Sylvia Plath, who died 50 years ago this week, founded a style of feminist poetry that has almost completely receded. Arriving as she did at the head of the women's rights movement, Plath's poetry partly set the stage for the feverish experiments in consciousness that followed soon; it was comparable to, say, Malcolm X's militancy auguring the civil rights movement. Today, after 50 years of academic assimilation, one finds little poetry that stands up well to Plath's urgent retort to patriarchy, militarism and domesticity.
Is Ariel, her most important book, still effective almost 50 years after publication? Does it feel dated or is there a message that still resonates? How does the poetry itself hold up, ignoring the understandable obsession surrounding the circumstances of her death and after image? What can poets today learn from Ariel?
Ariel has lost none of its freshness -- or madness. It strikes a deadly blow at the justifications of commercialized post-war American domesticity in the same way that Guillaume Apollinaire's Alcools (1913) encapsulated the ennui immediately preceding three decades of European warfare.
The most effective poems in Ariel are those where Plath's consciousness of a persecuted self disappears into the background, so that the voice we hear is not one of complaint or unfulfilled desire as it is an unobjectionable elegy for a mode of living that is inhuman in its foundations. Ariel is not ultimately about Plath's pathologies; it is about the pathologies that have pushed Plath into a kind of ferocious poetry that scars her yet leaves her untouched.
The language in the best poems in Ariel is swift, uncomplicated, punchy, the words short and direct, the honesty of the assertive statements undiluted by hedging or excuses. Plath's poetry is so devastating half a century later because she doesn't excuse anyone or anything, least of all herself. If patriarchy is in her sights, she admits her own complicity. Once feminism -- or any movement for liberation -- loses sight of this it becomes a mere program for self-upliftment rather than a search for unavoidable causes. Plath's gaze is relentlessly turned on herself, which results not in a poetry of faux grief -- the default mode of today's feminist poetry -- but militant argument.
Consider "Lady Lazarus," where Plath writes, "Soon, soon the flesh / the grave cave ate will be / At home on me // And I a smiling woman. / I am only thirty. / And like the cat I have nine times to die." And later in the same poem, "Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well. // I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real. / I guess you could say I've a call." The words are often monosyllabic, direct ripostes to the over-elaborate doubletalk of politics and domesticity, which obfuscates injustice. Mortality is always at the forefront in Ariel, the beast lurking in the foreground, a shapeless form whose aesthetic denouement is just within the poet's grasp.
"Lady Lazarus" is a direct assault on time as well, which melts people into defined characters, reduces women to instruments of pleasure or pain. Fearlessness, in Ariel, does not come across as posture or imposture. So in "Elm" she says: "I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets. / Scorched to the root / My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires." Everywhere there is a conflagration in progress, a wild fire, eviscerating necessary distinctions between observer and observed, nature and humankind, fact and interpretation. The malign thing within her is within all of us as well, if only we had the courage to articulate real pain: "I am terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me; / All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity."
What form of death is suicide? Is it a saving act, a refusal of time, or acknowledgment of its banal permanent victory? In one of her most effective poems, "Berck-Plage," Plath describes the soul as "a bride / In a still place, and the groom...red and forgetful...featureless." Really, all of Ariel is aesthetic preparation for death, a ritual squaring of accounts with the least inhibition shown by any modern poet, compared to which Robert Lowell comes across as rectitude itself. Inhibition is what stalls the necessary progress of wordlessness, the overlooked style of grief.
In "Lesbos" Plath throws a gauntlet to the bureaucratic plenitude of female domestic activity that has not yet been answered, in language brutal in its fecund simplicity:
Meanwhile there's a stink of fat and baby crap,
I'm doped and thick from my last sleeping pill.
The smog of cooking, the smog of hell
Floats our heads, two venomous opposites,
Our bones, our hair.
I call you Orphan, orphan. You are ill.
The sun gives you ulcers, the wind gives you T.B.
Once you were beautiful.
In New York, in Hollywood, the men said: "Through?
Gee baby, you are rare."
You acted, acted, acted for the thrill.
Of course, this is radical language prompted by a time about to embody radicalism, and we know we're not in such a moment anymore, but we must recognize the banality of most contemporary feminist critique for what it is. Plath, on the other hand, makes leaping connections which lead to refusal of self-pity. In "Lesbos," again, here is her colloquy with female delinquency: "You say your husband is just no good to you. / His Jew-Mama guards his sweet sex like a pearl. / You have one baby, I have two. / I should sit on a rock off Cornwall and comb my hair. / I should wear tiger pants, I should have an affair. / We should meet in another life, we should meet in air, / Me and you." It's the institutions themselves that are at fault; weak thought proscribes instead the participants; Plath is free of this error in Ariel.
Men and women are caught in elaborate games of self-deception, the poignant articulation of self-representation that is the embodiment of modernity itself, but which has at last run aground on a feverish swamp of obvious dangers and beatable enemies. Plath isn't fooled. So in "You're," she writes: "Vague as fog and looked for like mail. / Farther off than Australia. / Bent-backed Atlas, our travelled prawn. / Snug as a bud and at home / Like a sprat in a pickle jug. / A creel of eels, all ripples. / Jumpy as a Mexican bean. / Right, like a well-done sum. / A clean slate, with your own face on."
Since the time of Locke, the tabula rasa has kept being marked by the blemishes of history. Of course there is no clean slate anymore. Of course it can't even be imagined. Every representational tactic is tarnished. Postmodern poetry, following Plath, falls into the trap laid out by the seducers of industry, who offer new images, new self-portraits, cool styles of prefabricated alienation.
In describing the feminine, dichotomies are always easily at hand. Radical poetry demolishes these binaries. In "Fever 103°," Plath describes the impossibility of comprehending her own possibilities: "I think I am going up, / I think I may rise -- / The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I // Am a pure acetylene / Virgin / Attended by roses, // By kisses, by cherubim, / By whatever these pink things mean. / Not you, nor him // Not him, nor him / (My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)-- / To Paradise." Her experience as woman is being aestheticized not to procure a reproducible style, but to deny it, with all the vehemence Plath can muster.
This is poetry which makes darkness out of the lightest beauty, perceives that this is the only way out. This is poetry that resists imitation, though this didn't stop the confessionalists who came in her wake, borrowing the I-material but overlooking the ignoble nature of the larger war, the war that never ends.
The father, in poem after poem in Ariel, is the image of order. So is the state. Feminism cannot get lost in the thickets of accepting the alleged benevolent nature of these orders. It loses its soul and spirit if it does so. In "Years," Plath writes; "O God, I am not like you / In your vacuous black, / Stars stuck all over, bright stupid confetti. / Eternity bores me, / I never wanted it." Eternity, the favorite delusion offered by the father and the state, it should bore all of us. But contemporary feminism finds some of it actually exciting. What a letdown!
In one of the strongest poems, "Totem," Plath mixes the connecting threads of her sage retreat:
There is no mercy in the glitter of cleavers,
The butcher's guillotine that whispers: "How's this, how's this?"
In the bowl the hare is aborted,
Its baby head out of the way, embalmed in spice,
Flayed of fur and humanity.
Let us eat it like Plato's afterbirth,
Let us eat it like Christ.
These are the people that were important--
Their round eyes, their teeth, their grimaces
On a stick that rattles and clicks, a counterfeit snake.
Yes of course the snake, which is now counterfeit, glittering with the opposite of shame, embalmed in the essence of reason and spirit. It is this snake that gets us all. But with Plath there is no compromise: her death was meant to represent the extinction of the poetry of reason; it is the grand denial the feminist movement has lost.
Anis Shivani is the author of My Tranquil War and Other Poems (NYQ Books, 2012). His other books are The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). His novel Karachi Raj will be released in 2013.