On Sylvia Plath

Often I’ve heard other bloggers talk about the pleasure to be had in rereading novels. Now this is something I hardly ever do, but I do find immense pleasure in rereading poetry. And there are some poets whose voices I crave like the need for saltiness or sweetness in food. Sylvia Plath is one of those poets who pulls me back in, whose work I can never think of without going to get her Collected Poems from my shelf, and whose life remains a source of fascination. No one scratches an itch quite like Sylvia and yet her poetry (at least in the period I like best) is horrific, it’s the kind of thing from which mothers should shield their children’s eyes, if it were a painting you’d stand in front of it and say, oh well of course it’s marvelous art but I’m not sure I could live with it in the house. The brilliantly vicious ‘Daddy’ is Plath at her blackest best for me, demonstrating the profound psychic contradictions that make her so compelling. People talk about the way that Plath makes her effects with childishly simple rhymes and forceful repetition. Want to see that in action? The Plath estate is notoriously touchy about reproducing her work, so I’ll limit myself to bits and pieces of poems and hope for the best. ‘Daddy’ is a poem in emotional turmoil, between hatred of the father and desperate love for him:

 

You stand at the blackboard, daddy

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

But no less a devil for that, no not

Any less the black man who

 

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.

 

I never read that last line without goosebumps rising on my arms. The repetition of ‘back’ is like machine gun fire, and it’s the virulence of Plath’s passion that does the damage here. Hate and love are both characterized by a powerfully directed aggression and that seamless transition from one to the other is utterly disconcerting. What affects me so much about this, however, is the control Plath exerts over the emotions, shoveling them into a singsong rhythm that makes the words slip down like syrup despite the fact that they’re the verbal equivalents of hand grenades. Plath’s out to hurt someone here, but what’s also striking is the way she manages, despite the clear direction of her anger, to reserve the role of victim for herself. The ineffectualness of this terrible rage is probably what’s most terrible about it.

So we all know that Plath committed suicide in her early 30s following on from her disastrous marriage to Ted Hughes. I’m not going to talk about her marriage but remain instead with this issue of mothers and fathers. Before Plath stuck her head in the gas over and killed herself, she left glasses of milk and plates of cookies beside her sleeping children so they should not be without their afternoon snack when they woke. This is clearly a woman with a tortured relationship to parenting. Plath embodied the particular historical dilemma of trying to appease the conflicting demands of creativity and motherhood as it was lived in 1950s America. She was extremely close to her mother all her life (less so her idealized, distant, academic father), but the relationship was essentially a duplicitous one. Aurelia Plath gave up her own career to care for her demanding husband and their two children. With this role model clearly before her, Sylvia attempted to fulfill her mother’s expectations by maintaining a career as a writer and emulating a Stepford wife. She wrote frequently and regularly to her mother, but as another persona, signing herself ‘Sivvy’ and using the voice of women’s magazines and homespun wisdom, assuring her mother of her happiness, her capability, her domestic contentment while in reality she attempted suicide and underwent therapy. This was the everyday story of a girl ‘who wanted to be God’ as she wrote in her journals, but who also felt compelled to conform to an ideal of femininity as a woman who nurtured her babies and her husband’s creativity, just as her mother had done.

The poem that demonstrates this the best for me is called The Disquieting Muses and concerns the gap between the bright, untarnished image of the comforting and serene feminine façade and the ugliness and fear ill-concealed underneath. It’s for any woman who has ever felt backed into a corner by other’s demands that she be sweetness and light. The language of the poem is calm and straightforward, unlike the acidic vitriol of ‘Daddy’, but is punctuated by small, local explosions of violence. The poetic voice details the feminine accomplishments the child is supposed to pick up but for which she shows no aptitude:

 

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,

Blinking flashlights like fireflies

And singing the glowworm song, I could

Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress

But, heavy-footed, stood aside

In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed

Godmothers, and you cried and cried:

And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

 

The rank bitterness of disappointing a parent, the repression of anger, fear and guilt that is the lot of the girl child forced into an ill-fitting role and the saccharine silliness of childish things (that wonderfully ghastly ‘twinkle-dress’) combine to provide a hard-hitting portrait of an alienating female destiny. Throughout the poem the mother stands accused of having protected her daughter too much, and thus of having protected her ineffectually from the terrors of the world. The witches who got ‘baked into gingerbread’, the ovaltine and cookies given to distract from the storm outside, the flowers and bluebirds on a soap-bubble planet are presented as so many terrible lies to tell a child. The glossy superficiality of the veil the mother casts over the threat of the world is insubstantial to hold back the hurricane, the grief, and the ever-present threat of the ghastly, nodding godmothers, ‘Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head’, that seem to perpetually curse the child like the bad fairies they are. The pretty lies are not enough to combat the ugly truth.

Yet the voice of this poem is full of irony, for as much as it reject’s the mother’s words, it continues to speak with them. ‘And this is the kingdom you bore me to,/Mother, mother. But no frown of mine/Will betray the company I keep.’ This is the way the poem ends, maintaining the duplicitousness of mother to daughter, replicating the bad old story down through the generations. So the poem pulls us back and forth as we witness the effort to escape and to assume the mother’s voice, and to both reject and satisfy the mother’s desire. What’s most intriguing is the way that to live this duplicity is both a source of creativity – these are muses after all – but also a surrender of the self to the terrors of being inauthentic. Critics sometimes speak of the ‘posthumous’ quality of Plath’s voice, the deathly detachment with which the most disturbing and frightening states of consciousness are expressed and inhabited. You could argue that the insistence on this straitjacket of feminine identity that slowly but surely strangles the immediacy of lived reality, inserting these trite images in its place, is at least part of the answer. And yet it is the juxtaposition of rage and repression, of passivity and irony, of unspeakable terror and bitter, black humour that makes Plath’s poetry so very powerful. These differences in intention and tone in Plath’s voice open up spaces of disquiet that are oddly but compellingly poetic. Female creativity relies on and is strangled by the mother tongue, just as it is inflamed and burnt to a cinder by the ferociousness of feeling towards the father. It’s the manic intensity of the double-bind that informs Plath’s poetry that makes her such a brilliant, terrifying writer.

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16 thoughts on “On Sylvia Plath

  1. Plath’s fragility heightened her mental states, gave her uncanny clarity and honesty yet allowed her to keep the diligence and precision and austerity of language demanded by poetry. Haven’t read a lot (enough) of her work but my reaction it roughly the same as yours:

    “Brrrrr…” There is undeniable, unflinching intensity present and unwary readers will definitely take it on the chin when first exposed to her body of work.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Cliff – welcome to the Reading Room and thank you for your insightful comment on Plath. We are certainly kindred spirits when it comes to reading her work. I came across ‘Daddy’ in a poetry anthology at the age of 11 or 12 and was completely traumatised. Very glad I returned to her, though, in later life.

  3. I NEVER walk past a good “Reading Room” without popping in for a browse.
    Are you a fan of Anne Sexton’s too? She’s another one who puts the whammy into me (though not to the same extent). By the way, I love the first line of Plath’s JOURNAL which reads: “I may never be happy but today I am content”. Isn’t that something?

  4. Wow — great readings here. I’m fascinated by Plath too, and your discussion of Plath and femininity is making me want to re-read her. I must read the entire “Disquieting Muses” because the bit you posted is wonderful.

  5. I’m a Plath fan myself — her use of language is simply stunning.

    I need to reread your post when I’m less harried to enjoy all of your thoughts in full.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. Disquieting and unnerving, as you say. I love the way the excerpts show Plath’s relationships with her parents and also her madness. Her life was a tragedy, but what exquisite poetry that tragedy wrought.

  7. Lovely post. I’m always intrigued by how Hughes and Plath came together. Both seem to me to celebrate, if that’s the right word, the the immense, impassioned drive that underlies nature and human nature. Hughes’ nature poetry is always about human nature, the common root in the untamed psyche, brooding beneath surface civilities. The cat that springs at the mounted knight, the hawk in his tree with his megalomaniac desire for control, the ravening spirit of thrushes’ nature which Hughes sees as the wellspring of Mozart and creativity too. In this way I think Hughes links to Plath in the sense that for them the source of their art is also the source of torment. On the topic of megalomania I think it was Auden who said something to the effect that being a poet was a form of dictatorship over language. Given this it was perhaps inevitable that the Plath-Hughes intensity should come to grief to such saddening effect. Sorry to have wandered off the point again. Have to change name to Tangential or some such.

  8. You write about her so well here that I am compelled to dive in. I have kept my distance from Plath for various reasons but she comes back to haunt me whenever I read something as enticing as your post!

  9. I love Plath though I have not read all of her poetry. For me, reading her is akin to being punched in the stomach. I read her book The Bell Jar in college and found it disturbing in a different way than her poetry. I wonder what her poetry would have become if she had lived to be an old woman?

  10. Cliff – how lovely of you to say that. I’m delighted to have now found your excellent blog as well. And you remind me to both read Anne Sexton and to get hold of Plath’s journals. Dorothy – oh do read the poem – it’s wonderful (and skin-tinglingly creepy). I’d love to know what you make of Plath. LK – I think Sylvia would be in absolute sympathy with you. Thank you for stopping by and commenting, despite it all. Charlotte – that’s exactly it; the contradictions destroyed her, but not before she had turned them into some extraordinary art. Bookboxed – I love the information you bring to these discussions – don’t stop! What you say about their relationship is fascinating. I don’t know much about them as a couple (surprisingly) and I really want to read up on their history now. Verbivore – I would love to hear your reading of Plath, so if you do ever feel like tackling her work, do promise to post on it! Stefanie – I’ve never read The Bell Jar although I often think I should. That’s such an intriguing question you raise. If she had lived, it would be because her therapy had finally paid off, and maybe she wouldn’t have written then at all. Or maybe she would have had to change her style beyond all recognition.

  11. I’m a new visitor here and I love being slapped in the face with Sylvia Plath on my first visit. Having a young daughter I find this post doubly moving. I have not read very much of her poetry myself and I’ll be keeping my daughter (7) away from much of her work for quite some time. Having said that nothing could have stopped me from buying a little book of her childrens stories that I found a few years ago. We are only beginning to read them now (a scant three stories unfortunately). I don’t know enough of her biographical details but two of these at least were first published post-humously, if you know any details about them I’d love to know. Mrs. Cherry’s Kitchen strikes a chord for me, an avid foodie, but The Bed Book is becoming a real favourite putting “the childishly simple rhyme and forceful repetition” you spoke about to excellent effect. I’d love to share these few verses if you don’t mind:

    …So a Pocket-size Bed
    Is a fine bed to own.
    When you’re eating out
    With friend Jim or Aunt Joan

    And they say: It’s too bad
    You can’t stay overnight
    But there isn’t an extra
    Bed in sight

    You can take out your Bed
    Shrunk small as a pea
    And water it till
    It grows suitably.

    Yes, a Pocket-size Bed
    Works very well
    Only how can you tell,
    O how can you tell

    It won’t shrink back
    To the size of a pea
    While you’re asleep in it?
    Then where would you be!…

  12. Laura – Hello and welcome to the Reading Room! It’s lovely to have you visit! And thank you so much for telling me about the children’s book that I had no idea that Plath had written (any other bloggers out there with any information on this?). I love that poem – it’s such a delight to see Plath in light-hearted mode, using her customary style to such cheerful purpose.

  13. So many girls in twinkle-dress did not wait for me while I was catching the wrong fire flies in crude boy jars prescribed by grandfathers’ macho swamps, denying the dignity of flying things so easily captured as trophies. Some beauties are not ballerinas, and don’t flit but merely fret for a moment with a hug I could have been,perhaps,had I known my simple self might do without sword or kingdom. Fathers can be nothing but trouble. I could have lent you mine to hate more completely, and you could have looked elsewhere for a wolf who doesn’t howl off-key.

  14. Doug – be thankful to have avoided the twinkle-dress, although imagining one needs neither sword nor kingdom is a trick of the adult world I’ve yet to master myself. Laura – thank you so much for the link! And indeed, that’s a whole new side to Plath!

  15. Thanks for this marvellous post. I’m also a fan of Plath’s poetry and fascinated by her life. On the Plath-Hughes relationship, I highly recommend Janet Malcolm’s book “The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes.” It’s not so much a book about their relationship as it is a book about what other people have written about their relationship in biographies and so on, and the myth that has built up around it as a consequence. I found it to be riveting reading.

    I’m a fan of Anne Sexton too and encourage everyone to read her! If you’re interested in reading books about Sexton as well as by her, I recommend Diane Wood Middlebrook’s biography of her. There was a lot of controversy around its publication because in the writing of it Middlebrook used audiotapes of Sexton’s therapy sessions with her psychiatrist as a major source. I’m not sure how I feel about all the ethical questions around Sexton’s psychiatrist passing on the tapes, Sexton’s daughter granting permission to use them, and Middlebrook using them as she did. But the result is certainly fascinating reading.

    In 1959, Plath and Sexton were fellow students in Robert Lowell’s writing seminar at Boston University. It boggles my mind to think of those three enormously talented and troubled poets all sitting around the same table.

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