Richard Wilbur Upon Sylvia Plath

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.



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