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Bloom's Major Poets - Sylvia Plath

Bloom's Major Poets - Sylvia Plath


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Published by: RAMATI on Dec 23, 2011
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[Fred Moramarco is a professor ofEnglish and Compara-
tive Literature at San Diego State University.He has pub-
lished numerous articles on modern and contemporary
American poetry,fiction,and drama.Here he agrees with
the perspective that Plath’s earlier poetry—with its more
distanced style—actually aided in keeping her alive.]

The poems in The Colossus are generally regarded as carefully crafted
technical exercises,their concerns far removed from the self-destruc-
tive,morbid obsessions which emerge in Ariel and Winter Trees.
... Yet looking beyond the technical expertise ofthe Colossus
poems,one sees the same suicidal fixations,the same willingness to


look death straight in the eyes,the same impressions ofthe natural,
inanimate world as indifferent to human concerns,immense in its
power and seductive in its tranquility.The difference between Plath’s
earlier and later work is largely a difference in technique,but that
difference,as Hugh Kenner has wryly observed,may be a very large
difference indeed:“[A]s long as she worked in the manner ofThe
Colossus she kept safely alive.One prefers one’s poets kept alive.”
Critical ofTed Hughes’s notion that his wife’s late habit of“top
speed”writing freed her imagination from the restraints ofher ear-
lier,more conventional writing habits,Kenner writes:“What had,in
Ted Hughes’phrase,‘worked mainly against her’was a set ofhabits
that,ifI read aright,had kept her producing and alive.”

The habits that kept Plath producing and alive are indeed set aside
in the later poems in which the seductress Suicide sheds her gar-
ments one by one to tantalize us with the simplicity and purity of
the naked self.The readers ofthese poems become the “peanut-
munching crowd”of“Lady Lazarus,”shoving in to see

The big strip tease.
These are my hands,
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless,I am the same,identical woman.

The poet ofAriel is indeed the same identical woman who wrote The
Colossus,and there is not a rupture between these two books,but
rather,as Marjorie Perloffhas noticed,a shedding ofmasks,a move-
ment closer to the austerity and purity ofher single subject:“her
own anguish and consequent longing for death.”

From the perspective ofmost literary criticism,however,it is
tempting—even essential—to ignore the fact that the writer ofthese
harrowing self-revelatory lyrics took her own life.Judith Kroll,for
example,in her stimulating study ofPlath’s work argues for the
necessity to approach the work objectively as literature and tell us
that “the fact ...that she killed herselfis irrelevant to the considera-
tion ofthe meaning ofher work;as literature the poems would
mean what they do even ifshe had not attempted suicide.” ...
According to Kroll:


Virtually all ofthe apparent “death wishes”in her late poems have the
ambiguity ofa simultaneous wish for rebirth,which can only be
achieved through some kind of“death.”It is not that life is unaccept-
able,“that life,even when disciplined is simply not worth it”(as
Robert Lowell says in his foreword to Ariel),but that life lived on the
wrong terms,a life lived by the false self,is not life but an intolerable
death-in-life which can be overcome only by dying to that life.The
late poems are really exploratory attempts to release the true selfand
to establish an authentic existence.

Such a reading ofthe poetry may be appropriate in terms ofposi-
tivistic “human potential”psychology—the “false self”must die so
that the “true self”can live—but it ignores the fact that the purveyor
ofthose sentiments annihilated both aspects ofher divided life.If
the true selfis “released”only to destroy itselfone has to question
the validity ofthe search.

Plath’s most famous lines from “Lady Lazarus”as well as the title
and overall impressions ofthat poem clearly take on additional reso-
nance when read with the knowledge ofher actual suicide on Feb-
ruary 11,1963.The poem deals with a lifelong flirtation with
suicide,and like the Lazarus ofthe title,its persona miraculously
survives each brush with death.The lines,“Dying / Is an art,like
everything else / I do it exceptionally well,”are often cited as the
center ofPlath’s obsession,but Plath’s actual suicide mocks their
efficacy.Dying,ofcourse,is not an art,though writing well about
dying is,and it is the latter,not the former,that Plath did exception-
ally well.Her actual suicide attempts were botched and gruesome,
and even her final completion ofthe act was possibly,according to
A.Alvarez,a botched attempt to call attention to herself.

—Fred Moramarco,“‘Burned-up intensity’:The Suicidal Poetry of
Sylvia Plath,”Mosaic 15,no.1 (Winter 1982):pp.146–48.


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