Poems at most always appear enigmatic for ordinary readers. They remain just a puzzle of words that at most must have been written by madmen and women who had nothing better to do. But for the many who have come to understand and appreciate the importance of poems for the poets and their audience, poems serve more than a release of angst, a medium to touch and be heard, as well as heal. But to what extent when it depicted an unavoidable death such as that of Sylvia Plath?
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Lyricist Le Ann Etheridge who wrote “Back When Ted Loved Sylvia” in Nanci Griffith’s Hearts in Mind (New Door Records, 2005) album is seen to have placed an exact position for the late poet Sylvia Plath — “the ideal territory to occupy,” (Matthews, 2006, p 89). This middle ground cannot be avoided with the fact that Plath’s husband Ted Hughes is another popular poet, English that who had his book Birthday Letters published before Plath’s unabridged journals in 2000.
There is so much to know and understand and so little to expound on poems such as Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” used in this instance to identify the purposes or aims behind it, to establish whether this is a cry for help, the shout of anger, complaint or a form of therapy. I will also provide a reaction relating the poem to the background against which they were written and point out where I can a particular catalyst which may have prompted Sylvia Plath to write as she did.
Narbeshuber (2004) view Lady Lazarus as a form of feminism revolt that resist assimilation to a patriarchal society that “reacts against the absence, especially for women, of a public space, indeed a language for debate, wherein one might make visible and deconstruct the given order of things,” (p 185). There could be a lot more perceptions about Lady Lazarus and the other poems of Plath, but this paper will concentrate on how it pursued to be a cry, a shout and a therapy.
Personally, I find “Lady Lazarus” speak of repetition, of “One year in every ten” managing a miracle, alluding light from her skin, of feet that held her ground, a plain face with quality – thus a Jew linen – inquiring from her enemy if she was a source of fear — “do I terrify?”
It is however a futile triumph of resurrection as “The grave cave ate will be / At home on me.” The poem defines the poet — in an adult age and gay, certain of more lives, but certain of an end “…like the cat I have nine times to die.”
Plath is aware of wasting, “What a trash / To annihilate each decade” and of the glamour that comes with every controversy about a woman, a poet who failed to take her own life (once again) as her privacy is feasted on, “The big strip tease/ Gentlemen, ladies.”
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But things remain for a melancholic patient like Plath, “I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten. / It was an accident.” She narrates a perceived truth, insisting of a disease difficult to understand — at least for the majority who cannot accept death as an option — “The second time I meant / To last it out and not come back at all… Dying / Is an art, like everything else, I do it exceptionally well.” This alludes to her mastery of the art of suicide, for theater-goers to see and revel, which is of course a tragedy.
Melancholy, clinically called “depression” has been commercially made a disease to be addressed with a pop of tablets, easily displaced in a sanitarium, “It’s the theatrical,” she wrote, but well aware along with those before her and those to come, that it remains a show; an amusement that needs to be seen and pondered about, like some kind of a soap opera, “Comeback in broad day / To the same place, the same face, the same brute / Amused shout: ‘A miracle!‘”
But it’s not. Melancholy is something more that even the patient who fully understands accepts as its is: an inevitable occurrence. It is a victim preyed, and fully aware there’s no escaping but death itself. As Hughes wrote in “18 Rugby Street, “… the life you begged/ To be given again, you would never recover, ever.” (p 17).
She played her role, however adamant or ugly it may be. Taking in the role of the actress, the businesswoman: “I am your opus, / I am your valuable, / The pure gold baby.” She had to. She had to hype, magnify and stir controversy, “Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware” yet embrace her reality and need to go beyond “Out of the ash” to pretend “I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air” to deceive a hidden loss and pain that could remain forever indescribable.
All in all, Plath’s Lady Lazarus is all three: a cry for help, a therapy and a shout of anger. The cry for help, however, does not necessarily denotes a need to be rescued. It is a cry to be understood. She has her own cases to resolve, and she has a way, found a way to resolve them, only, her way is not acceptable in the norms of civil society. As Dillon (2001) observed, “The cry of grief, at the boundary of sound and language, is forever inscribed on a flower. This flower is a perfect emblem for Ovidian poetry, where the human tumult of passion and blood is so often transformed, or metamorphosed, into a fixed and natural tomb,” (p 511). Lowe (007) noted that there is a need to return to Plath’s childhood, thus “The first time it happened I was ten”, and “As a seashell.
They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls” to recapture figures of loss, a location of happiness, and even childhood games.
For some, Plath’s use of the words or even verses such as “For a word or a touch /
Or a bit of blood / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes. / So, so, Herr Doktor. / So, Herr Enemy” may refer to the torture or pain inflicted upon her, to many, by her husband Ted Hughes.
She shouts of anger, that she needs to be paid, that she is charging for the play, for her role in a theatre society, no matter how misunderstood and how baffling this role maybe. It is catharsic, a form of therapy which even Hughes acknowledged, “What saved you? / Maybe your poems / Saved themselves, slung under that plunging neck, / Hammocked in your body over the switchback road,” (1999, p. 10). It is a form of release because through her poems, Plath outwardly converses, making pen and paper her friends to confide her deepest feelings. As Browning (1900) earlier established, “The world moralises of late, and in its fashion, upon the immorality of mournful poems, upon the criminality of “melodious tears,” upon the morbidness of the sorrows of poets,” (p 260).
Narbeshuber (2004) also sees Plath’s poems both “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” as “More than an attack on the male, her poetry confronts the mentality of the status quo that accepts the ideology of the individual and notions of the natural, or even the personal, self,” (p 187). Here, she Is both the object and agent of public discourses.
For Lowe (2007), Plath’s myriads of poems that alluded to her father – Otto Plath, a German migrant to the United States who refused to become minister and died while Plath was only eight years old – there were instances that Plath held out a place where she could reunite with her father suggesting suicide as a route. Lowe (2007) further recalled Lindberg-Seversted’s 1990 observation of Plath as she “creates ‘psychic’ landscapes out of concrete places, scenes and objects” (quoted from Lowe, 2007, p 24). These depict the tumultuous landscape and seascape that inhabit Plath’s reality and perceived realms.
Poems are and would remain personal shouts of anger, cries but not necessarily for help but for understanding and acceptance, as well as therapy for many of their poets. In most instances, they would remain like butterflies, forever elusive but a beauty to behold, distant and even mysterious so that like the butterfly, when caught by the human audience, they wither and die.
Pen and paper have proven their therapeutic role in the human psyche and this is maintained with Lady Lazarus. While Plath struggles with her internal suffering, she has directed much of her energy and release in her poems even to the extent of inflicting evil to her own image. In the end, only she and her poems will remain, and her hope to be understood and accepted shall prevail. Thus the immortality of poems and their poets that transgress even the unacceptable, and luciferic suicide.
Plath successfully placed all three in her Lady Lazarus as much as tragic poems could. Lady Lazarus as a whole is a painful struggle of acceptance of a painful truth and the need to be understood of that truth. Consciously, Plath struggled to live for a reason or two, since her youth. In her youth, it was not clear through the poem whether she encountered persecution, but in other poems such as “Daddy”, she certainly did. Two years after the death of her father, she was alone to fight the widespread stigmata of having to be a German, of a Nazi national. Daddy provided a glimpse of her suffering, which is continued in Lady Lazarus, so that she grew up consciously as an outsider, a public spectacle that need either to be watched or guarded. She grew up, however, with nine lives, but need to end it all in order to free herself, and incarnate as a powerful woman after death.
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Browning, Barrett (1900). The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, (Charlotte Porter and Helen A Clarke, eds). Thomas Crowell & Co.
Lowe, Peter, J. (2007). “Full Fathom Five”: The Dead Father in Sylvia Plath’s Seascapes.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Volume 49, Number 1, 2007, pp. 21-44.
Matthews, Pamela, R. (2006) “Sylvia Plath Hughes: The Middle Ground in the New Millennium.” South Central Review, Volume 23, Number 3, 2006, pp. 89-93.
Hughes, Ted (1999) Birthday Letters, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Dillon, Steve (2001). “Barrett Browning’s Poetic Vocation: Crying, Singing, Breathing.” Victorian Poetry, Volume 39, Number 4, 2001, pp. 509-532.
Narbeshuber, Lisa. (2004). “The Poetics of Torture: The Spectacle of Sylvia Plath’s Poetry.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 34, Number 2, 2004, pp. 185-203.