The Lyric “I” of Sylvia Plath: The Feminist Persona

As I continue to work on my final piece for Vandermeer’s Annihilation, I want to turn back the clock once again to 2012 when I wrote an essay for a course on literary criticism.  Plath’s Ariel was covered in the course, and I found myself incredibly frustrated when several of my classmates refused to separate Plath from the “I” in the poems.  Certainly, there are connections to be made between Plath and her narrators, but I argue here that Plath’s narrators are representative of a feminism she herself did not express in daily life.

Part of my reason for posting these thoughts is that I feel poetry is somewhat underrepresented, at least across many of the blogs I have read through thus far.  I’m also just a Plath fan, so… there.  I’ve left in the citations in case anyone is intrigued enough for further, more critical reading.   If you haven’t read Ariel, please do, as it’s incredible poetry.

Of course, I’d love to hear thoughts, agreements, disagreements, etc.  Best wishes.

It is not a secret that writers, poets, and artists often turn to their own lives for inspiration.  One often writes about what one knows best.  In the case of Sylvia Plath, what is the meaning of the seemingly-autobiographical “I” within her work? The lyric “I” is a device by which Plath methodically submerges the reader into a semblance of her internal world and feminist leanings, allowing the reader to see the world in a more personal manner, though it is vital to note the difference between Plath and the speaker.  The use of the lyric “I” is the same kind of recurring device as metaphors of the Holocaust in Plath’s poetry: a startling concept.  For example, Plath’s use of the Holocaust caused outrage amongst critics, many of whom felt that she had little place in utilizing such a terrible event in her poetry when it was something that she did not experience firsthand.  Similarly, by the placing an “I” amongst such imagery of despondence and suffering, and within poems that usually eschew typical poetic meters and rhythms (known as free verse), the poems of Ariel take on an air of the conversational and shockingly confessional, discussing marriage, gender roles, and a domestic life.  Thus, the lyric “I” presents a semblance of Plath, but the persona embodies a much more radically feminist attitude than Plath’s biography would suggest she harbored.

It is often difficult to filter the biographical details of Plath’s life from her poetry.  Her suicide at the age of thirty casts a pall over her poetry, creating an axiom on which many interpretations rest, and many admirers look for clues to her life and suicide in her poems. Yet the clues to her life and death cannot be found in her works, at least not completely.  It is not a surprise that Plath integrated some of her own experiences into her poetry as most writers do, but her poems are more akin to landscapes of imagery than to lucidly-written verses.  Through this kind of autobiographical filter, Plath creates a world that is more impressionistic than definite.

In “The Bee Meeting,” a relatively long poem of ten quintets, Plath describes an event that did occur in her life, but her poetic prowess turns this event into a poetic setting and metaphor for society.  The speaker remarks, “In my sleeveless summery dress, I have no protection, / And they are all gloves and covered, why did nobody tell me?” (The Bee Meeting ll. 4-5)  All of the people around the speaker are properly attired with protective clothing in anticipation of the bee boxes being opened.  In contrast, the speaker is only wearing her dress, bare, open to the stings of the bees. She feels removed from the situation.  Lacking protective gear, the speaker is then dressed by the “secretary of bees,” “Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees” (ll. 8-10).  The speaker then finds that, in their protective gear, she is unable to recognize any of the individuals, remarking that, “Their smiles and their voices are changing” (l. 18).  Thus, the speaker has been dressed appropriately, preparing her for the meeting with the bees, but also allowing her to blend in with the group.  By the end of the poem, the speaker feels as if she is at a burial: “Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold?” (ll. 63-64).  The speaker has become part of the group, burying her former identity.  In the group, the speaker finds that everyone seems to be the same, creating a sense of homogenous existence.

The actual bee meeting was remarkably different, with Plath recalling that she had simply forgotten her sweater (Journals 656).  It was only later that the real bee meeting was turned into a poem.  As Ted Hughes later wrote, many of the poems of Ariel “are good evidence to prove that poems which seem often to be constructed of arbitrary surreal symbols are real impassioned reorganizations of relevant fact” (Hughes 2).  What Hughes is saying is that Plath did not merely think of the symbols utilized in “The Bee Meeting” at random, but rather utilized her life events to craft a kind of system of abstract symbols, a symbolic self.  Without knowledge of biographical details, the images Plath conjures in “The Bee Meeting,” are more impressionistic and have a greater depth as opposed to simply disarming them as exaggerated moments in the poet’s life.

We can turn our attention to other forms of art to see how the use of the first-person I can be effectively used.  The song, “Polly,” appears on Nirvana’s second studio album, “Nevermind.”  The lyrics tell a story of rape and torture through the first-person narrative technique.  Instead of viewing the attack through the eyes of the victim, Cobain instead puts himself in the position of the perpetrator.  Upon release of the album, many listeners sang along to the pleasant melody, only later to realize the horrific nature of the lyrics.  Cobain writes, “Polly says her back hurts / And she’s just as bored as me / She caught me off my guard / It amazes me, the will of instinct” (Nirvana).  Not only does the listener understand the nonchalant manner in which the perpetrator views the crime, but we also understand his very human feeling of boredom.  Many view the song as a pro-rape song, but the truth couldn’t be more of an opposite.  Cobain wrote the song in 1987 based on the crimes of Gerald Arthur Friend in the midst of a period in which he embraced the values of the Riot Grrrl feminism movement.  He is using the song as an exploration of the mind of the perpetrator, using the guise of a sweet-sounding melody to portray the abnormal thought pattern of the attacker.  In the case of “Polly,” the effect of the first person can be misleading.  Plath uses the first-person technique in a similar way, though the loose plot of her poems is rooted more in personal experience, the aforementioned symbolic self.

The symbolic self is seen most pointedly in Plath’s poem, “Daddy,” a poem consisting of sixteen quintets.  “Daddy” is one of Plath’s most startling works, controversially utilizing imagery from the Holocaust to portray the relationship the speaker has with her father.  Plath described “Daddy” in a 1962 interview with Peter Orr of The British Council as being about a girl with an Electra complex whose father dies when she believes he is God (Plath, Orr interview).  In the first stanzas of the poem, the speaker refers to her father’s “Luftwaffe” and “Aryan eye,” as well as calling him a “Panzer-man” (Daddy ll. 42, 44-45).  All of these Nazi images conjure up an idea of the Nazi war machine responsible for the Holocaust.  The German language of her father becomes “obscene,” like a train carting her off to a concentration camp (ll. 30, 31-33).  For the speaker, the obscene language represents the deep oppression she feels after her father dies.  She tries to distance herself from him and referring to herself as potentially being a Jew communicates this, as well as communicating her mental suffering.  Furthermore, the fact that her father is referred to as a Nazi portrays him as a kind of authoritarian, which is reinforced when speaker remarks, “I have always been scared of you” (l. 41).  The sky is dominated by this swastika with not a hint of blue representing the huge role of her father in her life.  She also recognizes her predilection for authoritarian men, saying that, “Every woman adores a Fascist” (l. 48).  The desire for a Fascist is reflected in her husband’s “Meinkampf look” with “a love of the “rack and the screw,” a kind of replacement for her deceased father (ll. 65, 66).  Thus, the Holocaust imagery communicates and enforces the idea of a convoluted and complicated relationship.  The Holocaust as an image creates several layers—the authority of her father and husband, the suffering of the speaker, the legacy of this shortened relationship and how it affects her marriage, and the distance the speaker seeks to put between herself and her father to transcend the relationship.

Of course, Plath does utilize elements of her life in “Daddy,” just as Hughes suggested, and it is this concept that lends itself to the idea of the symbolic self.  One can see that both she and the speaker lost their father at a young age.  In the second stanza, the speaker describes her father as a “Ghastly statue with one grey toe” (l. 9).  Plath’s father did have gangrene as a result of an undiagnosed case of diabetes, but without this detail, the statue with the gangrenous toe becomes a symbol of imperfection, a kind of horror (Contemporary American, 284).  The speaker also describes a photograph of her father, alluding to one Plath had of her father.  Standing in front of a blackboard, the speaker remarks that there is a “A cleft in your chin instead of your foot” (Daddy l. 53).  Whether the cleft is a feature of Plath’s father or not, the image is quite plainly one of the devil, standing in marked contrast to the “bag full of God” described in the second stanza (l. 8).

Furthermore, the fourteenth stanza, in which “The black telephone is off at the root,” can be an example of the symbolic self, as it may refer to Plath overhearing her husband, Ted Hughes, and his mistress, but it can also refer to the speaker’s desired dearth of communication with her husband in contrast to the lack of communication with her father caused by his death (l. 58).  As Al Strangeways remarks, “Thus Plath’s lines in “Daddy” are both psychological and political. They are psychological not because “Daddy” is about Plath’s relationship with her father, but in the sense that Plath uses the situation depicted in the poem to explore the dynamics of her attitude toward individualism” (Strangeways 373).  That is, the psychological motive of Plath’s speaker has more to do with her own views regarding the individual and patriarchal struggles as opposed to Plath’s personal relationships and the symbolic self.  The concept of the speaker of “Daddy” and Plath having a relation should have no bearing on the poem for the same reasons we can say that Kurt Cobain was not a rapist.

Writing in her journals, Plath wrote of the feminist poet Adrienne Rich, saying, “Jealous one I am, green-eyed, spite-seething. Read the six women poets in the “new poets of england and america. [sic] Dull, turgid. Except for May Swenson & Adrienne Rich, not one better or more-published than me” (Plath, Journals).  To see that Plath viewed Rich, a fiercely feminist poet, as a rival speaks about Plath’s own poetry, suggesting that Plath viewed herself as a feminist writer as opposed to any kind of confessional writer.  To assume the latter is to turn a blind eye to the rich imagery Plath penned in poems such as “Daddy” and “The Bee Meeting.”  Strangeways remarks, “Freedom, for the archetypal “feminine” figure in “Daddy,” is freedom from the authoritarian father figure” (Strangeways 372-373).  These images of individualism and feminism occur repeatedly in the poems of Ariel, not only in “Daddy,” and “The Bee Meeting,” but also in “The Applicant.”

“The Applicant,” the fourth poem in Ariel consisting of eight quintets, is a poem that satirizes the Western institution of marriage during Plath’s lifetime.  The process of a marriage is likened to a job interview in the poem, one in which the applicant is quizzed about his life, experiences, and skills.  “First, are you our sort of a person?” the speaker queries, before asking if the applicant has any of a number of prostheses (The Applicant l. 1).  Thus, the speaker seeks to find out if the applicant is fit for marriage and fit for the kind of acting that is to come.  The applicant’s hand is revealed to be empty and then is filled with a hand, “To fill it and willing / To bring teacups and roll away headaches / And do whatever you tell it” (ll. 11-13).  The hand the applicant is given becomes little more than a servant, a woman to massage his head, to serve him tea, and to have the title of wife.  “It is guaranteed,” the speaker assures him, as the woman will become financially dependent on him as well as endure the stigma of divorce (l. 15).  The applicant is recognized as being “stark naked” in line nineteen and given a suit, one that is “waterproof, shatterproof, proof / Against fire and bombs through the roof” (ll. 19, 23-24).  The suit, when compared to the crying that the applicant had done in line eight, can be likened to a kind of male stoicism, the stereotypical role of the male in a marriage.  In the final verse, the speaker reminds the applicant that, “My boy, it’s your last resort. / Will you marry it, marry it, marry it” (ll. 39-40).  Thus, the marriage is the male’s final opportunity, and he is, in effect, settling.

The seventh quintet of “The Applicant” is arguably the most revealing:

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk , talk. (The Applicant ll. 31-35)

The seventh quintet is the instance in which the “she” has truly become an “it.”  She has become an object for the applicant to fill his eye with, a kind of domestic doll.  The last line has a sense of carrying on, an urgency, perhaps a depiction of society’s push into social norms and patriarchy, a push that Plath claims both sexes often readily accept.

The fact that many of Plath’s poems present an “I” alongside images of darkness and death is irrelevant, just as in the case of Cobain’s “Polly.”  The “I” is nothing more than a literary device, an artistic choice like the symbolic self and similar to how a novel may make use of the first or third person narrative styles.  Like Cobain, Plath’s work has been put under a microscope by admirers seeking to figure out the exact motives of the authors—but they are not to be found because the songs of Cobain and the poems of Plath are not autobiographies.  The songs and poems are works of art that may be based in biography like Plath’s symbolic self, but, in truth, offer little insight without further knowledge.  Through careful examinations of Plath’s works such as “The Bee Meeting,” “Daddy,” and “The Applicant,” we are able to examine the imagery she utilizes independent of her biographical details.  Confessional poetry may be a style or genre of poetry that applies to Plath’s work in Ariel, and the idea of symbolic self may lend itself to the idea that the speaker is Plath herself, but a careful reading realizes this is not the case.  Instead, careful examination reveals that it is the themes of feminism and individuality expressed in the works that are the true ones that Plath seeks to hammer home like the stake into the fat black heart of the addressee of “Daddy.”

Works Cited

Nirvana. “Polly.”1991. Nevermind. David Geffen Company, 1991, CD.

Hughes, Ted. “Introduction.” Introduction. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts. New York: HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2008. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. New York: Perennial Classics, 1999. Print.

“Plath, Sylvia (1932–1963).” Contemporary American Women Poets: An A-to-Z Guide. Ed.Catherine Cucinella. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. [284]-289. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.

Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy.” British Broadcasting Corporation. 30 October 1962. Reading.

Plath, Sylvia. Interview with Peter Orr. BBC. 30 October 1962. Web.

Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor, 2000. Print.

Strangeways, Al. “The Boot in the Face”: The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath.” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 370-390. Web. 27 Nov 2012  http://www.jstor.org/stable/1208714

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