Quick Notes on Sylvia Plath

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Sylvia PlathSylvia Plath (1932-1963) was an American poet, who studied under Robert Lowell and with Anne Sexton and W. D. Snodgrass, all of whom are considered the four main Confessional poets. Others also sometimes included among the Confessionals “John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Weldon Kees, Richard Hugo, James Merrill, and [. . .] Theodore Roethke (Middlebrook 636). I will be focusing on Plath’s collection of poems Ariel.

Ariel opens with the poem “Morning Song,” which is about a mother who just gave birth to a child and a short time after that. The baby asserts its own existence with its “bald cry,” and takes “its place among the elements.” That is, it becomes a unique being or individual, like an element is unique in the world of matter. Later the mother listens to the baby’s “moth-breath,” and after that one night, the baby cries again, and as if by instinct, the mother rises to attend to the baby. When she does, the baby creates its own language – its “handful of notes; / the clear vowels rise like balloons.” The importance of opening Ariel with this poem is that the “poem makes of motherhood not a biological relation but a social relation engaged first through the body but crucially renegotiated in the realm of language” (645). Plath is breaking the decorum of post-World War II conventions of how of a woman is portrayed and what a woman can write about. During this time, the woman was objectified and often considered not mentally competent enough to write (641), but Plath is asserting her body (as well as the baby’s) and showing her skills as a writer. A result of a Confessional poem is breaking those taboos of decorum and writing honestly and personally about one’s own unique experience. It’s a reaction to Modernism and the New Critics, where the poem is authorless, impersonal, and the “I” is universal, and where often the woman serves as inspiration for a poem, or male poet, or as a conduit to nature. Plath, along with Anne Sexton, rally against these culturally defined conventions of gender.

Additionally, besides the personal nature of Confessional poetry and confronting the convention of “allowed” poetic content and cultural conventions of gender, the confessional poet deals with the interactions within a family, including their children. Often I, and others, think the confrontation is just with the parents, but it’s not. Plath shows one side of a mother-child relation in the just mentioned poem, but she also shows another side of her relation with her child in “Lesbos,” and in this relation, it is not a loving one, or it seems as if the baby is a bother to her. These topics certainly went against the grain of acceptable things to say about one’s child. Her confession, then, rubs up against the norms that gained “representations of the vicissitudes of family life [in tv shows like . . .]: “Father Knows Best” (645) or “Leave It To Beaver” or any other black and white sitcom of the family at the time. Plath writes:

     And my child – look at her, face down on the floor,
     Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear –
     Why she is schizophrenic,
     Her face red and white a panic.

Plath essentially is calling her child crazy. Later in the poem:

     Meanwhile there’s a stink of fat and baby crap.
     I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill.
     The smog of cooking, the smog of hell.

Here, she removes the innocence and purity from the baby by equating it with feces. At the same time she is showing the unpleasantness of domestic life – there’s “smog” (not steam from cooking a meal) and it’s like “hell,” and the only way she can deal with it is by being “doped,” which is contrary to the blissful images of the time that perpetuated the housewife delighting in her domestic chores. Plath is confessing an unspoken truth – a baby sometimes gets in the way of doing things of desire, or just living.

Plath also shows the commodification of women in “The Applicant,” where the potential wife becomes a possible product for a man to purchase, and the salesperson is doing their best to pitch it because “it [not her] can sew, it can cook / It can talk, talk, talk.”

I’m pointing out things that may be obvious to you, but what I’m learning is that confessional poetry is more than writing in the first-person, exposing shameful or humiliating things about oneself, or writing about going crazy, or about suicide, or being in a mental hospital, or writing as a means of therapy, which was usually how I thought about Confessional poetry, which I have read very little of. I also think that is a common assumption of confessional poetry, along with the strained relationship with the parents. But with Plath I’m seeing a poetry of politics or cultural rebellion. She’s giving a voice to women, where one wasn’t before. She’s making public the “unmentionables,” and many of these unmentionables were probably true for many women of the time, though they weren’t allowed to say so.


Works Cited

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. “What Was Confessional Poetry?” The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 632-649. Print.


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