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Bad for You

By (May 1, 2012) 5 Comments

We read poetry because we love it but also because we sense, in some indefinable way, that it’s good for us. It sensitizes us, makes us more aware, opens us up, keeps us sharp – doesn’t it? Lately I’ve had some doubts. Lately I’ve been reading Sylvia Plath.

Can poetry be bad for you? Yes, but in a good way. Here I should probably define my terms. Bad: “not good in any manner or degree” (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1966); as, for example, poetry that makes you feel like death. Good: “not bad or poor” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd ed., 1992); as, for example, poetry open to the possibility that human life might conceivably have purpose or meaning. Plath’s poetry, it seems to me, comes about as close to a negation of that possibility as literature can ever come; any further down that road and you enter a realm of private horror and incommunicable despair. But maybe, to quote Northrop Frye, when you reach, as Plath surely did, “the point of demonic epiphany, the dark tower and prison of endless pain . . . on the other side of this blasted world of repulsiveness and idiocy, a world without pity and without hope,” life begins again. Or maybe not.

Even the most cursory reading of Ariel (1965), the posthumous collection that constitutes Plath’s primary claim on our attention, will turn up lines that freeze the blood:

    I am a garden of black and red agonies. I drink them.
                “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices”
    Nightly it flaps out
    Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.
    A small white soul is waving, a small white maggot.
    What a thrill –
    My thumb instead of an onion.

For all the variety of interpretation that Plath’s work has occasioned, almost everyone who has written about her testifies to a similar sense of shock. To find poetry this cold, this hard, this pitiless, this close to death, and to like it – this is “appalling,” to borrow the word A. Alvarez used to describe the experience of hearing Plath read her work aloud to him in her London apartment in the fall of 1962. “At first hearing,” wrote Alvarez in The Savage God, “the things seemed to be not so much poetry as assault and battery.” In its refusal to ingratiate itself, her work places itself beyond the controversy that, though diminished somewhat in recent years, still surrounds it. Was Plath good? Was she great? Was she overrated? Underrated? Would we care quite so much if she hadn’t committed suicide? To some degree these are necessary questions, variations of the ones we ask of any significant author. In another sense, however, they can distract from a real engagement with her work. Speaking for myself, I find that when I’m alone with the poetry, the debates that still rile up the pro-and anti-Plath camps seem pretty distant.

Maybe she was major, maybe she was minor, maybe she was a martyr, maybe Ted Hughes was married to the most difficult woman on earth. I think I’ve gained some insight from the views of both admirers and detractors, but I’ve never sorted out the contradictions in her work and I never will. All I know is that her poetry disturbs the hell out of me. Sometimes I even like it.

But how can you really “like” a poem such as “Edge,” which reads like the suicide note that it in some sense is? Well, the usual aesthetic justifications can be trotted out, and they’re not all beside the point. The appreciation of formal mastery may seem somewhat hollow in the context of such desolation — rather like exclaiming over the chiaroscuro in Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith and Holofornes,” while failing to notice that the woman in the picture is sawing off a man’s head. But Plath’s skill was formidable, and the achievement of mastery is always of interest. Even so hermetic a poem as “Edge” has the fascination of skilled craftsmanship – not just in the assonance and the enjambments and so on but in all that empty space around the “perfected” couplets, in all that she didn’t say. Sylvia Plath spent much of her short life trying and failing to write great poetry. Many books have been written about how – and at what cost – she finally succeeded in doing so in the last year and especially in the last few months of her life. Even Hollywood tried to tell the tale, with a beautiful blonde movie star (Gwyneth Paltrow) playing the lead. Plath’s life — heroic, appalling, exemplary, terrifying — reads like a Greek tragedy. Neither the film version (Sylvia, 2003) nor any work of scholarship has ever really accounted for her creative breakthrough in the midst of personal circumstances (the dissolution of her marriage, the isolation in a cold, drafty apartment with two very young children) trying enough for anyone, let alone for someone with a psychiatric history as troubled as hers. How she got from “Eclipsing the spitted ox I see / Neither brazen swan nor burning star” to “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” matters less than that she did. Perhaps the essential point is that all that elaborate technique that she worked so hard to master dropped away or got absorbed to the point of invisibility. So yes, the chiaroscuro is all very interesting, but it’s the blood-jet that ultimately matters.

So how does “Edge” make you feel? I can’t help thinking that if it doesn’t make you slightly ill you’re not paying attention. Any poem that aligns itself so fixedly on the side of death as against life is bound to unsettle. Choose death, it says. Honor, sanity, responsibility, morality, everything we have been taught to believe and should believe about the sanctity of life – all of these reasoned defenses seem like protests. But like an evil tempter the poem seduces with its vision of an achieved, incorruptible lifelessness. “Edge” may represent a slippery triumph of aesthetics over ethics, but it has on its side the primal urgings of the death wish, whose existence I had always doubted until I began reading Sylvia Plath. It also has on its side an incantatory mastery of voice that combines the vatic and the matter-of-fact:

        The woman is perfected.
        Her dead

        Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
        The illusion of a Greek necessity

        Flowers in the scrolls of her toga,
        Her bare

        Feet seem to be saying:
        We have come so far, it is over.

What breaks the spell for me are the lines that follow. The allusion to Medea becomes patent, and we remember what Medea did to her children. Not that the poem falters; the images become even more compelling and sickening. But the idea of taking innocent children over the edge into death, however acute a psychological displacement and however arresting as a trope, is flatly unbearable:

    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.

I can’t read these lines without thinking of Plath’s own children, whom she did in fact provide with milk for them to wake up to on the morning of her death. What would in another context be an illegitimate and prurient fixation on the writer’s private life is by now part of the standard equipment for reading Plath. Whether she invited such speculation by blurring the boundaries between literature and life or whether her admirers have exploited the archetypes of the poète maudite and feminist martyr past the point of no return, it’s useless to pretend we can read her poetry without regard to the tabloid fascinations of her life. It’s not irrelevant to say of Sylvia Plath that she was a loving and devoted mother to her two small children. And that she wanted to kill them. In our worst moments all parents have subliminal flashes of infanticidal rage. But maybe there are some things that shouldn’t be said, even in poetry. Anyway, if we’re considering primal urges, the one that transforms us into beasts of prey when our children are threatened seems a lot more valuable than the one that wants us – and them – to die.

“Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing,” Plath wrote in “Child” on January 28, 1963, when she had fourteen days left to live. But even her poems of maternal warmth and devotion stir wracking anxieties. “Balloons” (February 5, 1963) takes a delightful vignette about babyish innocence and play and — literally — explodes it. The balloons, left over since Christmastime, animate the little household with their color and buoyancy, “Delighting // The heart like wishes or free / Peacocks blessing / Old ground with a feather.” Yet even in this relative idyll disquieting imagery obtrudes: “Such queer moons we live with // Instead of dead furniture!” Instead? That “instead” is like being told not to think about elephants. But even if we can put out of our minds the “dead” furniture or the faint echoes of Wallace Stevens’s ominous “Domination of Black,” we know something that baby Nick (who took his life forty-six years later – fatality hangs everywhere about these poems) is about to learn – balloons pop:

    Your small
    Brother is making
    His balloon squeak like a cat.
    Seeming to see
    A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
    He bites,

    Then sits
    Back, fat jug
    Contemplating a world clear as water.
    A red
    Shred in his little fist.

Plath is not so morbid as to find an apocalypse in a burst balloon, but the shock to a small child is real – real enough for her to leave us with an image of blood, of violation or violence. Couldn’t the fatal balloon have been yellow or green? Not in a Sylvia Plath poem. It must be red – as sanguinary as “the blood bells / Of the fuchsia” in “Medusa” or the “blood-flush” of the dawn in “Totem” or the woman in the ambulance in “Poppies in October,” “whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly.” Furthermore, this ostensibly guileless lyric is stylistically of a piece with her other poems of the period, works that deploy a stark, Anglo-Saxon minimalism in service of an undisguised nihilism. “He bites, // Then sits / Back, fat jug” is exactly the sort of hammer-like monometer that Plath might have used to describe some looming existential horror rather than, as here, a momentarily perplexed baby. And what could be sadder than the hopeless tenderness of “Child,” which begins with an imagined nursery of “color and ducks, / The zoo of the new” and ends with a reality that no amount of motherly love can conjure away?

    This troublous
    Wringing of hands, this dark
    Ceiling without a star.

The terrible pathos of “Child” and “Balloons” remains on this side of the human. I’m not so sure the same could be said of “Contusion,” “Words,” “Kindness,” and some of the others. Whether this crossing of a final threshold constitutes courage or madness I still don’t know. Other poets have written about wanting to die. But very few have conveyed the uncanny sense of deathly satisfaction that characterizes her last poems, especially the ones written in January and February of 1963. There’s a sense of consummation or completion, as if the poems were already posthumous:

    The heart shuts,
    The sea slides back,
    The mirrors are sheeted.

Past a certain point despair empties out into a person-less transcendence. Certainly the rage that marks much of the poetry of October 1962 (“Daddy,” “The Jailer”) has diminished. If you’re on the verge of suicide, your husband’s betrayals must take on a certain perspective. Does Sylvia Plath have something to teach us about dying? If you believe, as I do, that life is a blessing but that a time may come when the limits of endurance are reached and the soul requires death, then the answer to that question is a qualified and appalled “yes.” People do commit suicide. Some of them surely experience the sort of letting-go that Plath described in “Paralytic”:

    I smile, a buddha, all
    Wants, desire
    Falling from me like rings
    Hugging their lights.

    The claw
    Of the magnolia,
    Drunk on its own scents,
    Asks nothing of life.

Suicide is one thing, homicide another. If the poems of January and February of 1963 communicate an otherworldly letting go, the poems of the previous autumn communicate a ferocious hanging on. Husband, mother, father, friends, neighbors, strangers – all get it in the neck, and not covertly. To turn murderous rage into poetry, however, Plath had to dig into areas of her psyche that the studied formalism of The Colossus and her earlier work wouldn’t allow. That meant repudiating many of the values that she had spent a lifetime internalizing. The A student and dutiful daughter – the eager, striving “Sivvy” of Letters Home – is not the person who wrote “Lady Lazarus.” Nevertheless, making art out of immense personal hostility does create problems of imbalance. With Plath it’s all id, no superego. But what an id! And how liberating to encounter such naked contempt, without any attempt at spurious “fairness,” in the laconic, almost prosaic diction of Plath’s late style:

    Masturbating a glitter,
    He wants to be loved.
                    “Death & Co.”

    There’s a stake in your fat black heart
    And the villagers never liked you.
    They are dancing and stamping on you.

    Now I am silent, hate
    Up to my neck,
    Thick, thick.

Once again, the poems seem to hiss unholy biddings: Let yourself, for once, feel the rapture of undiluted hatred! Maybe the value of these poems is that they give voice to psychological imperatives that we suppress at our cost. If I recall the Old Testament correctly, Job made no effort to palliate his rage with mealy-mouthed concessions to the pious admonitions of his false friends. Furthermore, as feminist critics have repeatedly urged, Sylvia Plath had plenty to be enraged about. Nonetheless, these mythic, massive, unyielding poems make emotional demands on the reader almost impossible to meet. The absence of all compassion and tenderness from much of Plath’s most celebrated work makes me yearn for something less adamantine. John Romano in Commentary remarks of “Edge” “how mean it is . . . how fundamentally coldhearted and unkind.” It’s true that Plath sometimes includes herself – partly as an instance of the internalized oppression of her sex – in her lacerating vendettas. Sometimes. There is, alas, very little self-criticism in a poem like “Medusa,” a poison pen letter to her mother, described in terms more appropriate to a sacred monster than to an ordinary fumbling woman who tried her best and had to bear the shock of reading lines like these after her daughter’s death:

    Who do you think you are?
    A Communion wafer? Bluberry Mary?
    I shall take no bite of your body,
    Bottle in which I live,

    Ghastly Vatican,
    I am sick to death of hot salt.
    Green as eunuchs, your wishes
    Hiss at my sins.
    Off, off, eely tentacle!

    There is nothing between us.

If you can commit soul-murder by writing poems, Plath seems to have done so in “Medusa,” “Daddy,” “A Secret” and a handful of others. Once read, their disquietude is impossible to shake off. Their control is perfect, their imagery like something out of Beowulf filtered through Jungian depth psychology. In fairness, psychic violence was hardly her only theme. She wrote, sometimes very well, about nature and domesticity and village life. Hugh Kenner, for one, frankly preferred the studied formalisms of The Colossus, which, he said, “the vertigo of Ariel has since persuaded readers to call contrived, frigid, academic.” Here’s something else about Ariel: it’s difficult. The continuing popularity of Plath’s poetry always amazes me; maybe its frequent obscurity satisfies a hunger for subjective intuitions. Although she derived much from the chthonic lexicons of Theodore Roethke and Ted Hughes, I’ve always thought her poetry related at least as much to the murky surrealism of modernist painters like Yves Tanguy or Roberto Matta or Arshile Gorky. Even their titles sound like Plath poems: “Wound Interrogation” “The End of Everything,” “Tabernacle,” “The Dark Garden,” “Agony.”

Was Sylvia Plath on our side? I don’t think she was, ultimately. Hatred and despair, which she expressed so powerfully, so seductively, are not the whole story. Reader, beware.

Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.