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!), wrote to Bishop: Lowell
"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 [
], 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) Frederick
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.
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)
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.