Extremes in Plath’s Poetry
In this essay Oberg examines Plath’s use of extremes in her poetry.
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 which I find problematic and dangerous. A progression is evident in her handling of love and the love poem that calls into question the loving of intentions which some of the first lines of poems announce, but which the tone of whole poems or the endings of poems commonly belie. (pp. 152-53)
In the important Ariel bee poems, her uncertainty issues in the fear of being hurt or fatally "stung" by love. It is the kind of bad joke or bad pun which comes to typify her late art. It expresses a situation so extreme and intolerable to her that only by such devices could she ever have hoped to manage her world. Lowell and Berryman use similar devices, but very often out of real strength. In Plath, however, the strategy commonly reduces to sheer helplessness.
The Ariel poems reveal a woman both too exposed and too unopen. The sexuality is relentless and overwhelming. The puns not only proliferate -- "head","queen","screw","cherry" -- but succeed in words like "mail" (letter and "male") and "box" (sexual organ and coffin) in making explicit the meanings which are central to her work. (p. 154)
If Plath wished her poems to stand as love letters to the world, the perspective from which they proceed may, in the end, have made that wish impossible. Her metaphor for the world may very well have been a response to a loveless world. But it is here that the logic of the argument breaks down. For the poetry shows the controlling metaphor threatening to become the informing vision itself. By the time she wrote her last poems, there was less and less room for and patience with love. If the poems were once meant to create love, they came to stand for a world which had forgone or gone beyond some loving, human circumference.
The problem of artistic control which so many critics have addressed in Sylvia Plath I find less central and settleable than that of the controlling metaphor in her verse. Her best poems are incredibly controlled. But the issue of controlling metaphor lingers on long after a reader has decided whether the poems show control or "the look of control" or "controlled uncontrolledness."
The controlling metaphor affects much that happens in Plath's poetry. In the process of finding what to "do" with her love, she often concluded by inverting it. Poem by poem, not just in Ariel, she radically confused love and death, self and other. Images of love give way to images of incest (Daddy, and the bee poems) and masturbation (Suicide Off Egg Rock, Ariel,Death & Co.,The Jailor,Childless Woman ). Loveless images of madness, suicide, and solipsism -- from the "I am, I am, I am" of Suicide Off Egg Rock to the "ich, ich, ich, ich" of Daddy -- take on the force of leitmotifs for her work. And art, if capable of leading us back to loving, human contexts, here gives the impression of being one more inversion of love. It can be one more deception in this life.
In the late poems, something happens to language and to love and to the possibility of defining a self through love. Repeatedly, the health or breakdown of one is a reflection of the other. (pp. 156-57)
As a representative, twentieth-century writer, Plath lends to language as language a central place in her work. But in the implications and concluding achievement of this, she is entirely herself. In five very late poems, Words, Kindness, Edge, Contusion, and The Fearful, she has no rival, perhaps fortunately so.
These poems, unlike
The five poems share, aside from having been written during the last week of Plath 's life, an assessment of a situation where love seems either absent or unreal, deceptive or unimportant. In all of them, there is a rightness in choice of phrase and word and a brilliance in the run of images in individual stanzas and in entire poems. (p. 158)
These poems all take an associational, imagistic technique to a point of deadly confusion and delusion where the poet can fold her poem-children back into her body simply by writing out the wish ( Edge) or where she is so uncomprehending of human, loving kindness that she cannot distinguish between children and roses ( Kindness).
What I am suggesting is that these late poems are not the mystically calm, orderly pieces which some critics have seen them to be. Instead, they are the terrible, terrifying creations of a woman who, near the end of a life, still could not do without love, even if she never learned what to do with it, As a result, the tone of the poems is something less than the matter-of-factness of the saint. (p. 160)
If love was never completely renounced by her, neither was it constant in her work. And the poems keep recording a journey and a movement as inevitable as death. Now that the poems which were written just before or at the same time as the Ariel poems have been collected and published in Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, we are afforded an even better means of charting and confirming larger movements and stages in her work. When Ted Hughes and other critics first wrote of an inevitable, conscious development in her poetry and when the titles of the posthumous books Crossing the Water and Winter Trees were first announced, I wondered how willful was the creation of that legendary development and reputation. But a consideration of the poems themselves and of her title, The Colossus, for her first book, helped to dispel such fears. In the same way, interpretations of her art after the fact of her suicide now strike me as less arbitrary and fallacious than they once did. That she eventually took her own life is important. It might be dangerous not to consider that fact seriously.
Plath 's development from The Colossus to the poems of the later volumes is technical as much as it is psychic and spiritual. More particularly, that development concerns her use of image in connection with the possibilities for language and love. How that development implies and makes explicit a journey, her gathered work actualizes and clarifies.
By the title of her first volume, The Colossus, Plath signified what she would spend a lifetime trying to create. Sometimes she exchanged the colossus image for the image of an ark or a garden. But the intentions were always the same, to write words that would bear love and that would have life. The difficulty, however, was that, from the very beginning, her landscape risked turning into (to use images from her own poems) some nightmarish bestiary or wintering ship or burnt-out spa. The problem of what would be her controlling metaphor, then, was full upon her from her earliest work.
The poems she wrote after those included in The Colossus show her still involved in trying to put together saving, loving words. But the colossus which she feared would never get "put together entirely" and which she feared would be a ruin becomes more than a distant, playful fear. The opening and closing poems of The Colossus -- The Manor Garden and The Stones -- depend upon and establish the essential, ominous ambiguity that mark later poems like Tulip. (pp. 161-62)
Now that Crossing the Water and Winter Trees have been published, there is the opportunity to observe the poet at every stage taking stock of her situation and development. The Colossus and Ariel, even before the other volumes appeared recently, showed her charting a course, or "getting there," as she put it; she assigned it as a title to one of her poems. If the exact nature of the journey or voyage or ride, all prominent metaphor in her verse, was often in doubt, its connection with love was not.
There are two major movements which the entire body of Plath's poetry suggests -- toward the creation of love and toward some state beyond love. These movements are not strictly chronological any more than they are exclusive of one another. In part, they exist in and through the very last poems she wrote. But, as poems written in time, by a woman aware of time, they tend to build toward that point where the second movement, a state beyond human love, can be claimed, or at least volitionally prophesied.... Sometimes Plath depended upon the fierce repetitions of "would" or "shall" or "let us" in order to move toward and create that state beyond love. The syntax of poems like A Birthday Present and Lady Lazarus depend greatly upon such a volitional strategy. (pp. 162-63)
Mystic contains within it a countermovement toward a belief in earthly love.
The contradictory impression which Mystic succeeds in conveying not only is central to the meaning of that poem, but it also connects with a defining center in much of Plath's late verse. On the one hand, there is the woman who becomes a contemporary doubting Thomas, except that what she disbelieves are not Christ's wounds and resurrected presence but his love:
How I would like to believe in tenderness.
(The Moon and the Yew Tree ...)
This moment is as desperate as any in modern poetry. It is as pathetic as Prufrock's musing on the mermaids, "I do not think that they will sing to me." (p. 165)
Marriage imagery is resplendent in Sylvia Plath's poetry. "Do" is recurrent and hypnotic as a word and as an action. At times the persona saying, "I do, I do," is a mechanical doll or a prisoner confessing to a crime. These senses of the word and phrase Plath commonly linked with the recital of the marriage vow. "Do" also is punned upon, especially in her poem, "Daddy." The German, familiar "du" or you ("do","du","you" -- they even rhyme) of intimate address and love songs is recalled, almost as a reminder of the historical and personal perversions to which love and action can be subjected. (pp. 165-66)
The Colossus already revealed the poet's predilection for decadent unions between love and death, and art and life. If her browned gardenia and ghastly orchid recall finde sicle botanical catalogues, it is in her taste in sounds, colors, jewels, music, painting, and literature that she shows herself to be a contemporary decadent.... In the poems that came after The Colossus, however, we are able to see how this incipient decadence is turned from something faintly literary into something closer to the poet's very self: "Pom! Pom! They would have killed me!" (pp. 166-67)
That Sylvia Plath wrote two last-words poems, one called just that (Last Words) and another, Words, I find significant. The major problem which I address in this chapter -- to whom and to what do her poems finally belong - the two poems engage, although in the body of her poetry they are not unique in that concern. (p. 168)
Last Words is a very different kind of poem, closer in style to poems of intense desire like Tulips, A Birthday Present , or The Arrival of the Bee Box. The poet in Last Words [in Crossing the Water] wants and volitionally unlooses herself from domestic things in order to achieve a state of utter mystic peace:
It will be dark,
And the shine of these small things sweeter than the face of Ishtar.
Ishtar, Babylonian and Assyrian goddess of love and fertility, is invoked. But it is the artful, statuary face of Ishtar which has importance for her in this poem. The state yearned for is death, not love. The word "sweeter" in this quotation goes back to a line earlier in the same poem, "I should sugar and preserve my days like fruit!" Sweetness commonly threatened loving deception for Plath . Here it carries equally dark connotations of preservation, but always at the unnatural expense of life. Sweetness proves costly, proves to be death.
As Last Words earns its authority, there emerges that tone, or "decor" -- an important word for ... Plath -- which related to the matter of control and to whatever triumph or failure these final poems contain.
Last Words manages to indicate how the poet willed to move herself and her poetry toward love as much as it indicates how she could not handle the artful business she went about. "I can't stop it," she wrote in this poem. Here "It" meant not love or blood-hurt but the escape of spirit-breath or the release of images. (pp. 168-69)
Last Words, like any of the major poems from Ariel or Crossing the Water or Winter Trees, does not dispose of the nagging sense that, in love as it may be with "a soldier repose than death's" (a phrase from an early poem, The Sculptor), in the end, it belongs to an art of elegy, less by choice than by some desperate, pathetic necessity. (p. 170)
If the late poems belong to anyone, they belong not to her father or husband or children or even to poetry (the sense of the poem as unloving love-child she never forgot). But to Death, Death the lover, Death the double.... (pp. 170-71)
What I have been tracing - the attempts of the poems to establish lyric and love and the countermovement toward elegy and to a deadly journey which could not be stopped -- gain authority and intensity from the more recently released volumes. They never contradict but extend what the Ariel poems were about. The old faults prove to be the same; "love cannot come here," we again find.
The moving center of both books, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, is that of a woman of sorrows. Recurrently, Plath imagined herself as Mary and Christ. Ease, love, correspondence, and relationship all were yearned for and did not emerge. (p. 172)
If some important part of Sylvia Plath in her late poetry refused to accept a world of gigolos as the final version of the world, she never abandoned the doubt that she could recognize or accept love even were she able to manage it in her life and art. As a result, tone figures more and more prominently in the interpretation of the poems she left behind. Tone, its readiness and surety, dominates.
The posthumous poems expose discrepancies and failures of the most serious kind. The phoenix figure, prominent in various guises in her work, deserted her outside her poems. And the children-poems she imagined in the late poem, Edge, folded back into her and taken out of this life, became painfully distinct from her in death -- the two children fathered by Ted Hughes and left behind; the poems which were posthumous. And the Medea figure, once little more than a literary trapping in her early poem, "Aftermath," proved in the late poem, Edge, only a pathetic wish denied to her outside of mythology. When she died, so did her long sought-after and invoked gods.
The confusions and delusions of art and life, wish fulfillment and reality, became exposed at her death. And they record a sad fact. But, beyond that and more important, they reach back to some sense of lovelessness or lack implicit in a major part of her poetry. The Ariel poems, looked at together with the poems from Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, now strike me as less in love's behalf than she would have liked them to be. Poems like Daddy and Lady Lazarus in the end may not be the triumphs which their momentum and inventiveness at times celebrate. Instead, and this is my sense of them, they belong more to elegy and to death, to the woman whose "loving associations" abandoned her as she sought to create images for them. (pp. 172-73)
Arthur Oberg, "Sylvia Plath: 'Love, Love, My Season'," in his Modern