26 May 2009

On Sylvia Plath

The following post was submitted to Sylvia Plath Info Blog from Jim Long.

I've just been reading the recently-published Words on Air: the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008). I thought perhaps readers of this blog might be interested in a couple of comments between them on Plath, and on Richard Wilbur’s poem “Cottage Street, 1953”, in which he describes an early encounter with Sylvia and her mother, shortly after Sylvia’s breakdown and suicide attempt.
In October 1963, the journal Encounter published posthumously a set of 10 of Plath's late poems: "Death & Co", "The Swarm", "The Other", "Getting There", "Lady Lazarus", "Little Fugue", "Childless Woman", "The Jailor", "Thalidomide" and "Daddy". On October 27th 1963 (Sylvia's birthday!), Lowell wrote to Bishop:
"Have you read the posthumous poems by Sylvia Plath? A terrifying and stunning group has come out in the last Encounter. You probably know the story of her suicide. The poems are all about it. They seem as good to me as Emily Dickinson at the moment. Of course they are as extreme as one can bear, rather more so, but whatever wrecked her life somehow gave an edge, freedom and even control, to her poetry. There's a lot of surrealism which relieves the heat of direct memory, touches of me, and I'm pretty sure touches of your quiet and humor. She is far better certainly than Sexton or Seidel [Frederick], and almost makes one feel at first reading that all other poetry is about nothing. Still, it's searingly extreme, a triumph by a hair, that one almost wishes had never come about." (p.513)
This is interesting as being a spontaneous response that comes about 2-and-a-half years before he wrote the formal essay for the New York Review of Books that became the foreword to the American edition of Ariel.
Then, on January 14, 1973, Bishop writes to him about Richard Wilbur's "Cottage Street, 1953":
"A very neat poem by Wilbur about Sylvia Plath makes me angry. Several people including Frank [Bidart] have admired it and I think it is very bad -- really unfeeling. I tried to decide why and think it's because it is supposed to be ironic and isn't -- "It is my office to exemplify / The published poet in his happiness" -- it's full of words like that. Now Ransom could have written a poem like that, neat rhymes, cliche words, and all -- and the irony would have been really there and somehow chilling and deep & sad -- this just seems smug, I'm afraid..." (p.737)
Lowell responds: "The Wilbur poem annoyed me too. Which way is the irony meant? Against Dick? Against some conventional person much like Dick, yet slashed as his opposite? Or against Sylvia? All probably. I seem to have run into people lately who are his old friends, and welcome being bitter on him. He has really always been a model acquaintance, almost friend to me, though I felt a fragile shell kept his rivalry from muddying me. Still, a good man. I've always thought, I'm afraid that Ransom did his kind of poem (Wilbur's) with genius and a character." (p.738)
This exchange surprises me quite a lot, because it seems to me that both of these fine poets misconstrue the tone and point of Wilbur's poem entirely. If the irony is directed "against" anyone it is indeed against Wilbur himself.
In the poem, he sets up a very formal kind of situation, the semi-ritual of the tea ceremony, the composure of the poet and "Mrs. Ward", who is Wilbur's mother-in-law, the formalities of introduction, set against the intensity of the "frightened Mrs. Plath" and her "immensely drowned" daughter -- the structural formality of the poem itself, the rigid rhyme scheme that attempts to contain and control the powerful emotions that run under the surface -- the gentility of the setting and the poet's own "impotence to bless" set against the "immensity" and largeness of Sylvia's emotional "refusal" -- the slightness of the chatter by which they try to lift her spirits, to "recommend Life", despite the brooding darkness that hints at an approaching end.
Herein lies the irony -- that in spite of being expected to fulfill the role of “the published poet in his happiness" he himself feels but a "stupid lifeguard" in the shallows, compared to this very young woman who has been so "immensely drowned" in her own emotional depths. I see here a real sympathy on the poet's part (allowing that the speaker’s perspective is one of hindsight) for this young woman, who renders the poet, with his large public persona, so impotent, and "half-ashamed" of his inability to offer her any help at all.
So, while the poem might legitimately be critiqued as somewhat mannered and laborious, it puzzles me greatly that Bishop and Lowell seem so oddly dense about the import of the poem, seeing it as "unfeeling" and lacking in irony. It suggests to me that there is some personal animus behind their criticism of Wilbur’s poem, which, curiously, Lowell himself hints at with his mention of “his rivalry” and in the line about the "people ... who are his old friends and welcome being bitter on him."
Anyway, a curious passage in these wonderful letters.

11 comments :

panther said...

Oddly dense, indeed.

I've just been back to the Wilbur poem and must say I do not find it unfeeling, smug or any of those things."I am a stupid lifeguard," he writes, describing his sense of powerlessness when confronted with Sylvia's despair. I think the entire poem evokes very well everyone's genuine desire to comfort and encourage, and their painful inability to do so.

I suspect there was something else informing Lowell's and Bishop's reading of the poem-professional jealousy ? Maybe he'd just won some prestigious award that THEY felt was rightly theirs ;) I don't think this kind of jealousy goes away even when one is very successful by most people's measurement.

Joseph Hutchison said...

I've reread Wilbur's poem, too, and see exactly what Bishop and Lowell are getting at. They do not argue that the irony is lacking, only that it is not "chilling and deep & sad," as one would expect from the subject matter; instead, it is oddly unfocused.

Yes, Wilbur feels powerless before Plath's despair; but the poem doesn't end there. It goes on to present Edna Ward as dying 15 years later, at age 88, with "Such grace and courage as permit no tears, / The thin hand reaching out, the last word love," and compares her to Sylvia, who—"condemned to live"—killed herself a decade after this tea ceremony, "stat[ing] at last her brilliant negative / In poems free and helpless and unjust." The irony seems to be that the genteel housewife from Canton is superior to the tormented poet because she is not "negative," "helpless," or "unjust." She is also not "free"—as Wilbur's poem, with his perfectly rhymed quatrains, is not "free" by comparison with Plath's late work. The drift of Wilbur's poem is to exalt suburbia and the skillfully controlled suburban verse the poet specializes in over the raw, "confessional" poetry that made Plath—quite justly—famous.

Panther suspects Lowell and Bishop of harboring "professional jealousy" against Wilbur—for which there is no evidence in the letters. But it's clear to me, on the basis of "Cottage Street, 1953," that the jealousy was all on Wilbur's side. Plath represented not only a challenge to his comfortable verse but to the comfortable life that produced it.

From my point of view, Lowell and Bishop are absolutely right: Wilbur's poem is "smug" and "unfeeling." My guess is that these qualities spring from his visceral recognition that Plath's poetry would prove incomparably superior to his own, however "negative" her inspiration.

Anonymous said...

In reading Joseph's comment- in particular- I note that the "last word" of Mrs. Ward's is love. This was also the first word of "Morning Song", which commences Ariel.

panther said...

Joseph, I admit that "professional jealousy" was a stab in the dark. Didn't mean to represent that suspicion as a fact.

The poem is certainly mannered, and it's not really my cup of tea (no pun intended) but I'm not sure if Wilbur IS exalting suburbia. Couldn't he, in fact, be showing up suburban gentility for what it is, a facade pasted over real experience ?

Anonymous said...

Fascinating comments from Lowell about the batch of Plath's poetry published in Encounter. Thanks for posting it Jim (and Peter)!

-- A Lurker ;-)

Joseph Hutchison said...

I suppose Wilbur could be critiquing suburban gentility, though I don't see anywhere in the poem a suggestion that it's a "facade." Wilbur presents himself as a "stupid life-guard" vis-à-vis the "immensely drowned" Sylvia; but the suburban Edna is presented as almost saintly. The poem's ironies don't extend to her....

Anonymous said...

I'm chiming in a litle late...Today is my day off and I had a doctor's appointment earlier, so although it's early afternoon here, it's evening for most of you folks. Thanks, Peter, for posting my comment about the letters.

Joseph...I was impressed by your analysis. But, EB DOES in fact suggest that irony is lacking... she says "it's supposed to be ironic and it isn't". And I can see her point, after a fashion... Wilbur might simply be suggesting that, given the choice between "with lemon and without", between sweet and strong...he prefers the sweet over the strong.

I'm still intrigued by Lowell's comment about "his rivalry" (meaning Wilbur's)...not "our rivalry" but "his rivalry", suggesting that Wilbur was the one who experienced this sense of rivalry...but Lowell is the one who mentions it.

It might be worth mentioning also that both Lowell and Bishop seem to have some need to pat each other on the back by deriding poets who write in strict forms...or at least using regular rhyme and meter. Which seems odd, since they both wrote in strict forms and "neat rhymes" from time to time in their careers. But that's a subject for a much longer discussion.
--Jim

Joseph Hutchison said...

I wonder what rivalry Lowell meant, too. Wilbur's with him—or him and Bishop—or Wilbur's with Plath? I do see what you mean about Bishop's take on the irony; I think I read her as meaning "shallow" when she wrote "not" ironic; i.e., that the irony was so weak as to be non-existent. And yes, Bishop was sometimes very "neat"; Lowell less so: even his neatly formal poems are rough internally, if not around the edges. I do think they're patting themselves on the back: it seems a stretch to me that Lowell sees Bishop's influence in Plath's poetry, although the influence of his own is clear....

Anonymous said...

I want to add that, when Panther suggests a bit of professional jealousy is at work, that's not just conjured out of thin air -- the suggestion is there in Lowell's description of Wilbur in terms of "his rivalry", which some invisible shell around Wilbur has prevented from "muddying" him. This sounds to me like a kind of defense against just such feelings of rivalry. And what is a rivalry but the acting out of feelings of jealousy or envy, or just a mutual aggressivity, perhaps an effect of Lowell's bipolar disorder. But it's not necessary to resort to psychoanalysis...professional jealousy is certainly common enough, and not surprising, among a group of colleagues in a field in which they are regularly held up in comparison to each other. The letters contain plenty of examples of the kind of critiquing that goes on constantly, back and forth, among the widely dispersed community of poets.
--Jim

thomas said...

It is a very interesting exchange in the letters and it would be very interesting to know if and how their opinions ever changed after a closer reading.

It is also worth pointing out that the poem is a bit unusual for Wilbur in that it apparently takes its inspiration from a very real encounter that really took place at a very specific place at a very specific time with just these real people.

Lowell and Bishop, being familiar with Wilbur's temperment, may be more critical here because it appears — at least in his subject matter if not in structure — that Wilbur is stepping ever-so-slightly out of his comfort zone to address a particularly specific and traumatic event, and they don't think he's going far enough. Apparently more or greater demonstrative emoting is in order. And it seems that this is their more general and personal complaint.

As to the poem itself, my esteem for it increases with every reading. I think the praise for Edna Ward is indeed meant as a bit of a barb at readers who would over-personalize Plath's suicide or criticize the poem itself for being too cool. It seems to say, "Consider this woman, who knew and loved Sylvia better than the rest of us, how she carried her grief. Certainly the rest of us ought to remember her example as well."

Andrew said...

I wonder can Lowell and Bishop be serious. How is it that I never here any mention of the clear reference to Ariel's Song and The Waste Land and Plath's own work that occurs when the poem says that she has eyes of pearl? Let me rephrase. Ahem. "Those are pearls that were her eyes. Look." Any listening for irony is nonsense if the facts are overlooked.

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