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Old 01-12-2002, 05:50 AM
Gail White's Avatar
Gail White Gail White is offline
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Location: Breaux Bridge, LA, USA
Posts: 3,301

I always thought I hated Sylvia Plath, because I couldn't abide "Daddy" and "Medusa" and the Ariel poems that made her famous. Imagine my amazement when I discovered an early Plath who wrote formal poetry that was dam good. What are the critics thinking??

A sample:


There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I'll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame,
He prowls more lordly than the sun.
Must soft, most suavely glides that step,
Advancing always at my back;
From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:
The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.
Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,
Haggard through the hot white noon.
Along red network of his veins
What fires run, what craving wakes?


I hurl my heart to halt his pace,
To quench his thirst I squander blood;
He eats, and still his need seeks food,
Compels a total sacrifice.
His voice waylays me, spells a trance,
The gutted forest falls to ash;
Appalled by secret want, I rush
From such assault of radiance.
Entering the tower of my fears,
I shut the door on that dark guilt,
I bolt the door, each door I bolt,
Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:

The panther's tread is on the stairs,
Coming up and up the stairs.
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Old 01-12-2002, 08:54 AM
Jim Hayes Jim Hayes is offline
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Location: Kilkenny, Kilkenny, Ireland
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It is good and it is interesting, but it's all of Plath- full of fear and foreboding. What an unhappy, unfortunate

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Old 01-12-2002, 11:09 AM
Gail White's Avatar
Gail White Gail White is offline
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Location: Breaux Bridge, LA, USA
Posts: 3,301

Yes, having just read the Plath biography "Bitter Fame", I
agree that mental illness is a poor route to creative genius. She does have a few joyful poems, dating from her
early love for Ted Hughes, but the majority are overwhelmed
by the darkness.

A love poem:


Through fen and farmland walking
With my own country love
I saw slow flocked cows move
White hulks on their day's cruising;
Swett grass sprang for their grazing.

The air was bright for looking:
Most far in blue, aloft,
Clouds steered a burnished drift;
Larks' nip and tuck arising
Came in for my love's praising.

Sheen of the noon sun striking
Took my heart as it
It were a green-tipped leaf
Kindled by my love's pleasing
Into an ardent blazing.

And so, together, talking,
Through Sunday's honey-air
We walked (and still walk there--
Out of the sun's bruising)
Till the night mists came rising.
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Old 01-12-2002, 01:15 PM
David Mason David Mason is offline
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Location: Colorado
Posts: 1,444

I think she was immesnely talented, and I, too, hate the more hysterical final poems. We didn't include them in Western Wind. I also think Anne Stevenson, author of Bitter Fame, is a very fine poet with an acute mind and great verbal range. I recommend huge chunks of her Collected Poems from Oxford and her Granny Scarecrow from Bloodaxe. If you get the latter, allow me to brag that my wife snapped the author photo on the back!
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Old 01-12-2002, 04:05 PM
Lisa Barnett Lisa Barnett is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Haverford, PA
Posts: 442

I must take this opportunity to post my all-time favorite Plath poem.



On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Leap incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possesion of the most obtuse objects now and then--
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, runious landscape): skeptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angle may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids uup, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubbornly through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.

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Old 01-12-2002, 10:27 PM
Robert J. Clawson Robert J. Clawson is offline
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Location: Massachusetts
Posts: 3,404

Interesting form and nice rimes. Less "old fashioned" than the earlier posts.

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Old 01-13-2002, 03:03 AM
A. E. Stallings A. E. Stallings is offline
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Location: Athens, Greece
Posts: 3,206

Gail, thanks for this thread!

I guess I am in the distinct minority here, in that I am a fan of Plath both early AND late. (And I think it is her life that is hysterical rather than, necessarily, the poems--but we tend to look at the poems through the prism of the life.)

I do think that the early formal apprenticeship serves her well in later poems. True, she later largely gives up meter (while retaining strong rhythms), but she retains an interest in rimes. She is a virtuoso of the slant rime, especially in intricate stanza patterns, as Lisa's post. Here is another. Not only do the stanzas go abcabc, but the whole poem hinges on only three, possibly four, consonantal rimes (ts, gs, n, t rather than ts). It is aptly entitled, "Rhyme," as in nursery rhyme, but rather darker than Mother Goose, if not than the Brothers Grimm:


I've got a stubborn goose whose gut's
Honeycombed with golden eggs,
Yet won't lay one.
She, addled in her goose-wit, struts
The barnyard like those taloned hags
Who ogle men

And crimp their wrinkles in a grin,
Jangling their great money bags.
While I eat grits
She fattens on the finest grain.
Now, as I hone my knife, she begs
Pardon, and that's

So humbly done, I'd turn this keen
Steel on myself before profit
By such a rogue's
Act, but--how those feather's shine!

Exit from a smoking slit
Her ruby dregs.
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Old 01-17-2002, 06:47 PM
Gail White's Avatar
Gail White Gail White is offline
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: Breaux Bridge, LA, USA
Posts: 3,301

Well, friends, when I started this line I checked the
Collected Poems out of the library and now I have got to
take it back. There are a lot of poems, both early and
late, that I would love to quote, such as "Whiteness I
Remember", "The Appliant" and others, but I will content
myself with a triolet found among the Juvenilia in small print at the back of the book:


I am sending back the key
that let me into bluebeard's study;
because he would make love to me
I am sending back the key;
in his eye's darkroom I can see
my X-rayed heart, dissected body;
I am sending back the key
that let me into bluebeard's study.

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Old 01-18-2002, 03:22 AM
nyctom nyctom is offline
Join Date: Aug 2001
Location: New York, NY USA
Posts: 3,699

I have never been a big fan of the early Plath--often find it stiff and mannered. I feel like she often is trying to impress, rather than communicate. But this is a poem from that period I would count among my favorites. It is based on a wonderful painting by Georgio deChirico:

The Disquieting Muses

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.

In the hurricane, when father's twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
"Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don't care!"
But those ladies broke the panes.

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,

I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.

Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.

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Old 01-18-2002, 06:12 AM
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Kate Benedict Kate Benedict is offline
Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: New York, NY, USA
Posts: 2,192

I'd been thinking about launching a topic myself called "Sylvia Plath, Formalist"! And I'm glad to learn that some other Eratosphereans appreciate this poet's great artistry. Sometimes Sylvia's life flew out of control, but she was always in total control of her poetry.

She has not been served well by her biographers, especially Anne Stevenson who was tempted to share writing credit with Olywyn Hughes, Ted's sister, who exercised iron control over the book's content. Olwyn and Sylvia despised one another so a book controlled by Olwyn could never be fair.

According to Elaine Feinstein's new bio of Ted Hughes, Ted himself didn't even recognize the Sylvia portrayed in her bios. The last months of her life, were, of course, dreadful. I've always thought that prescription drugs played a key role in the suicide. A neighbor saw her walking around in a daze that night, a daze that might have indeed been drug-induced. To my mind, too, her big tragic flaw (Ted's also) was the mythologizing of the self. She thought of their union as something huge, something titanic, on a higher plane than other unions, so of course when the marriage failed, she crashed.

But there I go, dwelling on the life instead of the work, like too many others. Have you noted, Alicia, that along with slant rime, Sylvia was an expert at syllabics? That "Rhyme" poem is in almost-perfect syllabics, bobbling a bit only at the word "myself." So is her heralded early poem, "Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor" -- perfect syllabics sustained over 13 stanzas. Yet while many purely syllabic poems (to my ear) seem stiff and clunky and attitude-copping, this poem reads very naturally. Almost every poem of Sylvia's displays what I call the "umbrella idea" -- an overriding concept or focus. One image or one action serves as the poem's organizing device -- e.g. "tulips" or "mirror" or a surgical operation or hunting for mussels or picking blackberries. This is the main thing I learned from her. Some poets are just so ... diffuse!

Did she ever write a poem that didn't achieve her aims? I'd argue, no. If some dislike the more raw late poems, it's probably due to an aversion to the subject matter and not the execution. I also think that some readers miss the humor; if you read "Daddy" as a loopy, even drunken soliloquy, it's quite a lark. Same with "Lady Lazarus," a real performance piece. The only poem I turn my head from is "Edge," the final poem, in which "the woman is perfected," having killed herself along with her children (the death wish wins, and won, alas) but even here I can't fault the artistry.
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