Fred Beake: Plathetic Fallacies

I remember 30 years ago, when I was in my first year at University, I used to have arguments with a fellow student, in which I maintained that Schoenberg and Webern (of whom I knew a lot, and he knew very little) were no more (or less) terrifying than Beethoven, and equally classical. One day he told me of this strange poet Sylvia Plath, who was (though I think he enjoyed it) even more terrifying than Schoenberg. I went and bought `Ariel', and was impressed. To me who was soaked in Williams it seemed much more formful, and indeed classical, than it did to him who knew only the English tradition; but equally there could be no doubt as to the hysteria of the book, and the woman had committed suicide. I suppose both with myself and with others I have been trying to reconcile these incompatibles ever since.

If I offer what are in many ways still questions and half formed arguments it is out of an increasing irritation at the tendency to pick Sylvia Plath's life story to the bones, and to ignore the radical greatness of her poetry.

There seems to have been very little attempt to place Plath as an American poet in the context of her generation. There was the early very silly labelling of her, Sexton, Lowell and Berryman etc as "The Confessional Poets". It is doubtful if this school ever had any reality in the minds of the poets involved, as opposed to the critics. In the case of Plath it must be questioned whether a poet so interested in the fictional and the persona can be confessional. Even "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" prove on examination to have been described by her in her introduction to a radio recording as dramatic monologues (1). A very high proportion of the later poems are clearly fictions spoken by personas. This is obvious in a poem such as "The Zoo Keeper's Wife" or "Tulips", but may it not also have influenced the manner of "Ariel" (the poem) say, or the bee poems, based though they are on personal experience. No one assumes that "The Waste Land" or "Prufrock" are wholly personal experience, even though there are obvious personal elements. Why must we assume that Plath is wholly personal, and not pushing out into fiction? Is it out of some idea that the poem can only be a personal utterance? This is a manifest historical nonsense, but a very common one in our generation. Is not the fact Plath can use imagination to blend her experience into that of a persona precisely why so many of these poems (for all their pain) have the detached quality of great art? Of course personal dramas can be helpful to an artist. Shakespeare's `Sonnets' are an excellent example. But if the critical fallacies of the inventors of the Confessional School were true the ravings of every mentally ill person would be great art.

There is the theory (given moderate implicit support by Ted Hughes (2)) which I have often met in conversation that Theodore Roethke was the decisive influence on Plath. Certainly both had an uneasy German background, and both knew mental illness from time to time; and certainly Plath's use of a flow of subconscious imagery could have originated in Roethke's Lost Son poems, with their exploration of the subconscious at a deep level. There is however a large difference between Plath and Roethke. It is partly rhythmic. Roethke tends to use either highly irregular free verse or tight Yeatsian iambics. Plath (and this is not the least part of her genius) seeks an accomodation between the two traditions. Secondly the images Plath selects are somehow much more of the general than the personal subconscious. Roethke's dream world of strange goings on in greenhouses can be unexpectedly moving (and indeed left a mark on my own early poems) but one rarely feels this concerns the reader. For this one must look to the much more formal "Words for the Wind" or "Four for Sir John Davies". The poems of Plath's brief terrible flowering ought to be like the Lost Son, but somehow they are not. I find "Edge" say, or even "Lady Lazarus" remarkably detached and still at their hearts. I am aware when I was younger I thought of them as hysterical, and I know it is the belief of some of my friends that these are poems deeply personal to Sylvia Plath, but increasingly I find some undertow of greatness I cannot quite fathom.

So I am driven to ask questions, some of them at least probably unanswerable.

Plath grew up at a time of intense poetic ferment in the States. On the one hand the massive weight of Modernism, not least the inconvenient longevity and fecundity of its practitioners (Williams, Pound and H.D. all were old and writing as well as ever). This, whatever its faults, fuelled what now seem the best American poets of that period -- Olson, Creeley, Ginsberg. However the apparent climate was of revolt in the opposite direction. The young poets in the universities, bayed on by the New Critics were returning to the old forms, usually with all too little regard to content. Yet the inconvenient greatness of Williams particularly, and to some extent Pound was there. You might attempt as Lowell did to shut it out and look to an older tradition, but greatness is hard to gainsay; and both Lowell and Berryman in the end changed their styles to a more open ended one, at least partly because of Williams. The evidence in the case of Lowell is clearly set out in Ian Hamilton's biography. But it was not merely Lowell and Berryman. Williams was influencing poets as different as Ginsberg, Lowell, Levertov, Olson and Creeley, and perhaps most surprising of all Auden (how many remember Auden's late work is influenced by Williams?). The fifties was Williams' decade. It is very hard to believe Plath was not aware of him.

However I cannot in the strict sense prove that Williams was the decisive influence on Plath. It is not impossible she picked up his ideas at a remove through Lowell and Auden, both of whom she admired. She was certainly impressed by a visit of Auden's to Smith College when she was a student; and later she sat in on Lowell's Poetry Workshop at the very time he was evolving `Life Studies' under Williams' influence. The last is the obvious point of contact with Williams for Plath, but there is no proof Lowell discussed these matters in his seminars. However, even if he did not, it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that she could have known a few anthology pieces, or (as young poets often do, especially when breaking away from the fashions of their contemporaries) simply grasped certain ideas out of the air.

Whatever the immediate cause I am convinced that all the terrible last poems of January and February 1962, and before that an increasing number of poems from "Morning Song" on (including not least "Ariel" and "Lady Lazarus") show Williams' influence. In saying Williams I am thinking particularly of "Spring and All". Here we have so many of the qualities that mark Plath out from her contemporaries: the jagged, but highly controlled and forward moving rhythms; the images (often painterly) that ought to be personal, and somehow are general. I am not saying Plath imitated "Spring and All", rather that she picked up an energy off it. At one point the two poets are extraordinarily close. Look at Williams' "The Ball Game" and pretend it is written by Plath. One is hard put to deny it.

There is an implicit objection to this raised by Louis Simpson in his fine essay on Plath (3): that Williams did not believe in simile and metaphor and Plath based her art round them. In theory this is true, but is Plath's

Berries cast dark

(Ariel, stanza three)

strictly a metaphor, or a surreal image? Williams, when young particularly, was not a realist. He sought rather those moments that spring between mind and mind. In "Spring and All" those moments are often straight out of the School of Paris. Everyone knows "the Red Wheel Barrow", but that is not very typical of "Spring and All". There are a lot of surreal or almost surreal images eg

Warm rains
wash away winter's
hermaphrodite telephones

(Spring and All, XXVII)

As long as one keeps Williams' influence on Plath to his pre 1925 work I feel it is hard to deny.

Yet the shifting line lengths of Williams' later work (implicit in his theory of a variable foot, arising out of breath movement in ordinary American speech) seem a possible explanation for Plath's similar practice in her work after "Morning Song". Certainly again the argument about the reality of the Variable Foot must have been part of the currency of Plath's poetic youth. Yet (it is amusing to spectulate) was her work also influenced by Williams' opponents. The then well known Louise Bogan (who Roethke greatly admired) believed the iambic to be a natural movement of the breath (4). Plath's long lines are not iambic, but they are often sculpted by the movement of the breath into an irregular line of four or five feet. Was Plath thinking about Williams and Bogan in conjunction, when she wrote such poems as "Blackberrying", or was she making logical deductions from the Eliot of "Four Quartets", or Hopkins, or Auden, or Milton, or Langland? Equally when she starts to use an approximation of Williams' system is she in such a poem as "Words", breaking down a long five foot line into stanzas of five short lines, or is the effect subtly different. Personally I feel it is, but I have argued a lot about it with myself over the years.

Another question, which seems to arise, if Plath was being influenced by Williams. Was she approximating his systems with Schoenberg and Webern? I used to equate twelve note row with variable foot when young. Did she? Certainly Modern Music was on an up in the early Sixties. Even if she did not listen to it much a casual glance at the posh music critics might well have fuelled her thought, and 1959 was the year that Maxwell Davies made an impression at Cheltenham.

The young Oliver Knussen wrote a fine Symphony, setting Trakl and Plath in apposition. He links them so naturally one is left to wonder if Plath with her intense awareness of her Teutonic origins was influenced by Expressionism: the musicians, the poets, or most likely the painters. Certainly she was very aware of Art, producing large numbers of paintings in words, and even at one point producing poems to order about paintings (Collected Poems, Nos 66-8) and Schoenberg was on Radio 3 a lot in the early Sixties. It seems a very open avenue.

Why does her work in many ways flow so opposite to the direction of her contemporaries. She was not as they (in the States or the United Kingdom) hurrying out of formal measures into chopped prose. The strong liquid flow of her music gets stronger as she gets older, and seems able to cope with irregularity so easily. This obviously lies in her personality and the breadth of her education, but why did she have it, when a contemporary as gifted as Adrienne Rich for example finally did not.

If I fumble this essay into words it is out of the belief that Plath's life is in great danger of undermining her poetry. This is so radical, so enormous an achievement; and a knowledge of the life is almost irrelevant to it. It seems to me time we stopped asking about a wasted life and the misdeeds of patriarchal culture (true or untrue) and looked at the twists of rhythm and image in these great poems as they are. But to grasp at salacious details and ignore, or laugh, at vision this is the sin of a society haunted by weed of poetry cracking the concrete, and reaching for the weed killer.


1. Note on Page 293, "The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath" (Faber and Faber, 1981)
2. Ditto Page 209, ("Poem for a Birthday")
3. In Louis Simpson, "A Revolution in Taste" (Macmillan, New York 1978)
4. See James E.Breslin, "From Modern to Contemporary" (University of Chicago, 1983) chapter two, essentially Page 29 and following.