Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Week 16, Ginsberg and Plath

Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath. Ginsberg’s Howl and Selections (2863-77). Plath’s Selections (2967-79).

General Notes on Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (2863-73).

Four major influences on Ginsberg are William Blake, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and Zen Buddhism. William Blake’s influence is apparent in the sometimes hallucinogenic, visionary status of Howl, and Jack Kerouac’s shows in Ginsberg’s persistent tying together of his personal experience and his poetry. Kerouac’s idea was that you were supposed to live what you wrote about, not just write about what you thought other people ought to do. Insistence on authenticity isn’t really a new idea, of course—you can find it in many worthwhile authors (Orwell living amongst the lower classes whose plight he wanted to describe, Hemingway’s European and African travels, etc.). Still, the “make it real” ethos is especially intense in the beatnik authors. It amounts to a partial, but not necessarily total, rejection of the past (texts, culture, politics, etc.) in favor of the lived present.

Ginsberg’s concern for the present time leads us to our third influence, Whitman. The comedian Steve Allen used to put on a television show called Meeting of Minds in which important people (as portrayed by actors) of different eras would come together and share their ideas. I imagine Whitman meeting T. S. Eliot, author of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and practically screaming at Eliot, “don’t fit your ‘individual talent’ into the tradition of dead white Euro-poets! Go out and observe everything, hear everything, experience everything, for yourself. Embrace disparate experiences, scenes, and people.” Stylistically, Whitman’s impact upon Ginsberg is obvious in that both express themselves in free verse. Ginsberg likes what he calls “long clanky statements” that permit “not the way you would say it, a thought, but the way you would think it . . . . [W]e think rapidly in visual images as well as words, and if each successive thought were transcribed in its confusion . . . you get a slightly different prosody than if you were talking slowly.” Still, I wouldn’t overstate Whitman’s influence on Ginsberg. While the former usually refrains from passing judgment on what he encounters, Ginsberg, who like Whitman sometimes fuses the personal with the collective and the political, adopts a more defiant stance. Ginsberg often seems to be conveying a nearly raw transcription of an outraged, defiant mind in action. We are treated to a mix of words, images, and feelings, tumbling along at a rapid pace. Of course, like the romantics and like the modernist practitioners of “stream of consciousness” writing, Ginsberg is capable of eloquence and perfect coherence when he chooses to exhibit them. No doubt he did some editing and polishing of his poems—but that wasn’t really the essential thing about him as a poet.

With regard to the influence of Zen Buddhism, rejecting western ratiocination leads Ginsberg to an interest in the immediacy of insight offered by the Buddhist masters. The point is rather like Wordsworth’s in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads—namely, while the scientist seeks truth only in some remote future and must tear things apart so he can understand how they work, the poet sings a song for everyone. That “song” unites us, putting us in direct contact with our deepest and most common passions: love, wonder, etc. Buddhism of whatever sort stresses the power of “letting truth happen”; it emphasizes the epiphanic “unconfusion” that comes when you are able to let go of powerful illusions about yourself and your society. The western pursuit of knowledge is usually described in terms of intellectual difficulty, or mental hard labor. (John Donne’s description in “Satire 3” of how to gain theological understanding might well be generalized to cover the sciences: “On a huge hill, / Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will / Reach her, about must and about must go, /And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.”) But the Buddhist notion favors intuitive immediacy. To be sure, it takes self-discipline to make “letting truth happen” possible, but still the emphasis is on intuition, not the relentless exercise of reason and analysis. “Sunflower Sutra” is one example of a Buddhism-inspired poem in Ginsberg’s collection.

The Beatniks, Society and Politics in the American 1950’s: The 1950’s beatniks are the precursors of the 1960’s hippie movement. The difference is that while the former could only convey their message as outcasts—voices in the urban wilderness—hippies like Abby Hoffman and Timothy Leary (an Ivy-League scientist) tended to be insiders with a broad base of support amongst youth and the more disaffected in the adult population. We have the Vietnam War to thank for the hippie movement; although many people (President Nixon’s so-called “Silent Majority”) seem to have remained loyal to the voices of authority, millions didn’t. “Question authority” is a 1960’s phrase that does honor to the beatniks, our version of romantic revolutionists who place the greatest value on questioning, experimenting, and setting off on new paths to insight. The beatniks are a sympathetic group because they rebelled against semi-secular Puritanism. During the quietly oppressive “I like Ike” years, when Mutual Assured Destruction was supposed to keep us safe, Duck and Cover was Plan B in case M.A.D. didn’t ward off catastrophe, and absolutely everybody (if you followed the official culture) was lily white, straight, married, had a nice suburban house with a well-maintained lawn, two-and-half beaming children, and a dog named Skipper. Thanks to the wonders of mature industrial capitalism and America’s newfound power on the world stage after WWII, the standard of living was rising rapidly, and it’s fair to admit that millions of people lived some version of the American Dream. Those who didn’t were—well, one just didn’t talk about those people (who were bound to be considered losers, perverts, or second-class citizens). David Halberstam is one of the best historians to read on the 1950’s (see his book entitled The 1950’s). He captures the period’s mixture of giddy, innocent optimism and paralyzing dread that drove people en masse to accept the official line on domestic policy and foreign affairs.

An admittedly hasty historical generalization might give us a direct way of connecting to the chilly, uncertain and anxious (even if outwardly confident) era in which Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl. Many citizens in post-9/11 America have surely felt something like the dread experienced by Americans who lived through the Cold War, even though, of course, the threat we face isn’t quite on the order of the “absolute annihilation” that might have happened back in the 1950s and 60s. While many people have observed with concern the civic implications of the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, “extreme rendition,” secret prison camps, the recent virtual suspension of habeas corpus ad subjiciendum appeals, and other such legislation and practices on the part of our government, a large number of Americans seem to accept without much difficulty the notion that such departures from accepted official behavior are “necessary to stop the terrorists.” When people are afraid, they tend to let the authorities do whatever said authorities claim is requisite: in a word, they conform. Well, those who spoke out against the government and American society in general during the 1950’s must have felt a chill at least as deep as dissenters do today: those who didn’t like the status quo in politics, social affairs, sexuality, or anything else sounded bizarre, or even crazy, to the majority around them. The Committee on Un-American Activities dates from the passage of the McCarran Act or Internal Security Act of 1950 (which President Truman vetoed, only to see the Congress override his denunciation of a bill he considered as dangerous as the Federalists’ Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 during the administration of John Adams). Under Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, this Committee undertook to question anybody—but most prominently left-leaning Hollywood celebrities—who might be guilty of an “un-American” thought. As a teacher, I’ve long felt that although I’m entitled to my own views, I ought to avoid political grandstanding and arm-twisting. But for the most part, poets operate under no such constraints – Ginsberg and his fellow beatniks will tell you exactly what they think about anything and everything. I suppose that’s one of the most attractive things about them—in an age when art has obviously become sanitized and commodified, they retain a certain “you-be-damnedness.” This quality certainly shows in Howl.

Page-by-Page Notes on Part 1 of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (2863-73).

2865-70. The poem begins with “I saw.” Ginsberg follows this eyewitness claim with 11-12 pages of relative clauses. The idea is, “don’t argue with me—I saw all of this, in one way or another.” Some of the visions are almost certainly literal since Ginsberg would have been familiar with the beat and homosexual underground. Some of it is hallucinogenic reverie, but of course for Ginsberg the two registers of experience are not necessarily separate. What the speaker sees is all of the things that good 1950s “I like Ike” types do not, and his catalog of what he saw and what others have done amounts to a litany rejecting official power and personal restraint. The ordinary citizens do not perceive the highs or the lows embraced in Part 1. To some extent, the beat generation writers are fighting against middle-class mediocrity and conformism in the same way that romantic poets and modernists fought against utilitarian ideology and so forth.

Ginsburg’s style and subjectivity-model are Whitmanesque—open to the world and to its disparate experiences and people. But there is a difference because Ginsberg’s aim is not necessarily to affirm what he has seen and heard. Ginsburg is a much darker poet; he is exuberant to the same degree as Whitman, but the exuberance is closer to that of William Blake than it is to the celebratory viewpoint of Whitman. With Ginsberg, we sometimes get a catalog of rejection of everything that smacks of power and restraint: he has something of the Hebrew Scripture prophet about him: “woe unto you, O Jerusalem,” etc. The Whitman-indebted theme of frank sexuality appears early and remains throughout. Like drugs, sex is a purgatorial path towards transcendence. In Ginsberg, though, there’s a sex-radical edginess, as if the kind of outrageous and sometimes public sex he describes is meant to undermine the aggressively “phallocentric” quality of a militaristic American political and social system.

Throughout this section, the speaker shows what happens when hipster sensibility meets Wall Street, Main Street, Madison Ave. and what even President Eisenhower would later call “the military-industrial complex” (that is, the incestuous relationship between major arms manufacturers and the Armed Forces, to which, of course, we might as well add certain civilian government officials who make decisions about funding and who, when they leave government, often end up serving as lobbyists and industry employees or officers. Fashion, journalism, the economic system, the armed forces, all go together to make up one vast Moloch-system. If we want to use Marx-style terminology, base and superstructure are intimately related: material reality is closely allied with the order of representation to serve the interests of power and wealth. Mid-century people live in a world where “Absolute Reality” is best figured as a fleet of “drunken taxicabs” (2868 bottom)—conveyances more likely to run you down than to take you where you want to go. The behavior of the hipsters might be understood as a counter-strategy, an insistence upon unrepression and excess, to combat the even more insane “irrational exuberance” (Allan Greenspan’s phrase) of capitalist economics and its military and political props. Philosophers at least as far back as Adam Smith and Hegel, not to mention Marx, of course, have explained very cogently that a market system is based upon our propensity to purchase and consume to excess: what the system sells is only partly physical products; even more important is the selling and diversification of desire for those products and the pleasure they promise us. Only a subsistence or barter economy, after all, is based mainly on need; a sophisticated, robust market economy is based on desire, on what we want:: does anyone really need 200 shades of lip gloss, $200 jogging shoes, jeans that cost more because they have prefab holes in them, fancy overpowered cars with designer trim, and so forth?

As we move towards the end of the first section, Ginsberg makes several references to death and rebirth. He even depicts the hipsters as Christ figures, if we take into account his quotation “eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani,” which means, “Lord, Lord, why have you forsaken me?” That is what the Gospel writer Matthew describes Jesus as saying in his final moments on the cross. The ending of Part 1 is difficult—the heart of life’s poem has, Aztec-fashion, been butchered from the hipsters’ bodies, but still it’s “good to eat a thousand years.” These hipsters are said to have re-arisen, so it seems that their hearts are offered as a living sacrifice.

Page-by-Page Notes on Part 2 of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (2863-73).

The second part begins with a question with prophetic overtones. It reminds me of the way William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot pose similarly prophetic questions in “The Second Coming” and The Waste Land, respectively. The answer to the riddle is “Moloch,” so here is some information on that god. Molech, whose name probably derived from Melech “king” and Bosheth, “shame”, was one of the deities worshipped by the idolatrous Israelites. He was referred to as “the abomination of the children of Ammon” (1 Kings 11:7) and the primary means of worshipping him appears to be child sacrifice or “to pass through the fire.” Solomon was said to have built a temple to him. www.deliriumsrealm.com/delirium/mythology/moloch.asp. In Paradise Lost (1.391-405), Milton describes Moloch as follows:

First, Moloch, horrid King, besmeared with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears;
Though, for the noise of drums and timbrels loud,
Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire
To his grim idol. Him the Ammonite
Worshiped in Rabba and her watery plain,
In Argob and in Basan, to the stream
Of utmost Arnon. Nor content with such
Audacious neighbourhood, the wisest heart
Of Solomon he led by fraud to build
His temple right against the
temple of God
On that opprobrious hill, and made his grove
The pleasant
valley of Hinnom, Tophet thence
And black Gehenna called, the type of Hell.

And again, according to the Dictionnaire Infernal—Collin de Plancy (1863) (paraphrased), “Moloch was the god of the Ammonites, portrayed as a bronze statue with a calf’s head adorned with a royal crown and seated on a throne. His arms were extended to receive the child victims sacrificed to him. Milton wrote that Moloch was a frightening and terrible demon covered with mothers’ tears and children’s blood. Rabbis claim that in the famous statue of Moloch, there were seven kinds of cabinets. The first was for flour, the second for turtle doves, the third for an ewe, the fourth for a ram, the fifth for a calf, the sixth for a beef, and the seventh for a child. It is because of this, Moloch is associated with Mithras and his seven mysterious gates with seven chambers. When a child was sacrificed to Moloch, a fire was lit inside the statue. The priests would then beat loudly on drums & other objects so that the cries would not be heard.

But in Ginsberg’s lexicon, Moloch stands for the mind itself. This kind of definition reminds us of William Blake’s line in “London,” “the mind-forged manacles I hear....” We build up a certain comfortable (or even uncomfortable) view of the world and become trapped by that view. But the reference is capable of several interpretations—for example, the rituals of Moloch involve fire, and fire is obviously a means of purification. Immersion in experience, though painful, is necessary if you want to attain insight or transcendence. Section 3v ends with the hipsters going down to the river, and to me it’s hard to tell if their arriving at it is liberating and somehow “baptismal,” or if their continual sacrifice is all a waste, a chaotic series of sufferings and visions swallowed up by the vast system Moloch. But I don’t think it really is a waste: at least the hipsters have defied the idol Moloch, have decidedly cast off the mind-forged manacles or ideological stays of the Political/Military/Industrial/Social system that is America in 1955.

Page-by-Page Notes on Part 3 of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (2863-73).

Ginsberg met Carl Solomon while visiting his own mother in a mental hospital, and they subsequently became companions. This part is about the projected return of Carl Solomon from madness, I think, and his return as Ginsberg’s companion. I’ve read that it was in fact Ginsberg’s feelings about Solomon’s bout of insanity that inspired or drove Ginsberg to write Howl, and to an extent, I suppose, it makes sense to read the poem as a preparatory ritual for reconciliation with the recovered Solomon. The last line is an echo of Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” in which, of course, Whitman, treating the slain President Lincoln as an American symbol whose sacrifice capped off the Civil War and made national redemption possible, traces his long journey home from Washington, D.C. to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. At the same time, the poem treats this larger-than-life figure with great tenderness, even intimacy, dwelling on the need to find an appropriate way to speak about Lincoln now that he’s gone., how to reconcile the country to the loss and, in a sense, to the man himself. Similarly, Ginsberg’s relationship with Solomon is both deeply personal and, at the same time, something relevant to the wider American social and political scene, where there is much need for sanity, healing, and reconciliation. Notice also the several references to apocalyptic war.: Ginsberg’s defiant and apocalyptic imagery is at least partly drawn from the era’s aggressively “nuclear” militarism: the threat of the mushroom cloud and utter extinction is everywhere and is felt by nearly everyone on the planet, including many who lived in the majority of countries that didn’t even have “the Bomb.” In this section we find references to the grand struggle between socialism and capitalism, with Ginsberg taking the socialist side—that is a particularly dangerous thing to do in the McCarthyist 1950’s.

General Note on Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote” to Howl (Not in The Norton Anthology of American Literature; it’s in the City Lights edition).

In this section, Ginsberg echoes Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In that work, Blake performs what we might call a proto-deconstruction on the binary opposition heaven/hell. His point is that the two states are not to be understood in isolation—rejectionism or exclusionism isn’t enough, any more than you can return to a state of innocence from a state of experience. Blake insists on not privileging one voice or one state of mind over another because that is the primal error—it generates false abstractions and sets up false oppositions between one person and another and even within the same person’s psyche. The directness of Ginsberg’s borrowing from Blake’s style and manner of thinking suggests that Ginsberg, too, wants to emphasize that the way to redemption, to a legitimate sense of the divine, is through material experience, not denial of it. Neither Blake nor Ginsberg is one to avoid direct confrontation with individuals, systems, and ideas when he finds it necessary. In Blake and Ginsberg’s redemptive terms, “Everything that lives is holy.” Ultimately, we might argue that in its defiant insistence on reestablishing authentic connections between people and in its desire that wrongs be righted, Ginsberg’s Howl is more “comic” than a product of sorrowful “tragic vision, “ in which suffering is accepted and must be borne perpetually with no real expectation of justice or even full intelligibility about our place in the world or our relationship to the divine..

“A Supermarket in California” (2872-73). I think the poet is wondering what sort of comparison to make between his America and Whitman’s America. But also he could be asking, “what is the point of defining America?” I draw this possibility from the line “what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?” At the beginning of the poem, Ginsberg has gone shopping for images. The supermarket is of course one of those 1950s phenomena—convenient and yet impersonal, anonymous. Whitman’s ghostly, quizzical presence injects a note of personality and perversity into this sterile urban environment. He is also perhaps Ginsberg’s Virgil, the poet who has preceded him in exploration and death.

“Sunflower Sutra” (2873-74).  The term “sutra” refers to the sermons of Buddha or the bodhisattvas (near-Buddhas).  In this poem Ginsburg meditates on the relationship between body and soul.  His point is that the two are not really separate.  Rather, as he says in Buddhist fashion, we have “accomplishment-bodies” while here on earth.  We are constantly in transition from one stage to the next.  Jack Kerouac starts off the meditation by telling Ginsberg to concentrate on a dusty old sunflower in a San Francisco rail yard.  As the poem progresses, Ginsberg (I’ll just go ahead and call him that) explains that this bedraggled sunflower is like the human soul.  With concentration, the poet becomes “unconfused” about his own human potential, and, in a grand gesture, he takes up the dead material sunflower and wields it as a scepter, like a king.  The poem is obviously inspired by William Blake’s poignant “Ah! Sunflower,” one of his Songs of Experience, which runs as follows:
Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;
Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire;
Where my sunflower wishes to go.

Page-by-Page Notes on Sylvia Plath’s Selections (2967-79).

“Morning Song” (2968-69). Sylvia Plath had two children, and this poem is about one of them just after the child’s birth. Usually, we sentimentalize the relationship between a newborn baby and its mother, but Plath does not do that, insisting “I’m no more your mother/than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow/effacement at the wind’s hand.” The infant (Frieda since she was born in 1960; Nicholas wasn’t born until 1962) is at least as much a new voice as a new body, and that voice takes its place among the elements.

“Lady Lazarus” (2969-71). Plath made three suicide attempts, the last of which was successful. Her tone is understandably very bitter, and the speaker apparently feels as if people take a lurid interest in someone who has survived a suicide attempt. And of course anyone who survives such an attempt feels first and foremost like a failure. Another insight might be that any attempt at suicide that goes beyond a half-hearted gesture is successful because it amounts to a rejection of life. I believe that’s why Plath says she has already died at least once, which I gather from her line, “I do it [dying] exceptionally well.” There is much self-deprecation in this poem—the speaker must feel as if she has been putting on a show for others, as if having “returned from the dead” raises expectations of insights on the order of Dante and transforms her emaciated, battered body into something like a saintly relic (during the Middle Ages, people used to pay good money for bones and other items alleged to belong to the saints, bits of the True Cross, and so forth). Much of her poetry contains references to the Jews who died in the Nazi Holocaust—she often compares herself to them, though she isn’t Jewish. The second half of the poem is gruesome in that way since she seems to be comparing her own body to a melted down filling, like the ones Nazis collected from the camps where they gassed and then cremated their victims. God and Lucifer amount to the same malign power, both of them Nazi-like brutes, who are to be counter-threatened, not bargained with: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” There’s a sense here that Plath’s speaker attributes much of her anger and her troubles to relations with men.

“Ariel” (2971-72). Plath had a horse named Ariel, and the word in Hebrew means “lion of God.” So she is riding her horse into “the cauldron of morning,” the sun, back to the beginning of things and as if canceling out her accumulated experiences (the “solar journey” motif is evident in this poem, but the speaker isn’t “riding westward” like John Donne’s in his poem “Good Friday, 1613”). The rider-poet and the fiercely energetic horse have become one. Much of the poem gives the sense that the speaker is determinedly and with abandon casting off everything closest to her – “the Child’s cry / Melts into the wall” is one line that might be read in this light. She also describes herself as “The dew that flies / Suicidal.”

“Daddy” (2973-74). It’s clear enough that Plath was ambivalent about the power of the men in her life; it’s a bitter thing to “Nazify” your own father, and at the heart of the poem is the line “Every woman adores a fascist.” Plath’s father was a college professor and bee-keeper named Otto who died of an embolism after surgery for complications due to diabetes. He seems to have had gangrene. Mainly I think Sylvia is trying to deal with this loss—probably what she’s expressing, even though it sounds like hatred or a sense of being abused, is guilt and confusion over an irretrievable loss. Since Otto died when Sylvia was eight, one of the poem’s statements in particular is very dark: “I was ten when they buried you.” In other words, we are to imagine the dead father rotting above ground, unable to get himself buried. This dead father continues to tyrannize her imagination, haunt her like a vampire. It doesn’t help that subsequent relationships with men bear the mark of this struggle with the absent father who inhibits and forbids. So insistent is this haunting that the father comes to stand in for death itself, if I understand the poem right – isn’t that what the “black telephone” reference is about? As if she could speak to the dead man through it, connect with death itself? When the speaker says, “I’m through,” I interpret her words as a defiant insistence that she is through being obsessed with her loss, through with constant transaction or dwelling with death. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Plath was able to finish with these things and live out her life, which accounts for her status as something like a latter-day romantic, a tormented poet who died before her time.

“Words” (2975). This is a personal poem, I think, that is also about the connection between words, the world around us, and our experience of inwardness. The speaker says that her words strike natural things like an axe, and the echoes of the strike gallop off like horses, while the “sap” from the stricken tree “wells like tears” with sap that, like any stirred or troubled waters, seeks to re-establish its calm reflective surface. The reference to tears makes a connection between the speaker’s emotions and the natural world her words penetrate or strike, as if there’s an affinity between them. (Compare such affinities to Ovid or Dante’s way of humanizing nature and vice versa.) The rock turns out to be like a “white skull,” as if the events described, or the processes described, are occurring in the speaker’s head. In the end, the speaker re-encounters her words “on the road,” and now they have become “dry and riderless,” no longer driven, that is, by what generated them: the thoughts and desires of the one who uttered them. It is the “fixed stars” that rule the speaker’s life, not the words that have come back to greet her from the past (figured spatially as a road). Perhaps this is one way of saying, as Auden does in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Or even more broadly, our words don’t allow us to shape, predict, or control the larger patterns that emerge from our lives. In the end they are hollowed-out abstractions, going everywhere and nowhere; they, too, are beyond our control.

“Blackberrying” (2975-76). I need to think about this fine nature poem when I have more time, but it seems to me that usually such poems about seasonal harvesting, mowing, and so forth (Marvell, Keats, many others) are either pensive or bustling. This one is more of a sober, somewhat lonely observation about the landscape and the viewpoints or lookouts it offers. I think one of her children may be with her, to judge from the “milk bottle” reference. But I ‘m not sure about that.

“Purdah” (2976-77). The first part of the poem portrays the female speaker in her hard materiality, something to be reflected in the mirrors wielded by the husband, “Lord of Mirrors.” By implication, this wife is only allowed to see herself through the husband’s authorized version of her. But it turns out that she isn’t all surface, all exteriority: at the end she speaks of unloosing “The lioness, / The shriek in the bath, / The cloak of holes.” There is something more than a placid face “behind the veil.”

“The Applicant” (2978). This poem is a dark-comic examination of marriage as an insecure man’s “last resort.” The potential wife is many helpful, protective things – a willing “hand,” a protective “suit,” filler for an empty head, a “poultice” (something absorbent to treat pain and wounds, something with which to remove stains), and “image” for a man’s eye. The ceremonial language of marriage, “will you marry,” comes in for mockery more than once, and the line referencing what to do with the wife’s tears over her husband’s death, “We make new stock from the salt,” points to a grim psychic economy for the marriage bond. Nothing’s wasted, it seems, and even the sorrow will be put to use by the unnamed “we,” the system, the institution.

“Child” (2979). This poem may be addressed to Plath’s second child Nicholas, born in 1962. His eye is clear as yet, but the speaker laments that its objects may contaminate it all too soon: the mother’s misery, the drabness of the apartment, with its “Ceiling without a star.” The theme of motherhood is a disturbing one here: it’s partly an institution into which Plath and her speaker can’t fit themselves and don’t seem to find fulfillment. We have seen this issue before, in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand.

General Comments on Unassigned Sylvia Plath Poems (Not in our Anthology).

“Tulips.” Theodore Roethke was a big influence on Sylvia Plath, something you can tell by paying attention to the odd way she treats natural imagery. Ted Hughes says this poem is a description of her appendicitis operation. Plath had also miscarried shortly before that event. She seems to be thinking about death, and the presence of the tulips unsettles her—they are red, and swallow up the room, starving her of oxygen. By implication, there is some ambivalence towards her husband and children, who also unsettle and starve her.

“Elm.” This is a variation on the ancient trope of the tree on a hill being shaken by a storm. But here the elm tree, personified and speaking, mirrors back to the speaker her own darkness and confused agony. I think this is one of the poems Plath wrote after Ted Hughes left her. // We could read this poem as a companion to the Colossus. Her father Otto, a professor of German and entomology who died when she was very young, is treated with much ambivalence and even hostility here. I don’t think the target is so much her father—after all, he died so early in Sylvia’s life—but rather the patriarchal power he represents.

“Black Rook in Rainy Weather.” This poem shows the speaker communing with nature in her odd way—we might contrast that way with the nature poetry of pockets Hopkins, who sees all around him things honoring God by being themselves, and everywhere patterns of order. Plath says she would like occasional “backtalk” from the heavens—I particularly like the sixth and seventh stanzas, the ones in which the black crow orders its feathers and grants “A brief respite from fear / Of total neutrality.”

“The Colossus.” The speaker represents herself as working on an ancient statue, one of the seven wonders of the world—the Colossus of Rhodes. It seems he is broken in pieces thanks to some terrible event, and she cannot put them together again. I believe Sylvia Plath follows in the tradition of Virginia Woolf as an intellectual. She is surrounded by a mostly male literary tradition, and must make the best she can of her situation. The Oresteia, to which Plath refers, opens with the transgression of Clytemnestra, who is subsequently punished for the murder of Agamemnon by her son Orestes. The speaker carries on in workmanlike fashion, but says the work makes her none the wiser. Perhaps, as has been suggested, she is figuring herself as a priestess tending to a dying God or to her male Muse.


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