Friday, September 30, 2011

Required Poet: Sylvia Plath Part II

I have already done one post on Sylvia Plath (reference September 2010) in which I went through the poem “Daddy,” but I have left the other seven poems for explanation until now, about a year later. Why? No real reason. I was just avoiding the poetry all-together really and now that I have so few items to go through I must finally face them all. Like I said in the previous post, Plath is much easier for me to understand than some of the others, but even so, I would take the below paragraphs with a grain of salt.

For genre, these will pretty much all fall into the category of confessional poetry – a genre which often focuses on the person, and sometimes unflattering, personal details of the poet’s life. Plath is credited with advancing this genre and is known for using minute everyday details in a significant way in her poetry. For every poem I’ll just go over the themes and then do more history at the end. For even more information, consult the September 2010 post I did on “Daddy.”

The Colossus

This poem definitely deals with death, but I think it deals even more with redemption and resurrection. And this is a resurrection that the narrator truly works for. The poem goes through the process of constructed this, well, colossus of a statue. The poem states that what has happened so far has taken 30 years to do, and from the first line the narrator admits that she “shall never get [it] put together entirely,” therefore immediately admitting that the project/redemption will never be truly complete (which is kind of sad if you think about it). At one point she calls the structure “father,” and refers to it as a “ruin.” I think of despair, because it feels like there is so much effort here to only end up with something destined to be a ruin.

Morning Son

This is poem is a rare occasion in Plath’s later poetry in that it actually deals with the start of a life instead of the end of one. I am guessing this deals with the birth of Plath’s son, Nicholas, who, incredibly sad to say, followed in his mother’s footsteps and hung himself in 2009 after a history of depression. In the poem there is much mention of the infants “cry,” of “voices” echoing, of the baby’s “moth-breath,” of a “handful of notes,” “clear vowels” and several other examples of various sounds coming from a mouth and Plath listening. Plath couples these sounds with vivid images of nature.

The lines that strike me the most: “I’m no more your mother/Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow/Effacement at the wind’s hand.” Does that count as creating distance or as saying that all of nature is a part of nurturing this child? I honestly have no idea.


I always want to read this as a pleasant romp through blackberry bushes on the way to the seashore, but it is not…it is so not. The blackberries are just so creepy somehow and the journey to the seashore is not just some innocent trip. The blackberries have “blue-red” juice, and the narrator claims the fruit squanders the juice on her fingers in some weird sort of “blood sisterhood” with her. The ripe bush is described as so ripe “it is a bush of flies, /Hanging their blue green bellies” (ew…). Even the birds overhead are seen as “Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.” I’m unclear as to whether the seashore is ever reached, and if it is, is it a good thing, because upon finishing the final turn on the path the narrator is met with a sound as if silversmiths are “Beating and beating at an intractable metal.” I’m sorry, but that is not a beach I want to visit…and I’m not sure I’ll be able to eat blackberries for awhile. Again this poem makes me think of despair. There is a desire to reach something beautiful but it just doesn’t happen.

The Arrival of the Bee Box

Out of all of the poems from Plath on the list, this one seems the most mundane to me. A box arrives, full of bees, and the speaker goes on this whole thing about it and how it is clean, and it is dangerous, and the bees are noisy, and how she gets to play God and decide whether or not to let them out and…well, you see my point. The best is the final line (no, not because it means the poem is over); “The box is only temporary.” Could be a bigger metaphor for how Plath felt about her own life: trapped in a box and feeling like something bigger has the power to set her free but won’t despite her very vocal requests for that to happen (see Lady Lazarus). But really, I couldn’t say for sure.

The Applicant

This poem leaves me somewhat unsettled for some reason. It is definitely a conversation, but I have not worked out who is talking and what exactly is happening in the conversation. My guess is that the “applicant” is a woman, but almost a shell of one, or some sort of doll, and she is being inspected in some way (*shudder*). I am also guessing that the repeated question of “Will you marry it?” is being posed to a male who is along for the interview of “the applicant.” When talking about the applicant the speaker mentions that “It can sew, it can cook, /It can talk, talk, talk.” I want to say it is like a woman or doll is being interviewed to marry some guy and the seller is going over the specs. At one point the seller gives the male a black suit and then proceeds to tell him “Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.” I mean the whole thing is just strange. There are some serious traces of passive aggressive anger here, and considering how Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes ended, it really isn’t all that surprising.


I don’t really like this one…it makes me sad. The second line of “My thumb instead of onion” makes the statement that this was an accident, yet the detail and description of the blood coming out if the wound has a little too much sadistic enjoyment in it for me to think that the wounded is just running for the iodine and gauze. The narrator is watching this wound as if it were putting on a show for her. “A celebration, this is,” really says it all. And yet, it is also a battle where “A million soldiers run, /Redcoats, every one.” There is also mention of a saboteur, Kamikaze man, the Ku Klux Klan, and many many creative descriptions of the red blood coming out of the thumb. I’m just saying, cutting my thumb does not make me want to stop and write poetry about it…

I feel a bit like Queen Latifah's character in Stranger Than Fiction when Emma Thompson's character asks her "What do you think about jumping off a building?" and Queen Latifah only answers, "I don't think about jumping off of buildings...I try to think of nice things." Yeah...fabulous movie by the way...

Lady Lazarus

This is one of Plath’s “Holocaust Poems” along with “Daddy” and “Mary’s Song.” She uses WWII Nazi Germany imagery to denote oppression. Plath even describes the narrator’s face as a “featureless, fine/Jew linen.” All the narrator wishes to do is die but “Herr Doktor” and “Herr Enemy” (just to name two particular other characters she names) keep bringing her back to life. Every ten years she seems to die, but is brought back to life. It has happened three times so far: the first time was an accident, and the second time was a real attempt on the narrator’s part to die. The poem begins after the narrator’s third attempt, and Plath uses phoenix imagery to describe this instance. By the end of the poem she has risen out of the ashes just like the phoenix, but now hunts down and tries to eat the men who keep bringing her back. Weird wild stuff. I could make it about redemption, except this person really wants to kill herself.

A Little More History

Short version: Plath gets married to Ted Hughes, has two kids with him, he leaves her for another one and eventually succumbs to her depression and kills herself by putting her head in an oven. She mad sure the kids were taken care of before she committed the act. Really sad thing: Assia Wevill, the woman Hughes left Plath for, committed suicide in the exact same way Plath did six years later, but she also killed her child as well. Even sadder thing: as I have already mentioned, Plath’s son committed suicide in 2009 by hanging himself, now leaving his sister as the only survivor of their immediate family.

Plath struggled with depression and made many attempts on her own life before finally being successful with the last one. Some friends say she often spoke of these attempts at great length and in sweet and loving detail.

And on the extremely depressing note, I will say that next time we will talk about Theodore Roethke, who shares an item number with Plath on the list and is also considered to be a Confessional Poet.

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