Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
The unfolding of female personas
in Sylvia Plath’s “Cut” and Ann Sexton’s “Sylvia’s Death”
I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far-among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime.
—Sylvia Plath, “Context”
Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton, both poets, and friends are two of the main female representatives of the so-called Confessional Poetry group. Two of their most interconnected poems are Plath’s “Cut” (1962) and Sexton’s “Sylvia’s Death” (1963). Both poems appeared in emblematic collections that best highlight the two poets’ creative character and gender reality. The poem “Cut” is part of the Ariel collection which includes some of Plath’s angriest and well-known poems published by Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, in 1965, a few years after her suicide in 1963. Similarly, the poem “Sylvia’s Death” is part of the collection Live or Die for which Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and marked her place in the American postmodern poetic proscenium. The female personas in the poems under consideration share a common attitude towards life and a rather fragile and vulnerable selfhood that is not easily visible. What is interesting in the two poems is how they capture female subjectivity and how their form and content allow readers to gain an insight into the dilemmas the speakers in the two poems face.
It is in the fifties when Ginsberg introduces Howl (1956) and himself becomes the symbol of the “best minds of his generation” (492) that raw autobiographical material is used into poetry so as to enable the poet to make both a personal and public statement about his sociopolitical reality. Nevertheless, it is M. L. Rosenthal who resorts to the term of “Confessional poetry” in his most influential review with the title Poetry as Confession (1959) about Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959). Rosenthal stresses the significance of this kind of writing and highlights emphatically that “Lowell removes the mask” (Rosenthal 154) in his effort to shed light on the poet’s interest in both exposing and recreating his personal life with the intention of giving readers the opportunity to gain an insight into his own repressed experiences. Deborah Nelson characterizes Lowell as “a mentally unstable poet in an act of self-exposure” (31). The issue of troubled selfhood along with the experience of institutionalization in the context of mental illness and the applicability of, nowadays disputable, therapeutic practices leads Rosenthal to approach this kind of poetry as a “self-therapeutic motive”(154) since Lowell seems to regard it as “soul’s therapy”(154). Lowell’s contribution to the shaping of the “Confessionals” also lies in the seminars he offered at Boston and Harvard University which were attended by Plath, Sexton and W.D. Snodgrass. Of course, at that time none of them thought of being part of a specifically-defined poetic movement (Nelson 32). Their struggle for inner freedom and the unconventionality of their work encouraged them to explore poetic practice beyond the boundaries of literary conventions. The distance they tried to keep from New Criticism and its obsession with auto-telic poetry and intentional fallacy was already hard enough. Now, the time was appropriate for them to move away from the formalistic restrictions of conventional poetic practice and connect private experience with public reality in terms of form and content.
Plath and Sexton are considered to be not just participants but central figures in this poetic turn towards the raw confession and shocking revelation of private thoughts and experiences. Apart from their undeniable poetic skill and insights into matters of human existence, they attempt to rearrange through their poems the way women perceive the world and their place in it. The suburban model of the middle-class female wanting to stay within the limits of her family and social circle is not enough for Sexton. Identically, life in the English countryside or the raising of children in a freezing London apartment after a painful divorce betrays Plath’s expectations in the most horrifying way. In both cases, there is a common predetermination towards depression, insufferable angst and obsession with death that constitutes the main theme that runs more or less through the corpus of their poetry. This predetermination gives a distinguishable quality to the female personas these two poets choose to use. Still, this allows them to talk about “the problem that had no name” (Annas 112) as Bettie Friedan defined in her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique the situation of the American middle-class female of the fifties that experienced boredom, disappointment and a feeling of suffocation. Plath and Sexton, instead of expressing a radical feminist voice, convert their turbulent personal experiences that concern the position of the female within marriage and society into art. Their absolute novelty is that they touch upon taboo issues, such as mental illness and female sexuality, by the use of personas that are called to respond to an inner dilemma or a demanding external reality. These female personas serve divergent poetic roles throughout their poems. But, above all, they stand for everyday female experience while at the same time they serve as embodiments of the reality that surrounds them.
Plath’s detachment in “Cut” contributes to a discreet, almost hidden, female persona quite strong in terms of the observations she makes and realizations she comes to. This poem is structured around a female persona who cuts her thumb in the domestic environment of a kitchen. The self, mirrored as a bleeding finger, becomes the object observed and linked to a much more frightening notion of violence. The specific poem is written just after the Cuban Missile Crisis in November 1962 and JFK’s efforts to come to terms with Khrushcev so as to prevent a dramatic escalation of the Cold War between U.S. and U.S.S.R. The obvious metaphor of the cut thumb allows readers through the objectification of the female self and the ritualization of the experience presented to follow the constant transformations that both reality and selfhood undergo. The detailed description as in “the top quite gone,” “a sort of hinge,” “A flap like a hat,” “that red plush” (“Cut” 233) opens the field of imagery that the poem resorts to as it connects it with a series of words of historical interest that add interesting connotations to the overall experience communicated to the readers by connecting the personal with the historical: “little pilgrim,” “the Indians axed your scalp,” “redcoat,” “Saboteur,” “Kamikaze man,” “Gauze Ku Klux Klan,” “Babushka” (233, 234). These references resort to certain facts of historically documented violence and its fifties connection to the Red Scare. Furthermore, they make the connection between a painful and personal experience with violent political issues far more apparent. The poem reveals a person in crisis who is rather undermined by a constant belittlement of the self. This person is presented just as “my thumb instead of an onion” (233) but, as the poem progresses, it becomes a “homunculus” (233) under the shadow of events of global significance. The poem starts with quite an ambivalent ironic tone: “What a thrill” (233). This could be also interpreted as excitement or fear at the same time. Parody is another technique used in the poem in order to disguise the personal overtones of the experience conveyed. It is as if the speaker comments on an experience/event from a detached and authoritative point of view as if wanting to minimize its importance as a piece of personal history for the sake of History itself. The use of personification as to the finger, the homunculus, is confirmed by the use of apostrophe: “O my Homunculus” (233). This direct treatment of the self is intensified towards the end of the poem and is underlined by the statement: “How you jump-/ Trepanned veteran, / Dirty girl/ Thumb stump” (234). The kind of imagery and action communicated here refer to this larger than life persona who witnesses the inherent violence that exists in the real world. However, personal suffering and external danger seem to coincide. Pamela J. Annas argues that “Sylvia Plath has this dialectical awareness of self as both subject and object in particular relation to the society in which she lived” (109). The ritualization mentioned sheds light on this process of gradual transformation of a personal experience to a public event.
In Plath, a rather formalistic attitude towards the making of poetry is detected. Her well-crafted technique can be attributed to her significant academic education. Her poem does not always evoke strong feelings, although it is a poem of violence and rage. Her images are rather shocking but, as one struggles for meaning, her writing style certainly challenges the mind. What impresses the reader is that in every stanza in “Cut” there are always one or two words that are heard far more emphatically than the others: “hinge,” “flap,” “plush,” “scalp,” “Clutching,” “fizz,” “homunculus,” “Saboteur,” “Kamikaze,” “Ku Klux Klan,” “Babushka,” “tarnishes,” “trepanned,” “dirty,” “thumb stump” (233, 234). It is not musicality that is communicated in this instance but tension. This choice, along with the poem’s form and punctuation, mirrors the inner struggle of the persona. The form of the poem lies in well-conceptualized but rather short stanzas of uneven lines placed on the left-hand side of the page, creating a sense of balance and control. Yet, the subversion derives from the content linked to the overall context of the poem. The punctuation is quite revolutionary with full-stops being omitted so as to encourage the enjambment of lines, thoughts and images. The capitalization of certain words acts as an underlining of the crucial elements in Plath’s poem and the full-stop at the very end of a line equals a statement of self-realization. In “Cut,” from the first lines, readers encounter the “blood” of the speaker’s wound which immediately alternates in the poem with the imagery of other bloody historical references. Along with the poetic experience, “blood” marks personal pain but at the same time it reveals public truth. Robin Peel mentions that “blood becomes a metaphor of all death, all destruction, including self –destruction” (195). The most sensitive reference in the poem is “the thin papery feeling” (“Cut” 234) that signifies Plath’s empty and cold reaction to the circumstances of her personal life and the reality that surrounds her. “It stands for her sense of depersonalization, separation of self from self, and is juxtaposed to the devaluation of human life which is a necessary precondition to war, the separation of society from itself” (112), Annas remarks. Plath appears to be commenting sharply on both personal and public historical experience using one occurrence as a deflection of the other which brings to mind what she writes in her piece entitled “Context”: “In a sense, these poems are deflections. I do not think they are an escape. For me, the real issues of our time are the issues of every time…” (82). This statement sheds light on the overall metaphorical setting of war that one finds in Plath’s “Cut” that highlights the seriousness of her personal experience and its interconnectedness with historical factual information.
In Sexton’s “Sylvia’s Death,” the female persona draws on autobiography so as to enhance the tragedy of the event remembered. As for the constant references to death, they define an attitude, a condition, a desire, a decision and an irreversible practice that explains the female persona’s most anguished existence while it determines the poem’s overall writing style. Death is personified, “the death that talked of analysts and cures” (“Sylvia’s Death” 561), objectified, “a window in a wall or a crib” (561), and even animated, as shown in the lines “the sleepy drummer (561) and “that ride home/with our boy” (561). Sexton writes this poem in a confessional manner. Autobiographical material is combined with total exposure of troubled existence and anguished thoughts. Sexton’s female persona meets Plath’s female persona. The poem’s initial but brief reference to Sylvia Plath's painful life and suicide highlights the irreversibility of her tragic death and reality, while it prepares us for the intense feelings Sexton shares with us as is the bodily experience that death triggers with the persona talking about “a terrible taste for it, like salt” (561). The state that best describes this condition is an emotional and psychological dead-end. This dead-end refers to women’s position as much as to the psyche and the intellect of the artist who does not find all the answers within the limits of poetic practice. At this point, death is converted into a poetic tool that is essential for the poetic expression of these two female poets: “an old belonging,” “a mole that fell out/one of your poems” (561). What is communicated here is a common condition that concerns Plath, Sexton and those women who do not stand social conformity and hypocrisy. What they are keen on retrieving through artistic creation is their own sense of freedom and self-expression.
Embracing both a sentimental and revelatory tone, Sexton finds refuge in a looser verse that almost reminds diary writing. “Sylvia’s death” is a poem that recounts an experience while it traces the poet’s uninterrupted flow of thoughts. This is exactly what makes the poem very transparent and accessible. There is a structure based mostly on couplets that creates a sense of a pattern and a number of more extended stanzas enclosed in parentheses. The form of the poem follows the experience conveyed. As for the way the poem looks upon the page, it reminds a lot of Charles Olson’s theory of “composition by field” as delineated in his essay “Projective Verse” (1950). Form and content interconnect in Olson’s theory offering the poet the freedom to record the multiple subtleties of experience. In the case of Sexton’s poem, the accumulation of the lines and the alternation of short and long ones project the poet’s thoughts and breath. The poem is not just silently read, felt and understood but heard almost aloud. An impressive fluidity results out of certain stimuli. As regards punctuation, the poem lacks full-stops that would suggest some kind of closure. There are a lot of commas that direct the rhythm of the poem, question marks that convey the anxiety and life dilemmas of the personas, and parentheses that betray their hidden thoughts that they do not want to share out loud. Moreover, there are exclamation marks that intensify the emotional and sensational outburst that derive from the final lines of the poem. The commonality of female experience as manipulation of emotion and intellect is as important as the sentiments that arise when one reads the poem. Apart from Sylvia’s physical death that the poem refers to and is longed for by Sexton’s female persona, it is the emotional, personal and poetic death that the specific poem also implies. A feeling of suffocation directs the persona’s actions and fuels her need to escape, and this escape is transmitted to us as a tragic and irreversible death resolution.
Sexton makes use of some of Plath’s poetic techniques, linking the two poems examined here together and presenting them as an overall experience that starts in “Cut” and ends in “Sylvia’s Death.” First, she uses an apostrophe, as Plath did, when referring to her friend as in the following lines, “Oh, Sylvia, Sylvia,” “O friend,” “O tiny mother, / you too! / O funny duchess! / O blonde thing! ” (“Sylvia’s Death” 560-562). Additionally, the last stanzas in both poems resemble each other remarkably. They are both brief and sharp. They consist of dual combinations of nouns and adjectives. Similarly, the titles also interrelate. “Cut” suggests an injury that is communicated to the readers through “Sylvia’s Death.” Both Plath and Sexton talk in their poems about middle-class, white female dissatisfaction and boredom as this derive in the fifties from a much broader gender-defined, socio-cultural and political conformity.
Evidently, it is easy to detect similarities alongside the differences in the poems produced by these two female writers. Plath is cryptic and touches upon history through her poetry, while Sexton communicates immediate human and, in particular, female experience. However, when reflecting upon Plath’s and Sexton’s poetry, one is easy to be either enthusiastic or judgmental with regard to the kind of personal or public information one finds in them. Then, there is the danger of falling into cliché interpretations that lack depth and sensitivity in the way the material is approached. But, if one would like to proceed to an unprejudiced evaluation of their poetry, one should simply focus on their artistic skillfulness in the way they capture the pain and creatively manipulate life experiences so as to gain an insight into the deepest roots of emotional, social, cultural and psychological reality. Basically, it is pain that we all, as humans, always share.
Annas, Pamela J. A Disturbance in Mirrors, The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. USA: Greenwood Press, Inc. 1988. Print.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Hoover. Vol. E. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994. 492-499. Print.
Friedan, Bettie. "The Problem that Has No Name." The Feminine Mystique. USA: W. W. Norton and Co.1963. Print.
Nelson, Deborah. “Confessional Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945. Ed. Jennifer Ashton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 31-43. Print.
Peel, Robin. Writing Back. Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics. USA: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp. 2002. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. “Context.” Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. London: Faber and Faber, 1977. 82-83. Print.
---. “Cut.” Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1981. 233-34. Print.
Rosenthal, M.L. "Poetry as Confession." Rev. of Life Studies, by Robert Lowell. The Nation. 19 September 1959: 154. Print.
Sexton, Ann. “Sylvia’s Death.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Hoover. Vol. E. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994. 560-562. Print.
In order to access the poems please go to:
Sylvia Plath "Cut":
Anne Sexton "Sylvia's Death":
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