Beyond the aesthetics of rage : the embryonic writing of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s poetry has often been read as one of rage and reprisal. Highlighted by the self-destructive female voice in "Lady Lazarus" (Collected Poems 244) and "Daddy" (CP 222), her rhythmic ranting, striving to undo the grip of abusive and envious male gods, led to a blazing yet brief existence together with a scant poetic legacy.

These kinds of blunt summaries, promoted by early critics, have fortunately evolved so as to take into account the deliberately regressive modes of writing, as well as the exploratory if not subversive irony and polysemy that Plath’s poetics rely on. Yet, rather than relegating her to the rank of "minor poets", Plath’s readership has grown, even in France, where many of the questions raised by her writings seem to have encountered somewhat more resistance than elsewhere.

Bearing in mind the heated critical and editorial debates to which Plath’s writings have given rise to, one is surprised by the persistent wish to classify and codify her texts. However, a more comprehensive reading, one that does not stop at the provocative scene and sound effects or the most striking male and female figures, reveals a series of lucid scrutinies of language, presented as a powerful instrument of oppression and expression. Born out of strict gender-determined polarities, the Plathian poetics absolves neither gender per se to bring about stunning fusions of antinomies, including fascist orders and nursery rhyme rhythms.

Plath’s poetry as well as prose, marked by the ex-centric female subject who is repeatedly brought back to the centre through her recapture under the "bell jar"¾ a metaphoric space for women’s confined and muted existence¾ , cannot be read without at least some awareness of the stifling, hermetically-sealed world of the cold war America. The Eisenhower fifties and the particularly dismal McCarthy era with its single-dimensional conformity and paranoid social hygiene are indeed reflected by many of Plath’s writings, at times through stunning echoes of totalitarian thinking. While rejecting the normative role of the "happy housewife heroine" whose life consists in bearing babies and future consumers, the Plathian woman still remains disquietingly receptive to the cultural expectations of her time. Conspicuously enough, the only text Plath names in her poetry ("The Babysitters", CP 174) is Generation of Vipers by Philip Wylie: a notoriously misogynist best-seller in which the American female is accused of sapping the potency of the American male. Read against this background, Plath’s reappropriation of the language of procreation not only draws attention on the repressive discourses on womanhood in times of social tension, but proves that rethinking the mother inevitably involves rethinking the language of creation.

Despite the fact that Plath’s writings reveal the undeniable influence of the so-called "confessional school" together with a series of pre-feminist assertions, her aesthetics isn’t reducible to the above-mentioned categories. Rather than trying to "pathologize Plath" or tuck her under a fixed label, it seems more relevant to examine how myths, metaphors, representations and rhythms emerge, differentiate, entangle and at times either miscarry or backfire in the dynamic work of this controversial writer. In a poetry where the "I" in gestation is always something rudimentary and at risk, it is difficult and possibly even pointless to attempt to separate the emergence of text from that of the genesis of a woman poet. What counts is the struggle to introduce one’s imprint into the "barbed-wire language", a system of symbols prone to arbitrary segregation and single-minded logic. At a time of scarce theoretical framework on gender issues, Plath’s attempts at a poetic synthesis between Judaeo-Christian iconography and the shrill, iconoclastic voices requiring extensions of the existing effigies is part of a more general breakthrough of a new writing species¾ composed of men and women, mothers and non-mothers¾ motivated by a wish to sow creative discord among pre-existing representations and voicing strategies.

Interestingly enough, language is frequently depicted by Sylvia Plath as material the embryonic "I" seeking self-definition is to crawl or violently struggle through. Refusing expressions of plurality, language may also be visualized as a dismal mechanism to which the speaker engaged in the act of writing always seems to yield something vital:

The letters proceed from these black keys, and these black keys proceed

From my alphabetical fingers, ordering parts,

Parts, bits, cogs, the shining multiples.

I am dying as I sit. I lose a dimension. (CP 177)

On the other hand, it would be difficult to grasp the final fury of Plath’s Ariel-poems without having read through her painstaking attempts at rewriting some of the fundamental myths of our Western culture or without having seized the signs of contained passion and daughterly admiration that marks her earlier poetry. Before the gradual move towards polymorphous figures and rhythms, the Plathian " I " in embryo tends to remain embedded in a rich, symbol-laden metaphorical language. Similarly, until the mid-fifties, the objects named are not yet those of domestic reality of the later poems ("Tulips", "Three Women", "Lesbos", "Cut", etc), but tend to rise from a legendary and noble past, organised around a magically powerful male figure ("Pursuit", "Queen’s Complaint", "Ode for Ted", etc). Strikingly craftswomanlike, for skilfully constructed and elaborately worded, this early poetry conforms to intricate rhythmic patterns that bear the mark of respect for the established literary canon.

Unsurprisingly, in a system founded on rigid binary oppositions where one is to adhere to an ideology and "take sides" with a camp or a clan, womanhood does not escape dualism. Plath’s texts repeatedly imply that the only mode of existence is to keep oscillating between mutually exclusive, pre-fixed identities. As one is forced to admit after reading Plath’s poem "Face Lift" (CP 155), unlike Virginia Woolf’s speaker who manages to kill the angelic presence that paralyses the woman writer’s attempts at truly creative acts, the Plathian woman never performs the symbolic murder of the "false", the culturally and politically correct yet sterilising model of selfhood. Whether we like it or not, Plath’s poetry does not provide us with resolutions. No matter how self-revelatory or powerfully dramatised, the strange circus acts conveyed by her monologues always fall short of a true catharsis, leaving the reader with more questions than answers.

One of the most blatant paradoxes of the Plathian poetics is the way it posits the redefinition of selfhood in such absolute terms that the proposed regeneration almost invariably runs the risk of annihilation. As Plath claimed during her much-commented interview to the BBC about her poem "Lady Lazarus"¾ a startlingly virulent study of victimhood¾ , the reconstruction of selfhood cannot be achieved without some fiercely deconstructive mechanisms at work: "[Lady Lazarus is] a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first." However, although in Sylvia Plath’s own life the ultimate emphasis was on the deadly, the reader of her poetry should remain watchful enough to distinguish the vital from the lethal. For despite the impression of a dead-end that is all too easily confirmed by Plath’s suicide, the ostensibly self-destructive figures of femininity of her poetry, reinforced by some editorial choices of her texts, death staged in her poetry is never but a temporary state, a brief transition before another embryonic "I" buds forth.

Although the symptoms of a split subjectivity persist in Plath’s portrayal of womanhood, her later poetry gives rise to seminal signs of another kind. Alongside the figurative embryos, new-born babies and preoedipal creatures¾ together with a few apocalyptic foetuses or huxleyan sucklings¾ , the alert reader may perceive, in Plath’s metaphoric and morphemic play, fascinating signs of a post-blasphemous enunciative activity.

Yet, Plath’s imaginative journey into truly creative femininity¾ one capable of connecting creation with procreation¾ remains an intensely physical process. A number of passages from Plath’s poetry, prose and journals point at this bodily understanding of creativity. In March 1958, Plath questioned whether the new literary life she already perceived "chinks of " would be painful, adding "the birth-giving pain is not yet known". Two months later she quotes Matthew Arnold, one of the very first poets having influenced her, adding:

I itch. I feel between two worlds, as Arnold writes—"one dead, the other powerless to be born" [...] I have nothing but a handful of poems¾ so unsatisfactory, so limiting, when I study Eliot, Yeats, even Auden and Ransom¾ and the few written in spring vacation to link me umbilically to a new not-yet-born world of writing.

Viscerally linked to words yet to come and predisposed to a creative urge more than to a mere itch, Plath’s speaking and creating subject remains nevertheless something compulsively alien, as in "Daddy" ("Ich, ich, ich, ich", CP 223) or only on the point of emerging, as in "Three Women" ("I am a seed about to break", CP 179). During the sluggish subject construction, overshadowed by the fierce deconstructive attempts at diehard icons of femininity, mastering the first person singular is part of a long process of formation towards affirmative linguistic action : "Now a love, a faith, an affirmation is conceived in me like an embryo. The gestation may be a while in producing, but the fertilization has come to pass."

Interestingly enough, pregnancy is never presented as a period of passive hatching, but as an intense and interrogative time of brooding. In "The Manor Garden" (CP 125), it is the human embryo, going through the archaic, beast-like fetal phases of its development towards full-fledged humanity that provides the poet with a metaphorical setting for a more general examination of human history. As it is often the case in Plath’s poetry, the microscopic joins the macroscopic: "You move through the era of fishes, / The smug centuries of the pig— / Head, toe and finger / Come clear of the shadow. History // Nourishes these broken flutings", (CP 125).

Never an omniscient, god-like mastermind, but a peculiar hybrid of modern times, the Plathian mother is capable of creation, including her own re-creation: "Mother to myself, I wake swaddled in gauze, / Pink and smooth as a baby." (CP 156). While her creativity may, as any creative process, engender something monstrous, the emphasis remains on the interrogative approach to one’s creative being. As Plath’s rhetoric of pregnancy toils towards new extensions, her poetry keeps warning us against the desire of glorification of all creators, men and women alike. Yet, challenging the attempts by any "jealous gods" (CP 179) to deny the power of generation women are capable of, Plath reveals a wish to reappropriate a lost or never-acquired lexicon. In so doing, she engenders a powerful yet paradoxical act of occupation of a banned metaphorical space.

After this brief and necessarily compressed examination of Sylvia Plath’s "embryonic writing", one is entitled to ask whether the analogy between the bodily / sexual and the textual processes has led us back to biological considerations, a position it has taken us long to gain critical distance from.¾ The risk of a sly backlash is real, as whenever a woman writer sets out to reappropriate the female body. Yet this approach, which is certainly not the only possible critical entry to Plath’s polysemous poetry, may help us read the tentative and open-ended poetic processes at work in Plath’s texts, disregarded by many critical studies operating on the mode of an embryectomy : procedure consisting in cutting up the fetus to facilitate its extraction. Rather than killing Plath’s poetics under another fixed label, what should be highlighted is Plath’s textual strategies that point at a signifying process which is not reducible to a linear development of any kind. For what Plath left us with is poetry interested in the process of engendering and extension, rather than in "fixed stars" that "govern a life" ("Words", CP 270).

Teeming with anticipatory irony, Sylvia Plath’s poem "Last Words" (CP 172), reads as a startling prediction of the initial critical response to her posthumously published poetry. The reader has the impression that the poet is addressing all critical readers who will one day seek to assess the weight of her work:

I do not want a plain box, I want a sarcophagus

With tigery stripes, and a face on it

Round as the moon, to stare up.

I want to be looking at them when they come

Picking among the dumb minerals, the roots.

I see them already—the pale, star-distance faces.

Now they are nothing, they are not even babies.

I imagine them without fathers or mothers, like the first gods.

They will wonder if I was important. (CP 172)

More interested in "picking among the dumb minerals, the roots" instead of digging into her complex poetic legacy, Plath’s first critics did, indeed, often act more as investigators or detectives than literary analysts. Whether the 21st century critics, those still unborn in the sixties whom Plath represents as fatherless and motherless, will be capable of reading beyond the "minerals, the roots", the miscellaneous body parts and autobiographical fragments to capture the Plathian subject as a process rather than as a fixed identity, remains to be seen.

  1. Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, London : Faber & Faber, 1981.
  2. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, London : Heinemann, 1963.
  3. "The Happy Housewife Heroine", the title of Chapter 2 of Betty Friedan's landmark essay, The Feminine Mystique, London: Penguin, 1963.
  4. Wylie, Philip, Generation of Vipers, 1942, New York : Rinehart, 1946.
  5. See Steven Gould Axelrod’s definition of a "domestic poem" as a "genre in embryo" in the works of poets including Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell. Steven Gould Axelrod, Sylvia Plath : The Wound and the Cure of Words, Baltimore & London : The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, p. 59-63.
  6. Sylvia Plath, Ariel, London: Faber & Faber, 1965.
  7. Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, New York : Harper & Row, 1976, p. 119.
  8. Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough and Ted Hughes, New York :2 Random House, 1982, p. 203.
  9. Ibid., p. 227.
  10. Ibid., p. 65.