Ekphrastic Poetry – The Starry Night by Anne Sexton

Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Project 3: Understanding Interdisciplinarity

The Starry Night by Anne Sexton

That does not keep me from having a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars. Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother.

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.   
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons   
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.   
Oh starry starry night! This is how   
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,   
sucked up by that great dragon, to split   
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

Ekphrastic poetry is usually a piece of writing is inspired by a piece of visual art. It originates from the ancient Greek practice of vividly describing works of art.

The piece I found that intrigued me was The Starry Night by Anne Sexton which takes its inspiration from the famous Van Gogh painting.

The Starry Night’ by Anne Sexton is a three-stanza poem that is divided into two sets of seven lines and one final quintain, or set of five lines. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but they do contain numerous examples of half-rhymes and full rhymes. For example, “sky” and “die” in the first stanza and “die” and “eye” in the second stanza. Half rhymes like “eye” and “irons” also exist.

Sexton’s poem is rich with imagery and emotion. Even without seeing the painting alongside it, you can picture the scene she is contemplating. The phrase “one black-haired tree slips up like a drowned woman into the hot sky” uses simile with figurative language to paint the picture with words.

Sexton’s style is loose and metaphorical which emulates Van Gogh’s loose emotive painting style. She uses a great deal of figurative language to describe the stars and the sky around them. The movement of the sky is described as an “old unseen serpent” in the following lines. It “swallows up the stars.” With a reference to a “serpent” and “god” in the same stanza, it’s interesting to consider the religiosity the poet may have been considering. There is a story of good and evil playing itself out.

Before the poem, is an epigraph that reads

“That does not keep me from having a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars. Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother.

This is a very firm indication of the source of inspiration and hints towards some of the religious attitudes on display in the painting.

In the opening, the narrator (who we assume is Sexton herself) states “this town does not exist”. It is a line to draw people into the poem, a hook. We know this is a town of imagination but it intrigues us and gives it a magical quality.

There’s a “black-haired tree” in the foreground in the poem. It is “like a drowned woman” that slips up “into the hot sky.” This is a powerful description of a very specific part of the painting. The brush strokes Van Gogh used to create the black tree on the left-hand side of the image are described as hair-like as if a drowned woman’s hair was floating around underwater.

The night “boils,” is in the next lines, with “eleven stars.” By using “boils,” Sexton evokes a feeling of heat as if it is about to reach its breaking point and spillover. Perhaps an indication of her mental state when writing this too.

The refrain “Oh starry starry night! This is how / I want to die” appears in the next lines. It’s unclear exactly what is meant with these lines until the final stanza. At this point, though, death is clearly on her mind. This is something that is hard to separate from the fact that both Anne Sexton and Van Gogh committed suicide.

Meaning of the Poem

The purpose of this poem is to celebrate The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh while also alluding to the troubles the painter experienced in his life and perhaps in Sexton’s own life too. The epigraph and imagery from the poem hint at religion and a classic story of good and evil.

References

Sexton, A. (2008). The Complete Poems. Paw Prints.

Van Gogh, V. (1889). Starry Night.

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