In my last post, I mentioned that Wilfred Owen is one of the three poets who brought me to poetry—who without which I would’ve probably gone down a sensible career path. In the year following my high school graduation, I discovered all three of these poets—though my memory remains foggy on the order in which I did so. However, one of the poets I had read before and dismissed, so it was more of a rediscovery, really. The poet was Sylvia Plath.
While I love her poetry, I dread talking about Plath. She is one of those poets who everyone—including those who never read her work—have a strong opinion of. Her suicide loams over her poems—it is the lens through which many people read her work, which is mistake.
In high school, I picked up The Bell Jar not knowing anything about Plath. And had I read the book in that state of ignorance, I would have probably enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I read the introduction, which was plumb full of biographical details, and how they connected to plot points in the novel. Instead of reading this book as I would other books, with my focus on the characters as they exist in the book and the themes as they relate to me, I read as though the book was way to understand this woman who had been dead for over thirty years. The introduction changed my focus in such a way as to narrow the meaning of the work to the point that it no longer had any relevance to me. I did not like the protagonist, and I thought that meant I did not like the author. Novels should be read to better understand ourselves, the world in which we live, or at the very least for entertainment. They should not be read to understand the author unless you are scholar or related to said author. By focusing on Plath’s biography, the editor limited the scoop of her work and framed in such a way that made it easy to dismiss.
Similarly, the first poem of Plath’s that I read was “Daddy,” unfortunately it was in a class discussion framed by biographical details. Other students denounced Plath as bitch for speaking so cruelly of her dead father (they all loved and respected their own fathers); the poem was dismissed as a crazy rant (one student reading it breathless and at a fast pace to great effect). I’ve heard people dismiss her work because she suffered mental illness and committed suicide, who in the same breath would sing the praises of Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, and John Berryman. It seems that people read her poetry (or at least a couple of anthologized poems) as though they were suicide notes, and they’re angry at her for committing suicide. And I am sad to say that for few years, when I needed her poetry the most, I believed her detractors.
Back to that year after my high school graduation, I had ended up with a faux-leather bound book titled The Treasury of American Poetry. I tried to read it straight through, but somewhere around the beginning of the nineteenth century I gave up. I started to flip to pages at random. One day I flipped to Plath’s poem “Cut.” As I read the first two stanza
What a thrill—
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge
A flap like a hat,
Then that red plush
I was reminded of the time that I had cut of the tip of my finger with sewing scissors. The strangeness of staring at bit of flesh that was once a part of you but suddenly is something else is described perfectly in “Cut.” Also, the poem contained an objective, surprised, and even curious tone, not the hysterical one that I had been taught to expect. After I finished that poem, wondering how far I’d been mislead, I read the next poem in the book: “Lady Lazarus.”
“Lady Lazarus” has been cited as proof that Plath’s suicide was really a cry for attention. By framing her death this way, people dismiss both her writing and her suicide (as though there is hierarchy of suicides with “cries for attention” at the bottom and gunshots to the head at the top). The only relation that the poems in her book Ariel and her suicide have for us, the reading public, is their author and the proximity in the time which they occurred. These poems like all works of art should be judged on their own merit not by the life which the artist lived.
For me I found a lot of strength in “Lady Lazarus,” here the speaker of the poem is sarcastic—“Peel off the napkin/ O my enemy./ Do I terrify?”—sexy—“Shoves in to see// Them unwrap me hand and foot—/ The big striptease.” By the end of the poem the speaker has been objectified and reduced to ashes, but, like a phoenix, she is reborn: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.” Even when society has reduced her to nothing, the speaker still has the power and the ability to come back. At that time I needed to see that when one is seemingly powerless, there is still the opportunity to come back and make sure your anger is felt.
Perhaps that is the largest resistance to Plath’s poetry—the anger directed at some very traditional roles. She is not afraid to show the ugliness of the world around her, and she tears down some of society’s sacred cows. To say that she was hysterical is an easy way to dismiss her without actually listening to what she has to say.