A reminder that Plath lived for her art
Carol Ann Duffy’s new selection from Sylvia Plath takes proper care of her poetry
Sylvia Plath: Poems
Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy
Faber and Faber
A “selected poems” is a significant critical act. Whether shaped by the poet or by an editor, a good “Selected” clarifies essential qualities. This particularly applies to abundant poets, such as DH Lawrence, who produce multiple versions of the same material, and to poets who simply write or publish too much. But careful selection also boosts poets whose life’s work has been cut short by war or illness or accident; poets who had no chance to draw a firm line under juvenilia and misfires. Carol Ann Duffy’s new selection from Sylvia Plath takes proper care of her poetry.
This book is “intended to sit alongside” the 1985 Selected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes. Twenty-four poems (half Hughes’s choices, a third of Duffy’s) are common to both volumes. Paradoxically, Duffy’s larger selection manages to be more select. She includes fewer early misfires and a greater number of early successes, such as Metaphors and Mushrooms. She also maximises the poems that Plath wrote during the astonishing creative surge that preceded her suicide, in February 1963. For example, whereas Hughes includes only one of Plath’s “bee” poems, Duffy includes The Bee Meeting, The Arrival of the Bee Box and Stings.
Taken together, these three poems represent the visionary core of Plath’s achievement: psychodrama at the highest pitch of formal and symbolic intensity. The paraphernalia of bee-keeping supplies a powerful correlative for the splits in Plath’s female protagonist, for existential nightmare, for estrangement from “The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees” who personify society. Meanwhile, the outer world itself assumes a disturbingly strange aspect, as Plath evokes the “gloved and covered” villagers, the “wax house” that ultimately “kills” the queen. It sometimes seems as if her poems perceive life from somewhere beyond it. The effect is to heighten and defamiliarise life, partly by familiarising death.
The murky glamour of the personal relationship between Plath and Hughes should not obscure their creative relationship, among the richest in modern poetry. Admittedly, the personal story, and their fictive versions of it, cannot be wholly separated from the creative chemistry. Yet neither poet is at his or her best when that story enters the poetic foreground, whether in Hughes’s Birthday Letters (1998) or in the poems where Plath stigmatises “rival” women as barren.
Nor do the poets’ mutual muses always understand one another. Birthday Letters “overwrites” Plath in more senses than one. Similarly, Hughes’s selection is unduly indulgent to early poems by Plath that mimic his voice and vision. Thus he includes The Hermit at Outermost House, which celebrates masculine values that defy the elemental gods (“Backbone unbendable as / Timbers of his upright hut”), and Spinster, which deplores a “frosty discipline” that defies masculine values.
Duffy’s preface does not discuss the relation between aesthetic dynamics and gender dynamics. But perhaps she hints that we should read between the lines of two poems: Ode for Ted, which begins her selection, and Zoo Keeper’s Wife. The poems can be interpreted as an oblique narrative of Plath’s development. They tell how “this adam’s woman” ceased to marvel at the moles, lapwings and rabbits “his words do summon”, and started to do her own naming. The speaker of Zoo Keeper’s Wife laments that “I entered your bible, I boarded your ark”, and the poem finds distinctive uses for menagerie imagery, now darkly internalised: “Nightly now I flog apes owls bears sheep / Over their iron stile. And still don’t sleep.”
This is a more complex poem than Plath’s better-known Daddy or Lady Lazarus, in which, to use Yeats’s terms, the “quarrel with others” tends to overwhelm “the quarrel with the self”. Even to read these poems as spoken by consciously exaggerated personae is to place them as gothic monologue rather than tragic soliloquy. Violence, sometimes courted in Hughes’s poetry, can be equally problematic when “the blood jet” suffuses Plath’s interior landscape. And, in her case, the Romantic drive to search out extremity seems superfluous as well as suspect. The argument against the allusions to the Holocaust in Daddy and Lady Lazarus is that the allusions are handled with, at this stage of Plath’s development, untypical crudity.
Some of Plath’s best poems just consist (or apparently so) of images without comment. As Duffy says, she can “deploy a great appetite for sensuous experience”, for “life with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside”. Metaphors delights both in listing metaphors for pregnancy – “A melon strolling on two tendrils. / O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!” – and in writing a poem so pregnant with metaphor. Plath once said that, if she were a painter, she would want to “paint things” (the book’s cover is based on her drawing Two Women Reading). Her fine late poem Child desires to fill a child’s “eye” with “colour and ducks” and to exclude the other pole of Plath’s poetic cosmos: “this troublous / Wringing of hands, this dark / Ceiling without a star.” Poppies in October identifies the call to poetry with the shock of the created world: “O my God, what am I / That these late mouths should cry open / In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.”
Duffy revisits her own first “electrifying” encounter with Plath’s poetry, and records how Plath “presided over” the “differing talents” of British, Irish and American women poets who began to write and publish in the 1970s. Yet Plath has influenced male poets too, and the ways in which she might be a role model for any poet hardly seem straightforward. Duffy quotes a poet friend who describes Plath as having “fired the wild hearts of the last silenced generation of poets in Britain”, the “generation of women who . . . went to university, got degrees, married and had children in their early 20s . . . and saw their ‘brilliant careers’ go down the plug”.
This is sociology, not aesthetics. Visionary intensity may be rare and difficult as opposed to something that can be readily emulated or, again, courted. More certainly, Plath exemplifies what “perfection of the work” demands from all poets. I do not see her as having died for her art. But Duffy’s selection reminds us that she lived for it.