The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550

“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.

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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 unaffected by the world around her. The only passion she feels is “the almost unnameable lust” for death. In the next two tercets, she explains further that she has “nothing against life” and no hatred for “the grass blades” that symbolize the vitality of the living world; she simply loves death’s promise more. “[S]uicides have a special language,” she says, and “like carpenters, they want to know which tools./ They never ask why build.”

So far Sexton’s speaker has simply discussed her life in a detached, calm manner. At this point the speaker tries to explain the attraction that death holds and to translate her concept of death into words that the hearer can understand. The next two tercets describe in brief the speaker’s previous two suicide attempts; she has “possessed the enemy,” death, “taken on his craft,” and “rested.”

The question remains, however: Why does she want to kill herself? The last six tercets seem to provide an answer, however unsatisfactory it may be to others. The first three describe a suicidal person’s perception of life as a kind of “drug.” Although its pleasures are “so sweet,” life keeps the “body at needlepoint”; an addiction to life, like an addiction to drugs, prevents a person from seeing life’s bitter reality. Living an illusion has, the speaker asserts, made her “already [betray] the body” even before she attempted suicide. Further, death has been waiting, “year after year,” to “undo an old wound” and release the speaker from the body that has become a “prison.” Life is a kind of suffering (the “wound”) that only suicides recognize when they are “balanced there” between life and death. Even love, the ultimate reason for living, cannot provide the suicide with sufficient reason to stay alive; love is “an infection” that keeps them sick with life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

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...

(The entire section contains 1094 words.)

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