Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sunday Poet: Sylvia Plath

Few poets elicit the praise or the derision that surround Sylvia Plath. Often dismissed as a merely confessional poet whose work does not transcend her personal psychodrama, Plath has still earned a place as a major American poet. This has been due largely to the elevation of her work by the feminist movement as a statement on the horrors of patriarchy.

Both perspectives seem to me to ignore the poetry. While it is true that her work mostly records her struggles with mental illness and depression, as well as her rage and despair over a dead father and controlling mother, there is more to her poetry than the merely personal. She is technically brilliant, using phrasing and rhyme in ways that revolutionized poetry. Her often hallucinatory imagery brings to mind Baudelaire while transcending the imagery itself. And while her poetry is often deeply personal, it never rejects the wider world.

Plath's best poems reflect a drive for transcendence or rebirth and the conflicting drive for annihilation. It is a struggle between Eros and Thanatos. That Thanatos won we all can agree.

Here are three of the best poems.

Daddy

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time ----
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off the beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You ----

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

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.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through.

If I've killed one man, I've killed two ----
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagersnever liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

* * * * *

Lady Lazarus

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it----

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
0 my enemy.
Do I terrify?----

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.
It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

'A miracle!'
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart----
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash ---
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there----

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

* * * * *

Fever 103°

Pure? What does it mean?
The tongues of hell
Are dull, dull as the triple

Tongues of dull, fat Cerebus
Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable
Of licking clean

The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
The tinder cries.
The indelible smell

Of a snuffed candle!
Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora's scarves, I'm in a fright

One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel.
Such yellow sullen smokes
Make their own element. They will not rise,

But trundle round the globe
Choking the aged and the meek,
The weak

Hothouse baby in its crib,
The ghastly orchid
Hanging its hanging garden in the air,

Devilish leopard!
Radiation turned it white
And killed it in an hour.

Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.

Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
The sheets grow heavy as a lecher's kiss.

Three days. Three nights.
Lemon water, chicken
Water, water make me retch.

I am too pure for you or anyone.
Your body
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern ----

My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

Does not my heat astound you. And my light.
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.

I think I am going up,
I think I may rise ----
The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I

Am a pure acetylene
Virgin
Attended by roses,

By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean.
Not you, nor him.

Not him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) ----
To Paradise.

* * * * *
The Modern American Poetry site offers two views of her life and work, both of which are interesting and worth a look. Here is a more standard biography from The Academy of American Poets:

Sylvia Plath
photo: Rollie McKenna
Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932. She grew up in a comfortably middle-class style and attended Smith College. She suffered a breakdown at the end of her junior year of college, but recovered well enough to return and excel during her senior year, receiving various prizes and graduating summa cum laude. In 1955, having been awarded a Fulbright scholarship, she began two years at Cambridge University. There she met and married the British poet Ted Hughes and settled in England, bearing two children. Her first book of poems, The Colossus (1960), demonstrated her precocious talent, but was far more conventional than the work that followed. Having studied with Robert Lowell in 1959 and been influenced by the "confessional" style of his collection Life Studies, she embarked on the new work that made her posthumous reputation as a major poet. A terrifying record of her encroaching mental illness, the poems that were collected after her suicide (at age 30) in 1963 in the volumes Ariel, Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees are graphically macabre, hallucinatory in their imagery, but full of ironic wit, technical brilliance, and tremendous emotional power. Her Selected Poems were published by Ted Hughes in 1985.

To me, no poem better exemplifies Plath's brilliance and mission than "Ariel." This is the most often criticized and most often praised poem in her body of work. It is also my favorite Plath poem.
Ariel

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God's lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees! -- The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Nigger-eye
Berries cast dark
Hooks ----

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Shadows.
Something else

Hauls me through air ----
Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.

White
Godiva, I unpeel ----
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child's cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies,
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.
As often as not, critics look at the biographical detail that Ariel was the name of Plath's horse, and that she once was subjected to a two-mile ride in which she had no control of the horse as it returned to the stable at a full gallop (as told by Ted Hughes, her one-time husband and the object of feminist scorn for having cheated on and left Plath to take care of their two young children).

But the poem has deeper meanings, and the title also refers to Prospero's servant in Shakespeare's The Tempest and to the symbolic name for Jerusalem, in which Ariel translates as "Lion of God" (see line 4 in the poem for how this works its way into the text). Many of Plath's poems, as seen above, display a fascination with the Jewish people and their plight.

Jon Rosenblatt gets at some of the deeper elements of this poem in his book, Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. When I wrote on Plath in college, I found this book very useful.

. . . A poem like "Ariel" possesses power and importance to the degree to which the horseback ride Plath once took becomes something more—a ride into the eye of the sun, a journey to death, a stripping of personality and selfhood. To treat "Ariel" as a confessional poem is to suggest that its actual importance lies in the horse- ride taken by its author, in the author's psychological problems, or in its position within the biographical development of the author. None of these issues is as significant as the imagistic and thematic developments rendered by the poem itself. . . .

. . . "Ariel" is probably Plath's finest single construction because of the precision and depth of its images. In its account of the ritual journey toward the center of life and death, Plath perfects her method of leaping from image to image in order to represent mental process. The sensuousness and concreteness of the poem—the "Black sweet blood mouthfuls" of the berries; the "glitter of seas"—is unmatched in contemporary American poetry. We see, hear, touch, and taste the process of disintegration: the horse emerging from the darkness of the morning, the sun beginning to rise as Ariel rushes uncontrollably across the countryside, the rider trying to catch the brown neck but instead "tasting" the blackberries on the side of the road. Then all the rider's perceptions are thrown together: the horse's body and the rider's merge. She hears her own cry as if it were that of a child and flies toward the burning sun that has now risen.

In "Ariel," Plath finds a perfect blend between Latinate and colloquial dictions, between abstractness and concreteness. The languages of her earlier and her later work come together:

White
Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

The concreteness of the Anglo-Saxon "hands" gives way to the abstractness of the Latinate "stringencies": both the physical and psychological aspects of the self have died and are pared away. Finally, the treatment of aural effects in the poem makes it the finest of Plath's technical accomplishments. The slant-rhymes, the assonance (for example, the "I"-sound in the last three stanzas), and the flexible three-line stanzas provide a superb music. . . . the vortex of images sucks the reader into identifying with a clearly self-destroying journey. On a literal level, few readers would willingly accept this ride into nothingness. But, through its precise rendering of sensation, the poem becomes a temptation: it draws us into its beautiful aural and visual universe against our win. As the pace of the horseride quickens, the intensity of the visual effects becomes greater. The identification of the speaker with the world outside becomes more extreme; Plath's metaphors suggest a large degree of fusion between disparate objects, as in the lines "I / foam to wheat, a glitter of seas." The ride across the fields suddenly turns into an ocean voyage. The body then fuses with the external world. As the speaker's merger with the sun is completed, so is the reader's merger with her: the process of identification within the poem generates a corresponding identification on the part of the reader. If the speaker will be destroyed in the cauldron of energy, the sun, so the reader will be destroyed in the cauldron of the poem. The poem entices us into a kind of death—the experience of abandoning our bodies and selves.

No other poem in Plath's work so well details the struggle between Eros and Thanatos as does "Ariel." It is the quest for transcendence through dissolution, a desire to completely erase the self and merge into something greater.

For more on this poem and some other Plath poems, see the Modern American Poetry page on Plath. To get a feel for the softer side of Plath, please take note of Nick and the Candlestick and The Night Dances, both written for her baby son.

Sylvia Plath on the web:
Modern American Poetry
Academy of American Poets
Famous Poets and Poems -- 121 poems
Voices and Visions spotlight on Plath
A 1962 interview with Plath


1 comment:

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