The Threepenny Review,
Editor's Note: For this symposium, each writer was invited to think of an artwork—a painting, a poem, a novel, a film, a piece of music, possibly even an entire body of work—that had once been a particular favorite but had now been forsaken; or, as the invitation put it, "Please choose something you once loved and no longer love."
Like so many in my generation, I found Sylvia Plath's poems as a teenager. Or they found me. I remember carrying a copy of Ariel to my high school English teacher in a state of high excitement, and showing her "The Couriers." This woman who made such subtle sense of Donne could make no sense of "Acetic acid in a sealed tin?"—but I thought I could; and I thought Plath spoke my private language. I would work myself into a fever over her moons, stars, blood, tantrums, and curses. Perfect adolescent grand guignol. The macabre celebrity of the author's death made the work all the more enticing—her repeated deaths, if one believed "Lady Lazarus": "Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well."
A few years later, I rebelled in embarrassment at what I took to be Plath's narcissism and hysteria, and I tried to shed my own younger self who had reveled in those shrieks. It was embarrassment, and something more severe: an ethical repugnance for the young Gentile woman's identification with Jewish victims of the Nazis: "Flesh, bone, there is nothing there— // A cake of soap, / A wedding ring, / A gold filling." And if the suffering daughter is the Jew, the father who abandons her by dying must be a Nazi, "Herr God, Herr Lucifer" as he appears in "Lady Lazarus," or seen in "Daddy" "with your Luftwaffe, your gobbeldygoo. / And your neat mustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue. / Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—." There could be responsible ways to imagine oneself as a victim of Nazis, but Plath's maneuver was entirely self-centered; her imagination was inflamed, not by moral apprehension of Jewish suffering, but by her own psychic melodrama whose intensity drew six million people into her own private bonfire.
My brief against Plath was long. In poem after poem, genuine drama devolves into overstatement, a rhetorical boosterism that cancels imaginative trust. In "Elm," a powerful poem struggles with a banshee poem, and the banshee wins. It is almost heartbreaking that the fine strangeness of spirit in which the elm declares, "I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root" should give way to the portentous "I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets." The elm-persona doesn't protect that statement from the inflation of its vocabulary ("suffered," "atrocity") or from the solemn perfect tense of the verb ("I have suffered," it intones). The keen poem in here brilliantly imagines an owl and gives an eerie portrait of human rapacity in love: "I am inhabited by a cry. / Nightly it flaps out / Looking, with its hooks, for something to love." The banshee ruins it by promoting the moon into a Medusa and applying maquillage to the idea with "merciless," "cruelly," and "murderous," and with the insistence of the last two lines: "It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults / That kill, that kill, that kill." "Elm" may have learned a thing or two, but not enough, from a much greater poem that manages a similar knowledge with exemplary and devastating tact, William Empson's villanelle "Missing Dates": "Slowly the poison the whole bloodstream fills /.../ The waste remains, the waste remains and kills."
Repetition and exaggeration can be artful resources. Over and over, Plath squanders those chances. I wonder if she is responsible for setting into circulation the many counterfeit coins of the word "terrible" which have flooded the market in recent years. Almost every poem of Plath's suffers from a "terrible," until the word is no more than a nervous tic: "a terrible fish" ("Mirror"); "the terrible wind" ("Among the Narcissi"); "their terrible faults" ("Berck-Plage"); "more terrible than she ever was" ("Stings"); "the terrible brains" ("Getting There"); "and in truth it is terrible" ("Totem"); and so forth. She is similarly profligate with blood and shrieks.
And yet. I have forsaken my forsaking of Plath. I went back to her, this year, to see how she was keeping. I found her gift to me, this time, to be the opposite of what inspired me in my youth; now it is her deadpan quiet that moves me. Her understatements, her ellipses, her aphoristic compression. These moves—along with her elemental image-making—retain essential drama, and nel mezzo del cammin I find myself chastened and instructed by poems I had long avoided.
Take that word "terrible." In at least one poem, she uses it unerringly: "Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children" opens "The Munich Mannequins," compacting in one curt run-on sentence a hard self-knowledge. For every frantic overstatement, one can counter with a line of stoic restraint, in which style and ethics collaborate, and control of tone distills an understanding worthy of life's complexities. "The moon has nothing to be sad about," states the speaker in "The Edge," the last poem in the Collected Poems, dated six days before Plath's death. Some lines have the authority of proverbs, like "All the gods know is destinations," which rescues "Getting There," an otherwise marred poem. If one wants to tighten and speed up one's poems, one can look to Plath: "Eternity bores me, I never wanted it" ("Years"). As for repetition, this word-wastrel knows, also, how to turn a word in place so that she quadruples the horsepower, as in "Sheep in Fog," also a late poem: "All morning the / Morning has been blackening."
The poem that haunts me like an obsession these days is "Burning the Letters." Plath here has perfectly joined her empirical seeing (burnt papers fluttering in the garden among lettuces and cabbages) with the emotional and symbolic situation of a woman destroying past attachments in ritual sacrifice. Violence and restraint are delicately balanced, as are past and present, and life and death. The burnt letters are "carbon birds," "coal angels," "Only they have nothing to say to anybody. / I have seen to that." In saying nothing, they say everything. And the woman burning them participates in the fire ("My veins glow like trees") and finds in this mortality—as in the cry of a dying fox—a sober immortality: "Telling the particles of the clouds, the leaves, the water / What immortality is. That it is immortal."The Threepenny Review
Editor and Publisher: Wendy Lesser
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