The Woman’s Image in Confessional Poetry of Sylvia Plath

 Abstract

The woman’s image in confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath shows her anxieties, and pictured at first as a stereotype woman, a wife a mother judged and controlled by men. Then she tries to break those images and stripe herself from any label or identity created for her even though she is lost and confuse of her true identity. But at last she evolves from the ashes of confusement in to a free, powerful woman who is true to herself and her society, taking control of her life, and wont anymore lets the society draws her picture but she creates it herself. This paper is following and high lightening this journey in selected poems of Plath a major confessionist poet.

Key terms: Feminism, Confessional Poetry, Sylvia Plath, Women, American Poetry, Modern Poetry.

Introduction

I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart. I am. I am. I am.

Sylvia Plath

Confessional poetry is the poetry of the privet “I”. This style of writing come to being in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is known with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. The confessional poetry dealt with subjects that previously had been taboos and not openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships are addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical style. “Sexton in particular was interested in the psychological aspect of poetry, having started writing at the suggestion of her therapist” (Gilbert, 445). “The confessional poets were not merely recording their emotions on paper; craft and construction were extremely important to their work as well” (Gilbert, 448). While confessional poets’ attention to self and private emotions may have been odd and shocking to some readers, these poets by keeping a high standard in their craftsmanship of poetry always kept their poetry personal but professional.

The movement started by Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, published in 1959, Critic M. L. Rosenthal coined the term “Confessional Poetry” in reviewing the book. Although since then many poets are considered confessional the first group labeled as such consist of Plath, Sexton, Lowell and Snodgrass all four poets known each other privately which result in the conclusion that the shared characteristic of their confessional poetry is actually the result of their friendship. The poets themselves did not share the idea and avoid being labeled as confessional poets.

Sylvia Plath was one of the most dynamic and admired poets of the 20th century and when she took her life at the age of 30, Plath already had a following in the literary community. In the ensuing years her work attracted the attention of a multitude of readers, who saw in her singular verse an attempt to catalogue despair, violent emotion, and obsession with death. For the same reason some critics believe that she should not be categorized as a confessional poet because her obsession with death and despair is a choice of her artistic path rather than sharing personal emotions but later on as examples will be bring on from her poetry it can be seen that while the motif of death is one of her favorite subjects of poetry the emotion and points she brought from her personal experience in her poetry makes those poems more than just narration of a motif through poetry. She personalized the narration with her own inner emotions and life lessons.

In The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1: 1940-1956, Joyce Carol Oates described Plath as “one of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English”(85). Intensely autobiographical, Plath’s poems explore her own mental anguish, her troubled marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, her unresolved conflicts with her parents, and her own vision of herself. On the World Socialist Web site, Margaret Rees observed, “Whether Plath wrote about nature, or about the social restrictions on individuals, she stripped away the polite veneer. She let her writing express elemental forces and primeval fears. In doing so, she laid bare the contradictions that tore apart appearance and hinted at some of the tensions hovering just beneath the surface of the American way of life in the post war period.”

In studying the women poetry of Plath a picture of a woman came into light a woman who suffers labels and prejudgments. She is one with many different dresses and many different labels, she goes through changes and obstacles. She is happy, sad, and angry but she is true to whom she is. That’s the beauty of the confessional poetry. Nowadays with its persistent assertions of identity and its emphasis on a central mythology of the self, it may be called a female poetic mode.

Confessional poetry has, of course, been generally associated with a number of contemporary male poets, but the difference lay in the fact that while female poets uses this genre to be true to the problems of their lives and they do not seek any solution, male poets portray their problems but come out at the end with a solution in hand keeping themselves in control of situation. Between many confessionist poets, the poet that is mainly concern with woman picture in the poetry is Plath. In her poem a transformational journey is taken by the poet that can be trace easily but for a better understanding of this journey it is needed to know the context poet lived in.

Sylvia Plath The Woman

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932. From an early age she was interested in writing and by 1950 she was awarded a scholarship because of her poetry. She experienced an era in which the women has face a duality in role impose on them by society. At the end of the World War II the soldiers coming back from the war demand their jobs back so the women who had the jobs before as there were no man to take care of the jobs that previously were male dominated once more asked to step down from their place in ladder of industry.

At the time women were encouraged by the media and society to go back to their quit domesticated life so the broken men from war can take back their place on the ladder, obviously as a result the gender role was strictly practiced in the society and place the women on the ladder as the second force. Of course some women persist on keeping the place that they gained by keeping their jobs but the number of those women in comparison to those who decided to step down is very low.

In addition to the fact mentioned above, between the years 1946-1962 the picture of American Dream alongside the hunger for prosperity after the destruction that war forced upon country push the American to creation of more babies as the result women as mothers had to fulfill their old traditional picture of a house wife and mother. The traditional gender roles of 1960s America promoted a double-standard and wrongly imposed upon women the idea of a ‘Happy Housewife Heroine’ who cherished ‘the receptivity and passivity implicit in (her) nature’ and was ‘devoted to (her) own beauty and (her) ability to bear and nurture children’ (Friedan, 59).

Moreover because of the cold war the term Nuclear Family came to being putting extra stress on the importance of unity of the family as a block of the foundation of the society the role of the woman as the mother and the housewife who should keep the family united and nurture it then this picture connected the traditional role of women to the national security. In Britain the same story is happening the girls are educated in school to take pride in taking care of family and children, married women won’t go to work or pursue a career while in the working class of the society even going to university for women is considered a waste of time and money Plath experienced both society which are both patriarchal and male oriented.

Plath comments on the devastating effects of social convention on individuality, trying to break the norm that was dictated to the women of her time. Her spirit as a woman was in a constant battle with personality of her poet self, fulfilling the motherly duty while needing the artistic freedom that she couldn’t reach as a housewife and the mother push her further in to the already existing condition of depression.

Silvia Plath The Poet

As said by Pamela J. Annas in A Disturbance in Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath “one of the most well-known poems by a confessional poet is ‘Daddy’ by Plath. Addressed to her father, the poem contains references to the Holocaust but uses a sing-song rhythm that echoes the nursery rhymes of childhood” (154).

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

You died before I had time–

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

Big as a Frisco seal. (Plath,2008,54)

In this poem the speaker creates a portrait of her father, by many metaphors to present her relationship with him. The speaker, faced with her father as a giant a monster, takes the part of a Jew and a victim. Yet, with in this poem, the speaker gets her revenge, claiming that she’s killed her father. This poem shows her struggle to declare that, no matter how terrible her father’s death was and how much he remains in her mind, she is now through with him. As it can be seen a private and maybe a painful experience to her. It’s honest and simple in the matter of subject but beautifully executed. In an interview with BBC Radio in 1963 Plath explained the poem as a daughter with Electra complex trying to understand the death of his father, she believed in like a god.

Otto Plath died when Sylvia was only 8 and growing in a patriarchal society it is understandable that the death of the god of the house is devastating both as a member of a system and as a little girl who simply loses her father. The impact of the death of her father in this poem is presented as the first step she get toward releasing herself from the label society has given her as a daughter. Sylvia Plath wrote in a time when women were still dominated by men. Within the patriarchal society women had to be what men wanted them to be, they were to remain in the house and never have a voice against the head of the family. So, Plath and the woman she portrays in her poems felt trapped within their houses and were desperate to have a voice and role against what was expected from them. She only can blossom into a woman when she is in full term with her identity as the daughter.

In her poetry we can see that she wanted the woman to be more than a source of reproduction or enjoyment. She in her letters to her mom asked for some recipes of good food for the family and mentioned that she is going to have as many as children possible in her house. (Plath, 2000, 123). It shows the struggle she had in herself between Sylvia the woman and Sylvia the poet as she mentioned in her poem The Eye-Mote.

What I want back is what I was

Before the bed, before the knife,

Before the brooch-pin and the salve

Fixed me in this parenthesis;

Before the brooch-pin and the salve

Horse fluent in the wind,

A place, a time gone out of mind. (Plath, 2003, 25)

In this poem the confusement of the poet is starting to make her start her journey toward self-understanding she already is free from her boundaries of the past as the girl in the society whom she had asked to grow into a housewife, she did so but now she wanted more. She is no longer satisfied with the predetermined role, she wanted her own place. The next step she took is to stripe herself from any identity so she can create the one she wants.

What am I? Who am I? What shall I call myself? Another aspect of the woman poet’s struggle toward self-definition is her search for a name. Significantly, the problems and possibilities of naming reoccur throughout the poetry of Plath. In “I Am Vertical” we can clearly see the lost soul, the lost identity pictured by Plath.

But I would rather be horizontal.

I am not a tree with my root in the soil

Sucking up minerals and motherly love

So that each March I may gleam into leaf,

Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed

Attracting my share of spectacularly painted,

Unknowing I must soon unpetal.

Compared with me, a tree is immortal

And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,

And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring. (Plath, 2003, 85)

Sylvia Plath’s poem I am Vertical uses vivid imagery to show her depression in a beautiful way that connects with the audience. There are times when I have felt lost and worthless in her poem, just as Plath has in her lines. She uses trees to show how she wants a durable long life, and flowers to show how she longs for their beauty and admiration. Using this metaphor shows what Plath does not have, but wants to see in herself. The poem I am Vertical uses personification to express emotions of woman worth to the world. She is tired of being what everybody expected her to be and wants to have the choice to choses between what is out there so she can be what she deserve to be.

Another poem in which Plath took another step toward being a new woman is “Ariel”. A poem about horse riding in first look but much deeper in meaning. Plath wrote the poem in her last years when she had more experience on being a woman not only as a free poet soul but as a wife and mother, she could see much more.

Stasis in darkness.

Then the substance less blue

Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,

How one we grow,

Pivot of heels and knees

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

Eye, the cauldron of morning. (Plath, 2003, 158)

The speaker transforms from a woman who tries to hold onto the horse to an identity, to a woman who gain control and power of it and who is no longer afraid to lose her grip, she is ready to pay the price for the new identity. She finds freedom in this transformative experience, and learns to be the one who has the leadership. Autobiographically, at the recent years Sylvia the poet has stablished her own identity completely as the family life is separated from her woman self, Ariel can shoe in itself how the I of the beginning of the poem is moving from a dominated I bay patriarchal figure in lines:

Nigger-eye

Berries cast dark

Hooks—

(Plath, 2003, 158)

To the I which is no longer domesticated but free as it can be seen the picture of woman in Plath poetry comes from a prejudge character with fixed expectation to a lost soul who has been forgotten in to a grown one that know what to do and how take the control. The confessional nature of Plath poetry in the three poem covered in this essay is the main reason that it can be generalized to woman picture as although Plath is different considering her talent in poetry, she is still a woman caged between the walls of society the difference only lay in the fact that while Plath had the ability to share her journey through poetry providing the others with a heart to heart talk that can touch many lives.

Conclusion

This essay tried to highlight the portrait of the woman in a selected number of confessional poems by Sylvia Plath. The context the poet lived in and how she freed herself from that context is portrayed in those poems. The image started by a fragile entity who cannot have a separated identity from his father or man and struggle to cut the cord although it is a painful experience. To a woman who wanted more than being just the housewife and mother in her life while she accepted the role and trying to fulfill it she is not satisfied. To a one that although is confused and suffers from losing the old identity is ready to face the new life and the new identity she wanted.

The confessional nature of the poems covered in this essay create the room for a better understanding of the deeper meaning of those poems as Sylvia the poet and Sylvia the woman emotions are shown naked in these poems without being censured or cut. While it is mentioned in the introduction that there are debates on the fact that if Plath should be consider a confessional poet or not, it is safe to say that her poetry at least in relation to womanhood and family is confessional as it bears a sense of autobiography and she is sharing some experiences about her own life rather than creating the picture of women in general at her time. Of course the matter of her depression and obsession with death that critics mentioned as a reason why she should not be consider a confessional poet, in her poetry of womanhood like Ariel or I Am Vertical are not a motif or the center of the poem, so her poetry on woman identity can be consider confessional.

References

  1. Annas, Pamela J. A disturbance in mirrors: the poetry of Sylvia Plath Kindle ed., California: Greenwood Press, 1988.
  2. Endall, Tim. Sylvia Plath: a critical study. Kindle ed., London: Faber and Faber, 2001.
  3. Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Kindle ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
  4. Gilbert, Sandra M. My Name Is Darkness’: The Poetry of Self-Definition. Contemporary Literature, vol. 18, no. 4, 1977. Accessed 10 September 2018
  5. K Plath, Sylvia, and Ted Hughes. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Kindle ed,. Anchor Books, 2000.
  6. Phillips, Robert S. The confessional poets: With a pref. by Harry T. Moore. Kindle ed., Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.
  7. Plath, Sylvia, et al. The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. Kindle ed., HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.
  8. Plath, Sylvia, and Ted Hughes. The collected poems. Kindle ed., New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.
  9. Spencer, Stephanie. Gender, Work and Education in Britain in the 1950s. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005
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