November 2, 2010 § Leave a comment
The Cathedral of St John the Divine (Amsterdam Avenue at 112th street, New York City) inducted Sylvia Plath into its American Poets’ Corner in November, 2010.
I helped put together the program of readings and talks, and learned more about this poet I admired when I was very young, didn’t think about very much for years, and now, in middle age, admire again differently. Lately I’ve been reading Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook and found myself pulled in again to that passionate, sad story. This is the kind of life you find in literature all the time, less so next door, but which I think happen to ordinary people much more often than one thinks. Agony moves us. The inner agony of the extremely gifted and privileged moves us very differently: the waste (as if the work of one artist matters more than a million anonymous lives), the selfishness (as if we have any idea how others suffer)! But more powerful, and the reason people read Plath, is because she can articulate that agony in a way that makes it seem not a waste and not selfish.
Reading her work and her diary is transformative because of the qualities many find repulsive: her relentless focus on herself and her rage. When I was in my 20’s, such naked expression of female ambition and anger were still new and thrilling. She wasn’t a feminist in the strict sense—she was ferociously competitive with other women and didn’t leave much trace of her political views. What she did was kick the ideal of woman as all-forgiving Madonna in the teeth. “The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary,” she writes in The Moon and the Yew Tree. She started out wanting to be a perfect wife and mother as well as a great poet and realized, as most women do, that this is impossible, and beyond that, absurd.
Many of the famous women writers before Plath grew up in circumstances, or with sensibilities, that did not put them in such conflict with the role of domestic goddess. They were either artist/bohemians from the start, or else in a productive harmony with their domestic side or obligations. Virginia Woolf may have written A Room of One’s Own but she also grew up in a family and milieu of artists, and had servants.
For most of history, art was created by people of means, or people willing to live very simply. Living simply is harder when you have children, and “La Vie Boheme” became far more expensive in the latter decades of the 20th century. Certainly the way Sylvia and Ted managed to live—poor but able to buy a house, eat and feed their children without working at a regular job or teaching—couldn’t be done today. The circumstances she faced only got more drastic.
Plath probably would have detested many of the people who came to consider her their icon. Her suicide wasn’t a political act against male hegemony. It was an expression of hopelessness and defiance–the two so intertwined they can’t be separated—and maybe (probably) revenge. suicide appeals to people suffering from depression, and infuriates those who don’t understand, precisely because it is so uncompromising and powerful. It renders visible the idea of unbearable pain occurring in ordinary circumstances, shameful desires for attention at any cost; it tells the world what grief is, which is something most of us try very hard to forget.
None of this means that it’s wrong to read the poems from a feminist or any other standpoint. Poems belong to the world. But if you want to know why she wrote them—and I don’t mean why she wrote poetry, she was born to do that, but wrote these poems in particular, you need a long acquaintanceship with pain.
If Plath had lived, she would be less known to those who don’t read poetry, but far more known to those who do. She was developing so fast, and had such prodigious energy and ambition, there is no doubt in my mind that her work would have only gotten better. She was working on a second novel when she died, and the thought of her living to write more fiction is almost as exciting as thinking of the poetry she might have written. She was a wicked satirist.
The Arrival of the Bee Box
I ordered this, clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.
The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.
I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.
How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!
I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.
I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.
They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary.