Bernstein, Charles. "The Second War and Postmodern Memory." In A Poetics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 193-217. Piombino, Nick, and Alan Davies. "The Indeterminate Interval: From History to Blur." In The Boundary of Blur, by Nick Piombino. New York: Roof Books, 1993, pp. 34-42.
PLATH, SYLVIA (1932-1963) Sylvia Plath is better known for her troubled life than for her poetry. She suffered an early mental breakdown that she fictionalized in The Bell Jar (1963), which became a bestseller after her suicide. But her poetry deserves more attention than it receives. She is considered a confessional poet, because of the intimate nature of her poetry and because of her relationships with confessional poets Anne sexton and Robert lowell. Like them, Plath rejects the modernism of Ezra pound, T. S. eliot, and William Carlos WILLIAMS, which emphasizes the abstract and the universal. Instead Plath embraces the deeply personal. But she is not purely autobiographical either. In a 1960 BBC interview she said, "I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but ... I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying" (qtd. in Alexander 305-306). Plath's poetry transcends the term confessional through her attention to the craft of poetry and by her filtering of experience through the lens of her own stylized mythology. The "I" in her poems is a persona, or fictional mask, rather than the true voice of the poet. It is a shell to protect an intense, highly sensitive individual who needed to be heard, but not seen too deeply. This dramatic tension between disclosure and omission is a large part of what makes Plath's work so difficult yet so rewarding.
Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a German immigrant father and a mother of Austrian descent. Her father, Otto Plath, was a professor of German and biology who authored a landmark study on bumblebees. Her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath, had been a student of otto's at Boston University and was the valedictorian of her class. According to biographer Paul Alexander, Aurelia Plath's strongest desire was to be a writer, but she chose instead to raise a family and to advance the career of her husband. Born of such ambitious and exacting parents, it is not surprising that Plath was a volatile mix of drive and self-doubt. Her father's death when she was eight, of complications from long-undiagnosed diabetes, affected Sylvia profoundly for her entire life. Even then she was driven to write, and she published her first poem in a Boston newspaper at age eight. She won literary prizes throughout high school and pursued a degree in English at Smith College, where she published both prose and poetry in national periodicals. She also won a contest for an internship with Mademoiselle magazine in New York. Her experience there precipitated a mental breakdown that resulted in a nearly successful suicide attempt.
Following graduation from Smith in 1955, Plath went to Cambridge University in England on a Ful-bright Fellowship. She met the then-unknown British poet Ted Hughes, and after a short courtship, they married and had two children. The union lasted six years; she was estranged from him when she died. The separation provided the catalyst for Plath's best-known poems. In the seven months between the initial breakup and her death, Plath wrote more than 50 poems, most of which she ordered in a manuscript entitled Ariel and other Poems and left on her desk. Published posthumously in 1965, Ariel became one of the best-selling volumes of poetry ever sold in America. Long after her death, Plath's Collected Poems (1981) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Other awards and honors include recognition by the Academy of American Poets (1955), the Ethel Olin Corbin Prize (1955), and the Marjorie Hope Nicholson Award (1955).
Arguably Plath's earlier poems are just as accomplished as her later ones, yet not as dire. She published regularly and had a contract with the New Yorker. American critics largely ignored Plath's first book, Colossus and other Poems (first published in England in 1961), although the few reviews it received were mildly positive. The title poem visits a lifelong theme of Plath's—her relationship to her father. The speaker is trying to uncover and reassemble a giant stone statue of her father with "Lysol" and "gluepots" ("The Colossus" ). At peace with this project, she shelters in his ear at night. The overall tone is of regret over his absence. Plath wrote many poems trying to exorcise her father's influence. Hughes came to be a father figure, though she resisted her growing dependence on him and she fought against her discomfort with his literary success, which was complicated by his appeal to other women. A late poem, "Gulliver" (1962), seems to be directed toward Hughes, and the overlarge stature of Gulliver is similar to the size of the father in "The Colossus." "daddy" (1962) is used as a vehicle to vilify her father and Hughes, both of whom she felt had abandoned her. Here Plath uses the conceit of a Jew to express her feelings of powerlessness in the face of "Nazis," but instead of being killed by them, she bests them: "If I've killed one man, I've killed two." Other poems—"The Rabbit Catcher" (1962), "The Jailer" (1962), and "Purdah" (1962)—express more of the helplessness Plath felt at this time when her own death seemed to her the only way to become powerful. In "The Jailer," the speaker has been "drugged and raped" and ends wondering "what would he / Do do do without me," implying that the captor needs her as much as she depends on him for her survival. "The Rabbit Catcher" marks the beginning of the end of Plath's marriage; the speaker identifies with a rabbit caught in a snare and implies that the constriction is killing both people in the relationship.
Toward the end of her life, Plath had difficulty publishing the intense poems she was churning out on either side of the Atlantic. Several of these last poems forecast or perhaps confessed her will to suicide. The erotic energy of "ariel" (1962) is focused on a self-destructive "drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning." In "lady lazarus" (1962), the speaker implies that her suicides are sideshow curiosities in which she annihilates herself once in every decade for the enjoyment of onlookers, miraculously surviving but suffering. Plath's anger and feelings of victimization merge into a private mythology of retributory suicide in which, through death, the female persona becomes purified and perfected. Her death is revenge on those left behind, though the object is not necessarily to cause them pain. In "Fever 103°" (October 1962), the speaker says, "I am too pure for you or anyone." Death becomes a rejection of the pain the "you" has caused. The last poem she ever wrote, "Edge" (1963), depicts the scene of a suicide in which a mother lies sprawled in "perfection," her two children "coiled as serpents" nearby.
Plath wrote especially poignantly about her children, and her love for them is evident. The speaker in "For a Fatherless Son" (1962) warns her son that he will soon feel an absence in his life, but that for now she loves him for his "stupidity" which represents his innocence and ability to love her, and she calls his smiles "found money." The poems about pregnancy, childbirth, and
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