Live or Die
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Publish Year note: First published in 1966
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize: A gripping poetry collection mapping the thorny journey from madness to hope.
With her emotionally raw and deeply resonant third collection, Live or Die, Anne Sexton confirmed her place among the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century. Sexton described the volume, which depicts a fictionalized version of her struggle with mental illness, as “a fever chart for a bad case of melancholy.”
From the halls of a psychiatric hospital—“the scene of the disordered scenes” in “Flee on Your Donkey”—to a child’s playroom—“a graveyard full of dolls” in “Those Times . . .”—these gripping poems offer profound insight on the agony of depression and the staggering acts of courage and faith required to emerge from its depths.
Along with other confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, Sexton was known for grappling with intimate subjects traditionally considered taboo for poetry such as motherhood, menstruation, and drug dependence. Live or Die features these topics in candid and unflinching detail, as Sexton represents the full experience of being alive—and a woman—as few poets have before. Through bold images and startlingly precise language, Sexton explores the broad spectrum of human emotion ranging from desperate despair to unfettered hope.
warmth? Their warmth is not a friend! They pry my mouth for their cups of gin and their stale bread. What is reality to this synthetic doll who should smile, who should shift gears, should spring the doors open in a wholesome disorder, and have no evidence of ruin or fears? But I would cry, rooted into the wall that was once my mother, if I could remember how and if I had the tears. June 1958–June 1965 SUICIDE NOTE You speak to me of narcissism but I reply that it is a matter of my
through June 1964 and the editors of the following magazines for their permission to reprint the following poems: The Carleton Miscellany: And One for My Dame, Consorting with Angels Critical Quarterly (England): Those Times …, Christmas Eve Encounter (England): Walking in Paris Harper’s Magazine: Mother and Jack and the Rain, For the Year of the Insane, Love Song The Hudson Review: Imitations of Drowning, To Lose the Earth, Crossing the Atlantic, Menstruation at Forty, Two Sons The New
the way a child holds on to a toy. I signed myself in where a stranger puts the inked-in X’s— for this is a mental hospital, not a child’s game. Today an interne knocks my knees, testing for reflexes. Once I would have winked and begged for dope. Today I am terribly patient. Today crows play black-jack on the stethoscope. Everyone has left me except my muse, that good nurse. She stays in my hand, a mild white mouse. The curtains, lazy and delicate, billow and flutter and drop
who had seen me from my bedside radio? Now it’s Dinn, Dinn, Dinn! while the ladies in the next room argue and pick their teeth. Upstairs a girl curls like a snail; in another room someone tries to eat a shoe; meanwhile an adolescent pads up and down the hall in his white tennis socks. A new doctor makes rounds advertising tranquilizers, insulin, or shock to the uninitiated. Six years of such small preoccupations! Six years of shuttling in and out of this place! O my hunger! My
hooks to pull dreams up out of their cage. O my hunger! My hunger! Once, outside your office, I collapsed in the old-fashioned swoon between the illegally parked cars. I threw myself down, pretending dead for eight hours. I thought I had died into a snowstorm. Above my head chains cracked along like teeth digging their way through the snowy street. I lay there like an overcoat that someone had thrown away. You carried me back in, awkwardly, tenderly, with the help of the