to the Voodoo Café in Darlington on Saturday November 19th, listen to her work, and work she has inspired. Raise a glass to a woman who paved the way for innovative and fearless female verse.