Suicide they wrote

Mahfuz Ul Hasib Chowdhury
Thursday, April 21st, 2016
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Poets and authors that killed themselves at will are innumerable. Dissolved marriages, snapped relationships and some other stressful phenomena persuaded them to put an end to their own lives. The following article makes references to some poets who wrote splendid poems but had to commit suicide to get rid of different forms of grief, even though this piece of writing does not enlist all the poets that have been slain with their own hands so far.

 

Sylvia Plath:

 

American poet Sylvia Plath was born on 27th October, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. Sylvia Plath was an outstanding and at the same time, a mentally hazarded poet, best-known for the confessional mode of her poems. While she was a student, Sylvia Plath lived in New York during 1953 working for a magazine called Mademoiselle as a part-time editor. Having been affected with psychological disorder since her earlier age, Sylvia Plath attempted to kill herself by ingesting an overdose of sleeping pills. According to some biographers, defiance and lack of affection from her father instigated her to do this. However, she recovered for the time being and received mental treatment in a sanatorium for around a year.

 

Sylvia Plath arrived at Cambridge University in England with a Fulbright Scholarship in 1955. While pursuing her studies at the university, she met the British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and soon they fell in love with one another. They got married in 1956 but their romance was allegedly eclipsed by Ted Hughes’s extramarital affair with another woman which is one of the most underlined reasons behind Sylvia Plath’s mental consternation.

 

A burgeoning American poet, Sylvia Plath got her first anthology of verses, The Colossus, published in England in 1960. In the same year, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Freida. Two years later, she and Hughes had a second child, a son named Nicholas. But even after having kids, their marital bond was getting worse. A few lines from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘‘Edge’’ show her psychological turbulence and her obsessive thoughts about death:

 

The woman is perfected.

Her dead body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,

Her bare feet seem to be saying:

We have come so far, it is over.

 

After Ted Hughes dumped her to move away with another woman in 1962, Sylvia Plath got into a spell of incurable depression. Tussling with her mental ailments, she wrote The Bell Jar (1963), her only novel, which she wrote on the basis of her own life and it portrays one young woman’s mental cataclysms. Sylvia Plath published the novel using the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. She also wrote the poignant poems that would generate the collection Ariel (1965), which was published after her death. Sylvia Plath committed suicide on 11th February 1963. She became the first individual to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1982.

 

Anne Sexton:

 

Anne Sexton is another female American poet, noted for her deeply personal and confessional poems and she also eventually resorted to suicide to terminate her life. She was awarded Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967. Themes of her poetry envisage her self-annihilating propensities, long struggle with depressive sickness, her grievances about life and some more private debacles.

 

Anne Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1928 and led most of her life around Boston. She developed an amorous relationship with a man called Alfred Muller Sexton and tied the knot with him in 1948. Before Anne Sexton broke off with Alfred Muller Sexton in the early 1970s, she had two children–Linda Gray Sexton and Joyce Sexton.

 

Anne Sexton suffered from exasperating psychological maladies for much of her life. She came across Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck at Boston University while she was attending classes there. Like Sylvia Plath, her poems also illustrate her disordered mental state. Let’s read a few lines from one of her poems which are closely typical of her ominous engrossment with death:

 

Even then I have nothing against life.

I know well the grass blades you mention,

the furniture you have placed under the sun.

But suicides have a special language.

Like carpenters they want to know which tools.

They never ask why build. (‘‘Wanting to Die’’)

As time went on, loneliness and haunting remembrances usurped Anne Sexton’s thoughts. She could no longer stand her agonies and killed herself on 4th October 1974 through asphyxiation.

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky:

 

If I were dim as the sun,

at night I’d drill

with the rays of my eyes,

and also

all by my lonesome,

radiant self

build up the earth’s shriveled bosom.

(‘‘To His Own Beloved Self’’)

 

I pull out

of my wide trouser-pockets

duplicate

of a priceless cargo.

You now:

read this

and envy,

I’m a citizen

of the Soviet Socialist Union!

(‘‘My Soviet Passport’’)

 

The above verses are extracted from a couple of poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, one of the most ornamented and famed Russian poets. Born in 1893 in a Georgian village which was renamed Mayakovsky after his death, Vladimir Mayakovsky was the son of a forestry officer. While the anti-monarchy revolution was going on in 1905 Mayakovsky was politically involved with the local Social Democrats and when his family shifted to Moscow a few years later he joined the Bolsheviks. He publicized the principles and aims of his party until his arrest in 1908 which put him behind the bars for almost a year.

 

The imprisonment turned out to be crucial to his literary and political growth, as he spent all his time within the four walls of the prison reading the classics of world literature. As he left prison he became a pioneer of the modern literary movement of Russia. He started to claim himself to be a futurist, embroiling himself in an artistic movement that opposed all that was old and hackneyed. The futurist literary trend of Russia spoke high of pace and progress as exposed by a famous saying by Mayakovsky “speed is our God”. Vladimir Mayakovsky envisioned himself and the other literary figures who were his companions during those years as the visage of their time. From that period until the revolution of 1917 Mayakovsky remained one of the most vigorous poets of Russian literature. He wrote rebellious, turbulent verses and portrayed an anti-establishment image of himself and the poems he wrote during those days like “The Cloud in Trousers” and “To His Own Beloved Self” can be cited as the most significant ones of that time. He welcomed the October Revolution and produced posters, films and political poems in order to motivate the masses in favor of the socialist upheaval. Lenin’s death deeply moved him and he recited his poem “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” countless times to audiences in factories, clubs and at party meetings all over the Soviet Union.

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky visited Europe and the United States during 1925-1926 and it was the time that gave birth to his poem “Back Home”. However, the authoritarianism of the Soviet regime gradually started to disappoint him to some extent. He wrote a play titled The Bedbug at that time expressing hope for a lovely communist future, but it was rejected by the Soviet censor board. Nevertheless, he continued to write poems about equity for all, about the true spirit of socialism and most of his poems were bolstered with a strong patriotic spirit. He also had an emotionally tempestuous romantic life, including a long and intense affair with Lily Brik, a married woman whose sister Elsa afterwards got married to the French communist poet Louis Aragon. An acute despondency got hold of Mayakovsky in the following years and after a short stay in a rest home he, who had sharply slated another Russian poet Sergei Esenin for killing himself in 1925, committed suicide on April 14, 1930. In his suicide note he wrote: “Do not blame anyone for my death and please do not gossip. The deceased terribly dislike this sort of thing. Mama, sisters and comrades, forgive me — this is not a way out, but I have no choice. Lily — love me…..comrades — do not think I am weak-spirited. Seriously — there was nothing else I could do. Greetings.”

 

Millions of readers around the world still feel thrilled as they read Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poems and visualize the dreams he had cherished, which continue to exist till today through the perennial love of his admirers.

 

Jibanananda Das:

 

Jibanananda Das was born in 1899 in Barisal, Bangladesh (known as East Bengal during the reign of British Empire). His mother Kusumkumari Devi was an eminent poet too. He completed school education in 1915 from Brajamohan School in Barisal securing a first class. On completion of higher secondary level from Brajamohan College in 1917, Jibanananda Das got admitted in Presidency College, Calcutta. He graduated from Department of English in 1919 and later on obtained Master of Arts in the same discipline from Calcutta University in 1921.

 

His first poem was published in 1919 in a literary magazine in Barisal and his first collection of poems, Jhora Palok (‘‘Fallen Feathers’’) appeared in 1927. To quote some lines from Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems, translated with an introduction by Chidananda Dasgupta (Penguin, 2006): “Jibanananda Das’s lyricism is unparalleled in Bengali literature. His early poems are vivid, eloquent celebrations of the beauty of Bengal; his later works, written in the 1940s and ’50s, are darker, comments on political issues and current affairs like the Second World War, the Bengal Famine of 1943…… While he is best known for poetry that reveals a deep love for nature and rural landscapes, tradition and history, Jibanananda is also strikingly urban and introspective, his work centering on themes of loneliness, depression and death.”

 

The above extract exposes Jibanananda Das’s leaning towards points like death, dismay and solitude in his verses beside his poetic depiction of the charm and blitheness of the countryside of Bengal. Jibanananda Das got killed in a road mishap in 1954 but it is widely believed till today that the poet deliberately dived before a moving tram for reasons still unknown.

 

Suicide cannot reverse tough times. All pessimist litterateurs don’t annihilate themselves. However, it’s shockingly true that, the poets named and addressed above became disenchanted with the world around them following various failures in personal lives, both deciphered and unexplored, but perhaps they could have made further contributions to the arena of poetry if they did not commit suicide.

 

Mahfuz Ul Hasib Chowdhury, Vice President, Chowdhury Philanthropic Trust, Sylhet. Email: mhasib.chy@gmail.com

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