POETS Day! Sylvia Plath

Photo by Megalit, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Welcome to POET’S Day of the second week in Ordinary Time. Today we try to make anguish take wing, be a light for those in the land of gloom, and bring abundant joy by encouraging you to usher in the weekend a few hours early. Why wait until Friday evening when a slight bending of the truth can get you out of work in the middle of the afternoon? It’s POET’S Day by God’s sake. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Dissemble, obfuscate, and gleefully trespass the norms that preserve our hopefully durable civilization, but be as pious about it as you can this time. Be humble and thankful at this opportunity to escape the sultry bonds of employment you’ve been given. Use the time wisely. Marvel at natures grandeur in a local park. Join in fellowship at a local watering hole before happy hour even has a chance to kick off. You deserve it. No matter how you end up spending your gotten free time (remember, stealing hours from work are only “ill gotten” if you fake being sick) maybe take a moment to enjoy a little verse.

***

This week’s POET’S Day poet is Sylvia Plath which makes banishing anguish, bringing light and abundant joy a thing of the weekend activity rather than the poem. Sorry about the bait and switch. I won’t go into her background because I want to do something different this time and break this week’s featured poem down stanza by stanza. Plath was mentally ill. She described her manic depression in a 1958 journal “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.” In January of 1963 she told her doctor that she had been deeply depressed for six or seven months. In February of that year she put her head in a gas oven and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

In the months before her death she wrote poems that would be posthumously collected along with a few of her previously published but uncollected works and titled Ariel, released in 1965. In the introduction, poet Robert Lowell wrote that these were composed at a furious pace, “often rushed out at the rate of two or three a day.” She and Lowell were among those known as “The Confessional Poets” with Elizabeth Bishop and John Berryman among others. None of them were fond of the moniker. In The Wounded Surgeon, Adam Kirsch writes that “Plath scorned the notion of poetry as ‘some kind of therapeutic public purge or excretion.’” Not that it mattered. They all were heavily autobiographical. In Ariel Plath writes of her past suicide attempts, resentments towards her father and husband, and carbon monoxide poisoning should there be any doubts that her suicide wasn’t considered long before it’s execution.

This week’s poem, “Morning Song,” has been written about and analyzed many times. The consensus is that it’s about Plath’s delivery of her second child, Frieda, and overcoming a reluctance to bond with the baby. The imagery, which would doubtlessly be fresh in her mind, works to support that view and I haven’t found any online dissent (keep in mind that I’m a hobbyist with no access to the really cool academic search tools so dissent may be out there in some esoteric corner or it may be an easily found search result that I just didn’t come across, but I did look in earnest and I didn’t come across.) You can read a detailed explanation of that view and less detailed but useful explanations here and here. It’s convincing analysis, but I’ve read this poem so many times tonight that I’m a little disappointed in myself that I can’t recite it verbatim. I cannot bring myself to agree. This poem is about despair and Sylvia Plath’s desperate effort to reinforce a slipping but needed self-delusion.

Since Ariel was published posthumously I have no idea who set the order the poems were arranged in but I feel safe in assuming it was done in accordance with notes Plath left behind or done to the best judgement of her widower, the poet Ted Hughes. In any case, whoever organized the entries decided that “Morning Song” should be first. This is what sets the tone and introduces the reader to the collection. There is already a poem, “Medusa,” about childbirth and an initial lack of bond in the collection, although I can argue that it isn’t so straightforwardly what it appears either. “Morning Song” was not among the two or three a day frenzied poems. It was written in 1961 and first published that same year in The Observer. It’s my belief that this poem comes first because it is chronologically removed from the rest. It is an early realization on Plath’s part of what was coming and expresses her frustration as she girds herself to hold on for as long as she can before she does what she knows she will inevitably do.

It’s a six-stanza poem of three lines each and I’m going to print them individually with my thoughts, move on to the next, and then print the poem in its entirety for you to read uninterrupted.

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Those that hold the common view, which is what I’m going to call the consensus view because even though I acknowledge that I could perfectly well be wrong calling things common is snarky and that amuses me, will tell you that the “you” is the baby Frieda and she is the product of love as either the emotional bond or the act or both and that the baby is a precious “gold” thing. I believe that the “you” is Plath’s poetry as represented by the poetic persona that, no matter how flimsily, claims the autobiographical aspects of her work and keeps her from being truly “confessional.” Plath published her first poem at eight years old. Eight years olds don’t write poetry out of duty so it was a delight in writing likely enhanced by accolades for being so precocious that was the love from which the persona arose. It was fat and bursting. Clocks mark time as they count down to an end, but it’s made of gold, so as it ages it won’t rust. She trusts her poetic ability not to wane despite the days passing. The persona puts forth its first expression, like a child slapped for the first time on its oddly worded “footsoles,” as it passes from imagination to the page taking “its place among the elements.”

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

Here she insists on distance between the persona and herself. They may say the same thing, but they are separate entities. That the persona isn’t real means it has no motives that can be questioned by outsiders. Plath can hide herself behind it.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

Here she tries to deny authorship or control of what the persona brings as she watches it’s journey towards death. That it’s a reflection reveals that she is aware of how tenuous her denial of authorship is even to her.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

The poetry speaks softly to her in the night. Dried pressed flowers evoke something old, likely verse form itself. Several times in the collection Plath uses the sea or images associated with it when writing about suicide. In “Lady Lazarus” she says “I rocked shut/As a seashell” against attempts to revive her from her second suicide attempt. In the titular poem “Ariel” she transforms from a rider toward suicide to an instrument of it: “And now I/Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas./The child’s cry/Melts in the wall./And I/Am the arrow,/The dew that flies/Suicidal, at one with the drive/Into the red”. I suspect that the child’s cry that melts in the wall is a reference to “Morning Song” and a later admission that she and the persona are one. By the time she wrote “Ariel” what she saw and tried to delude away in “Morning Song” is come to pass. She listens to her muse speak of “A far sea” and knows that she’ll eventually succeed in killing herself.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

The persona makes itself insistent so she rises, pregnant with ideas and “floral” or of a poetic mind, to set them down. I take the Victorian nightgown to represent more formal trappings, in other words she’d dress her words in poetry. The words flow towards her with ease.

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

In several other poems in the collection Plath uses blue to evoke the idea of light, so while it’s not odd to use light as the signal of the day I find it interesting that here the metaphor is inverted. It likely means nothing, but I found it interesting. If you take my interpretation as the correct one, the notes are written poetry but what of vowels rising like balloons? In the common interpretation the are the cries of the baby become cause for celebration. They are the morning song as promised by the title and no longer the song of mourning you may have suspected if this were a poem about bonding with a child after a period of indifference.

But why balloons? Why not sounds like trumpets or sing like birds? It’s free verse so she’s got wiggle room. It could be anything. I think Plath is calling attention to something. She wants you to notice “balloons” as a word rather than a concept. She seeded your mind by including the jarring “footsoles” in the first stanza. I have The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, American Heritage, and Webster’s and none of them have “footsoles” as an entry. My library’s free link to the full OED is currently down but no other site has a definition of the word (those that claim to ask “Did you mean ‘foot?’” when you get to the actual site.) I think she put in that incongruous word so that “balloons” would stand out as well and make you wonder what she meant by “The clear vowels rise like balloons.”

The words have double “o”s in common and balloons placement as the final image is rising, so rise. Go back to the top of the poem and there in the title are two “o”s. She’s directing you there. Plath knows that she is ill. She knows that she is going to kill herself and she knows that though she is the only one who can stop herself from doing so, she will not. She’s trapped and despairs.

The title can be read as an allusion to “Mourning Song” as in a song of mourning, but she’s telling you that it is not. She’s telling you the meaning is there and that it is clear. She is mourning song. This is a eulogy for her verse and she rails against the reality while still holding on to the lie that can no longer comfort her. She knows there is no distance between herself and her work. She and the persona are the same. She is the song. This is a poem about mourning herself.

Here’s the poem without my interruptions. I’m open to being wrong, but I don’t think I am. I hope, despite the weight of the subject, you enjoy the poem as much as I did.

Morning Song

Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Odd note: Sylvia Plath went to Bradford Senior High School, now known as Wellesley High School in Massachusetts. Her father was an entomologist who studied bees. Last week’s poet was Vladamir Nabokov. He taught at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. He was an entomologist who studied butterflies. That’s weird.

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