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.