Dana Levin

The Heroics of Style, Part One

This is the first of a three-part column that will explore the relationship between pressure — psychological, societal and aesthetic — and the development of poetic style. Just as a diamond is coal’s response to the press of the earth, in its broadest terms a style is an aesthetic response to being an individual in the grip of the world. Unique and indelible styles often arise out of great personal trial and sometimes at great cost: hence the ‘heroics’ of the title. By these lights, the author views style as a product of friction and resistance.

Part two will focus on the Homeric simile; part three will examine ‘originality’ and the younger poet.

 

Part 1: Plath’s “I am”

I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, or being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind.

                                      Sylvia Plath, 1962[1]

 

The qualities of the hero are in general well known, but certainly complacency is not one of them.

Among its many contemporary shadings, to be ‘complacent’ is to placidly accept Status Quo — ‘complacent,’ from the Latin ‘complacere’: to be very pleasing.

The hero does not aim to please. The hero confronts and resists. The hero is fearless: power and agency are her attributes.

The hero is the simple declarative sentence.

*

I want to begin with Maenad, composed soon after Plath’s 27th birthday, three years before her suicide in February 1963:

 

Once I was ordinary:
Sat by my father’s bean tree
Eating the fingers of wisdom.
The birds made milk.
When it thundered I hid under a flat stone.
 
The mother of mouths didn’t love me.
The old man shrank to a doll.
O I am too big to go backward:
Birdmilk is feathers,
The bean leaves are dumb as hands.
 
This month is fit for little.
The dead ripen in the grapeleaves.
A red tongue is among us.
Mother, keep out of my barnyard,
I am becoming another.
 
Dog-head, devourer:
Feed me the berries of dark.
The lids won’t shut. Time
Unwinds from the great umbilicus of the sun
Its endless glitter.
 
I must swallow it all.
 
Lady, who are these others in the moon’s vat -- 
Sleepdrunk, their limbs at odds?
In this light the blood is black.
Tell me my name.[2]

 

The poem chronicles a transformation: mother and father, once large and primary, have receded — the old man has shrunk to a doll, his wisdom now “dumb as hands;” the “mother of mouths” is greeted with a threat. There is lament, maybe even fear, in the speaker’s declaration “O, I am too big to go backward.” The poem displays all the earmarks of burgeoning adolescence, the first dawning of an identity outside childhood; in this, the speaker is indeed “ordinary.” But who is she becoming? Too big now to hide under the “flat stone,” the speaker finds herself in a world where the dead “ripen” and “lids won’t shut,” suggesting that she must unflinchingly confront some horror attached to “becoming another.” “Tell me my name,” she pleads at the end of the poem, as if a defined identity will somehow quell her terror. Yet as the title, Maenad, tells us, the speaker has every right to fear this new self who demands to be fed “the berries of dark.”

Tell me my name” is the plea driving both the development of Plath’s self-identity and the development of her poetic style, for the two are not separate. Yet even thirty years after her death, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in discussing critical responses to Plath’s work, state:

Few consider the connection between the poetic influences that shaped Plath’s style and the personal dilemma that became her subject…few speculate on what it meant to be a woman born in America in 1932, reading and trying to write major poetry…[3]

It is easy enough to imagine the pressures any American woman faced coming of age in the 1950’s. By now, all one must say is “June Cleaver” or “Father Knows Best” to get the cultural gist. While I will make some forays into the social context of Plath’s life, what is more pertinent to me is how Plath both     absorbed and resisted this context: as her style develops, it is shaped by a struggle to overcome the forces of literary heritage, societal expectation, even biological destiny.

I am afraid of getting older,” Plath writes in 1949, at the age of seventeen. “I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day. Spare me the relentless cage of routine and rote. I want to be free…I want, I think, to be omniscient…I think I would like to call myself ‘The girl who wanted to be God.’ Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be—perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it. I am I—I am powerful—but to what extent? I am I.”[4]

I am I”: nameless, genderless, echoing the great I AM that heralds God’s revelation—the journals Plath kept through late adolescence are replete with such cries for freedom of being and how her place as a woman denies it. “Being born a woman is my tragedy,” she writes two years later. “My consuming desire…to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all is spoiled by the fact that I am…a female always in danger…yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…”[5]

Yet by 1956, at the age of 24, Plath is posing cheesecake style in a polka-dotted bathing suit on the front page of the Cambridge University newspaper, sending a copy happily to her mother with the inscription “with love, from Betty Grable.”[6] Like most young women, Plath in her twenties is consumed by her relationships with men and her sexuality—yet ‘the girl who wanted to be God’ will not be repressed; she crops up subtly even in the most stereotypical domestic fantasy: “I long to permeate the matter of this world:” Plath writes in the same year. “to become anchored to life by laundry and lilacs, daily bread and fried eggs, and a man…who eats my food and my body and my love and goes around the world all day and comes back to find solace with me at night.”[7] While at first glance the passage describes a domestic utopia (and one that actualizes the once feared routine of “cooking three meals a day”), the statement “I long to permeate the matter of this world” belies it¾to permeate seems more the ambition of an active I AM, than the wish of a young woman hoping for a beloved to consume her.

Perhaps for Plath the allure of the domestic was due to the repose it offered: the repose of persona, of wearing a mask. How much easier to slip on the ready-made face than to search the mirror “for what she really is.”[8] The domestic provided respite from the exhaustion of her ambition, with no real possibility of failure: good-looking, feminine, an excellent baker, a charming hostess, Plath, when she wanted, could hide behind the apron with ease. There, the struggle to discover and establish an authentic “I am” became blessedly unnecessary; the relief this afforded the psyche cannot be underestimated.[9]

And yet: “I am learning and mastering new words each day, and drunker than Dylan, harder than Hopkins, younger than Yeats in my saying,” she writes in one letter home. In another she states that her poems are “not quailing and whining like Teasdale or simple lyrics like Millay.”[10] Throughout the mid and late 50’s, Plath’s journals and letters return again and again to the need for the courage to play with the big boys—and big they were: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Stevens and Williams were all still writing and publishing at the time of Plath’s birth. The giants of Modernism cast long shadows—how was a girl to shine? Perhaps in response to this weighing anxiety, Plath often turned to her literary mothers and female peers, claiming dominance:

Arrogant, I think I have written lines which qualify me to be the Poetess of America…who rivals?…Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rosetti, Amy Lowell, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay…Edith Sitwell and Marianne Moore, the ageing giantesses and poetic godmothers…and most close, Adrienne Cecile Rich—who will soon be eclipsed by (my) eight poems.”[11]

Inevitably for someone who vacillated between being God and being Betty Grable, such literary ambitions were riddled with anxieties stemming from her place as a woman. “If I were a man, I could write a novel about this;” Plath laments, embroiled in yet another pre-Hughes love affair. “Being a woman, why must I only cry and freeze, cry and freeze?”

But where the journals and letters fret and boast, by 1959 the poems are sure: if domestic perfection and gender conformity mean silencing the full range of Plath’s voice, then the poems will fight. It is no accident that Maenad is part of a sequence called Poem for a Birthday: the “other” that Plath births in this poem is a double-threat—to both men and poets. Maenads, the priestesses of Dionysus, were the ones who tore Orpheus limb from limb—Orpheus, the Greek paragon of the poet, whose verse could make rocks weep and beasts lie down at his feet. But this beast¾female, powerful, waking up in “the moon’s vat”¾ will not be tamed.

*

The feeling of heroism, at-stake-ness, in Plath’s work stems from its enaction of a struggle. Yet this struggle is even more basic and urgent than the Maenad’s battle for victory over male sexual and literary power; it is a struggle to find an identity that lies outside the fighting.[12] While the content of many of Plath’s most famous poems, like Daddy and Lady Lazarus, suggest that she is firmly locked in a battle for female dominance, the forms of these poems imply a deeper drive. As it plays itself out in the syntax and figurations of each poem, we see, at the core, that Plath’s battle with men is but a step in the struggle to be reborn.

I am becoming another,” the Maenad says. The operations of becoming, of figuring into being, are central to Plath’s work. Open to nearly any page of Plath’s Collected Poems and you will find that everything was subject to her transfiguring eye: “The moon is no door,” she writes in The Moon and the Yew Tree, “It is a face in its own right,/White as a knuckle and terribly upset.” A surgeon describes the opened body by saying, “It is a garden I have to do with—tubers and fruits/oozing their jammy substances.” The mirror in the poem Mirror states, “I am silver and exact…The eye of a little god,” then changes identity: “Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,/Searching my reaches for what she really is.”[13]

What she really is…The urgencies of figuration become most apparent in the remarkable poems in Ariel, the now classic book Plath was finishing at the time of her death. Whereas earlier poems like those quoted above seem more driven to redefine the world, by 1962 the drive for definition was directed at self. Witness these lines from 12 different poems in Ariel:

 

I am the arrow, the dew that flies (Ariel)

I am the magician’s girl who does not flinch (The Bee Meeting)

I am a miner (Nick and the Candlestick)

I am inhabited by a cry (Elm)

I am red meat (Death & Co.)

I am a pure acetylene virgin…I am a lantern (Fever 103)

I am a letter in this slot (Getting There)

I am a nun now (Tulips)

I am not a nurse, white and attendant…I am not a smile (Berck-Plage)

I am not a Caesar (The Arrival of the Bee Box)

I am no drudge (Stings)

Oh my god, what am I? (Poppies in October)

 

With each “I am” Plath claims a sense of power and agency over the destiny of the classified woman. In answer to the adolescent who did not know where she would be without the despised obstruction of her female body, Plath says: You will be everywhere, in everything.

I am” is the mantra of Plath’s late work. Each time she chants it we encounter the essential use of the simple declarative sentence, the basic seed from which all speech proliferates. In this respect, every poem in Ariel is a birth announcement: a different Sylvia is at hand.

How different? Take the poem Maudlin from 1956, written the same year as the publication of the cheesecake photo:

 

Mud-mattressed under the sign of the hag

In a clench of blood, the sleep-talking virgin

Gibbets with her curse the moon’s man,

Faggot-bearing Jack in his crackless egg:

 

Hatched with a claret hogshead to swig

He kings it, navel-knit to no groan,

But at the price of a pin-stitched skin

Fish-tailed girls purchase each white leg.[14]

 

Belabored, bejeweled—interestingly, the poem seems closer to the surface flash of many contemporary poems than the severe lineations and stark vivid colors of Plath’s late work. Compare the “gibbeting” curse on the moon’s man to the actual murder described in the last stanza of Daddy, written six years later:

 

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.[15]

 

The rhyme scheme, which in Maudlin is both an attempt at subtlety (slant rhyme) and virtuosity (slant rhyme), has been reduced to its most elemental form and sound. The repetitious oo sounds of Daddy, in you, through, and, in other stanzas, Jew, true, blue, do, glue and so on, echo the first sounds any of us make—as a baby’s goo goo will attest. What Hugh Kenner dismissed as “the gleeful craft of a mad child” and John Frederick Nims called a “severe regression”[16] is really a stripping away of verbal pomp and flourish that can allow Plath to speak from the emotional core of the poem. To me, the insistence of oo as the poem Daddy proceeds is a perfect and economic aural signature for the accusatory finger-pointing (you!), disgust (ew!), hurt (oo!) and love (ooh…) that pervade the poem’s exploration of this most primal relationship.

As if she intuited this mature, stripped-down style, Plath in 1958 exclaims, “O, only left to myself, what a poet I will flay myself into.”[17] By 1962, Plath is not only stripping off the Cambridge bathing suit—she is stripping off her skin. It is futile to delineate poetic skin vs. psychic skin vs., even, actual skin, because for Plath they were one and the same. Indeed, as she approached the fourth anniversary of her unsuccessful suicide attempt at the age of 20, she expresses the “incredible sense of constriction” she feels trying to write “small bad poems” and states: “I see it clear now: bridging the gap between a bright published adolescent who died at 20 and a potentially talented and mature adult who begins writing about 25,” conflating the birth of style with the actual death, and rebirth, of self (emphasis mine).[18]

In Lady Lazarus, written three months before her suicide, Plath’s prevailing urgencies—the need to engender the genderless power of God, the need to strip off the defining male gaze and become “another”—are acutely and cruelly expressed. Here, as in Daddy, the simple declarative syntax and sarcastic tone are sharp as a straight razor. Using the tropes of a strip tease, Plath presents not the luscious illusion of naked availability but pure hard voyeurism: the crowd is “peanut-crunching,” shoving in “to see;” Lady Lazarus is crass, declaring “There is a charge, a very large charge, for a word or a touch.” Yet what Lady Lazarus teaches Plath in this poem is that there is one thing men want more than an available woman—and that is immortality. Here Plath’s need to free herself from the male gaze conflates with the drive for literary longevity—the only way to triumph over “Herr Doktor, Herr Enemy”, the poem, and the actions Plath took in life, suggest, is to transfigure the mortal female body through a series of poetic/actual deaths and resurrections:

 

So, so Herr Doktor.

So Herr Enemy.

 

I am your opus,

I am your valuable,

The pure gold baby

 

That melts to a shriek.

I turn and burn.

Do not think I underestimate your great concern…

 

Herr God, Herr Lucifer,

Beware

Beware.

 

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.[19]

 

By the end of this poem, the girl who wanted to be God gets her wish—of a kind. The problem here—and it is a psychological, not a poetic, problem — is that the power Lady Lazarus has is not the power of one liberated from gender expectations—rather it is the power of rage writ large, all of it directed at the male figures she wishes to trump. While the show she puts on for the “Herrs” and “Doktors” of the peanut-crunching crowd is awesome and terrible, it is still for them. The last threat simply contorts the wish of the young woman who wanted a man to eat her food and her body and her love.

Even at her most poetically empowered, it seems Plath could not feel that power outside the confines of the submission/dominance dynamic in which she was locked. Her sarcasm tells us this, for it is the poetic expression of outrage afflicted by doubt — the element that thwarts her hope for rebirth. Sarcasm accepts the prevailing power it seeks to diminish—it taunts, but does not fight. The increasing sarcasm in Plath’s late work, as evidenced in Lady Lazarus and other late poems, suggests that Plath ultimately did not believe she could overcome the societal and personal forces that would keep her “destined to be classified and qualified.” If the skeleton of a new self was available in the basic poetic building blocks of declarative syntax and metaphor, the emotions of that self, as expressed through tone, were not.

As we know, history is ironic. Plath’s struggle for self-definition, and the style engendered by it, paved the way for a next generation of women poets to declare “I am” as necessary instruction and command. And, despite years of corrosive celebrity, her work retains emotive and aesthetic power. If from the perspective of psychology we can see Plath as a defeated figure, from the perspective of art she triumphed in achieving the one goal towards which all writers strive: life on the page.

 

 


[1] The Poet Speaks: Interviews with Contemporary Poets, Ed. Peter Orr.

[2] Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, pg. 133

[3] Sandra M. Gilbert, Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, pg. 271

[4] qtd in Gilbert and Gubar, pg. 270

[5] Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, pg. 77

[6] Gilbert and Gubar, pgs. 276-77

[7] Journals, pg. 201

[8] “Mirror,” Collected Poems, pg. 170

[9] One must also pose this in light of the often mocking or dissociated tone Plath brought to her poems about the domestic, from  “The Applicant” and “Lesbos” to “Morning Song.” While Plath could, and did, find relief behind the apron, she wasn’t comfortable there for long.

[10] qtd. in Gilbert and Gubar, pg. 273

[11] Journals, pg. 360

[12] See also Gilbert and Gubar.

[13] Collected Poems, pgs. 170, 173-74. It is interesting to note that these examples come from poems written in a one-month period in 1961: the need to transfigure is persistent indeed.

[14] Collected Poems, pg. 51

[15] Collected Poems, pg. 224

[16] qtd. in Gilbert and Gubar, pg. 289

 

[17] Journals, Pg. 381

[18] Journals, pg. 293.

[19] Collected Poems, pg. 246-47

Dana Levin

 Dana  Levin

Dana Levin's books are In the Surgical Theatre, winner of the 1999 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, Wedding Day, and Sky Burial (Copper Canyon Press). 


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