Okt 21, 2012

Threads regarding Wilbur's estimation of Plath

The poem discussed below is Richard Wilbur's "Cottage Street, 1953" starring Sylvia Plath.


GE— this is it then, the weak, the strong, our desires: plath and her "brilliant negative". what do you think of plath's "involvement" in wilbur's poem? can you read her "free, helpless, and unjust" poems in this one?

AN— last two stanzas were written in contrast to each other. plath's negative against the 88 summers of ward. eternal lines or longevity. there are also two poets here, wilbur who seeks to balance the tea-timed life with poetry and Plath who only studies for a decade more ("as she must") in order to state her rebuke of life, her poems. wilbur cannot write this in free verse, even if that is within his ambit, because that would mean (within the bounded logic of this poem) that he is likewise committing to a life lived to repudiate itself (thus, "helpless"). What is unjust? That Plath had to endure one more decade of living, of interventions, of that husband, perhaps also of children in order to write out the lines that repudiate life, that show it up, bare it for what it is, a bloody chunk of suffering tight-woven by rite, by smile, by genial concern

GE— "fun" is a good word, because humor's one thing that's definitely within wilbur's wheelhouse! of course, i'm not saying though that humor's the only way to have fun in poetry :)

GE— thanks! will look up full fathom five and lady lazarus, because yes, i believe wilbur was keen and attentive to (and yes perhaps envious enough or at the very least: truly engaged with) sylvia plath to load his poems with echoes of hers. do consider this one, last stanza plath's "mirror", written a decade after 1953: 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.

AN— agree with the first part of your notion. but may I ask who is doing the judging (from which she is appealing)? wilbur, ward, mother? someone or something else?

GE— in the scene it's all three, i suppose. just setting the tea involved a lot of judgment. but maybe it meant something else. posterity?

AN— on my part, i see Plath's plight/path being romanticized by wilbur. that could be itself unjust, as her path is but the yin to ward's yang and both must "justly" be accorded equal value (and i think the form tries to do that, give each caesar her due)

DE— Sylvia Plath's poems can be read as "unjust" to Life -- upon which it has leveled a "brilliant" but "negative" judgment -- also as "unjust" to its exemplar (Edna Ward), to its supplicant (Mrs. Plath), and to its official messenger (Richard Wilbur). They could also be unjust to a kind of Life, one that stifles but, in stifling, allows her to do poetry that is "free" and unlike Wilbur's and his compatriots. They could also be "unjust" to Wilbur, because he cannot be a part of their brilliance, he being on the "positive" camp, despite all his hesitations. And against all such hesitations, he secretly admires those eyes of pearl which has beheld death and has not blinked. What is the value of his verse, his form, his office against such a vision? However, it comes at a bitter cost that he is unable and unwilling to pay.

GE— augustan balance? is that a matter of rhyme, cadence? or strophe alternation? will do some research on this too, but thanks if you'll weigh in :)

GE— i've been thinking about the 'they' here in your post, and i had wanted to ask for clarification re: who these they could be (who are unjust), hughes and the children perhaps, or wilbur and the mothers. only now did it occur to me that you could be referring to the poems (which, stupid me, was what the grammar was referring to the whole time!), that they're unjust to be left behind. if that's so, then these poems of plath are also condemned to live (she condemns them to live . . . or we do, by our insistent patronage of her rhythmic confessions). dear and perceptive wilbur, if so!

GE— certainly possible in my view. what's more it's her poems that become unjust (or become an expression of her "illness-informed" injustice)

AN— and it's at the core of the "brilliant negative" which is the opposite and equal of (or superior to, judging by the ultimate position of the stanza) ward's 88 summers—

AN— a case may be made that wilbur's "unjust" referred to plath's poetic harshness toward her father. as I understand it, the "facts" aren't known and the family denies any possibility of incest. wilbur might have felt, no matter what the actual situation, it would be "bad form" to accuse anyone publically, in a poem. I believe her father had already passed, so it might also be "unjust" that he couldn't defend himself

AN— i am reminded of the word "true" in dickinson's the brain within its groove. if we follow this, perhaps "unjust" could also refer to plath's state of mind. just sounding it out! thanks for this

GE— hughes's crow poems are most telling. he sees all his tragedies as heavy black feathers that he must wear and by which he must be judged. the second wife took their daughter down with her :(

AN— ward's phoenix and wilbur's office needs "negatives" like plath. else, what would be their raison d'etre? and plath needs something to refuse, to reject, and ultimately to abandon. or else her negative would not be anywhere near brilliant. i think the choice that we are supposed to think about "does wilbur tend toward plath or ward" could now entertain a third: we are equally being offered a choice, the many summers or the one great negative. it is in the tradition of poetic questions like does it end in fire or in ice? a bang or a whimper? you don't truly choose (wilbur is who he is, bound and prolific; plath, free and focused on death). to say that sylvia plath has a choice is to be a mrs ward or a mrs plath. same goes for free or trad verse. your soul is measured, one way or the other. the world ends, one way or the other

AN— perhaps some of her biography too? but her poems, moreso

AN— "and that she'd channel all this into the poems for posterity: could there be injustice in that as well?

DE— "Shall study for a decade, as she must,": In the course of the Cottage St scene, frightened Ms Plath swells into someone whose "refusal" grows larger than those who wish to intervene. I absolutely love it, especially the last two stanzas, those perfectly matched epilogues. The line quoted above is Plath's exact pair to Ward's "After her eight-and-eighty summers of ," and wow you know? What did Wilbur pack into that line? There's Plath's novel published, her poems getting out and scarred and trampled upon and praised at times, more attempts at death, and that's Ted Hughes in there, it's within that decade where he figures, his "Thunder of God" voice, his infelicities, her first child, then her second! That's just the bare outlines of it, I'm sure, already it's so much more than some of us have in a decade, and what was all that for Plath (according to Wilbur)? STUDY! It's all for study. All of it was coiling, gathering power, negativity, "unjustness" I suppose, and brilliance.

AN— seems that the encapsulation of ward's summers is less drastic than the collapse of the plath's decade into one line

AN— curious too about why things don't materialize for you

AN— that not just plath but Wilbur also had need of a life-preserver! i had not thought of this, and i'll reread the poem now guided by this notion. thanks!

AN— i agree that not all poets are brooding and on-the-edge. but some are, plaths do exist, and (as lives) they are more interesting than the "non-suicidal" ones (this is so crudely put, so please forgive). so yes, it's not true to say that poets or even the best of poets are unbalanced. i think though that we associate (whether rightly or wrongly i have yet to know) a certain type of knowledge, a "slant", a type of underworldly wisdom to those you call "miserable, unbalanced, and suicidal". maybe wilbur's persona buys into this as well. if so, this poem sells it by extension

AN— water from key west! ah that sly stevens is "making" us as we go along! maybe the beats will tap enough of that water off our systems. but what a big maybe

AN— love how you phrase this. personally speaking though, i'll let the next 100 years love the poetry they'll love, i won't be there anyway, i'm good with what's at hand, and i've been looking at the items in the coming weeks, and it's good stuff coming in my opinion

AN— plath thinks she's beyond help too. in "mirrors" (quoted above) plath writes: "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.


AN— I believe the penultimate stanza prepares us for the word unjust. That Edna Ward got what she wanted: Life, but Plath had to suffer a decade more of a life she had been trying to shake off her chest (those "owl's talons" she kept referring to). Plath was given the words Free, Helpless, and Unjust. Ward was given Grace (but not freedom), Courage (but not helplessness and the freedom of helplessness) and, lastly, Love (but not unjust, but is love just? and that she was reaching out like that, could that mean that her 88 years had not known Love? Maybe this Life she so cherished was Unjust to her as well, that there were tears but even in her last moments decorum would win out and she would keep them to herself, perhaps choke on them, only one word escaping her, as opposed to Plath's corpus, her "brilliant negative").  No, Wilbur was not smug in my view. He was in envy of Plath, he was gazing at a far shore unavailable to him, beyond his office. Hers is a power that shall feed on itself, negate itself, but power nonetheless, tears free-flowing. And if he kept to traditional verse, it is fundamentally to emphasize how Plath was beyond him, how he is locked within the tea time, at the behest of the old mothers, even long after they are dead.

AN— oh, that got me to thinking as well! i hope he won't mock his younger self, it's a complex piece, and grows more haunting the longer you (or at least i) think about it

AN— i think he's projecting two mutually exclusive paths that he could have taken (two very different sorts of "life") in the persons of ward and plath and while he may have chosen ward, plath will forever be that great road not taken. just a bit of speculation on my part

AN— yes, but the speaker wishes that the death-wish was an option

AN— i agree with everything you just said. and i don't think i'm blind to form in this poem but i don't don't don't see wilbur showing up plath (hmm, that would be ... bad form). we begin with the phoenix flanking edna, yes, but the ending belongs to sylvia, the 'brilliant' hers now, achieved.

DE— I read Ted Hughes's letter to their son Nicholas, and now I wonder if it's valid to think of this in the light of your "at what cost" which is a question that haunts me also.

AN— oh my, that epilogue was heartbreaking!


AN— you're right, though my own thoughts have always been oriented the other way around, how her poetry would have been without the specific features or her life (father, husband, publisher rejections, etc).

AN— Even if that were the case, I doubt Wilbur was "mocking" Sylvia half as much as he did the Toad (if we accept Toad as a mock-heroic perhaps against the author's wishes). But I've heard arguments either way, and have at last been convinced that Wilbur was not setting Plath up as a model. There was admiration, or at least some great interest, but in the end he eyed her limitations with sharp (perhaps hidden) criticism

AN— took me some time to digest what you said, "freedom doesn't include throwing away one's life" and in a sense you're right. for if death is emancipatory, death "liberates" us from freedom as well.

AN— yes!

AN— thanks for the etymology. i think the religious sense was part of it, but maybe not his main point. or maybe it was his main sense of the word since the whole set-up was so ritualistic anyway, his office almost priestly though not one to whom the recalcitrant plath would address her "confessionals"

DE— I see some religion (that word "bless") is a large word. But I have to agree with Andrea Singh, that it's not the central motif, even if we could be talking here of a poem that's two eulogies in one elegy.

AN— or beyond help. yes that works too!

DE— I reread "Daddy" in order to frame a discussion of Wilbur's last line regarding Plath's poems. For him they are "free and helpless, and unjust." If we set aside, for a while, the biographies and consider the form, it's "free" because the rhyme is loose, very loose, and much more so the meter. There's a preponderance of "you" rhymes, too much, if we go by traditionally disciplined forms, but of course that heightens the nature of the poem, nursery (pretty little heart, daddy) mingled with the accusatory (mein kampf).

When viewed using the old standards of rhetoric, that's what's makes Plath's confessional poem weak (thus, "helpless"): its over-the-top sentimentality amounts to layers of ad misericordiam, its hyperbolic nature defeats itself.

It lacks balance as rhetoric, lacks discipline as meter and is therefore is "unjust". That we almost automatically read these words "free, helpless, and unjust" as referring to Plath rather than her poems is key, I think, to Wilbur's central rhetoric: the verse makes the man. A free, helpless, and unjust verse makes for a free, helpless, and unjust poet. Bad form makes for bad fate. And as a person, Plath would suffer the consequences not only of her life-choices but also of her verse-choices.

(It's telling why the elder women would arrange for Plath to see another poet, as if to restore "proper" cadence and measured breath would rid her of some internal arrhythmia.)

Balance though, is what Wilbur strives to deliver. He poises Ward against Plath and they are equal, or almost equal, as lives go, one because of longevity, the other because of brilliance.  He criticizes both the phoenix and the negative in what seems to be an equal measure, with generous amounts of self-deprecation thrown into the method ("stupid lifeguard").

Balance, discipline: that's Wilbur's office! That's his poetics as well as his lifestyle. Aristotle would be proud. And it's what tips the scales.

Among the people in attendance (women, notably, and "hysterical" we assume), it is his superior judgment that is sought after. And he is perceptive: this woman is already drowned. Therefore it was correct that they brought her to him, but not that they brought her to him bereft of reason, life, agreeable verse (that is, verse you can reason with, for without that, she is truly drowned, "carried away" in every sense of the word -- and this is why it is in this part, the diagnosis, the pearl in the eyes, where Wilbur also puts on, "judiciously," some hyperbole).

That's his conceit. In his form (of poetry, therefore life), he can hold the energies of a Plath without allowing it to consume him. It is his poem (and self) after all that can hold both Ward's eighty-eight summers and Plath's brilliant negative.

DE— Thank you very much. Took me all week to put that together. I hope it didn't sound too contrived.

AN— that must have gone through some thinking! good for you to have let it all out in one go! can't seem to do that myself

AN— "this vulnerable self" that's true, a perfect way to put it, like she bared her spirit to life and death

DE— Thank you. This is a healer's/insider's account that I believe should be greatly appreciated. A question: do you think Plath got anything from her poetry? Even small comfort, temporary relief, and (dare I say it) hope?

AN— you get a high after you finish a first draft, esp if it's a difficult piece. you get a high when you get published or get some affirmation. did none of these do anything for her? they're temporary, probably, but still. worth discussing methinks