"An Interesting Minor Poet?"
December 30, 1981
On this day 51 years ago, Sylvia Plath committed suicide at her home in London, England. In 1981, William H. Pritchard wrote an appraisal of Plath's work in The New Republic on the occasion of the publication of an omnibus edition of her poems. It is reprinted here:
During Sylvia Plath's short life of just over 30 years, she saw only one book of her poems published: The Colossus (1960). She had prepared a second one, even worked out the order of its poems, and that appeared as Ariel in 1965 after her death, with a number of poems added which were written in her final months. Two further volumes were published posthumously: Crossing the Water (1971), containing mainly earlier poems, and Winter Trees, in the same year, containing 18 late ones plus "Three Women," a lugubrious "poem for three voices" written for the BBC. The result of such piecemeal, though perhaps advisable, publication was to create confusion in our minds about those remarkable seven years (1956-1963) in which 224 poems were written and finished. Now, 18 years after her death by suicide in February 1963, we are at last given a thoroughly responsible presentation of the poems in chronological order, more than a third of them not previously published in book form. The old volume titles have been dropped, and poems are simply grouped under their appropriate year, dated by month and day whenever possible. The result is to make her appear an altogether larger and more satisfying poet than this reader had taken her to be.
Reading these poems through in chronological order calls into question the received idea of the clever craftswoman producing beautifully shaped objects, almost too beautifully shaped, who suddenly achieved a "breakthrough" into—in the phrase of one of that book's reviewers—the "raw genius" of the later, Ariel poems. You could even read it as a lesson in liberation, with the early volume coming at the end of those evil 1950s (and she went to Smith too!) and the later one heralding, along with Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton and lesser talents, a confessional freedom from the repressive, whether prosodic or personal:
What a thrill—
My thumb instead of an onion.
Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
Never mind that in both poems, as in so many of her other late ones, there was not only a bitter but a mockingly self-lacerating and playful wit, a pure revel in felicities of language ("My thumb instead of an onion"—some fun there after you get through wincing) which the desperateness of her running-out life somehow gave birth to. Too many readers, younger ones especially, approached these later poems with religious awe as if "Sylvia" (or as they would now say, "Plath") were to be treated in a manner befitting Jesus Christ; it was she who had died for our sins—so the distressed young student might feel, especially if female. Of course the backlash wasn't long in coming. One college newspaper in the early 1970s printed 24 Sylvia Plath jokes, grisly riddles the mildest of which by far went "Why did SP cross the road ?" "To be struck by an oncoming vehicle."
Ted Hughes has done an exemplary job in editing these poems, writing notes to them year by year (one only wishes for more notes, since they are so interesting), and giving us a generous selection of the juvenilia pre-1956 poems. And he strikes the right note in his introduction when he remarks that
her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity.
The right note, for surely she was one of the most ingenious poets in this latter half of our century; and to speak of her in terms of artisan and chair-maker, rather than transmitter of pure inspiration from heaven upstairs or downstairs hell, does justice to her resourcefulness and skill as a maker.
She did not always do justice to herself in this respect; or rather, she sometimes spoke as if formal ingenuity and true feeling might not be compatible. For example, this remark made about "Point Shirley," a poem she completed in January of 1959: "Oddly powerful and moving to me in spite of rigid formal structure." "Point Shirley" was written at the time she had begun to attend (along with Anne Sexton and George Starbuck) Robert Lowell's writing seminar at Boston University, and the poem's debt to Lowell's work is evident. But consider its opening two stanzas, in which her grandmother's house is evoked:
From Water-Tower Hill to the brick prison
The shingle booms, bickering under
The sea's collapse.
Snowcakes break and welter. This year
The gritted wave leaps
The seawall and drops onto a bier
Of quahog chips,
Leaving a salty mash of ice to whiten
In my grandmother's sand yard. She is dead,
Whose laundry snapped and froze here, who
Kept house against
What the sluttish, rutted sea could do.
Squall waves once danced
Ship timbers in through the cellar window;
A thresh-tailed, lanced
Shark glittered in the geranium bed—
Such collusion of mulish elements
She wore her broom straws to the nub.
This may have been, as her biographer Edward Butscher says it was, a deliberate attempt to capture Lowell's seaside grays; but the strict stanza, the rhymes and half-rhymes, above all the careful syntax and enjambed lines—even running over from one stanza to the next—show an attention to (in Frost's words) "the sound of sense" that is compelling and demanding of any reader's agility. The continuations and suspensions which the speaking voice must make to navigate these lines are surely central to the poem's power. If we may correct Sylvia Plath, it moves us not in spite of but partly because of its "rigid formal structure." And it is quite different from anything Lowell had done in Lord Weary's Castle—where the blank verse proceeds in a breathless, hurtling way—or was doing in Life Studies, which appeared in 1959.
During the preceding two years, Plath had grown extremely skilled at rendering sentence sounds in poems which this volume allows us to read for the first time. Here is the opening of "The Great Carbuncle" (1957):
We came over the moor-top
Through air streaming and green-lit,
Stone farms foundering in it,
Valleys of grass altering
In a light neither of dawn
Nor nightfall, our hands, faces
Lucent as porcelain, the earth's
Claim and weight gone out of them.
And it continues just as expertly. Imagine deciding, as evidently she did, that such a poem was not quite good enough to be included in her first book! When she spoke (in another remark quoted by Hughes) with respect to the admirable "Mushrooms" (which did make The Colossus) of "my absolute lack of judgment when I've written something: whether it's trash or genius," she spoke with her characteristic either/or absoluteness. But "The Great Carbuncle," or "Above the Oxbow" (here my Connecticut River sentimentality may be intruding), or "In Midas' Country," or "Child's Park Stones" (a first rate poem), or "Green Rock, Winthrop Bay" are not trash—perhaps not genius either, but something else, less sensational: assured performances, with a technical control wholly adequate to sustain the observant, grave, responsive presence that makes itself felt audibly over the carefully tracked course of stanza and whole poem. John Frederick Nims said it succinctly when he suggested that young writers should be advised to "forget Ariel for a while; study The Colossus." With the new volume, this study can more intelligently take place.
If she could only "let things slip a bit," said a reviewer in admiration of her earlier poems, she will do something really special. What happened in fact was that she let them slip with a vengeance into the "stream of repulsions" (the phrase is Hugh Kenner's) that inform the poems from the last months of her life. Ted Hughes left her in October of 1962. During that month she wrote or finished 25 poems, including the ones for which she is best known. Beginning with one new to me, "The Detective," we read on through, among others, the bee poems, "The Applicant," "Daddy," "Medusa," "Lesbos," "Fever 103°," "Cut," and "Lady Lazarus." Much adjectival overkill has been employed by reviewers attempting in desperation of vocabulary to outdo the poems themselves, and George Steiner, never at a loss on such occasions, has referred to "Daddy" as the "Guernica of modern poetry." But really it is nothing of the sort, reading now like a very clever, very nasty, very hopeless horror song which holds us partly by its resourceful way of exploiting our reticence and embarrassment at what we are hearing:
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—
Poor Otto Plath, a diabetic professor of biology at Boston University who had the misfortune to combine the diabetes with gangrene and broncho-pneumonia, so double-crossed his daughter by dying too soon, scarcely deserves such a tribute (I know, it's really a myth). And the stanza, indeed the whole poem, contains much that is repellent about Plath's poetry: the clever "gobbledygoo," a word like the one English teachers used to write on freshman themes; the relentless caricaturing of another, in tough baby-talk, all done in the interests of "art." And the panzer-man repetition. Earlier in "Daddy" we hear that "The tongue stuck in my jaw": "It stuck in a barb wire snare./ Ich, ich, ich, ich," and the poet's tongue sticks also in "Elm" ("These are the isolate slow faults/ That kill, that kill, that kill"), in "The Bee Meeting" ("They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear"), in "The Applicant," and elsewhere. There are many more questions now, fired off by an "Ich" whose tongue really isn't stuck at all, but extraordinarily adept and daring in its leaps and spins; like the one done around the first line of "Lady Lazarus," "Dying is an art":
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
That knocks me out.
A brilliant show, but there may be a problem about how many times one wants to watch it again. That is why encountering it here, as poem #198 in a chronological sequence, is a very good thing for its continued life. She had done, could do so much with words; now she had to do this, would do this new turn.
But as "Lady Lazarus" goes on to say, "There is a charge…a very large charge/ For a word or a touch/ Or a bit of blood." The sad joke is that the reader—surrounded by all those other poets in the imaginary museum who can be summoned up in a twinkling for a performance—really doesn't have to pay very much to watch the show. It was Sylvia Plath who paid the charge in full, and one feels in reading the final 12 poems in this collection, those written in the month and the days of 1963 which preceded her death, form a sort of coda, or perhaps a rehearsal for a new part to be played somewhere else.
The mood is set by the bleakly wonderful "Sheep in Fog" ("My bones hold a stillness, the far/ Fields melt my heart") and holds largely through until the last poem, "Edge," in which "The woman is perfected./ Her dead/ Body wears the smile of accomplishment." But just before the finality of "Edge" comes "The Balloons," a touching surprise after the histrionic agonies of more sensational Plath-poems. For four stanzas, composed with that fluidity of motion she had grown so expert at achieving years before, these "Guileless and clear,/ Oval soul-animals" are celebrated for being themselves, for living with the mother and her children since Christmas, for keeping them company. Two last stanzas address the daughter:
Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
Shred in his little fist.
This was finished a week before she died, and unlike the balloons it remains with us, in its own words
The heart like wishes or free
Old ground with a feather
Beaten in starry metals.
For years I have endorsed Irving Howe's limiting judgment of Sylvia Plath as an "interesting minor poet." But I don't think anyone who submits to this collection is likely to be comfortable with that judgment. She was rather, was indeed—as the expression goes—something else.
William H. Pritchard, who teaches English at Amherst, is author of Lives of the Modern Poets (Oxford).