Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath—Bryn Mawr class of 1909, Vassar class of 1934, Smith class of 1955—educated women of three generations who achieved preeminence as poets. That sounds like a circumlocution. It is a circumlocution, but I feel I would betray the spirit of Moore and Bishop by calling them women poets. Moore was a feminist, a suffragette, a Woman Who Did.1 Although it appears that marriage was never one of her ambitions, as it happened she made the sacrifice or renunciation common among the women of her time who had a vocation. She was drawn to the avant-garde, to modernism in the making, and if her creations are strikingly impersonal (so that even a poem purportedly about her father turns out to be a fiction), that impersonality is not untypical of modernism. Utterly original, she was at once recognizable as a fellow spirit and equal among the likes of Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Williams.
With Bishop we encounter an emancipated woman for whom men were only intermittently “in the picture.” In her youth she formed friendships with strikingly intelligent non-marrying women and their mothers: Margaret Miller and her mother, Louise Crane and hers, Marianne Moore and hers. She had modest independent means, and therefore was not subject to either of the conflicts between marriage and writing or between writing and a career—her desperate conflicts lay elsewhere. Plath, when she came to read Bishop, did so with great admiration: her “fine originality, always surprising, never rigid, flowing, juicier than Marianne Moore, who is her godmother….”2 Godmother is a good term for that relationship. But who would Bishop’s peers have been? They would have been anyone of her generation, regardless of gender. Robert Lowell was the poet she measured herself against, whose triumphs sometimes inspired in her a sort of generous envy and sorrow.
With Plath we encounter a character entirely different, a “poetess” who sees herself as the latest in a line of poetesses, and who sees her rivals in art as women. It is hard to imagine Moore or Bishop writing anything remotely like this:
Arrogant, I think I have written lines which qualify me to be The Poetess of America (as Ted will be The Poet of England and her dominions). Who rivals? Well, in history Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Amy Lowell, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay—all dead. Now: Edith Sitwell and Marianne Moore, the aging giantesses, and poetic godmother Phyllis McGinley is out—light verse: she’s sold herself. Rather: May Swenson, Isabella Gardner, and most close, Adrienne Cecile Rich—who will soon be eclipsed by these eight poems: I am eager, chafing, sure of my gift, wanting only to train and teach it—I’ll count the magazines and the money I break open by these eight poems from now on. We’ll see…3
She was in her mid-twenties when she wrote this, and the eight poems which she had just completed were nowhere near her best, or her most celebrated, work. But as her reputation grew she retained the self-description: on October 12, 1962, the same day she composed “Daddy,” she wrote in a letter to her mother:
I miss brains, hate this cow life, am dying to surround myself with intelligent, good people. I am a famous poetess here—mentioned this week in The Listener as one of the half-dozen women who will last—including Marianne Moore and the Brontës!
Later the same month, in a letter to her brother and his wife:
…The critic of the Observer is giving me an afternoon at his home to hear me read all my new poems! He is the opinion-maker in poetry over here, A. Alvarez, and says I’m the first woman poet he’s taken seriously since Emily Dickinson! Needless to say, I’m delighted. 4
Less than four months later Alvarez wrote her epitaph in the Observer, beginning: “Last Monday, Sylvia Plath, the American poetess and wife of Ted Hughes, died suddenly in London.” Alvarez thought of Plath, he says, “as the most gifted woman poet of her time.”
It was a heartfelt tribute, and not an inappropriate one. If he had said such a thing about Bishop, it would have ruined her day, but he had told Plath as much to her face, and it made hers. Neither Moore nor Bishop seems to have traced her ancestry back through a line of women poets. Bishop only began taking an interest in Dickinson in the 1950s, when Thomas H. Johnson’s edition appeared, and even then, after she had decided that Dickinson was “about the best we have,” she could add, in a letter to Lowell, “she does set one’s teeth on edge a lot of the time, don’t you think?”5 Moore admired Dickinson but was never remotely influenced by her. Moore’s early influence, which she had to escape, was Swinburne. Ezra Pound had shared the same early infatuation.
Plath’s ambition to be a poetess, seen from one angle, looks of a piece with the general conventionality of her upbringing and early attitudes. In contrast to Bryn Mawr, where feminism was part of the fabric, Smith was presided over by men, and aimed to produce the kind of woman who would be a credit to her husband.
At Smith one used one’s education as a training for typing up one’s husband’s Ph.D. thesis—that was the standard fate of the alumnae. There is nothing odd about the obsession with marriage revealed by Plath’s college journals. That was in line with the prevailing ideology of the institution, and was the theme of Adlai Stevenson’s commencement address at Plath’s graduation in 1955. The highest vocation of women, this divorcé said, was to achieve a creative marriage, to be, as Nancy Hunter Steiner remembered it:
thoughtful, discriminating wives and mothers who would use what we had learned in government and history and sociology courses to influence our husbands and children in the direction of rationality. Men, he claimed, are under tremendous pressure to adopt the narrow view: we would help them resist it and we would raise children who were reasonable, independent, and courageous.6
Clearly not everyone in the class of ’55 was of the same opinion. Here is Polly Longsworth:
I think we were in a condition of mind where we could hear Stevenson’s message—we’d been brought up on it—but not believe it. Smith had told us differently for four years. It was only later, when his words began to prove true, that most of us got mad.7
But Nancy Hunter Steiner remembers that
The speech was eloquent and impressive and we loved it even if it seemed to hurl us back to the satellite role we had escaped for four years—second-class citizens in a man’s world where our only possible achievement was a vicarious one.8
A part of the surprise with Plath is to move backward from an initial reading of Ariel to the discovery of this markedly conventional background. With Bishop, you feel that everything is of a piece—the poet at college was remembered for having done interesting, faintly rebellious things, like discovering that although cars were restricted there was no rule against going for rides in a horse and buggy, or like keeping a jar of Roquefort beside her bed and dosing herself with cheese last thing at night in order to render her dreams more vivid. With Plath one discovers that, when there was a rebellion at Smith against the campus warm-weather uniform of Bermuda shorts, button-down collars, and loafers, and some girls pioneered a look that consisted of bare feet and tattered jeans, not only was Plath on the side of the Bermuda shorts—she tried to bring the rebels before the Honor Board “for infringement of rules.” With Plath people seem to have remembered details such as the matching white and gold luggage with which she arrived at Cambridge; and for some reason what sticks in my mind is the “lovely pink knitted suit dress” which her mother brought along for her daughter’s wedding, “intuitively never having worn” and which Plath decided would do very well for her.
I know that we are told that both the letters to her mother and the journals are edited in different ways by interested parties to bring out certain characteristics at the expense of others. But no amount of editing can have been responsible for this striking dividedness—Plath’s conventional attitudes and shallow ambitions on the one hand, and the other self with its burning, mysterious purpose. When Plath talks of herself as a woman poet, as a poetess, this may seem un-hip even for its day. But it is possible to look at that un-hip self-definition, and see it as a source of her success.
To return to the point made at the start of this series, that something had held women back when it came to the writing of poetry, and that the problem might well have had something to do with the antiquity and prestige of the art: it might easily be that, like it or not, there was something masculine in the archetype of poet, with which it was difficult for a woman to come to terms. Dickinson found another archetype: she became a sibyl, and the price she paid for that was that she lived in a bottle. Moore armed herself as a rebel, and she found, as so many women have done, that eccentricity can be a good friend for a while, although in the end it exacts its price. The eccentric, in the end, invites you not to take her too seriously.
We can never tell whether Moore, a personality apparently perfectly protected, a connoisseur of every sort of armor, achieved what she did only at the cost of the suppression of what might be taken as womanly. We know that Bishop was extremely cautious with the deployment of her private life and tenderest emotions in her poetry. Bishop wrote some love lyrics, most notably that beautiful “The Shampoo” (which went round the magazines for two years before finding a publisher). One could guess, though, that she would have liked to develop more in this direction.
Plath had the right—of course she had the right—to abjure the male archetype, to try to revive the meaning of the word poetess. It was bound to be disruptive. There is an analogy between poets and priests here. A woman priest is not simply a woman exercising equal rights to do the same job as a man. Her doing that job profoundly changes the nature of that job, in the way that a woman becoming an engine driver does not. Women becoming priests upsets the symbolism of the whole religion or sect. In the Christian context, that is why it is so impossible to use the word priestess, since it comes with such a rich freight of pagan significance. It is odd that the word should retain its power to shock: “I dropped in at the butcher’s and there was our new priestess”—one would immediately suspect she was consulting the innards of a chicken. When Bishop and her col-lege friends sat doubled up with laughter at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s reading, with Millay wearing her long robe and clutching a curtain, what the girls were laughing at was a poetess, a woman imagining that a poetess must be something like a priestess.
And that takes us straight to Plath’s terrifying last poem, “Edge”:
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
The woman in the robe, in the scrolls of her toga, has achieved, at last, her ambition: death for her, death for her children.9 And since this is a scene which has about it the illusion of Greek necessity, of anangke, we think of tragedy and we think of Medea, who kills her two children. Medea is a tragedy about a divorce: Jason had married Medea after she helped him gain the Golden Fleece; but he left her for Glauce, the daughter of the king of Corinth; Medea is a witch, and when she is faced with exile she tricks Jason into allowing her two children to go to Glauce with presents, saying she wishes Glauce to look after the children. Glauce accepts the presents and agrees to look after the children, but when she puts on the crown and robe that Medea has sent her she becomes engulfed in flames and dies; when her father finds her and embraces her, he dies as well; then Medea, to complete her revenge, kills her two children with a sword.
That is the story according to Euripides (whom the Corinthians are said to have bribed with fifteen talents of silver to tell it in this way). In Plath’s version Medea seems to have poisoned their milk (Medea was known for her skill as a poisoner), and you may feel, as I do, that the expression “each little pitcher of milk” actually refers to the woman’s breasts. The woman has poisoned her children with her own milk, and now there is no more of it, but the children are folded back into the woman’s body, she has taken them back from Jason. And then the “sweet, deep throats of the night flower” from which odors bleed remind us of a possibility of slitting one’s throat as well.
The petals of the rose closing is a piece of poetic invention: some flowers close at night, but roses don’t. What the feet seem to be saying, “We have come so far,” may or may not contain an echo of the last line of Bishop’s “Cirque d’Hiver”: “we stare and say, ‘Well, we have come this far.”‘
Three generations are involved (Moon/mother, the Priestess, and her children) if you will accept Plath’s “The Moon and the Yew Tree” as a gloss on “Edge”:
The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness—
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.
But she can’t believe in the gentleness of the Virgin Mary, the image of the sweet attentive mother, attentive to her in particular. She can’t believe, in the next stanza, in the blue saints in the church. There is only the moon, her indifferent mother—bald and wild, “white as a knuckle and terribly upset.” And the yew tree whose message is blackness and silence—presumably the ever-withdrawing husband/father of so many poems.
The message to the mother from “Edge”—“The moon has nothing to be sad about…. She is used to this sort of thing”—would seem to be something Aurelia Plath could easily decipher: why be sorry, you’ve seen all this before, you knew what distress I was in, you did nothing to help me. The message to the husband depends on whether you believe “Edge” to be a suicide note, or something he might come to read while she was still alive. When printed in Ariel the poem was placed second to last, presumably in order to reduce the sense that, with this poem, Plath was signing off. The Collected Poems has it chronologically last, after the utterly different “Balloons” (written on the same day). There is no way of settling the question of Plath’s intentions during the last days of her life. If she had not died but had published the poem (as she was doing with other poems of that time, including ones that were distressing to Hughes), then it would have carried an implied threat: maybe I should settle this by dying, and take the children with me. As it turned out, the poem says to us all, I contemplated this solution, and it seemed beautiful to me, it would have left me fulfilled, “perfected,” smiling.
It is a lyric moment of utter pitilessness—pitiless toward her estranged husband, her mother, her children—and pitiless too, it had better be said, toward herself. Medea does not die in the Euripides version. Plath did not kill her children. Instead, she left milk and bread beside their cots. The window was open, the door sealed against the gas. One can only call the poem “Edge” the product of a deranged mind if one is consciously claiming that the mind can be deranged in other ways but remain capable of exerting the kind of artistic control we see here displayed.
Plath was angry, very angry, but anger does not of itself produce lyric poetry, and one can see, from time to time during the Ariel period—by which I mean not the last days with their legendary productivity but the three years or so over which the total contents of the volume were produced—what happened when rage got in the way, as in “Words heard, by accident, over the phone”:
O mud, mud, how fluid!—
Thick as foreign coffee, and with a sluggy pulse.
Speak, speak! Who is it?
It is the bowel-pulse, lover of digestibles.
It is he who has achieved these syllables.
What are these words, these words?
They are plopping like mud.
Oh god, how shall I ever clean the phone table?
Which line suddenly introduces a bathetic, suburban tone. The poem ends by addressing the phone itself, which has offended by being party to the adultery the poet has suspected:
Muck funnel, muck funnel—
You are too big. They must take you back!
To be fair, this poem was not included on Plath’s own list for Ariel, nor was the flood of bad imitations of Plath caused by her bad or self-parodying poems. The bad imitators were inspired by the best of Plath, poems in which one would hesitate to change a word.
I include “Lady Lazarus” among these, and it is interesting in connection with “Lady Lazarus” to see how far back the idea for this poem goes, at least to Cambridge in 1956, in a passage where she records her plan to visit a psychiatrist that week “just to meet him, to know he’s there.” The passage, with its recollection of her nervous breakdown and suicide attempt in 1953, continues:
And, ironically, I feel I need him. I need a father. I need a mother. I need some older, wiser being to cry to. I talk to God, but the sky is empty, and Orion walks by and doesn’t speak. I feel like Lazarus: that story has such a fascination. Being dead, I rose up again, and even resort to the mere sensation value of being suicidal, of getting so close, of coming out of the grave with the scars and the marring mark on my cheek which (is it my imagination?) grows more prominent: paling like a death-spot in the red, windblown skin, browning darkly in photographs, against my grave winter-pallor.
This comes from what is labeled an excerpt from a letter to her Cambridge friend Richard Sassoon—the journals contain these drafts of letters, imaginary or intended for real is not clear. The date is January 28, 1956. The dating of “Lady Lazarus” is October 23-29, 1962. I mention this only to give emphasis to the length of gestation. The myth of Plath’s brief, fierce month or so of inspired utterance followed by—with its illusion of a Greek necessity—her suicide is a particular hindrance to understanding her writing, which is after all the product of a very early vocation as a writer, relentlessly pursued.
If I say I wouldn’t want a word changed in “Lady Lazarus,” that implies that I wouldn’t want the Nazi/Jewish imagery dropped, that I do not think it an illicit appropriation. Well, that is my position, in the case of this poem and with “Daddy.” I follow Jacqueline Rose in this.10 Plath was highly conscious of her German/Austrian heritage. She was born in 1932, and was therefore perfectly able to sense the significance of the Second World War. Her father was a first-generation Prussian immigrant. Her mother was a second-generation Austrian who, Anne Stevenson tells us, spoke German at home until grade school, when “patriotic Americans were frequently vicious to German-speaking immigrants during the First World War.”
Fear of persecution for being a German, whether her own fear or her mother’s, would certainly be part of her heritage. And if she thought of her father as a persecuting figure (rightly or wrongly is not at issue), and she knew her father to be a Prussian, then it is by no means far-fetched for her to have wondered whether she might not be a Jew (either from her mother’s side or through simply not knowing quite what a Jew was, but knowing they were being persecuted). Or if “Daddy” enacts an argument with her father, an old argument the point of which is that she has not been able to end it, it is part of the nature of this argument that she should insult his ghost in a way that is supposed to provoke him into having a go at her, thereby proving her point.
Plath’s imitators and admirers may have given these procedures a bad name.
Hitler entered Paris the way my
sister entered the room at night,
sat astride me, squeezed me with her knees,
held her thumbnails to the skin of my wrists and
peed on me, knowing Mother would
never believe my story.
Which seems to imply that Hitler merely peed on Paris. Or:
(to my father)
Did you weep like the Shah when you left? Did you forget
the way you had had me tied to the chair, as
he forgot the ones strapped to the grille
in his name? You knew us no more than he knew them,
his lowest subjects, his servants, and we were
silent before you like that, bowing
backwards, not speaking, not eating unless we were
told to eat, the glass jammed to our
teeth and tilted like a brass funnel in the
soundproof cells of Teheran…11
But it is a long way from this impertinent harangue back to the argument of “Daddy.” Rose quotes from Plath’s unpublished journals a passage dated December 28, 1950, written at the time of the composition of the short story “The Shadow.”
My present theme seems to be the awareness of a complicated guilt system whereby Germans in a Jewish and Catholic community are made to feel, in scapegoat fashion, the pain, psychically, the Jews are made to feel in Germany by the Germans without religion. The child can’t understood the wider framework. How does her father come into this? How is she guilty for her father’s deportation to a detention camp?12
The story differs slightly from the outline, but the point remains that the child does not know what is going on, what her parents are arguing about. She is taunted with having a German father, something she hotly denies, only to be informed by her mother that her father is indeed a German citizen, and that he has been “asked” to go and live in a detention center. This is unfair. It is a mistake. But God has permitted it to happen.
The “Shadow” of Plath’s title is a character in a radio program whose regular opening line was: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows, heh, heh, heh, heh.” Despite her mother’s protectiveness, the child is beginning to learn about evil, about the Japanese prison camps, about the war. But the partial understanding is the clue to the drama.
“Daddy” was intended by Plath to be, like “The Shadow,” a poem of partial understanding, a short story in the form of a poem. We have a problem in reading it like that, because the energy of the emotion is so strong we feel it must come direct from the author herself, who must be talking about her historic father and (in the aside about the vampire who said he was you) her actual husband. That is the objection raised by Seamus Heaney in The Government of the Tongue:
A poem like “Daddy,” however brilliant a tour de force it can be acknowledged to be, and however its violence and vindictiveness can be understood or excused in the light of the poet’s parental and marital relations, remains, nevertheless, so entangled in biographical circumstances and rampages so permissively in the history of other people’s sorrows that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy. 13
This is courteously put, as ever, but if you accept that Plath was drawing on the history of her own people’s sorrows (that is to say, German immigrants in America), a great part of the objection disappears. And, by the way, although there is no justification for rampaging permissively, a great deal of art is made from the history of other people’s sorrows.
Plath saw her task as one of discovery: How should a woman write poetry? In one of her letters to her mother, just before her marriage, she says:
I know that within a year I shall publish a book of 33 poems which will hit the critics violently in some way or another. My voice is taking shape, coming strong. Ted says he never read poems by a woman like mine; they are strong and full and rich—not quailing and whining like Teasdale or simple lyrics like Millay; they are working, sweating, heaving poems born out of the way words should be said….
And in the same letter, speaking apparently of her newly acquired certainty of self (acquired while listening to Beethoven with Ted Hughes) she says: “I know this with a sure strong knowing to the tips of my toes, and having been on the other side of life like Lazarus, I know that my whole being shall be one song of affirmation and love all my life long.”14 This prophecy proved false. One turns to the poems she includes with the letter—“Firesong,” “Strumpet Song,” and “Complaint of the Crazed Queen.” They sound like this:
Sweet salts warped stem
of weeds we tackle towards way’s rank ending;
scorched by red sun
we heft globed flint, racked in veins’ barbed bindings…
Or in the contemporary “Ode for Ted”:
Loam-humps, he says, moles shunt
up from delved worm-haunt;
blue fur, moles have; hefting chalk hulled flint
he with rock splits open
knobbed quartz; flayed colors ripen
rich, brown, sudden in sunglint.
They sound, in other words, as if written by someone who had just fallen in love with Ted Hughes. Which is fair enough, for a while. The question when Plath begins to sound like Plath will divide people. I hear lines in The Colossus, rather than whole poems. In the first part of “Two Views of a Cadaver Room”:
In their jars the snail-nosed babies moon and glow.
He hands her the cut-out heart like a cracked heirloom.
Or in that long-popular poem “Metaphors,” the one that begins “I’m a riddle in nine syllables,” and its contemporary—although it was not collected until 1981—“Electra on Azalea Path,” perhaps it is the subject, the daughter’s visit to the father’s grave, rather than the tone of voice that identifies the authorship:
I am the ghost of an infamous suicide.
My own blue razor rusting in my throat.
O pardon the one who knocks for pardon at
Your gate, father—your hound-bitch, daughter, friend.
It was my love that did us both to death.
Or in “The Manor Garden” when “The pears fatten like little buddhas.”
But tone of voice, like handwriting, or like a graphic style that tells you the name of the artist immediately, whatever purpose it has been put to—that tone of voice for me comes, not at some high-pitched shriek or in some angry gesture, but in a poem dated sometime in 1960 when the poet seems to have lost faith in her work hitherto. It is called “Stillborn”—and continues a strong memory of the cadaver room already mentioned.
These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.
They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.
If they missed out on walking about like people
It wasn’t for any lack of mother-love.
O I cannot understand what happened to them!
They are proper in shape and number and every part.
They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!
They smile and smile and smile and smile at me.
And still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start.
They are not pigs, they are not even fish,
Although they have a piggy and a fishy air—
it would be better if they were alive, and that’s what they were.
But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction,
And they stupidly stare, and do not speak to her.
Later this year Marianne Moore’s letters will be published, and with any luck we will all be able to read the “queerly ambiguous, spiteful letter,” as Plath puts it, in which Moore responded for a request for a reference. “Don’t be so grisly,” said Moore, and “You are too unrelenting.”15 Certainly “Stillborn” is an unrelenting poem—fifteen lines of development for a single metaphor—and that a metaphor taken from common speech. It must have been galling to Plath that both Auden and Moore at different periods, when shown her work, disliked it, while both of them liked and encouraged Ted Hughes’s. But Moore was the reader when Knopf took on The Colossus, from which she said that the seven-part “Poem for a Birthday” should be cut (as being too like Roethke).
Grisly and unrelenting, yes, but I was looking out for that particular tone of voice, the tone she acquires when she is not yelling (and most of the time she is not yelling). “These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.” “The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here./Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.” “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary./The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.” This is the quiet, quizzical Plath, the Plath of the “Bee Meeting” and “The Arrival of the Bee Box” poems.
The earliest English readers of Plath knew little about her, except perhaps that she was American and that she was dead, had died young. We thought of her, perhaps, as the latest Faber poet. I don’t think we really found her shocking—that makes us perhaps sound naive, or uncaring, but I don’t think the meaning or significance of “Daddy” or “Lady Lazarus” had really sunk in. The poems were thrilling, incantatory, taboo-breaking. But they were poems, not yet manifestoes.
In the early Seventies, Elizabeth Bishop came back to the States after a long absence and the suicide of her friend, Lota de Macedo Soares. She found she was going to have to do something to perk up her poetry readings. She wrote: “It seems impossible just to get up and read after what’s been going on lately—I shd. have a small combo at least.” What had been going on lately was Anne Sexton, reading to the accompaniment of a rock-and-roll band named after her best-known poem, “Her Kind.” Germaine Greer, without mentioning the combo, quotes a description of Sexton’s act:
Ann Sexton liked to arrive about ten minutes late for her own performance: let the crowd work up a little anticipation. She would saunter to the podium, light a cigarette, kick off her shoes, and in a throaty voice say, “I’m going to read a poem that tells you what kind of poet I am, what kind of woman I am, so if you don’t like it you can leave.” Then she would launch into her signature poem.
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villagers going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.16
The invention of the woman poet as evil or threatening archetype, witch, harridan, Maenad, Medea, the doomed woman, was not Sylvia Plath’s single-handed achievement, but Ariel is one of those books whose effects could not have been predicted, may not even have been wished. Goethe never wanted young men to commit suicide after reading The Sorrows of Young Werther. Ibsen was appalled to hear that one single married woman had left home and children after reading A Doll’s House. As long as Plath thought of herself as Lazarus, she might desire a life of affirmation and love. But Lazarus was a man. When she thought of herself as Lady Lazarus, the serial suicide, the phoenix-like, man-eating priestess poetess, she subscribed to a fatal vocation. At the beginning of this series of essays I cited an opinion of Germaine Greer, that it was when women stopped adoring poetry that they began to be able to write it. Here’s another, that “Even when the poetry is good, perhaps especially when the poetry of self-annihilation is good, the destruction of the woman is too high a price to pay.”17 Perhaps that striking posthumous fame which Bishop found in the Eighties, perhaps it came as a sort of corrective to the posthumous fame of Plath in the Seventies: the woman, the poet, must suffer no less, but her sufferings are there to be endured.
This is the third in a series of essays on women poets.
May 29, 1997
Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Houghton Mifflin, 1990), p. 163, quoting Plath’s Journals (Dial Press, 1982), p. 321. ↩
Stevenson, Bitter Fame, p. 126, quoting Plath’s Journals, pp. 211-212. ↩
Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, selected and edited by Aurelia Schober Plath (Harper and Row, 1975), pp. 466 and 476. ↩
Elizabeth Bishop, One Art:Letters, selected and edited by Robert Giroux, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), p. 333. ↩
Cited in Stevenson, Bitter Fame, p. 24. ↩
Cited in Paul Alexander, Rough Magic, A Biography of Sylvia Plath (Viking, 1991), p. 159. ↩
Stevenson, Bitter Fame, p. 25. ↩
Plath’s use of the word “toga” is of course inappropriate, a toga being a man’s garment. ↩
See Chapter Six of Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (Harvard University Press, 1991). ↩
Sharon Olds, The Dead and the Living (Knopf, 1984), pp. 44 and 36. ↩
Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, p. 238. ↩
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989, p. 165. ↩
Plath, Letters Home, pp. 243-244. ↩
Stevenson, Bitter Fame, p. 134. ↩
Cited from Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook in Germaine Greer’s Slipshod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet (Viking, 1985), p. 419. ↩
Greer, Slipshod Sibyls, p. 419. ↩