Friday, August 13, 2010

Thoughts on Plath and Yeats and Hughes (and me and you and everyone we know)(and whatever's really out there) (or in here)

The conventional wisdom regarding Sylvia Plath—and this is true across the spectrum, whether you ask the feminists who co-opted her after her death, or Ted Hughes, who many blame for her death—is that she was set on her course long before she ever met Hughes, or even decided to become a writer, by unresolved feelings from the loss of her father. A lovely villanelle, which she wrote while an undergrad at Smith, betrays more than common angst, I think; it's called Lament:

"The sting of bees took away my father
who walked in a swarming shroud of wings
and scorned the tick of the falling weather.

Lightning licked in a yellow lather
but missed the mark with snaking fangs:
the sting of bees took away my father.

Trouncing the sea like a raging bather,
he rode the flood in a pride of prongs
and scorned the tick of the falling weather.

A scowl of sun struck down my mother,
tolling her grave with golden gongs,
but the sting of bees took away my father.

He counted the guns of god a bother,
laughed at the ambush of angels’ tongues,
and scorned the tick of the falling weather.

O ransack the four winds and find another
man who can mangle the grin of kings:
the sting of bees took away my father
who scorned the tick of the falling weather."

(Almost makes you feel sorry for Ted Hughes, doesn't it?)

Similarly, Plath is regarded as being among the most self-obsessed of poets. I don't know that I agree—for one thing, that particular category covers a hell of a lot of ground. For another, this conclusion is too easy, driven usually by nothing deeper than her status as the best and most influential of confessional poets, and even motivated sometimes by sexist drivel cloaked as high-minded polemic. However, from reading her poetry and her journals, there seems little doubt that Plath was one who had a vivid interior life, and a strong sense of every moment. It is also true that her denouement can be considered an act of wanton self-absorption.

It seems obvious that within the cipher of competing interests inhabiting perception, a sense of loss can inflate the relevance of Self dramatically. That it seems so readily apparent to me may be because it happened to me. I experienced what I can only describe as a galvanic loss, and it's not an exaggeration to say that I barely—slimly—survived it. I well recall the certain and joyful feeling that art, manifested especially through the keening miracle of poetry, represented—reality hyperactuated, divested of the extraneous—the irrelevant—along with the sturm and drang that adheres to consciousness like barnacles to the hull of a boat. When Yeats, in part 2 of Blood and the Moon, declared that Bishop Berkely “proved all things a dream”, intuitively I agreed, given leave to do so by this heightened sense of my Self; when he asserted, then, that “this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world…(would) vanish on the instant if the mind but change(d) its theme”, I nodded emphatically, and heavily underlined the text, reflecting as it did my own faltering, ungainly relationship with awareness.

Like the whirling digits on a slot machine, our thought revolves uncertainly around the sprawl of creation. So much depends on the the accident we wake to. What of Plath and Hughes, and their well-documented collision with each other? Or of we—colliding no differently, really, with one another, or with the furniture, or with our own feet—equally uncertain, but captivated (at least for the moment, I hope) in their wake? No matter where the spinning reels end, the ultimate choices we're offered are guesses for everyone else. No one else sees from where I do, or you do, or they did, and our communication is impoverished by these limitations of perspective, as well as those of language and imagination. The smallness of the spaces we ostensibly inhabit magnifies this potential estrangement, and can create reservoirs of incredible loneliness, especially when our little windows of reality are threatened by seismic shifts that rearrange the ideas we stand on; none can be more dramatic, or frightening, than the loss of someone we love. And when our window to the external world is altered radically, the only calm place that remains for us to escape is inward. And even though tenuous bonds with the external world can be reconnected, once one has lived, surrepticiously, locked within one's self, the temptation to remain there, as well as the ease of doing so, can be narcotic.

Which is, perhaps, where Yeats connected to me, and probably to Plath, as well.

He was a major influence on Hughes, too, and not only because of his craft. As much of his work was wrung from the sadness and loss of Ireland's "heroic" past, Plath's is haunted by the rotting away, and the aforementioned end of her father, when she was all of 8 years-old. “I’ll never speak to God again,” she said, and while we have no way of knowing if this is true, I think it accurate to say, from reading her poetry, that she became a critic of human experience, and remained one until she ended her life—like the humans in Ted Hughes’ fable, who sent round to God asking that He take their lives back. God’s response was to demand that the hand/voice in his nightmare create something better than man. This was the origin of the crow, the figure at the center of the cycle of poems for which Hughes is probably best known; it would not be a stretch to see Plath’s voice and the crow’s as being similar.

Joyce Carol Oates has said Plath was victim, in part, to the effects of her virtuosity as a lyric poet upon her “precocious imagination”; “How quickly," says Oates, in The Death Throes of Romanticism: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, “these six-inch masterpieces betray their creators!” In that vein, Plath does seem to revel sometimes in her isolation: “It is so beautiful, to have no attachments!/I am solitary as grass. /What is it I miss?/Shall I ever find it, whatever it is? “(Three Women) while appreciative of the benefits accruing to inanimate objects (“No thirst disturbs a stone’s bed”, Child’s Park Stones). According to the first draft of Elm, the “stigma of selfhood” is among her fears, though: “I am terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me,” she says, in the final version. “All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” Oates refers to the self-examination (crucial) to the lyric poet as being “the deadly mirror”—choosing the lines “I am not cruel, only truthful—/The eye of a little god”, from Mirror, to begin her essay. She argues, nearly persuasively, that this poem contains the seeds of Plath’s undoing—“the audacious hubris of tragedy… illustrate the error of a personality who believed itself godlike.” Plath shares with Yeats the intellectualized ideal of the perfection of Nature without Man (and his damned intellectualizing); yet along the way, she has, according to Oates, and in the words of D.H. Lawrence, “lost the cosmos.”

As evidence, she cites numerous examples of Plath’s “otherness”, of her seeming indifference for other humans, extending, sometimes it seems, to even her own children. In spite of the “stigma of selfhood”, she looks increasingly inward; and while she praises the unspoiled ideal of creation—sans the human factor, that is—her poems are seemingly the reality she prefers—even grieving, in Stillborn, of their inferior relation to reality: “It would be better if they were alive…But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distractions.” How easy to equate this version of Plath with Yeats’ gold enamelled deathwish from Sailing to Byzantium.

But it's not the whole story—it never is, is it, when we start trying to deduce people through their art, or from what other people say? To me, Plath was something different. Nobody's fool. Brilliant and strange and deeply cynical about human beings. Savagely honest, and pathologically driven—but not the empty vessel some portray her to be. Beautiful and funny and bemused and disappointed, she was the human embodiment of Crow...

A subject for another post.

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