I am about to make an assertion that may surprise some: Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was not a confessional poet.
As I define it, confessional poetry draws solely on personal experience, especially insofar as that experience includes madness, family crises, addiction, and/or antisocial behavior. The poems of Anne Sexton, W. D. Snodgrass and the later Robert Lowell fit this description (though even here, it is more accurate to state that even these poets did not write confessional poetry exclusively). Sometimes there is also a robust sexual content, as in Sexton’s work, and in that of Sharon Olds and Donald Hall, two contemporary confessionals.
Confessional poetry is always written in earnest, the voice of the poem being inseparable from that of the poet. That is the source of both its impact and its limitation. Such poems tell secrets, and secrets are exciting things to be privy to. The subject matter titillates. Rarely, though, is there much to mull over. The poetry lacks depth; there is no latent content. Nevertheless, there may be artistry. Confessional poets have written in traditional forms; their imagery can be striking, their vocabulary surprising, their tone passionate. We need passion in our poetry; too much of what pleases the good gray critics is completely dispassionate.
So when I argue that Plath is not a confessional poet, I am not motivated by saving her reputation; the genre is legitimate, in my view. I just don’t think her poems walk that beat. Along with personal poems, one finds poems of sheer description, ekphrastic poems, persona poems, nature poems, poems of retrospection that aren’t “tell-all’s,” poems based on objects or ideas. Even the infamous “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are obviously persona poems. I’ve always read them as theater pieces, comic soliloquies tinged with self-mockery and not a trace of self-pity. Recently, I felt vindicated in this unorthodox view, for Diane Middlebrook, in her recent biography of Plath and Hughes, Her Husband, describes Sylvia reading “Daddy” to a friend, whereupon both wound up rolling on the floor, laughing. We shouldn’t let Plath’s unfortunate end blind us to her considerable sense of humor.
Sylvia did write many poems that I would define as psychological poems, usually narratives, that conjure a state of mind: e.g., “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” “Parliament Hill Fields.” These poems work differently than confessional poems. There is more mystery in them; instead of telling the reader something outright, or confessing something personal, they bring the reader right into an experience. They are canny in that they do not reveal exactly what it is that evoked the speaker’s emotional state. That’s why they’re so haunting and so re-readable. I’m impressed by their combination of immediacy and universality, not to mention the beautiful flow of their lines.
Overall, Plath’s craftsmanship is practically unparalled. She was a consummate formalist, with a special gift for syllabics and subtle rhyme; her late free verse, more unbuttoned, still bears the stamp of the technician.
Plath’s work is well known to most poetry aficionados. I’ve tried to include some lesser known works here and deliberately chose none from Ariel. To emphasize the breadth of Plath’s opus, I’ve placed the poems in categories.
Southern SunriseColor of lemon, mango, peach,
These storybook villas
Still dream behind
Shutters, their balconies
Fine as hand-
Made lace, or a leaf-and-flower pen-sketch.
Tilting with the winds,
On arrowy stems,
A green crescent of palms
Sends up its forked
Firework of fronds.
A quartz-clear dawn
Inch by bright inch
Gilds all our Avenue,
And out of the blue drench
Of Angels’ Bay
Rises the round red watermelon sun.
Night ShiftIt was not a heart, beating,
That muted boom, that clangor
Far off, not blood in the ears
Drumming up any fever
To impose on the evening.
The noise came from outside:
A metal detonating
Native, evidently, to
These stilled suburbs: nobody
Startled at it, though the sound
Shook the ground with its pounding.
It took root at my coming
Till the thudding source, exposed,
Confounded inept guesswork:
Framed in windows of Main Street’s
Silvery factory, immense
Hammers hoisted, wheels turning,
Stalled, let fall their vertical
Tonnage of metal and wood;
Stunned the marrow. Men in white
Undershirts circled, tending
Without stop those greased machines,
Tending, without stop, the blunt
Polly’s TreeA dream tree, Polly's tree:
thicket of sticks,
each speckled twig
ending in a thin-paned
leaf unlike any
other on it
or in a ghost flower
flat as paper and
of a color
vaporish as frost-breath,
more finical than
any silk fan
the Chinese ladies use
to stir robin's egg
air. The silver-
haired seed of the milkweed
comes to roost there, frail
as the halo
rayed round a candle flame,
nimbus, or puff
of cloud-stuff, tipping her
Palely lit by
white daisy wheels and
a tiger faced
pansy, it glows. O it's
no family tree,
Polly's tree, nor
a tree of heaven, though
it marry quartz-flake,
feather and rose.
It sprang from her pillow
whole as a cobweb
ribbed like a hand,
a dream tree. Polly's tree
wears a valentine
arc of tear-pearled
bleeding hearts on its sleeve
and, crowning it, one
blue larkspur star.
Black Rook in Rainy WeatherOn the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a 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
Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then—
Thus hallowing an interval
By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical,
Yet politic; ignorant
Of whatever angel 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 up, and grant
A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
trekking stubborn 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.
Witch Burning From Poem for a BirthdayIn the marketplace they are piling the dry sticks.
A thicket of shadows is a poor coat. I inhabit
The wax image of myself, a doll’s body.
Sickness begins here; I am a dartboard for witches.
Only the devil can eat the devil out.
In the month of red leaves I climb to a bed of fire.
It is easy to blame the dark: the mouth of a door,
The cellar’s belly. They’ve blown my sparkler out,
A black-sharded lady keeps me in a parrot cage.
What large eyes the dead have!
I am intimate with a hairy spirit.
Smoke wheels from the beak of this empty jar.
If I am a little one, I can do no harm.
If I don’t move about, I’ll knock nothing over. So I said,
Sitting under a potlid, tiny and inert as a rice grain.
They are turning the burners up, ring after ring.
We are full of starch, my small white fellows. We grow.
It hurts at first. The red tongues will teach the truth.
Mother of beetles, only unclench your hand:
I’ll fly through the candle’s mouth like a singeless moth.
Give me back my shape. I am ready to construe the days
I coupled with dust in the shadow of a stone.
My ankles brighten. Brightness ascends my thighs.
I am lost, I am lost, in the robes of all this light.
Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies A Sestina for the DouanierYadwigha, the literalists once wondered how you
Came to be lying on this baroque couch
Upholstered in red velvet, under the eye
Of uncaged tigers and a tropical moon,
Set in an intricate wilderness of green
Heart-shaped leaves, like catalpa leaves, and lilies
Of monstrous size, like no well-bred lilies
It seems the consistent critics wanted you
To choose between your world of jungle green
And the fashionable monde of the red couch
With its prim bric-à-brac, without a moon
To turn you luminous, without the eye
Of tigers to be stilled by your dark eye
And body whiter than its frill of lilies:
They'd have had yellow silk screening the moon,
Leaves and lilies flattened to paper behind you
Or, at most, to a mille-fleurs tapestry. But the couch
Stood stubborn in its jungle: red against green,
Red against fifty variants of green,
The couch glared out at the prosaic eye.
So Rousseau, to explain why the red couch
Persisted in the picture with the lilies,
Tigers, snakes, and the snakecharmer and you,
And birds of paradise, and the round moon,
Described how you fell dreaming at full of moon
On a red velvet couch within your green-
Tessellated boudoir. Hearing flutes, you
Dreamed yourself away in the moon's eye
To a beryl jungle, and dreamed that bright moon-lilies
Nodded their petaled heads around your couch.
And that, Rousseau told the critics, was why the couch
Accompanied you. So they nodded at the couch with the moon
And the snakecharmer's song and the gigantic lilies,
Marvelingly numbered the many shades of green.
But to a friend, in private, Rousseau confessed his eye
So possessed by the glowing red of the couch which you,
Yadwigha, pose on, that he put you on the couch
To feed his eye with red, such red! under the moon,
In the midst of all that green and those great lilies!
Leaving EarlyLady, your room is lousy with flowers.
When you kick me out, that's what I'll remember,
Me, sitting here bored as a leopard
In your jungle of wine-bottle lamps,
Velvet pillows the color of blood pudding
And the white china flying fish from Italy.
I forget you, hearing the cut flowers
Sipping their liquids from assorted pots,
Pitchers and Coronation goblets
Like Monday drunkards. The milky berries
Bow down, a local constellation,
Toward their admirers in the tabletop:
Mobs of eyeballs looking up.
Are those petals of leaves you've paired with them—
Those green-striped ovals of silver tissue?
The red geraniums I know.
Friends, friends. They stink of armpits
And the involved maladies of autumn,
Musky as a lovebed the morning after.
My nostrils prickle with nostalgia.
Henna hags: cloth of your cloth.
They tow old water thick as fog.
The roses in the Toby jug
Gave up the ghost last night. High time.
Their yellow corsets were ready to split.
You snored, and I heard the petals unlatch,
Tapping and ticking like nervous fingers.
You should have junked them before they died.
Daybreak discovered the bureau lid
Littered with Chinese hands. Now I'm stared at
By chrysanthemums the size
Of Holofernes' head, dipped in the same
Magenta as this fubsy sofa.
In the mirror their doubles back them up.
Listen: your tenant mice
Are rattling the cracker packets. Fine flour
Muffles their bird feet: they whistle for joy.
And you doze on, nose to the wall.
This mizzle fits me like a sad jacket.
How did we make it up to your attic?
You handed me gin in a glass bud vase.
We slept like stones. Lady, what am I doing
With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood,
Knee-deep in the cold swamped by flowers?
In PlasterI shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:
This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one,
And the white person is certainly the superior one.
She doesn't need food, she is one of the real saints.
At the beginning I hated her, she had no personality—
She lay in bed with me like a dead body
And I was scared, because she was shaped just the way I was
Only much whiter and unbreakable and with no complaints.
I couldn't sleep for a week, she was so cold.
I blamed her for everything, but she didn't answer.
I couldn't understand her stupid behavior!
When I hit her she held still, like a true pacifist.
Then I realized what she wanted was for me to love her:
She began to warm up, and I saw her advantages.
Without me, she wouldn't exist, so of course she was grateful.
I gave her a soul, I bloomed out of her as a rose
Blooms out of a vase of not very valuable porcelain,
And it was I who attracted everybody's attention,
Not her whiteness and beauty, as I had at first supposed.
I patronized her a little, and she lapped it up—
You could tell almost at once she had a slave mentality.
I didn't mind her waiting on me, and she adored it.
In the morning she woke me early, reflecting the sun
From her amazingly white torso, and I couldn't help but notice
Her tidiness and her calmness and her patience:
She humored my weakness like the best of nurses,
Holding my bones in place so they would mend properly.
In time our relationship grew more intense.
She stopped fitting me so closely and seemed offish.
I felt her criticizing me in spite of herself,
As if my habits offended her in some way.
She let in the drafts and became more and more absent-minded.
And my skin itched and flaked away in soft pieces
Simply because she looked after me so badly.
Then I saw what the trouble was: she thought she was immortal.
She wanted to leave me, she thought she was superior,
And I'd been keeping her in the dark, and she was resentful—
Wasting her days waiting on a half-corpse!
And secretly she began to hope I'd die.
Then she could cover my mouth and eyes, cover me entirely,
And wear my painted face the way a mummy-case
Wears the face of a pharaoh, though it's made of mud and water.
I wasn't in any position to get rid of her.
She'd supported me for so long I was quite limp—
I had forgotten how to walk or sit,
So I was careful not to upset her in any way
Or brag ahead of time how I'd avenge myself.
Living with her was like living with my own coffin:
Yet I still depended on her, though I did it regretfully.
I used to think we might make a go of it together—
After all, it was a kind of marriage, being so close.
Now I see it must be one or the other of us.
She may be a saint, and I may be ugly and hairy,
But she'll soon find out that that doesn't matter a bit.
I'm collecting my strength; one day I shall manage without her,
And she'll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me.
From Three WomenFIRST VOICE (She has just given birth)
Who is he, this blue, furious boy,
Shiny and strange, as if he had hurtled from a star?
He is looking so angrily!
He flew into the room, a shriek at his heel.
The blue color pales. He is human after all.
A red lotus opens in its bowl of blood;
They are stitching me up with silk, as if I were a material.
What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?
I have never seen a thing so clear.
His lids are like the lilac-flower
And soft as a moth, his breath.
I shall not let go.
There is no guile or warp in him. May he keep so.
MirrorI am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,
Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.
The Other TwoAll summer we moved in a villa brimful of echoes,
Cool as the pearled interior of a conch.
Bells, hooves, of the high-stepping black goats woke us.
Around our bed the baronial furniture
Foundered through levels of light seagreen and strange.
Not one leaf wrinkled in the clearing air.
We dreamed how we were perfect, and we were.
Against bare, whitewashed walls, the furniture
Anchored itself, griffin-legged and darkly grained.
Two of us in a place meant for ten more—
Our footsteps multiplied in the shadowy chambers,
Our voices fathomed a profounder sound:
The walnut banquet table, the twelve chairs
Mirrored the intricate gestures of two others.
Heavy as a statuary, shapes not ours
Performed a dumbshow in the polished wood,
That cabinet without windows or doors:
He lifts an arm to bring her close, but she
Shies from his touch: his is an iron mood.
Seeing her freeze, he turns his face away.
They poise and grieve as in some old tragedy.
Moon-blanched and implacable, he and she
Would not be eased, released. Our each example
Of tenderness dove through their purgatory
Like a planet, a stone, swallowed in a great darkness,
Leaving no sparky track, setting up no ripple.
Nightly we left them in their desert place.
Lights out, they dogged us, sleepless and envious:
We dreamed their arguments, their stricken voices.
We might embrace, but those two never did,
Come, so unlike us, to a stiff impasse,
Burdened in such a way we seemed the lighter—
Ourselves the haunters, and they, flesh and blood;
As if, above love's ruinage, we were
The heaven those two dreamed of, in despair.
Memoirs of a Spinach-PickerThey called the place Lookout Farm.
Back then, the sun
Didn’t go down in such a hurry. How it
Lit things, that lamp of the Possible!
Lay over the leaves like a clear cellophane,
A pane of dragonfly wing, when they left me
With a hundred bushel baskets on the edge
Of the spinach patch.
Bunch after bunch of green
Upstanding spinach-tips wedged in a circle—
Layer on layer, and you had a basket
Irreproachable as any lettuce head,
Pure leafage. A hundred baskets by day’s end.
Sun and sky mirrored the green of the spinach.
In the tin pail shaded by yellow paper
Well-water kept cool at the start of the rows.
The water had an iron taste, and the air,
Even, a tang of metal.
Day in, day out,
I bent over the plants in my leather-kneed
Dungarees, proud as a lady in a sea
Of prize roses, culling the fullest florets;
My work pyramided with laden basket.
I’d only to set one foot in wilderness—
A whole sea of spinach-head leaned to my hand.
The BabysittersIt is ten years, now, since we rowed to Children’s Island.
The sun flamed straight down that noon on the water off Marblehead.
That summer we wore black glasses to hide our eyes.
We were always crying, in our spare rooms, little put-upon sisters,
In the two huge, white, handsome houses in Swampscott.
When the sweetheart from England appeared, with her cream skin and Yardley cosmetics,
I had to sleep in the same room with the baby on a too-short cot,
And the seven-year-old wouldn’t go out unless his jersey stripes
Matched the stripes of his socks.
O it was richness!—eleven rooms and a yacht
With a polished mahogany stair to let into the water
And a cabin boy who could decorate cakes in six-colored frosting.
But I didn’t know how to cook, and babies depressed me.
Nights, SI wrote in my diary spitefully, my fingers red
With triangular scorch marks from ironing tiny ruchings and puffed sleeves.
When the sporty wife and her doctor husband went on one of their cruises
They left me a borrowed maid named Ellen, ‘for protection’,
And a small Dalmatian.
In your house, the main house, you were better off.
You had a rose garden and a guest cottage and a model apothecary shop
And a cook and a maid, and knew about the key to the bourbon.
I remember you playing ‘Ja Da’ in a pink piqué dress
On the gameroom piano, when the ‘big people’ were out,
And the maid smoked and shot pool under a green-shaded lamp.
The cook had one wall eye and couldn’t sleep, she was no nervous.
On trial, from Ireland, she burned batch after batch of cookies
Till she was fired.
O what has come over us, my sister!
On the day-off the two of us cried so hard to get
We lifted a sugared ham and a pineapple fro the grownups’ icebox
And rented an old green boat. I rowed. You read
Aloud, crosslegged on the stern seat, from the Generation of Vipers.
so we bobbed out to the island. It was deserted—
A gallery of creaking porches and still interiors,
Stopped and awful as a photograph of somebody laughing,
But ten years dead.
The bold gulls dove as if they owned it all.
We picked up sticks of driftwood and beat them off,
Then stepped down the steep beach shelf and into the water.
We kicked and talked. The thick salt kept us up.
I see us floating there yet, inseparable—two cork dolls.
What keyhole have we slipped through, what door has shut?
The shadows of the grasses inched round like hands of a clock,
And from our opposite continents we wave and call.
Everything has happened.
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