Posts Tagged ‘” Anne Sexton

27
Aug
15

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.

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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.

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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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24
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Robert Lowell

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.

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Robert LowellRobert Lowell (1917 – 1977) was an American poet, who taught both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. His book Lord’s Weary Castle (1946) won the Pulitzer prize in 1947 and Life Studies (1959) won the National Book Award in 1960. He was influenced by Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom (who he studied under), and New Criticism, as well as W. C. Williams. His poetry is complex, has allusions, and imagery. At times in his early poetry, it feels like he is channeling T. S. Eliot in technique, such as recurring images to create symbols and even in rhythms. His craftsmanship is top notched and sometimes I get lost in its mastery and forget what’s going on in the poem. His poetry is considered the beginnings of confessional poetry, and despite the mastery of technique, confessional poetry is a reaction against the New Critics as it brings in the personal full force.

In Life Studies, Lowell provides a history of his family to show where he came from and to suggest, perhaps, that this past is part of who he is, while at the same time trying to determine if he has any control over who he is. He is a divided soul trying to find and/or portray his identity. In doing so, in recounting various histories (both familial and personal), “the work frequently takes the reader by surprise as seemingly random images and memories collide and spark into meaning, the coherence that underlies the poems only apparent in retrospect” (Parini 141). The poems in Life Studies according to M. L. Rosenthal “invoked ‘the most naked kind of confession.’ Rosenthal considered the word confessional appropriate, and later said, ‘because of the way Lowell brought his private humiliations, sufferings, and psychological problems’ into his poems, which were thus ‘one culmination of the Romantic and modern tendency to place the literal Self more and more at the center” (Hirsch 125). This culmination arrives in “Part Four: Life Studies,” where it most autobiographical. Many of the poems in Life Studies have a casual and prosaic feel, but sometimes in the midst of the prosy style, they rise up like song. Despite the prosy style, Lowell will chime sounds within lines to give it a more traditional sense of poetry. His main issues or confessions are his relationship with his parents (and which is the better role model) and his time spent in a mental hospital. I’m not sure Lowell finds any cures but maybe he finds hope in the skunks in “Skunk Hour,” the book’s closing poem. These skunks, who, after he states, “I myself am hell; / nobody’s here,” “will not scare” walking around the empty streets under the moonlight and a church, do just fine eating from the garbage. Prior to this book during Modernism, if a poet used the “I” it wasn’t necessarily in reference to the poet and was often the universal “I,” but here the “I,” the speaker of the poem, and the poet are the same. There is no modernist mask wearing. The poet is exposed willingly and deliberately.

In “For the Union Dead,” the final poem in The Union Dead (1964), Lowell will again move between histories, but this time between personal history and political/cultural history. However, in this case it’s mostly to make a political statement about racism and war and how materialism is undermining long-established values. The poems in this book are more rhythmic and with more definite rhymes – the rhythm and rhymes linger in the head long after reading them. Maybe this is how he reaches out into the world, because this book, on some level, seems to be about him trying to interact with the world he can barely see because of his myopia, a theme of many of the poems. The main confessions in this collection are about his weak eyes, finding meaning, his concerns with lack of sexual drive, and trying to connect with a romantic past that evades him.

In his later books, he writes poems that are scaffolded on the sonnet structure.

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Works Cited

Hirsch, Edward. “confessional poetry.” A Poet’s Glossary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 125. Print.

Parini, Jay. “Robert Lowell In Retrospect.” Salmagundi 141/142 (Winter-Spring 2004): 138-144. JSTOR. Database. 21 Aug 2015. PDF.

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07
Jun
14

Modernist Style, Contemporary Play, and Ecological Lament: On Betsy Andrews’ The Bottom

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose. //

Betsy Andrews – The BottomBetsy AndrewsThe Bottom (42 Miles Press, forthcoming 2014), winner of the 2013 42 Miles Press Poetry Award, opens with the 48-page long poem “The Bottom,” which consists of 48 juxtaposed smaller poems varying in length from poems of 12 short lines to poems of 21 long lines. The poems feel like they arrive from a life experienced, or should I say, these ecological poems don’t seem a step removed from experience, as if written from only studying, or appropriating information from, texts about pollution, ecology, marine biology, etc. At the same time, this long opening poem, which is rooted in the Modernist tradition of long poems of disillusionment, exposes what lies behind the illusions from the denial of ecological harm or future ecological harm. And like a Modernism poem, the language is of the language spoken by everyday people (especially people from the United States), but unlike some Modernism poems, Andrews’ allusions are shared allusions of the American populace. Along the way, we encounter mermaids, Martians, and even Mr. Limpet (the Don Knotts character from Disney’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet.) With that in mind, this long poem is also very playful, which is a difficult endeavor to do in political poems without being didactic or heavy handed, but she succeeds by way of her playful allusions, irony (another Modernism device), and music – rhymes, internal rhymes, assonance, consonance, word repetition, etc. In addition, this music, unlike music in Modernism poems, feels like it is discovered or is spontaneously composed rather than imposed or purposely created to frame the mood of the poem. As a result, Andrews is able to entice the reader with the sugar of music and play and then deliver the ecological medicine. Fortunately, the medicine doesn’t arrive in one dose. Rather, it’s an accumulation of 48 little doses. And even though there are 48 different doses of poems, there is cohesiveness about them. Unlike some  long Modernism poems that often hope for a cohesiveness to be discovered, the cohesiveness is 48 different ways of looking at the harm to marine biology and ecology in ways in which a reader can experience – whether the experience comes from the real, the imagined, or the intersection of both.

If the poems are enough or aren’t enough to move the reader to an ecological empathy, The Bottom has, like The Waste Land, a notes section (which might also be a poem depending on how it is viewed) at the end titled “Tributaries.” The “Tributaries” lists the sources I assume Andrews read in composing this long poem or that were influential to her and fed into the making of this ocean of a book. “Tributaries” starts with The Oxford English Dictionary and then moves into newspapers, National Public Radio, national parks, books of myth and symbolism, books and articles about seashells, books and articles on marine biology, books about the aftermath of unrecoverable ecological harm, and then concludes with books, stories, songs, and writers that I assume are inspirational to her, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Saxie Dowell’s “Three Little Fishies,” Anne Sexton, W. B. Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.

Betsy Andrews’ The Bottom is a short book that playfully moves in the imagined and heroically moves in the unimagined, and by the latter I mean that it moves heroically within the unimagined that is real and the “dry page of fact” and within the unimagined (or suppressed imagination) that exists because of the denials of ecological harm “when we go still and are quiet.”//

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Andrews, Betsy. The Bottom. South Bend: 42 Miles Press, 2014.




The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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