Plath, Sylvia (Vol. 14)
Plath, Sylvia 1932–1963
Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer. A leading member of the confessional school of poetry, Plath explores in her verse the horror and chaos that lurk beneath the appearance of sanity. Her violent, despairing poetic vision is presented in verse distinguished by technical control and brilliant imagery. Plath also published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
[No] poet more than Sylvia Plath keeps reminding us of the terms and the ground of her writing. To say that she writes in extremis is not only an accurate statement of fact but a suggestion that more than aesthetic matters may be involved. (p. 127)
Ariel, Sylvia Plath's major posthumously published book of poems, begins and ends in extremis. "Morning Song," the opening poem, begins with the word "love." "Words," the concluding poem, ends on the word "life." The title of the last poem "Words," and the pun in the title of the opening poem "Morning Song" suggest the two other prominent centers here, art and death. Love and death, life and art—these are the extremities out of which the Ariel poems proceed. And Plath insisted upon them and returned to them for alignments of the most dangerous kind.
The Ariel poems reveal and often pursue a direction more nearly final than that found in Plath's earlier poetry or in her nonpoetic work. What surfaces in Ariel proves to be a love of extremity. It expresses itself in obsessive rhythm, in a momentum and an inventiveness of image, and in a defining vocabulary recognizable by what it is attracted to and by what it seeks: totality, finality, obduracy. In Plath's most central books of poetry, The Colossus and Ariel, the adjectives expose this range of thought and feeling. The attraction involves what is "sheer," "mere,"...
(The entire section is 4473 words.)
That mystery and obfuscation, as well as pregnant misreading, have helped to create a Plath cult is undoubtedly true. That there is a cult-like interest in her life and work (the two often seen as inextricable) can't be denied…. (p. 40)
Re-reading all of her published poems, and reading or re-reading a mass of stuff written about her, I've been struck again and again by the dramatic distancing of so much of her work, the way in which she created poems which are precisely not cries from the heart, or from a sick mind, or from the edge of the precipice in an obtrusively narrow or personal way; and at the same time I've been struck by the way these poems are indeed quarrels with herself, dramatic debates between action and stillness, fulfilment and blankness, hope and despair, anger and love—not seen in those abstract shapes, of course, but translated into that dense and sprightly metaphorical discourse which is one of the languages of poetry and which was certainly her language.
Very often it is a pictorial language, the first level of metaphor, something seen: she has the attentive detail, the highlighted focus, of a genre painter. It comes out, for example, in the second part of her poem "Two Views of a Cadaver Room", in which that "little country, foolish, delicate" in the Brueghel painting is the frail and threatened place yearned for and sought—and sometimes found—in many Plath...
(The entire section is 667 words.)
Sylvia Plath was a romantic of the most self-cancelling kind. She reduced romanticism to a fever, a scream of defiance; but romantic she was, and exactly to the degree that she was alive and struggling. Her romanticism was her wish to live, if at times only in that touchingly qualified transcendence (located on no one's map of earth or heaven) where she could be born once again as her father's little girl. (p. 3)
Crushing, nearly Kafkaesque as this father worship was, it is nonetheless moving. No embrace more longed for, more healing and validating than the father's. For so judgment gets a heart, distance takes us up and hugs us to the source of power. Plath is our scapegoat, the child who needed this blessing more, who would not give up asking for it until the effort killed her.
But her quest was by definition immature. And, except as the mote that provoked the splendid blindness of her poetry, what is its importance? Critics maunder about her vision, but as Irving Howe suggests, she had none. She saw neither the next world nor this one; she saw only her distance from each. What her husband called her "free and controlled access to depths formerly reserved to the primitive ecstatic priests" was at best a private clairvoyance, as her romanticism was a private "salvation."
It is true that her sense of the horror of Creation was up to the minute. But her relation to this commonplace was private and...
(The entire section is 2930 words.)