on Sylvia Plath
February, 1990. I had a ten-week-old baby boy at home, only recently discharged from the hospital. He’d been born six weeks prematurely, with a shock of black hair and a case of jaundice so severe his skin was the shade of English mustard. But now we’d had him home for two weeks, and he’d been ensconced in a fiberglass blue suitcase—a portable set of bilirubin lights. He wore a set of cotton goggles, attached to adhesive Velcro patches on his temples, and a preemie diaper. We kept a fire roaring in the living room, so as to keep the temperature above 80 degrees, and for two full weeks one of us, my wife or me, was up with him, twenty-four-seven.
Eventually, he was fine, his dark hair lightening by the day, his skin gaining its normal color. He was nursing more or less constantly then too, and sleeping in a bassinette by our bed. Things, as much as they do with a newborn in the house, had returned to normal.
We were due to move to Missoula come March, when I’d assume the Richard Hugo Chair in poetry at the University of Montana, for the spring quarter, and I was to teach a graduate course there, on two poets whose work meant a great deal to me, James Dickey and Sylvia Plath. It was an odd pairing, I admit, though I called them, for the purposes of the course, two “poets of extremity.” Regarding Dickey, I felt sufficiently prepared, but not so with Plath. Therefore, with my wife’s blessing, I’d loaded up the old Jeep and driven south into the Craig Mountains, my backpack crammed with four days of food, drink, and a good twenty pounds of books (Plath’s Collected Poems, and a stack of critical texts), then skied the seven miles into the cabin we had there in those days.
There was no electricity or plumbing at the cabin. A big wood stove for heat, a propane cookstove, and propane lights; lots of candles; an outhouse. I melted snow for water. We’d been making such winter trips to the cabin for years by then, so it was all familiar to me, although I’d never gone in alone, and all the work I’d planned notwithstanding, I was there no more than an hour when I found myself terribly lonely and depressed, missing my family, if not the ordinary comforts of home.
Actually, loneliness and depression turned out to be a pretty good mood in which to approach Plath. That seems counter-intuitive, no doubt. You might think—I certainly would have—that Plath’s searing, angry, desperate, and majestic poems might just make such an emotional state deeper and darker. But no, it was just the opposite. The critical articles kept me interested, and the poems excited me in ways they never had before. The first day and night, I read the entirety of Plath’s poems, then all through the first two full days there, I read and read and read criticism about them, and about her (I had Edward Butscher’s Method and Madness: A Biography, as well as Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, published just the previous year; I’d read Linda Wagner-Martin’s biography at home, in the last weeks before our son was born). By the second night, I’d relax after dinner and sip whiskey, put the secondary texts aside, and go back to the poems.
Some poems I’d read six or eight times, making notes in the margins, drawing lines between connections, sonic and meaningful. I’d also brought along a cassette of Plath reading her then-recent poems (from the last autumn of her life, in 1962), along with a BBC radio interview with the British writer, Peter Orr, on a program called “The Poet Speaks.” In one of her responses to a question, Plath half-apologizes for her American voice. “I think that as far as language goes,” she says, “I’m an American, I’m afraid, my accent is American, my way of talk is an American way of talk, I’m an old-fashioned American.” But in fact her speaking voice, both in the answers and in the poems, seems halfway-Anglicized to me, and her enunciations are extremely crisp and British-seeming. I would slip the cassette into the little player we kept at the cabin, and even from that pair of small speakers, her voice seemed to body forth into the room. It was invigorating. I seemed to have taken a back-country Idaho ski trip with a ghost.
We know from the biographies that during those miraculous months in the fall of 1962, that Plath was rising at 4:00 a.m. to write for a few hours until her children woke, around 7:00, she said, at which point she assumed the role of an ordinary mother through the rest of the day, as day by day, she wrote the poems that she herself said “would make my reputation.” As they did. It’s possible to read the poems as a kind of hyper-lucid and incendiary suicide note. At some point in the Montana term to come, a student would wonder aloud if it wasn’t, in fact, the poems that had killed her, in a way. I understand how the student could wonder such a thing, though it’s probably just as likely that the poems, and her children, were what kept her alive and thriving (the nature of that thriving is certainly debatable) for her last months.
What is eerie and unnerving reading those poems, is the sheer force of their emotional content. It’s hard to talk about, strictly as craft, as art. It’s hardly possible to speak of Plath’s prosody and diction as something separate from her life. No, that’s not true. One can speak of the poems as made things, without referring to the agonized consciousness that made them, but as it was with me in the cabin those days and nights, Plath’s ghost, for lack of a better term, is always right there. The poem’s are that consciousness enacted as poetry of an exceptionally high order, but the ghost, of course, is the problem. We wonder, how much of one’s response to the poems is actually one’s response to the mythology that has come to energize and surround that ghostly presence? It’s not an answerable question. Or it’s not one I care much about, even as I admit the near-constant presence that accompanies my reading of the poems.
Consider October, 1962. On the first day of the month, Plath wrote a poem called “The Detective.” (The dates of composition here are those listed in The Collected Poems.) Through the next four weeks, on an almost-daily basis, she wrote an additional 24 poems. Twenty-five poems in a month. Apparently she did not write any poems on the 5th, 8th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 22nd, 23rd, 26th, or 28th, though the notations in the Collected also say that she worked on one of the poems, “Lady Lazurus,” from October 23 through October 29, so perhaps the 26th and 28th were productive days as well. Among the poems Plath produced in October, 1962, were “Ariel,” “The Applicant,” “Daddy,” “Cut,” and “Nick and the Candlestick,” just to name a few.
Kind of mind-boggling, isn’t it? Where does this kind of—forgive the word again—“productivity” come from? Surely Plath was manic. In a kind of amazing ragged edge, full-speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, holy shit, what hath poetry wrought zone. She was, let’s admit it, inspired, possessed, and inhabited by the muse. I like to think, given that she had but a few more than a hundred days left to live, that during these weeks she was as absolutely alive as she had ever been.
I want to talk about just one poem from that October. There are so many that strike me now as miraculous compositions, but this one . . . well, it has always seemed among the most haunting of the poems from that time. I’m not going to bother trying to keep the ghost out of the commentary that follows. It cannot honestly be done, I don’t think, not by me.
On October 27, Plath wrote two poems. The first (if the Collected is correct) was “Ariel.” It’s an astonishing, emblematic, totemic kind of poem. A poem of transcendence and of transcendent vision, it would have made any poet’s day. Or career. But she wasn’t done that day. (Remember, again, that she was writing no more than those three early hours each morning.) I imagine her reading over “Ariel” one last time and putting it aside. She might have looked at the clock then and thought, there’s still time for another, a short one. This second poem is the one I want to talk about.
“Poppies in October” is only twelve lines, the majority of them short, from as few as three syllables long to as many as fourteen. It would have been still early morning. Plath might have looked from her window to see not only the poppies of the title but the woman and the ambulance spoken of in the opening stanza. If there is a narrative attached to this poem, it’s all in that first stanza. The rest is contemplation, interrogation, and terrified introspection.
Poppies in October
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly—
A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky
Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.
O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
I don’t think there is a poem among that October’s that better illustrates Plath’s sense of herself in those days as “a peeled nerve,” as a kind of medium for the energy and terror of true inspiration. The sun is barely risen, let’s say. The morning’s clouds are lit by it, glowing deep red-to-pink, but the color, those reds, are nothing when compared to the petals of poppies. These are the year’s final blossoms probably. The petals are very much skirt-like, so the metaphor is a simple visual trope. And yet, we understand such an image is deployed for more significant reasons. Plath had been betrayed and left (some would say abandoned) by her husband. She is alone with her two small children in an apartment in London; that mother-work, a full-time-and-a-half job in the best of circumstances, is made all the more difficult by the absence of her husband.
If she had also seen a stricken woman taken away in an ambulance, rather than a man, say, that too would have seemed consistent with her sense of being deeply, almost mortally, wounded. The woman’s “red heart” blooms beyond the poppies’ blossoms. Red, the color that symbolizes life blood and love. Also rage. And the color of that imagined heart “blooms through her coat,” as though Plath, with the most vivid hypersensitivity, could see right into her. It’s the adverb that amazes though. That stricken woman’s heart blooms for Plath “so astoundingly.” It is itself a kind of miracle of seeing and fellow-feeling, or as Plath the poet puts it, “A gift, a love gift / Utterly unasked for.” She was at a point in the month and in her life when everything that showed itself to her was the stuff of poetry, even as everything she saw vitally connected to her and to her understanding of her situation as both a poet and a woman.
It’s interesting to note that it is the sky that either fashions the gift it presents to her, or that it is the sky itself that has not asked for such an enormous sensitivity and ability as Plath has taken on. (After all, hasn’t she herself asked for it? Isn’t that the poet’s relentless seeking after inspiration?) This is such an ordinary, if beautiful, morning sky, “Palely and flamily // Igniting its carbon monoxides.” The sun, given the autumn clouds and urban smog, is pale, but its effects are like fire. What an ingenious line “Palely and flamily” is. It’s metrically regular: a double dactyl, and perhaps it is only coincidental that neither my computer spell-check nor the OED can deal with the word “flamily.” Just as it is, surely, an even more coincidental fact that the only difference between “flamily” and “family” is a single L, though for Plath it might have seemed that it was indeed her family that had gone up in flames.
That the sky is “Igniting its carbon monoxides” suggests a species of poisonousness residing in those “eyes / Dulled to a halt under bowlers,” in the way that the ordinary world keeps on going about its business in the face of the poet’s awareness, as well as her suffering. It’s a moment when the poem manages to indict those who are numbed to both the spectacular beauty of the world (those poppies, that sky), and thus to the kind of peeled sensitivities required of the poet. It also brings in, as counterpoint to the skirts and the woman in stanza one, the metonymic figure of those “bowlers.” Dull men, in other words. Men, to be sure.
The conclusion of the third stanza is also a kind of dead end for the poem. The poppies and the woman, all though the first two sentences, are meant to be understood, in all their metaphorical and literal values, as things only someone in the condition of one such as Plath could be aware. Don’t you see? Don’t you see how everything I see leads to the reignition of my misery? But would it be better to be dull? To not see so much more deeply into the significance of things?
The poem’s final stanza expresses this particular agony, and thus the strange ecstatic horrors of Plath’s situation. After the long second sentence, strung across eight of the poem’s nine lines to this point, the full stop and the silence between stanzas rings with something like . . . well, waiting. Now what? What does it mean that I see such things and make of them this sort of sense beyond sense? Then she asks, “O my God, what am I?” The agony in that line is palpable. She’s not wondering who she is, but what. As though to have gone where she has gone and to feel what she has felt and was feeling, is a kind of monstrousness. And some would say that Plath’s behavior, including her suicide, has a monstrousness about it.
And maybe it is monstrous, this concentrated and ravishing sensitivity, or more likely, what it leads to in the life beyond or behind the work. It looks a lot like madness, van Gogh’s or Rimbaud’s, or maybe even, more contemporaneously, Frank Stanford’s or Joe Bolton’s. It’s a romantic delusion, surely, to think that such artists have somehow gone to depths or extents that other great but more stable practitioners do not attain. Such a madness cannot, I wouldn’t think, be something one could cultivate. More likely it’s just a chemical imbalance. We can honestly wonder if anti-depressants might have kept Plath alive and writing for decades more.
What was Plath at this point, in late October, 1962? If she were a character in my son’s NBA video game, her every drive on the basketball court would be trailed by flames. She was on fire. She was in another place. She had left the rest of us behind. She felt more, perhaps, than most of us ever will for any reason.
Still, strangely, despite the despair of her inquiry in the final stanza of “Poppies in October,” there’s something in the poem’s final two lines that is, while still deeply sad, a kind of reaffirmation. “What am I / That these late mouths should cry open,” she says. The skirts of stanza one are mouths now, and crying open. There’s something we should understand as beautiful here, something Plath herself understands as beautiful. She is seeing into the heart of things, into the very thingness of things. How these “late mouths” have entered into an especially brief and even truncated season. How they will not last long, coming to blossom in a “forest of frost” that will wilt and kill them heedlessly and without malice but surely dead. And how in their brevity and ordinariness they will most likely go unseen and unacknowledged by those who might see and take note of them and their beauty. Also how the world goes on when one or another of us has fallen—that stricken woman; how this is what must be, and how for some it is the going on that simply cannot be accomplished.
The poem’s final image I take to be yet another example of skillful metonymy. The cloudy and smoggy sky has become the blue of cornflowers. Another day worth living through—she had, it would turn out, only 116 more left to live fully through—has arrived. The children are to be looked after and loved.
One more thing, perhaps, again, coincidental. October 27th was Plath’s birthday. She wrote two magnificent poems on the day she turned thirty. That must have seemed to her, even in her state of mind, itself a kind of gift.
Every day of our son’s early life was also a gift to us. Even when we finally brought him home, he had to be taken back to the hospital twice daily for a blood test to check his bilirubin levels. A pediatric nurse would use a razory lancet to poke his exceptionally tiny heel, then draw the tiniest dram of blood into a glassine tube. Of all the bad parts of those days, this was one of the worst. A very placid baby otherwise, he suffered those regular cuttings and wailed as though his heart was broken. My wife simply could not face those twice-daily trips to the hospital, so it fell to me. The last few days, I cried too, every time he did, and the nurses too seemed heartbroken also and offered me their honest sympathies. But by the time I’d rebundled him in his blanket, nestled him in his carseat, and gotten him home, he was fine again. For all he knew, this was just what living was: something regularly hurt you and then it was all right again, until the next time.
Up there in the cabin in the Craig Mountains, I listened again and again to Plath reading “Poppies in October,” and I thought of my son at home, with his mother and sister. By then, whatever it was that caused him to be so treated was over and gone, and of course he has no memory of those times. I remember, after the last blood test, I carried him out into the cold winter weather. The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sun, though not warm, was amazing.