Sylvia Plath 101
More than 50 years after her death, Sylvia Plath’s poetry still seems inseparable from the details of her life. This is in part because her reputation is built on them: though well established as a writer during her lifetime, her posthumous work, published after (and inevitably colored by) her suicide in 1963, made her famous. It need not have, however. Technically dazzling, intensely felt, and, as critic Helen Vendler notes, “demonically intelligent,” Plath’s poems stand all on their own. Though influenced by (and often categorized with) confessional poets such as Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton, Plath does not so much confess in her work as confront. Her blistering, feminist songs of despair challenge not only conventional notions of motherhood and womanhood but also reality itself. Her work makes profoundly interior and sometimes disturbing experiences real and lyrical and, in doing so, reminds us of the depths of our own subjectivity.
One of the first poems in her first book, The Colossus, this portrait bears many hallmarks of Plath’s early style—descriptive virtuosity, a pastoral setting, an expressive but secretive speaker—and it also predicts the moods and modes of her later work. Overflowing then stopping short, Plath’s tercets mimic the speaker’s astonishment, rendering the titular pig with such verve it begins to feel mythological. Indeed, the sow suggests several of Plath’s recurring concerns: at first a figure of maternal burden “hedged by a litter of feat-foot ninnies” and then a symbol of sexual appetite who imagines a “Boar: fabulous enough to straddle” her. The poem ends with the “great grandam” as another one of Plath’s colossi. Like the collection’s titular giant, the sow becomes “A monument” to “earthquaking” overlords: men, such as Plath’s father or her husband, Ted Hughes, who wielded power over her.
One of her earliest poems, which Plath included in her posthumously published Ariel, “Tulips” is a study in poetic tension. From its breathless first line to its final synesthetic turn, the poem’s fastidious, end-stopped septets struggle to contain the speaker’s anxieties. Unusually, a clinical setting is a source of comfort here. In the “snowed-in” halls of the hospital, the speaker is “learning peacefulness” and has “never been so pure” or so free. Plath takes a major risk voicing this moment of dissatisfaction with motherhood. Father and child are “baggage,” whose “smiles catch onto [the speaker’s] skin” like “little smiling hooks,” their titular flowers “like an awful baby.” Also notable is that the poem’s conflict resolves in “warming” rather than Plath’s more typical self-immolation, suggesting that our perceptions of the world depend very much on circumstance—factors such as health but also self-possession and independence.
Aping the voice of a job interviewer, this well-known poem highlights how marriage is often as economic as it is romantic, especially for women. The presumed groom, the addressee here, may be voiceless, but the bride is reduced to a thing, an “it,” a commodity of domestic and emotional labor. The piece testifies, too, to just how funny Plath could be. Her riffing in the second stanza feels loose but surprises line by line, and her joke about the suit—“Believe me, they’ll bury you in it”—is pure gallows humor, perfectly set up and timed. The poem also serves as a useful reminder of Plath’s theatricality. The parody here certainly draws on Plath’s own experience, but it’s hard to equate the writer and the speaker because the poet so relishes the poem’s artifice. But the poet’s mask, her persona, is in place throughout her work, even when its presence is not foregrounded.
What should we make, as contemporary readers, of Plath’s obscenity? Some of her blind spots may drive us, at our most generous, to historicize her work. (This can be a productive approach; the slur in the fourth stanza of “Ariel,” for example, underlines feminism’s historical problems with race.) But Plath can also be undeniably, intentionally provocative, especially in her later work, which often seems designed to trouble, even offend, her readers. In “Daddy,” for example, the speaker declares, “Every woman adores a Fascist” and compares her struggle to the suffering of Holocaust victims. Many critics have taken issue with this analogy. Irony is certainly a factor here, but can that excuse the speaker’s solipsism or the poem’s infantilizing nursery rhymes? In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson argues, “We don’t have to agree” with Plath’s rhetoric and “we don’t have to like it.” Plath’s “dark generosity,” her gift to readers, is her willingness to explore cruelty, despair, depression, and even the excitement of death “without demanding [their] immediate amelioration.” In poems like “Daddy,” Plath doesn’t sanitize consciousness at its most centrifugal; she lets the wrong notes in her song stay wrong.
For one of her most well-known poems, this one is unusually ambiguous—though it is, as usual with Plath, precisely so. The title character represents both captivity and escape: Ariel is Prospero’s indentured servant in The Tempest, but the name also refers to the angel who personifies Jerusalem and—on a more personal level—to Plath’s favorite horse. This last allusion, glossed by Hughes in his notes on the poem, is a helpful clue for constructing a lyric moment from the poem’s rapid imagery: “the brown arc / of the neck” is the horse that “hauls [Plath] through the air” in “the cauldron of morning.” But the scene’s meaning remains stubbornly equivocal: the ride may offer respite from “the child’s cry,” but the horseback speaker also “flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red.” Plath’s consistent association of poetry and death adds another layer to this allegory: does art pacify this drive toward self-destruction, or is it fuel?
“Nick and the Candlestick”
Many of the speakers in Plath’s poems desire a perfected individuality—a purer existence that’s perhaps possible only in death. “Tulips” furnishes one example of this tendency. “Fever 103°” provides a more excited version: the speaker evolves from a feverish mother into “a pure acetylene / Virgin,” her “selves dissolving” along with her children, “whatever these pink things mean!” But this poem from Ariel presents a less-observed (though no less ardent) side of Plath. Here motherhood is not impediment but wonder: “O love,” the speaker asks, “how did you get here?” For this pained “miner” of icy pre-dawn, her child is a balm, a source of strength.
Simultaneously authentic and ironic, comic and tragic, hysterical and shrewd, Plath’s masterpiece wields tone like a blade. With feminist braggadocio, she makes a sideshow of her pain, daring us to take her seriously. In her signature, rhyme-rich tercets, she even anticipates our morbid interest in her death, turning it into a “big strip tease” that “The peanut-crunching crowd / Shoves in to see.” If some of the poem’s details are approximately factual (her age, the details of a suicide attempt), Plath treats them like props—the means, rather than the ends, of her art. Her ends here are, as they often were, transformation: a freedom, forged from suffering in the crucible of poetry. In this poem, she ends as a phoenix, rising once more “Out of the ash” to “eat men like air.” Beyond it, she survives in her work, which remains dark, electric, and vital.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.