I hadn’t read Sylvia Plath since I was in high school, and that was for a creative writing class, and my perception at the time was that I did not like Sylvia Plath. (All right, I liked “Daddy”: “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”) Her persistent Nazi imagery creeped me out, and the teacher gave the impression that it was totally alien to Plath’s ethnicity or upbringing—the Jewish victim was an identity she, a Cambridge-educated WASP, had wholly co-opted. My overall impression was that she was the spoiled priestess of adolescent depression, the ultimate poseur.
This was not a very good English teacher.
So I’m reading Miranda’s packet now, and I’m startled to see Plath, in the Orr interview, claim that “German/Austrian heritage” as truly her own—I’m startled to see her discuss her poetry (at what, age 30?) in terms of politics and greater historical emphasis, as if she were voicing a character in these poems after all, not just giving vent to overly dramatic housewife malaise, and I’m startled to realize that—wow, I was a really dumb kid.
I understood “Mirror,” for example, on a completely intellectual level. It’s not that I didn’t get the “terrible fish” and everything. But I was seventeen. And twenty-four isn’t so very much older than seventeen, but I read “Mirror” again in Miranda’s packet and it was terrifyingly vivid. I didn’t even need a minute to puzzle over this or that half-forgotten metaphor—I’ve been sitting here for months dreading my twenty-fifth birthday in December, wondering what the hell I’ve been doing with my life, and every word of that poem seemed to cut into my skin, to cut a window into the future.
I think what keeps my conversion to Fan of Plath from being complete, however, is that 1) some of her poems require such extensive unpacking as to render them utterly cryptic on first (and second, and third) glance. It’s not that I’m not willing to do the work intellectually; it’s that I’d like to at least be able to understand the poem on a superficial level before I go spelunking. I can do that with Philip Levine, or Pablo Neruda, or Beth Ann Fennelly—I can’t do it with “Ariel,” only blindly admire a line like “And now I / Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.” It’s my failing, I know.
The other problem I have is that 2) her poetry is so uniformly depressing—about pain, about old wounds, about new wounds. Did Plath not have one single moment of joy in her life that she felt was worth writing about? Reading Plath is like being forced to wear dark glasses; you feel deprived of a certain color, a certain energy, and I guess my favorite poets will be the ones who deal with a spectrum of emotions. But I will admit that if she’s the priestess of angst, it’s because her fans have elevated her to the position, not because she chose it for herself.
That said, I really like her work on a technical level, a level that I began to give her more credit for after reading the Orr interview, in which she came off as a perfectly normal human being, and a very intelligent one at that. (In other words, that interview helped me separate Plath the writer from Plath the tortured speaker of the poems.) I like the conversational voice of her poems (well, a line like “O my enemy” in “Lady Lazarus” seems a little over the top). I love the way she uses internal or irregular rhyme—I don’t quite know the technical term for it, but it reminds me vaguely of the way Browning uses rhyme in “My Last Duchess,” in a way that, spoken aloud, the rhyme doesn’t knock you over the head but rather sneaks into the monologue—makes you feel like poetry is lying latent in everyday conversation, if only you had the ear to hear it:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I am willing to give her that.
ETA: See the Sylvia trailer at Trailer Park.