The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Wanting to Die” is a short poem in free verse that divides its thirty-three lines into eleven tercets (three-line stanzas). Because it is written in the first person and is conversational in form, this poem has been described as one of Anne Sexton’s literary suicide notes. Because it presents a speaker attempting to explain to a sympathetic listener why she wants to kill herself, some critics have also suggested that it reads like a discussion between Sexton and her psychiatrist. The use of the first person in a poem often causes readers to assume that the poet’s voice and the speaker’s voice are the same—an assumption that, while often erroneous, holds true for this work. Besides being suicidal herself, Sexton often used letters or personal reminiscences as the foundations for her writing. “Wanting to Die,” in fact, was initially a free-association addendum attached to a letter written to her friend Anne Wilder when Wilder had asked Sexton why she was attracted to suicide. Knowing that Wilder was a psychiatrist and was, therefore, unlikely to overreact to even strong imagery, Sexton addressed Wilder’s very real question in poetic form.

In the opening lines of “Wanting to Die,” Sexton’s speaker chooses to respond honestly to the question posed to her even though the hearer may find the topic repellant. “Since you ask,” she says, she will tell. The speaker describes herself as walking unconsciously through life, unimpressed and...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In writing “Wanting to Die,” Sexton rejected the strict formal patterns that permeate her earlier volumes of poetry. Although they are occasionally present, rhyme and meter in Live or Die are coincidental—the most important poetic devices of the volume are intense, compelling imagery and suggestive metaphor. Many critics have observed the strength behind Sexton’s creative vision; “Wanting to Die,” like most of her other suicide poems, is about a woman driven insane by the intensity of her emotions. Not surprisingly, then, other critics are repulsed by the immediate anguish and intimacy of Sexton’s confessional lines. They suggest that reading Sexton’s poems sometimes seems like a tour through her personal hell. Sexton’s imagery does tend to be repellant. The picture of the happy suicide having “rested, drooling at the mouth-hole” has a strong impact. Yet it is also a true picture of the complete “rest” that death brings. Drooling, lack of eye response, and incontinence (the image created when the speaker says, “the cornea and the leftover urine were gone”) are the realities of dying, however disgusting they may seem.

“Wanting to Die” is also a highly metaphorical poem. For the suicidal speaker, the desire for death is not easily explained to outsiders. The metaphor of the carpenter (with its suggestion of Christ, who himself could be seen as a kind of suicide in that he willingly chose to die) is used to describe...

(The entire section is 438 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Furst, Arthur. Anne Sexton: The Last Summer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Anne Sexton. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

McClatchy, J. D. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

McGowan, Philip. Anne Sexton and Middle Generation Poetry: The Geography of Grief. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Sexton, Linda Gray, and Lois Ames, eds. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Sexton. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.