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," "pure," "absolute," "necessary." Movement in the poems is toward what cannot be stopped or reversed, things "intractable" and "tireless." It is toward what lies beyond loving, human feeling, things "vast" and "immense." And toward what is unrepeatable, things "unique" and "perfect." Plath's recurrent use of the prefixes "in-," "un-," and "ir-" relates to this defining poetics. And her attempt at using words like "terrible," "awful," and "horrible" in their root sense further characterizes her poetry and its preferences. The vocabulary which she evolved in her poetry is never far from the limits her opening and concluding poems announced and made final as the proper centers among which her poems move. (p. 128)
The terms under which Plath chose to write her poems are unmistakably given, over and over. She sought to embrace nothing less than "everything." A procedure on this scale was bound to assume personal and historical, aesthetic and sexual dimensions. (pp. 128-29)
If ideally nothing escaped Plath, her tone when confronting what she called "atrocity" or "enormity" shifted between the mocking and the serious, the playful and the deadly. She could play child, adolescent, and adult, alternately, and at the same time. As a consequence, it sometimes is difficult to separate boast from threat or fear from wish in her readiness for the enormity of everything…. Predictably, the question of knowledge returned the poet to the smaller, but still large questions of love and death, life and art.
What can love manage. What is death's domain. What are the just concerns of life and of art. These involved Plath in the issue not only of poetic content but of poetic form as well.
At once inclusive and exclusive, the content of Sylvia Plath's poetry appropriated all provinces of knowledge. She not only accepted the extremity and enormity of history and personality but sought out the most outrageous facts and facta of life and art. Repeatedly, the impression she conveyed was that of a woman and poet to whom nothing was alien. In moving prose written after her death, Ted Hughes … attempted to detail this sense in her:
The world of her poetry is one of emblematic visionary events, mathematical symmetries, clairvoyance, metamorphoses, and something resembling total biological and racial recall.
Hughes's last clause defines what readers coming to Plath's work even for the first time inevitably feel. (pp. 129-30)
What Sylvia Plath sought to manage as content, she also had to handle in and as form. The poetry she admitted admiring and the methods of composition attributed to her by people who knew her involved poems written "all-of-a-piece." Such poems are in evidence in the post-Romantic, organic verse she frequently succeeded in writing….
If the word "organic" commonly has been turned into an almost meaningless term expressive of a quasi-mystical ideality which is present in a particular poem, for Plath's poetry it can be a critical term of the most descriptive and telling kind. The best poems in her first book, The Colossus, are organic in conception, in their management of matters as basic as stanza and line length and image. In the poem, "Man in Black," taken from the first book, Plath achieved a poem unmistakably "all-of-a-piece."… (p. 131)
What Plath accomplishes in "Man in Black" is nothing less than the achievement, wished for, willed, and executed, of the kind of organic, post-Romantic poem which she delighted in and which she aspired to write….
The last line in "Man in Black"—"All of it, together"—succeeds impressively in underlining the impression that the poem has been or at least given the illusion of being "born all-of-a-piece." "Man in Black" concludes by becoming something like a completed miniature "Kubla Khan." The poem is there on the page, "all of it, together." In part, "Man in Black" is one more attempt at writing the final, Romantic poem in the English language. (p. 133)
The early poems, when seen in connection with the poems from the posthumous volumes, reveal a search on the part of the poet for objects or images adequate to whatever love or hate she wished to attach to them. In many of the late poems, she directed her relentless precision toward casting poems in the form of extended correlatives. In the first line of each poem, an interior state commonly is recorded toward which the rest of the movement of the poem is painstakingly devoted…. Each poem exposes a search for adequate image. Each exposes the wish to find whatever is in the vase or in the tree or behind the veil. In the course of each poem the poet steadily attempts [in Ted Hughes's words] "to locate just what it was that hurt." (p. 139)
Separately and as a group, ["Tulips," "The Swarm," and "A Birthday Present"] deal with problems of language, or, more specifically, with the adequacy of any image in the face of an extreme situation. They address the confrontation, immediate or potential, of something desired, yet also feared. And they address the problem of finding words able to express that confrontation. In each of these poems, the poet attempts to locate, by means of a run of images, what "it" is: in "Tulips," what "it" is that is in the vase and to what "it corresponds," a correspondence which signals sickness or health, life or death; in "The Swarm," what "it" is that is in the tree and, in the mind, so intriguing and threatening at the same time; in "A Birthday Present," what "it" is that can lie behind the veil and be the source of such comforting and horrible enormity. (pp. 142-43)
The need to locate what "it" is proves equally central to the movement and meanings of other poems of Plath's. In part, the mad and associational intensity of poems like "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," and "The Applicant" becomes understandable in view of what the poet, there, is bent on relentlessly seeking out…. (p. 143)
"The Applicant," "Daddy," and "Lady Lazarus" reveal Plath centrally concerned with the universal habit of image-making, [but] this is not all. More important, in these poems she exhibits the extremes, personal and historical, to which image-making has been taken.
"Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" extend and provide variations on the concerns of "The Applicant." In particular, they seek to locate what it was that hurt. These two poems radically confront Lear-like questions of man and his image, of what constitutes for him need and excess. "Is man no more than this? Consider him well," Lear mused. Both "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" raise issues as basic as image and as man. They seek to find images which will sufficiently body forth that man.
"Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" are poems which seem written at the edge of sensibility and of imagistic technique. They both utilize an imagery of severe disintegration and dislocation. The public horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and the personal horrors of fragmented identities become interchangeable. Men are reduced to parts of bodies and to piles of things. The movement in each poem is at once historical and private; the confusion in these two spheres suggests the extent to which this century has often made it impossible to separate them. (p. 146)
The barkerlike tone of "Lady Lazarus" is not accidental. As in "Daddy," the persona strips herself before the reader … all the time utilizing a cool or slang idiom in order to disguise feeling. Sylvia Plath borrowed from a sideshow or vaudeville world the respect for virtuosity which the performer must acquire, for which the audience pays and never stops paying. Elsewhere in her work, she admired the virtuosity of the magician's unflinching girl or of the unshaking tattoo artist. Here, in "Lady Lazarus," it is the barker and the striptease artist who consume her attention. What the poet pursues in image and in rhyme (for example, the rhyming of "Jew" and "gobbledygoo") becomes part of the same process I observed in so many of her other poems, that attempt, brilliant and desperate, to locate what it was that hurt. (p. 147)
Sylvia Plath never stopped recording in her poetry the wish and need to clear a space for love. Yet she joined this to an inclination to see love as unreal, to accompanying fears of being unable to give and receive love, and to the eventual distortion and displacement of love in the verse. Loving completely or "wholly" she considered to be dangerous, from her earliest verse on.
Love was so much a part of her world that it often stood in her poetry for that world itself. When the world seemed unreal, so did love. In the early poetry, this sometimes approximated a secondhand, Romantic poetics. But the early poems also give evidence of some more profound sense of a loving unreality which the later poems turned into a more desperate, pathetic tableau of "valentine-faces" and candy or enamel-painted hearts.
Plath often wrote with humor and irony when she considered love. She could be the satirist alert to the sentiments of a Victorian or Edwardian age. She could be a shrewd psychologist of love's ambiguities. She could be sane and clairvoyant, joining writers as major as Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky in probing the darkness of the heart. But in what she wrote just before and at the time of Ariel, she began to establish a stance...
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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...
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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...
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