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The Beaten Plath April 12, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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Sylvia Plath, 1961

Sylvia Plath, 1961

Is Plath a major poet? That’s the question Annie Finch asks over at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog. While I’m still in the groove of the fifties and sixties, I thought I would offer a response (along with a snippet of a song setting by Ned Rorem).

In a nutshell: Not really. She lacks the range which defines a major contemporary poet. Unlike Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Plath never quite escaped the grip of New England necessary to transcending her given identity as Regional or Confessional poet. Yet Lowell became a staunch defender of Plath’s “controlled hallucinations,” while Bishop found her junior to be wanting in discipline. Plath does have her charms—her images have an indelible sear, and she compresses a mansion’s worth of material in verse as sly and slight as a hermitess’ shell. It’s when she packs too much sensational matter within these small spaces, that the poems, like an overstuffed suitcase, explode in our face. [The longer answer, after the jump]

Elizabeth Bishop had trouble reading a Plath poem to the end because she found them so disturbing to begin with. Plath makes us feel her verse in the stomach and even in the flesh:

Little pilgrim,
The Indian’s axed your scalp.
Your turkey wattle
Carpet rolls

Straight from the heart.
I step on it,
Clutching my bottle
Of pink fizz.

This is how Plath describes a kitchen accident in “Cut,” one of the poems from Ariel. “A sort of a hinge” keeps the poem swinging from bloody finger to turkey wattle to the carpet rolls of blood it leaves behind, while the speaker nonchalantly slurps at her bottle of fizz. Yet against this image of girlish innocence, runs a more sinister current, as the pervasive enjambment throughout the poem gives the reader the sense that she’s made one cut too many.

Plath’s ability to contain the monster of suicide within the straitjacket of closed verse both impressed and terrified the poet Robert Lowell, who, in the year after the real thing (she stuck her head in a gas oven), became one of Plath’s strongest defenders. This is what he had to say about Plath’s magnum opus, Ariel (1965):

These poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder, a game of ‘chicken’…And yet Sylvia Plath’s poems are not the celebration of some savage and debauched existence, that of the ‘damned poet’, glad to burn out his body for a few years of continued intensity.

What they are is a “controlled hallucination.” As Lowell’s oxymoron suggests, Plath is not to be confused with her hallucinogenic contemporaries who also happen to contemplate opiates and “burn to be on the move, a walk, a ride, a journey.” Plath’s poetry is unsettling because her self-destructive urges have the whiff of Beat mythology. Not only do Lowell’s words puts us in mind of the teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause, who court death by racing cars over cliffs, they recall poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who yearn to “burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Lowell wants to dissociate Plath from the badness of the Beats, but he poses an interesting question: Just how much happier might Plath have been had she discovered Diana Di Prima up in New York or Denise Levertov down in Carolina?

I first came under the spell of Plath as a college freshman at Stanford, where I had the fortune to study under one of her most sympathetic readers, the recently deceased Prof. Diane Middlebrook (author of Her Husband). The year-long IHUM (introduction to the humanities) course that she co-taught with Martin Evans, The Literature of Transformation, was the decisive blow in persuading me towards the English major. Pairing up texts from ancient and modern periods, the syllabus would have us read classical authors like Ovid in the first-half of the course to see their metamorphoses in Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in the second-half.

The conclusion I came to after reading The Collected Poems and listening to recordings was that Plath was better suited for opera. She would have made a fine librettist. Ned Rorem, who wrote these sublime chamber music settings for five of the Ariel poems, proves my point.

Gotham Ensemble Plays Ned Rorem: Excerpt from “The Hanging Man” (0:10) [To be continued…]



1. tychy - April 13, 2009

I would not care to judge who was a major or a minor poet, but plath’s command of metaphor was, to my mind, an almost superhuman power. Or rather, I’m referring to her very best work (Lesbos, Daddy). I’m not sure that Lowell’s “controlled hallucinations” is a good line – the poems are certainly controlled, but they evoke a sort of terrible hyper-reality which is not quite hallucinagenic. I think that there is an important lightness and a comedy to a lot of Plath’s best work, however, which almost seem to transcend the horror… and lessen the weight… and I don’t personally feel that I’m being showered with the contents of an exploding suitcase, at least not in a bad way…

I find its very difficult to write meaningfully about plath and thanks for a very penetrating and provocative article.

2. jeffclef - April 16, 2009

Thanks for your comment. I actually feel bad about making the post since learning of her son Nicholas Hughes’ suicide last month. I know I shouldn’t associate his death with his mom’s–he led a very different life as a marine biologist–but Plath does alludes to him in “Nick and the Candlestick” (“you are the one / Solid spaces lean on, envious / you are the baby in the barn”) and I won’t be able to erase the connection. Stay tuned for the sequel post.

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