I gave a sermon the other Sunday. Well, it wasn’t really a sermon – a best, a sermonette – but more of a presentation on a famous Unitarian. The Dubuque Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, as wonderful a group of people as you could hope to meet, decided to focus on famous folks from their history this summer, and when I found out Sylvia Plath was among them, I just couldn’t resist.
My main point was this: everybody always focuses on the scandal of her demise (oven, gas) and that makes it way too easy to 1) dismiss her poetry altogether as somehow tainted, or 2) read into everything she ever wrote some kind of dire evidence of her terrible death to come. I mean, her children, ages 1 and 3, were in the other room! How awful is that? You call her a good mother?
But I didn’t want to talk about her mothering skills, though I could write pages about the ways in which she was a terrific, caring mom. In my talk, I did mention the facts of her life that seemed to drive her to not one but three suicide attempts in her brief life. Her father died when she was eight, of untreated diabetes, and some have speculated that her acts – taking pills, crashing her car, putting her head in the oven – were misguided attempts to get back to him.
Many critics assume she was clinically depressed, or even bipolar, with depressions punctuated by periods of mania, in which she wrote, if you’ll pardon the expression, like crazy. I’ll leave it to the experts (in psychology, not literature) to decide, although posthumous psychoanalysis seems a little cruel. I hate to think of my friends and family standing around my casket saying, “She was a little unbalanced, don’t you think? I hear sometimes she got up at midnight, on a work night, to write a new poem!”
It’s true, I’ve done that, but that’s because I’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t take dictation from the muse when she comes calling, no matter how much you think you could not possibly forget those remarkable lines she hands you, by morning they’ve run away like water cupped in your hands too long. So I keep a pad of paper and a pen at my bedside, and I make myself scribble down words and lines and ideas when they insist on knocking at the door like unwanted guests. “Ta da! Here we are! We’ve got some good ones for ya this time!”
(Once, my friend Margo had a dream in which she figured out the answer – I mean The Answer – to the universe. She wrote it down and went back to sleep. In the morning we looked excitedly at what she’d written. The meaning of life? According to Margo’s note: SCIENCE.)
The most memorable time this happened to me – when the Muse came knocking and would not shut up no matter how many words and lines I scrawled in my notebook – was when I was studying Sylvia Plath, about three years ago. I’d read her before, as an undergrad, but remembered next to nothing except her tragic history. This time, studying her as a fellow poet, I was blown away by her use of sound.
Even in her darkest, most disturbing poems, Plath had the discipline and genius to craft heart-stopping lines with amazing internal rhymes. In “Edge,” her last known poem (written one week before her death), she wrote of the “flows in the scrolls” of the toga worn by a dead woman. Further on, she spoke of the “sweet, deep throats of the night flower,” employing not only more internal rhyme (the long E sound of sweet and deep) but also the astonishing metaphor giving a flower a throat.
She was writing a poem a day at that point, but this was no manic episode. True mania creates an incoherent mess, not a perfectly sculpted stanza. Just so, I wasn’t feeling manic so much as energized, excited, even, if you’ll allow me, inspired that night when I couldn’t get to sleep until I wrote the first draft of a poem as influenced by Plath as any I’ve ever written. It was my poem, written about my late, violent ex-husband, but it was full of her kind of sounds: “embossed like moss,” “a hard marble,” “torture structure.” Its subject, too, I suppose, was also Plath-like, being my take on what my ex might have been saying inside his urn after his cremation.
But Sharon Olds wrote a poem like that, too, called, just to make sure you got it, “My Father Speaks to Me From the Dead.” And so have countless others. Death? Suffering? Violence? All fair game for poets. But here’s our crafty little secret: it’s great FUN to write about stuff like this. When all your pistons are firing, when the muse is not just tapping on your shoulder but dancing an Irish jig for you, when the lines are coming and the images are blowing you away, then it doesn’t matter if you’re writing about the end of the world or the birth of your daughter: as my own daughter would say, it’s all good.
So pardon me if I think that, despite her being sick with the flu, despite London having its coldest winter in decades, despite her husband having left her for another woman – if despite all that and more, I believe Sylvia was having a blast as she pounded out her poems on her typewriter. The tragedy wasn’t the life, but its brevity. Not the death, but the fact that it made her collected poems an all-too-slim volume.