Describe postmodern elements in Sylvia Plath's poetry.

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Postmodernism can be viewed as both a reaction against modernism and, paradoxically, an extension of it. Sylvia Plath's poetry (as well as her prose writings) fits both of these definitions. At the same time, like all major poetry, her work is individual and cannot be pigeonholed.

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Postmodernism can be viewed as both a reaction against modernism and, paradoxically, an extension of it. Sylvia Plath's poetry (as well as her prose writings) fits both of these definitions. At the same time, like all major poetry, her work is individual and cannot be pigeonholed.

If we look at two of Plath's best-known poems, "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," both express a personal vision that perhaps can be likened more to the Romantic period than to modernism. There is no foolproof way of generalizing about the modernist movement also, but in the work of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W.H. Auden, there is a "distancing" between the poet's personal story and emotion on the one hand, and the "message" of their poetry in all. Eliot's The Waste Land , though it depicts the poet's depression about the modern world, is narrated in a cryptic, impersonal manner. Plath is different. The use of violent imagery and the overall pessimistic tone is typical of the twentieth century in poetry and all the arts. But the revelation of her dysfunctional dynamic with her father not only is non-typical of the generation of modernist poets. It is an original element that is postmodernist in the sense of going beyond modernism, creating something that transcends even the harsh and direct expressions of anger and negativism for which Eliot and Pound are known. Yet there is in Plath's verse, as stated, an almost romantic throwback element, seen not only in the unburdening of her personal story but in the relatively traditional rhyme and metrical formations she uses.

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According to Enotes:

What sets Postmodernism apart from its predecessor [modernism] is the reaction of its practitioners to the rational, scientific, and historical aspects of the modern age. For postmodernists this took the guise of being self-conscious, experimental, and ironic. The postmodernist is concerned with imprecision and unreliability of language and with epistemology, the study of what knowledge is.

Plath's poetry is intensely "self-conscious, experimental, and ironic."  Plath's poetic voice is two-fold: anger and absolution.  At its best, it attacks, purges, and confesses all at once.  This is the voice of "Daddy," written in 1962, the same year The Bell Jar was completed:

stanza 2

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

You died before I had time---

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one grey toe

Big as a Frisco seal

stanza 16

There's a stake in your fat, black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always "knew" it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Here, her words are weapons.  Plath bombards the reader with imagery and metaphor: her "Daddy" is a shoe, a statue, a Nazi, a teacher, a devil, and a vampire, and she wants to escape from him and kill him and forget him in one fell plunge.  She takes no prisoners, wielding a loose cannon control.  There is introspection, but it is without self-pity.  There is an undercurrent of playfulness in her grim tone, but it lurks around its margins, as if she were writing the poem with a pink pen in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other.  This is the voice that comes in nervous fits and nightmares and leaves after only after a bloodletting.

Anne Stevenson lauds the paradoxical complexity of Plath's poetry, saying it "is all of a piece":

Its moments of tenderness work upon the heart as surely as its moments of terror and harsh resentment.  And despite her exaggerated tone and the extreme violence of some of her energy, Plath did, courageously, open a door to reality.

Stevenson goes on to praise Plath's "Lady Lazarus" persona "with its agressive assertion of regeneration, rejoicing in so much verbal energy that the justice or injustice of the poet's accusations cease to matter."  This may have been Plath's intention with The Bell Jar: to create a novel of such verbal energy that the decisions or indecisions of its narrator cease to matter.  But language alone does not a great novel make.  Certainly, Plath's first-time fiction does not contain the same punch as her well-rehearsed verse.

Taken together, Plath's poetry reveals a wide range in tone, from the joy of newborn children to rage against patriarchy--all of which is very post-modern.

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