‘Sylvia Plath is a poet of great talent.’
Discuss this view with reference to the poetry of Sylvia Plath on your course
According to herself, all Sylvia Plath ever wanted was to be able to ‘live, love and say it well in good sentences.’ Well, she certainly did manage to live brightly and love intensely. Her difficult life and tragic death were what propelled her towards global fame, yet I would argue that the sadness of her life should not overshadow the greatness of her talent. Everything from the richness of her language right through to the poignancy and universality of the themes she dealt with speaks of a gifted wordsmith; and one whose work I feel has deservedly stood the test of time, to be rediscovered and appreciated by each new generation. Poems like ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’, ‘Mirror’, ‘Morning Song’, ‘Poppies in July’ and ‘Child’ I feel are fine examples of her extraordinary talent.
The most obvious example of the raw talent of Sylvia Plath at work is her innovative and striking use of language. Her work was considered ground breaking at the time and laid the foundations for many poets that followed. In poems like ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’, I was really impressed by the variety of language that she used. She combines the archaic: words like ‘portent’ and ‘celestial’, with common everyday phrases like ‘I can’t honestly complain’. The language of poetry at Leaving Cert level can sometimes be overwhelming so I admired the way much of her poetry was accessible yet challenging at the same time. She also uses alliteration brilliantly to give a sudden and unexpected rhythm to her work, saying that the rook’s ‘black feathers can so shine/ As to seize my senses.’ For me, that was a line that really jumped off the page. I feel that it is her ability to display such a variety of language that really highlights the depth of her gift as a poet.
Aside from the innovative language use, no discussion of Sylvia Plath’s talent would be complete without reference to the striking imagery apparent throughout her poetry. For me, it is this aspect of her work that had the deepest impact. Using the metaphor of a ‘new statue’ in ‘Morning Song’ to highlight both the preciousness of her son and the lack of immediate warmth she felt towards him was daringly original, while the frankness with which she describes her new mother self as ‘cow-heavy’ further illustrates the honesty of her poetic voice . In ‘Mirror’ too, I was really impressed the way she cleverly conveys the mirror’s arrogant power as ‘The eye of a little god’. She further illustrates the destructive influence of the mirror’s reflection over her through a disturbing and startling simile, how ‘In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman/ Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.’ Her poetry does offer the occasional uplifting image: as in the moment when she seems finally at ease as a new parent, when her new baby’s ‘clear vowels rise like balloons.’ However, it is the darker imagery that dominates much of the tone and mood of her work. Although I loved the perfect metaphor she used in ‘Child’ to describe her pure and innocent newborn as a ‘Stalk without wrinkle’, it was the comparison of her own state of mind with a ‘dark/ Ceiling without a star’ that had the greatest impact. It is this simple and extraordinary – yet completely heart-breaking – image that will stay with me long after the Leaving Cert itself is a distant memory.
A further aspect of Sylvia Plath’s significant talent was her ability to tackle a range of diverse themes across her work. Although I admired the forthright and honest way she acknowledged the power the ‘Mirror’ held over her, where ‘whatever I see I swallow immediately’, I was still surprised that appearance would have played such a big role for a young woman in the 1960’s. I always imagined it was a curse of our generation to feel such pressure to look well. Similarly, she acknowledges the same fear of ageing that is exploited in the thousands of cosmetic ads assaulting our senses each year; it seems it was as true for her generation as it is today to be terrified as ‘..an old woman/rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.’
I also really admire the way she was prepared to tackle so many of the taboo themes of the day. Everything from writer’s block in ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’, as she waits for inspiration to ‘seize my senses’; to struggling as a new mother as she is forced to ‘stumble from my bed, cow-heavy and floral’ in ‘Morning Song’; right through to the misery and suffering caused by mental illness in ‘Poppies in July.’ It was here particularly that she really got my attention. Mental illness and the extremities of it that cause suicides like that of Sylvia Plath are a curse that sadly remains with us in Ireland to this day – the stark reality that more young people every year die from suicide than are killed on the roads is a dark and disturbing statistic. I found her description of the ‘little hell flames’ left me feeling deeply uneasy. Her desperate plea of ‘if I could bleed, or sleep!’ was heart breaking. To me, her suffering seemed to just seep off the page as I read it – feeling that her life was ‘colorless. Colorless’, it seemed clear that she was seeing suicide as an increasingly viable option. Reading this poem was trying and unsettling. Despite that, for its vivid depiction of the unravelling of a brilliant individual’s mind, it will always be a favourite of mine – one that I think particularly highlights her talent.
The Leaving Cert offers a diverse array of poetic talents for us to digest. All deserve their place in the canon of much loved and appreciated poetry. However, to me there is none to compare with Sylvia Plath. Yes, the fearsome tragedy of her life colours many people’s perspective on her, yet I feel that her simple yet shining talent in dealing with so many profound and complex issues with such skill suggests that it is her ability to ‘say it well in good sentences’ that she should be most remembered for.