by Kim Bridgford
he is the Marilyn Monroe of American poetry, with people still fascinated by her life fifty years after her death. Yet the biographical details that make the story so compelling to literary voyeurs obscure the force of her work, and the underlying formalism of her craft.
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932, to Otto and Aurelia Plath. Her brother Warren was born April 27, 1935. Her father, a professor of biology, was a dominant personality in the family, with Aurelia going so far as to make diagrams of the placement of his papers so that she could return them after she cleaned. Otto's death from untreated diabetes when Plath was eight had devastating repercussions. His loss would shape her poetry, and his personality would shape her future relationships with men. Her early poem "The Colossus" (1959) emphasizes the enormity of her father's influence. Her most famous poem "Daddy" (1962)--which needs to be taken into account when any woman poet writes about her father--is so forceful in its bitterness, with Plath portrayed as a Jew and Otto Plath as a Nazi, that people are still asking if Otto Plath was a Nazi. He was not.
Raised by her widowed mother, Plath persevered, earning gold stars throughout her academic life. Her acceptance to Smith College was a high point. Yet she had difficulty fitting in, as she took her academics seriously and many other classmates did not, many of whom were from a different social class.
In the midst of her achievement, however, she felt a sense of doom. She suffered a breakdown in the summer after her junior year, documented in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963). She had recently completed a guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine; yet when she failed to get into a summer course at Harvard, she went into a deep depression. As she wrote in her journal, "You wonder if you've got what it takes to keep building up obstacle courses for yourself, and to keep leaping through them" (25). She took an overdose of sleeping pills and hid herself in the crawl-space in her basement. After a well-publicized search for her, she was found, nearly dead. Insects had already started to burrow into her skin, which is noted in another famous poem, "Lady Lazarus": "They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls" (41-41).
Following hospitalization, shock treatments, and therapy, she finished her degree summa cum laude at Smith College (1955), and received a Fulbright to go to Cambridge University. There she met her future husband, Ted Hughes (1930-1998). They married on June 16, 1956. Much has been written about their tumultuous relationship. Yet they did share a dedication to their craft and an expectation of literary success.
They had two children, Frieda (born April 1, 1960) and Nicholas (born January 17, 1962). After Hughes began an affair with Assia Guttman Wevill, the marriage disintegrated. Plath was living with the two children in London--in Yeats's apartment--when she put her head in the oven and gassed herself on February 11, 1963.
Several years later, Assia Guttman Wevill (1927-1969) killed herself and her four-year-old daughter Shura in the same way as Plath. While these facts are well known, the situation intensified with a poem by Robin Morgan (1941) called "Arraignment" (1972), a feminist poem that takes Hughes and the patriarchal literary establishment to task.
Because Plath and Hughes were not divorced at the time of her death, Hughes became her literary executor. This enraged many of Plath's readers, as well as the fact that he burned one of her journals, which described the end of their relationship. As a result, Plath's gravesite has been repeatedly defaced, with the name "Hughes" chipped off her grave marker.
Hughes became poet laureate of England in 1984. However, all his life, the life--and death--of Sylvia Plath followed him. Repeatedly, he was asked to comment about his relationship with Plath. Then he was sued over the depiction of a character in the film version of The Bell Jar (1979). Toward the end of his life, he wrote a book of poems called Birthday Letters (1998), which recreated his relationship with Plath with fondness. Yet this did not do much to dispel the literary animosity that surrounded him. Competing biographies took sides: Linda Wagner-Martin (pro-Plath) (1987) and Anne Stevenson (pro-Hughes) (1998).
Plath is, perhaps, most famously commemorated in "Sylvia's Death" (1963) by Anne Sexton (1928-1974), which describes their friendship and mutual fascination with death. A quieter portrayal is found in Richard Wilbur's "Cottage Street, 1953" (1976).
In 2009, her son Nicholas, a biologist living in Alaska, hanged himself. Her daughter Frieda is a poet and visual artist.
Because of the continued fascination with her biography, Plath's book Ariel (1965) has remained one of the best-selling poetry books of all time. She is also the author of The Colossus (1960), Crossing the Water (1971), Winter Trees (1972), and The Collected Poems (1981). Other books include a collection of stories, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977); her journals; and books for children. The Bell Jar is a popular high school and college text, with the fig tree section embodying a series of choices for women: "I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest" (63).
This theme of choice is also important in Plath's poetry; once again, in terms of her craft, she tries to have all the figs. Plath's work has a continual conversation with form, and to ignore this is to ignore not only her apprenticeship years, but her indebtedness to formalism. Plath's poem "Two Sisters of Persephone" (1956) signals her underpinnings as a formalist poet, while also announcing some of the dominant themes of her life and work: myth, fertility, the somewhat sterile nature of intellectualism. In topic--and in form--this poem is about choice.
The poem has an obvious precedent in Gwendolyn Brooks' "Sadie and Maud" (1945). In both poems, the wilder sister has the more successful life. In a sense, this is a variation of the fig tree theme, narrowed down to two figs, i.e., the Greek term aporia, the either/or situation with which Plath often felt she was faced.
The poem cleverly uses the iambic tetrameter line of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" as a starting point--and even echoes Marvell's imagery in its concluding lines: "wry virgin to the last. . . with flesh laid waste, / Worm-husbanded, yet no woman" (27-28). Like an accordion, the lines move in and out, echoing the alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) as well as the accentuals of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). This formal mistress is not coy; she is a master. She even goes as far as to echo Edgar Lee Masters' "Petit, the Poet" (1915). Her phrase "Dry ticks mark time" (8) picks up on Masters' "Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a quarrel
(2) and "Tick, tick, tick, what little iambics" (17), questioning the efficacy of small, confined work.
The poem has an abba rhyme scheme, with mostly slant rhyme. Since one sister is outside the house, the other "within," the form echoes that situation with its "envelope" style: abba. The two rhymes illustrate the either/or strategy of the poem, and physically illustrate the suffocation of the stay-at-home sister. Also, given that this rhyme scheme is most commonly associated with the Petrarchan sonnet, and hence the masculine love tradition, its irony as a structural mechanism is obvious.
This is the house, then, that patriarchy built--in a range of ways. First, there is the literal house. If one works within it, one is in the "dark" (5), "dry" (8), "Rat-shrewd" (11), and "Root-pale" (12). If one moves outside it, one is "Bronzed" (13), the "sun's bride"(21), someone who "bears a king" (24). Everywhere one goes, one fulfills a stereotype--either the withered virgin or fertile Mother Nature. It is not surprising that the set-up is exactly that of the carpe diem argument: either have sex or be eaten by worms. How does one step outside the framework to have a new conversation? The snake--or worm--doubles back on itself.
The subtle slant rhymes also ebb and flow: house-without-light-these (1-4), room-on-machine-time (5-8), sum-enterprise-eyes-frame (9-12), lies-gold-lulled-poppies (13-16), flare-blood-blade-altar(17-20), latter-seed-pride-bitter (21-24), lemon-last-waste-woman (25-28). Such subtlety calls to mind Emily Dickinson, but also looks ahead to the conversational rhymes of women formalists such as Julia Alvarez and Mary Jo Salter.
When the rhymes are separated from the rest of the poem, the interior rhymes do what they should in the best of formal poems: they have their own conversation. Those "trapped" rhymes have impressive statements to make: "without light" (2-3), "gold lulled" (14-15), "blood blade" (18-19), "seed pride" (22-23), and "last waste" (26-27). They illustrate the famous claim of Richard Wilbur (1921) that "the strength of the genie comes from his being confined in a bottle" (Wilbur 196). Yet, when one adds the gender issue to this pressure situation, what ultimately gives?
With Plath, of course, it was the most extreme of answers: her life (an inevitability that A. Alvarez, among others, has argued). Yet in this early formalist poem she raises both formal and thematic concerns for all women poets. What if one is myth and muse, following a male tradition but also following a female one? How does one put the form in service while also serving the form?
In many ways, the exterior rhymes of this poem build to the paradoxical answer to that question: "house/these" (1,4), "room/time" (5,8), "sum/frame" (9/12), "lies/poppies" (13/16), "flare/altar" (17/20), "latter/bitter" (21/24), "lemon/woman" (25/28). The woman poet finds herself a paradox, a walking aporia, and while the better choice in the narrative is fertility, that "red silk flare," it is not a final answer, just as it never has been--even in that witty carpe diem poem "To His Coy Mistress." "To His Coy Mistress" is a poem meant to be spoken between two intimates, elaborate verbal foreplay, such as it is. Yet this carpe diem poem, while imploring the mistress to seize the moment, was never meant to be a continual framework for daily life.
This is what Plath struggled with: What was to be the framework? How was one to be wife and mother, teacher and writer? How was one to be valued in all these arenas? Ultimately, how does one address that tempting fig tree, a woman poet's Tree of Knowledge? How to do all this work and avail oneself of all these choices? One cannot, of course. It is this paradox, in addition to the Marilyn Monroe syndrome, that makes her of enduring interest. Women see that she tried to have it all; she could not, nor can any of us.
Her form here, with its subtle fluctuations, might take another image from literature. Plath's is no "Ode on a Grecian Urn" with Keats's lovers always about to kiss. Her work is not about stasis, a frozen world where everything is the same way forever. Instead, her poetry illustrates the movement of form, the conversation between accentuals and accentual-syllabics, and different lengths of accentual-syllabic lines. As she says famously in "Lady Lazarus": "It's easy enough to do it and stay put" (50). "Two Sisters of Persephone" shows that, while it may look as if there is an answer, there is always another. This is the gift of her poetic form, and one of Plath's underappreciated contributions to the study of women's poetry.
Placing this poem in the context of such poems as "The Colossus" and "Daddy," there is a chilling effect. While certainly in "Two Sisters of Persephone" there is an either/or world, it is at least placed within a context of women and in a tradition of women and women's poetry (with nods as well to the masculine tradition). In both "The Colossus" and "Daddy" she is literally and figuratively overwhelmed by men, particularly her father. It is important to note this, as this interpretation has affected both her reputation as a poet in general and the examination of her poetry in particular. It is also important, in a larger sense, in terms of assembling the timeline and illustrating why even the reconfiguration of women's poetry apart from men's poetry can be fraught with controversy. Thus, a brief analysis of these poems in light of "Two Sisters of Persephone" is in order.
In "The Colossus" power is one thing the speaker does not have. She is trying to recreate her father as one of the seven wonders of the world, admitting "I shall never get you put together entirely" (1) and "I crawl like an ant in mourning / Over the weedy acres of your brow" (12-13). She is smaller than her father--an insect, after all--in the symbolic context of his mythological presence: "O father, all by yourself / You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum" (17-18). She hides out in his ear, which again indicates her size and significance and also places her in the position of listener. She feels that she is forever joined to this enterprise: "My hours are married to shadow" (28).
Underneath this poem is a modulating iambic line that both approaches a traditional line and eludes it. Perhaps this suggests the subtle ways in which Plath is asserting herself within the masculine poetic and familial tradition.
While the tone of "The Colossus" is ultimately despairing, the tone of "Daddy" is bitter and aggressive, done in stabbing accentuals.
Right up front the speaker admits, "You do not do, you do not do / Any more" (1-2). In the poem, the speaker is both suffocated, on the one hand, and reconfigured, on the other, in a loaded image of herself as a Jew and her father as a Nazi. The controversy centers around this question: Who can say such things, if they are not literally true? Some, like Irving Howe, would argue that one cannot, especially given the enormity of the comparison, and the tragic consequences of the concentration camps.
The issue, I posit, is getting people to listen, and, given the tradition of women's poetry, this is often difficult to do. Perhaps it does take a hyperbolic statement to get people to take notice. Plath was both a performer and an entrepreneur, the stunned victim and the impassioned avenger. Always, she was drawn to extremes, the either/or. This may say something about how difficult it is for a woman to find a middle ground, particularly a woman like Plath, for whom the house of patriarchy was the only house she knew, both at home and in the world of the arts. The sado-masochistic becomes the way to embrace a world that seems to lack viable alternatives:
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
In her personal life, when she did choose, it was like a snake doubling back on itself. She admits in "Daddy," "I made a model of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look / And a love of the rack and the screw. / And I said I do, I do." Otto Plath became Ted Hughes. While Plath did not live in the age of the best-selling young adult novel Twilight, she understood the strange romanticism with vampires: "The vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know."
So what to do? She can attempt to exorcise her father, as she does at the end of the poem--"Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through"--or find another path. In sitting in the fig tree, this is the difficulty, this is the risk, and this is the hope. While in her own life, she could not figure out how to partake more moderately of the alternatives, she became a foremother, foresister, and forward thinker, who could envision what others would go on to shape and nurture. It is to our benefit, as the poets who would follow her, that, while she sat there trying to imagine it, her formalist poetic underpinnings would be the tree that held her up.
Masters, Edgar Lee. "Petit, the Poet." Spoon River Anthology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992. 173.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
---. "The Colossus." The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992. 129-30.
---. "Daddy." The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992. 222-24.
---. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.
---. "Lady Lazarus." The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992. 244-47.
---. "Two Sisters of Persephone." The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992. 31-32.
Wilbur, Richard. As quoted in "Richard Wilbur." The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Eds. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O'Clair. Vol 2: Contemporary Poetry. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2003. 195-96.