Friday, May 29, 2015

On Sylvia Plath’s Development

Of all the paths hinted at in her juvenilia, this is the one [magical figures] that Plath initially followed. In the mid-1950's, her poetry returns again and again to the notion that she must reconcile herself to a disenchanted world. Not until several years had passed did Plath discover that, in fact, her true gifts lay in the opposite direction: not objective description of the world, but an overpowering subjectivity that turns the entire world into a myth. Not until she embraced the recklessness of her imagination would she become a great poet.



Plath clearly experiences this disenchantment as a painful loss; if it weren’t so difficult to accept, she wouldn’t need to remind herself of it in poem after poem. As a result, she is compelled to find some other source of pleasure and significance, both in her life and in her writing, which will not depend on the childish visions she has abandoned. Her only hope, Plath proposes, is to submit to reality, but with an awareness so heightened that the ordinary becomes strange.



Whenever she writes about love and desire, Plath finds that she must violate her self-imposed ban on fictions. When the subjects closest to her must be treated in poetry, she turns, not to the kind of objective vision praised in “On the Plethora of Dryads,” but to the vocabulary of fairy tale and myth: queen and giant, panther and Persephone. And these fictions are, paradoxically, more true to Plath’s actual experience than the naturalism she attempts in descriptive poems like “Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor.” Truth, Plath discovers, is not the same as fact.



By embracing the notion of poetry as a “sea change,” Plath takes a decisive step away from life and nature, toward art and symbol. This is the crucial evolution that separates Plath’s pedestrian poetry of the mid-1950s from the mythic intensity of her late work.



To put her myths into action, to inhabit them instead of just proposing them, would be the decisive next step in Plath’s work, marking the beginning of her major poetry.

- Adam Kirsch

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