Sylvia Plath's Poetry

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This essay explores the literary elements of a selection of Sylvia Plath's most compelling poems.

Submitted: December 28, 2011

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Submitted: December 28, 2011

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Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

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Analysis of Five of Plath's Well Known Poems.

By Niamh Jiménez

Sylvia Plath is a poet for whom uniqueness of poetic voice was an undeniably significant goal. I feel that excessive emphasis is placed upon the Sylvia Plath “industry” and the struggles Plath faced as a woman of her era, than upon herexceptional poetic technique, and the Olympian reaches of her emotional repertoire. The poems which I have selected exhibit the grand diversity andcomplexityof Plath’s mind, her poetical versatility and the deeply ruminative, often brooding tone which underlies much of her work. My selection is as follows:

  1. Black Rook in Rainy Weather Read here http://www.angelfire.com/tn/plath/rainy.html
  2. The Arrival of the Bee Box Read here: http://www.angelfire.com/tn/plath/arrival.html
  3. The Times Are Tidy Read here: http://www.angelfire.com/tn/plath/tidy.html
  4. Child, Morning Song Read Child: http://www.breakoutofthebox.com/child.htm

Read Morning Song:http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15293

5. The Mirror Read here: http://poem-of-the-week.blogspot.com/2009/04/mirror-by-sylvia-plath.html

“Black Rook in Rainy Weather” is a marvellous example of the early flourishing of Plath’s poetic talent. Sylvia Plath composed the poem “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” while she resided in England, a biographical detail which may account for the dour evocation of “desultory weather” and the general moistness which permeates the poem; she may lament the absence of the warmth and temperateness of her native climate. It encompasses a broad emotional range, exploring the euphoria associated with “that rare and random descent” and the dark gloominess associated with the “wet black rook”.

“Black Rook in Rainy Weather” provides great insight into the development of her early voice, as well as her perpetual struggle to find new sources of inspiration. Her voice is characterised by a wry humour, hope tempered with reality, and intermittent spasms of fear; it illuminates Plath in all her facets. I feel that this poem achieves anaesthetic, highly pleasing balance or equilibrium between the hallowed, “celestial imagery” of divine inspiration, and the dark connotations evoked by a barren imagination, vitiated of its fecundity and haunted by the fear of “total neutrality”. While the poem is imbued with hope in inspiration’s qualities of giftedness and “largesse”, we also witness this recurring fear of looming inconsequence or lack of individuality, from which emanates an uncertainty and a lack of control. Plath emphasises the accidental quality of inspiration, as it is not premeditated or even within her control to generate, but rather emanates from that mysterious heavenly firmament above.

This poem shows how emotionally fine-tuned poet, endowed withwonderful powers of perception, can discover inspiration in the most banal, “obtuse objects”, such as a “kitchen table or chair.” Plath uses the motif of light to evoke the divine nature of this inspiration, which seizes ordinary objects and sets them alight with “celestial burning”, causing them to “leap incandescent”. I feel that this poem is also incredibly aesthetic on a more technical level, employing the most eloquent phraseologies, and illustrating Plath’s natural thought processes in an unrivalled display of stream of consciousness. Phrases such as “spasmodic tricks of radiance” and images such as the angel “flaring suddenly” at the poet’s elbow help to make this a brilliant sample of apposite, highly lyrical language. Plath’s innovative approach may be interpreted as the antithesis of the conventional nature poem, which feeds upon endless sources of saccharine inspiration in the unblemished, transcendent idyll.

The Arrival of the Bee Box is one of my favourite of Plath’s poems, most notably owing to the fact that it is one of the most complex. It is a poem of multitudinous facets, powerful and evocative language; a poem which supersedes one’s expectations as regards the paradoxical nature of carefully structured chaos.

The poem is incredibly symbolic, drawing upon Plath’s psychological fears emanating from her struggles as woman, a poet and a person for who control over thoughts, emotions and language is incredibly important. On a literal level, the poem explores the box itself and the “din” created by its swarming contents; however, on a figurative level, Plath discusses enslavement and her frustration at her own miscomprehension of foreign “unintelligible syllables.” Use of onomatopoeia enhances the impact of this foreignness, while references to “Roman mob”, “angrily clambering” and “box of maniacs” create a sense of chaos, aggression and a fundamental lack of meaning. This may account for Plath’s need to control language and to master her dialect like “Caesar”, or it may point to Plath’s struggle to apply conventional poetic structure to her overwhelming sea of thoughts. Knowledge of her biography supports the idea that Plath may have been struggling with a need to conform to certain “structures” or social norms, which enslaved her to a certain degree. The bizarre and striking imagery helps to communicate these concerns; for example, “the swarmy feeling of African hands” evokes this dark image to connote slavery and loss of freedom, or more notably, loss of control over one’s own destiny. Use of synaesthesia contributes to the sense of chaos. The chaos of Plath’s thought processes is exemplified by adherence to a structure which best communicates her own confusion; she juxtaposes enjambment with staccato sentences, and uses exclamations and questions to reinforce the natural thought pattern.

The Times Are Tidy dispels the myth that all of Plath’s poems are characterised by an unremitting moroseness. Its quirkiness, ironic style and sardonic wit serve as an antidote to some of her darker poems, offering an entertaining social commentary. In this poem, Plath employs evocative metaphors and conventional fairytale motifs to communicate the stagnation of contemporary society, characterised by mechanisation and the insipidness of conformity. She evokes the staleness of her society using vivid metonymy; she laments the “province of the stuck record,” the shrunken “lizard”, and the eradication of the “last crone.” Plath’s lamentation is somewhat paradoxical given the obvious progresses of her society; progress has annihilated the old fairytale traditions and has wiped out almost every hazard by “thickening” the insulating “cow milk’s cream.” In many ways, Plath fear the looming of “total neutrality” due to the loss of creativity, the tradition associated with the travelling raconteur, and the smothering of inspiration as “heroism” becomes an impossible in light of such advancements. These advancements supersede human capacity so that our greatest achievement is absolute conformity, something which Plath wishes to transcend by developing a unique voice.

Child and Morning Song depict Plath’s struggles in her mothering role, as well as the ultimate devotion she had towards her precious children. Her love for these “clear”, unblemished souls is evident through her homely, vivid descriptions of delicate “moth breath”, the “fat gold watch” or family heirloom, and the “clearness” associated with the eye of a child and the sweet vowels he or she produces. The beauty of their smallness and vulnerability is communicated in both tributes; the delicacy of a “stalk without a wrinkle”, how susceptible the “clear” pool of the eye is to reflections, and the “nakedness” of the child in a “draughty museum.” In both poems, Plath expresses her maternal instinct for protection in different ways; in Morning Song, she is stirred into activity by “one cry and in Child, she wishes to shield her baby from the “troublous wringing of hands.” Love sits side by side by doubt and apprehension as Plath laments the dark “ceiling without a star” and suffers disorientation in the “echoing voices” of the delivery theatre. She feels estranged from her child and we witness once again her fear of effacement or “neutrality” in the loss of her identity: “I’m no more your mother/Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow/Effacement at the wind’s hand.” Though she does not lack creativity or imagination, she has grave doubt in her capacity to provide a world of “colour and ducks” for her children.

The Mirror is one of Plath’s darkest, most haunting poems, which reflects the prevalence of her own self doubt and feelings of inadequacy. It is Plath’s only poem which employs a persona, a technique which seeks to distance the poet from reader, and yet in this poem, it introduces an element of confusion and obscurity. The fist stanza communicates the meticulous, “unmisted” or unbiased nature of the “four cornered” angular mirror, whose perspective it claims to be “truthful”; it is akin to the divine omniscient perspective, which has “no preconceptions” and is all-seeing. Unlike the mendacity of “candles or the moon”, the mirror “reflects” the true nature of Plath “faithfully”, something which awakens great anguish in the poet. Plath’s insecurities go beyond the mere surface to the far “reaches” of her soul, where she struggles with the realities of ageing and her identity as a poet. Plath explores these chilling psychological fears through the use of images such as “the terrible fish” and the motif of the “agitated hands.” What I found most disturbing about this poem is the complete lack of hope or respite; the poet “comes and goes”, always returning to be disappointed and unfulfilled upon encountering her own true image.

In conclusion, I hope to have a given an insightful account of the intriguing elements which drew me towards this selection of poems. Each poem explores at depth a repertoire of concerns, each one emanating from Plath’s struggles as a mother, as a woman and as a poet. I hope also to have adequately illustrated the complexity of each poem, which is layered with meanings compatible with a variety of different interpretations. Despite Plath’s terrible struggles and the evident turmoil which she experienced, her poems reveal a quirkiness, gift of perception and wry wit which provide a great antidote to her more disturbing works. Overall, I believe that this selection encompasses an aesthetic balance between the exploration of grief and joy, faith and scepticism and love and estrangement. On a final note, I wish to express my great appreciation for Plath’s mastery as a wordsmith and her wonderful skill in creating a structural framework for the depiction of true chaos.


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