I could never really get into Sylvia Plath’s poetry. I know some of her poems are quite good, but I can’t sink my teeth into it because her work just isn’t grounded- it’s mad. I Enjoy some of her poems on a basic level but I do not want to think of any of Plath’s poetry for too long, I may also go mad.
Her literary genius is not the same as Austen’s or Dickinson’s or Keyon’s. Although they may have suffered from mental illness, I know Keyon suffered from depression, their works did not depend on it. Their writings were a result of strenuous application of their talent. They immersed themselves in their craft. Plath however was caught up in her mind- not her craft.
Richard Wilbur expressed this problem rather well in a interview I found recently:
In the context of this balance that you like to keep in your own work, in “Cottage Street, 1953,” you call Sylvia Plath’s poetry “unjust.” Are you referring to what you see as her poetry’s one-sidedness?
Its helpless one-sidedness. I tried to sprinkle a whole lot of words around there that would add up to a kind of just estimate of her. That, together with the picture I had given of her as a slumped, pale, drowning person. Let the record show that I said brilliant: “her brilliant negative. In poems free and helpless and unjust.” I suppose she was freed by the onset of her desperate condition of mind to be brilliant in the way the poems of Ariel are brilliant. At the same time, she was helpless because it required that condition of mind to bring on those poems. She was unjust because a sick and prejudiced perception of things is—well, that’s the limitation on the usefulness of her poetry to any reader, I think. It gives you some insights into a desperate condition of mind that is not absolutely foreign to the rest of us, but that goes farther towards morbidity than I’ve ever gone, thank God. At the same time there’s a lot she can’t tell you. She’s all wrapped up in herself and her feelings about her children, and herself as a writer, and her fantasies about her dead father, and her arbitrary connections between her dead father and her husband. I don’t suppose we need to know that her father was not a Nazi in order to read that poem [“Daddy”] rightly, or do we? In any case, she’s rather unjust to him. She’s certainly unjust to her mother.
Diane Wakoski has said she thinks confessional poetry is misnamed—that Plath and Lowell and Sexton are not confessing anything, but are writing out of feelings, like pain, that most of us don’t find acceptable as material.
Well, I really think Sylvia Plath’s later poems, when unfortunately she was at her best, were crazy, and that, whatever virtues they have, they have that limitation. I don’t think Lowell’s best work is to be described in that way. I think whenever he’s been emotionally ill it hasn’t enabled him to write. He hasn’t written out of illness, but in spite of it. The same story with Roethke, and I’m sure the same with Anne Sexton, whom I didn’t know as well. As for pain, it’s acceptable and necessary material. One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by clear, precise confrontation. Even the most cheerful poet has to cope with pain as part of the human lot; what he shouldn’t do is to complain, and dwell on his personal mischance.
complete interview can be found here
The status of female poets, or of our consciousness of them, has changed considerably in the past few years. Thinking of that, we wanted to ask about a view you expressed in an interview in The New York Quarterly in 1972. You said you believed that men and women have different sensibilities.
Yes, I know I’m on dangerous ground in saying that, but I still think it’s true. I do think that men are capable of greater emptiness and abstraction. I don’t believe in the possibility of a female Hegel, for example, and I have a feeling that women have their feet on the ground, on the average, a little more than men do, even though men tend to etherealize women in their imaginations, through their affection. It’s therefore a continuous surprise to notice how women know where they are, and know what’s around, and men are, by comparison, less practical and less concerned with the concrete. That may be a big lie, but it is an impression of mine.
How do you relate what you say about men, women, and abstraction to poetry?
I think of the great describers of the twentieth century and they’d be people like Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop—and D. H. Lawrence, who had, whatever I mean by this, a very strong feminine element in his nature, so that he was able to write poems about men from the woman’s point of view that both men and women can read with a sense of belief. He’s also a great describer of objects, whereas I think there’s considerably less vivid description in Eliot, in Pound, in all sorts of male poets I might name. Now you’re going to give me trouble by naming William Carlos Williams, who’s an extremely masculine person and a great describer. All I can say is that my theory doesn’t entirely hold water.
You almost seem to be saying that women have a more natural disposition to be poets.
I don’t know about that. I think of poetry in terms of the compressed expression of the whole of one’s experience, all at once; the combining of things; the bringing together of all those things that we variously call sensation, and thought, and passion, by whatever names we call them; and any poetry that isn’t concrete is going to be a flawed poetry. So, in that respect, such women poets as I’ve mentioned, and such men poets as are like them, have one capability without which: nothing. Or—I’ll have to take that back, because I do think that there are some poems that have no concreteness in them and, nevertheless, are successful. But in the long run, one would not be satisfied with poetry that didn’t seem to touch down in the mundane, in the actual.
In search of Richard Wilbur’s wife, I found only a name, Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward and a few dates. No photo. Although from what I can gather, they were happily married for sixty-five years. She died in 2007. They had four children together. Again no photos. They kept out of the spot light very well which seemed to work for them beautifully.
In 1987 Richard Wilbur was named the second Poet Laureate of the U.S., following Robert Penn Warren. He is considered a formalist poet and was good friends with RObert Frost. I have always loved his work. He is also well known for his translations and children books. Here’s one of my favorite poems by him:
The Beautiful Changes