Two butterflies in a bell jar
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Ever wonder how intoxicatingly addictive art is? The last resort. The oar you hold on to when the shore has betrayed you.
Art is a curious drug: magical, poetic, feminine, and lethal. That is why falling in love with it is so easy. Once it will hold your hand and salvage you. Next, you’ll be screaming to let go and she won’t let go of you, she’ll hold even tighter. You’ll scream for help but only songs will escape your lips, you’ll spill your blood and paintings will be drawn. Dying now, you will try to reach for help, all you would be able to do is write in dust, and Voila! All that is read is poetry.
Always remember, if you embrace art, it will end up strangling you. No wonder why the figure of early deaths is highest for artists in all professions. Here is the thing about art: either it kills you, or the lack of it does. Either way, you’re dying. Art is a curious drug.
Is an art like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.’
-Sylvia Plath: Lady Lazarus
This is that story.
Two disturbed women, tormented by the usual blessing of womanhood and wifedom, torn between sanity and society and conflicted by their choice between femininity and feminism, turned to art for the emancipation of their souls. And their poetry gave them just that. Freedom so sweet that their souls betrayed their bodies for just a taste. A moment long taste.
Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were two Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘daughters of the doom’ who sensationalized confessional poetry with their doleful styles that almost always revolved around the womb and the tomb. These two exemplary poets of their time once met for three extra dried martinis at a bar in Boston. This was their first of many meetings. And from this happenstance, out came a religion. A religion that infatuated with and worshipped Lady Death in all her naked glory.
Having suspiciously similar writing styles and equally conflicted emotional states, their poems started to sound so synonymous that even their most avid readers couldn’t make out one’s poems from the others. The reason for this, in all probability, was that the twisted twins of the cradle and grave poetry had started to co-exist in a mind palace of their own creation. This palace, this idea that they had built of life, was a dark place, and the only way they both knew to escape it was by walking out its door, preferably hand in hand.
‘But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.’
-Anne Sexton: Wanting to Die
It was strange for the critics of their era to see two women who were so starkly different in appearance, yet so profoundly similar in their worldview of life. The two ethereal forces of darkness contrasted sharply against the rosy picture of an American woman that stronger poets had painted.
Naturally, scholars started comparing their pieces and deemed them, literary competitors. To the whole world, they were rivals in art, to each other, they were rivals yet, but in something much more mortal than art: they were rivals in death.
And like any two major players of a competitive sport, they used to discuss their laurels in death over martinis in Boston Bars:
"Sylvia and I would talk at length about our first suicide, in detail and in-depth—between the free potato chips. Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem. Sylvia and I often talked opposites. We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric light bulb, sucking on it. She told the story of her first suicide in sweet and loving detail, and her description in The Bell Jar is just that same story."
-Anne Sexton on Sylvia Plath
Death is something both Anne and Sylvia relished. Even the shallowest analysis of their poems showed how they saw death as a female entity with enormous power. With Sylvia referring to her as ‘Lady Lazarus’ and Anne describing her as “a sad bone” who waits for her year after year, it’s not entirely unfathomable to assume that they were attracted to death as a female heroine who will come and rescue them from a world comprising of mundane motherhood, jarring wifehood and well, womanhood. The only question that surfaces from that knowledge is, along with idolising, did Anne and Sylvia identify with, or even envy this female persona of morbidity?
And more importantly, why were they so attracted to death? The list of writers and poets who attempted suicide is definitely not short, but the way these two women romanticized suicide is different than any known poet. The suicidal idiom and morbid imagery in their poems is not only terrifyingly beautiful but also worthy of psychological analysis. An argument can be made that these two women, in fact, fed off of each other’s mental illness and found comfort in the fact that someone else was as twisted as they were. Otherwise how often do you find a poet confessing to their therapist ‘that death was mine’ when a fellow poet and a close friend kill herself?
how did you crawl into,
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly
and for so long’
-Anne Sexton: Sylvia’s Death
Anne Sexton’s tone in the now notorious poem ‘Sylvia’s Death’ written in the aftermath of Plath’s violent suicide was hence that of jealousy and not lament. She felt betrayed that Sylvia died first. It was only a shock to the ones not paying attention, that a few years later, Anne too committed a violent suicide in a similar manner. Discussions of “quiet deeds” being so loved and frequent in their discourse and distaste for their respective mental hospitals being so common in their poems, Anne and Sylvia lived the same life in different bodies; they died the same death too. Both their lives and deaths leave us readers torn between being disgusted by their fascination with death, and being enamored by their skillful use of metaphor and allegory that made death beautiful even to the barbarous multitude of airheads. How they transformed something as dark as eternal nothingness into ‘a drug so sweet that even children would look on and smile’ is a question in both philosophy and ethics.
‘They had to call and call
And pick up the worms off me
Like sticky pearls.’
-Sylvia Plath: Lady Lazarus
Celebrating confessional poets who manage to change the way one sees death is too controversial, and this article is going to neither advocate for it nor validate it. As poetic as their story might be, it is one that ended with no solutions or fulfillment. Unquestionably the beliefs of these two women came only from their sickness.
And yet, uniformed romantics who celebrate toxicity would absurdly imagine them meeting in an afterlife enjoying three extra dried martinis with their very own Lady Death.
And then again, who is to say? They just might be.