Signs and signatures
Sylviaís hell-fired poetry
Darshan Singh Maini

ON February 11, 1963, unable to cope with "the assault of reality", Sylvia Plath took her life in her 31st year. Even the mode and manner of the suicide ó thrusting her head into a gas oven with an SOS note for her doctor, and instructions regarding the milk for her two babies ó suggest a fiery ordeal that a poet courted as daughter, woman, wife and mother in that twilight hour of her unhappy life.

Her poetry was, in a large measure, an extension of the inner war. The two earlier attempts at suicide ó one soon after her fatherís death, and the other as an overambitious student at Smith College ó now naturally fall into a lethal pattern that Plath had begun ominously to see and weave out of certain obscure needs and compulsions. As she was to write in a late poem, Lady Lazarus, this business of suicide which attracted her and her part friend, Anne Sexton, like a flame, had a certain kind of wry "aesthetic" about it.


Is an art, like everything else,

I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell,

I do it so feels real

I guess you could say Iíhave a cell.

However, as the child turned into a precious girl and the girl into a ravishing woman, the demonic entries into her verse, first as delicate little lyrics, and then as dramatic poems of shattering force and controlled hysteria, simply annihilated the distance between the poet who wrote and the woman who suffered. As she pumped "the jet-blood of her heart" into "hell-fired" poetry, she knew not where the song had turned into a lament, a cry, a shriek, a threnody, "a requiem". And the four faces we see refracted in her verse make not a quartet of framed portraits, but a Picasso collage of features and cages and feline energies. The composite and laminated figure that peeps out of the canvas is, then, something of that "Godís lioness" about which she sings in her famous poem Ariel.

Though the cult of Plath, which shows no signs of exhaustion, is more a cultural than poetic phenomenon, itís not to be dismissed as something unrelated to the operative energies of her compelling confessional or extremist poetry. For the aura of glamorous facility has always had an abiding appeal for the youth, and a poetry that brings about such a dark consummation may not be fully understood without a peep into this side of Plathís romantic and defiant American personality.

In Daddy, her hatred, which is at the same time a violent form of inverted love, rises to a new black pitch:

Thereís a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you,

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, Iím through.

The nursery rhyme style and air do not dissipate the gloom despite their jauntiness. On the contrary, they help project her Freudian fears and repressions (the Electra Complex, you like) in the form of gallows humour. Her "ghoulish" Gothic verse reveals depths of despair that she could in no other way come to terms with.

It is a dramatisation of the supreme "buffoonery of emotion that rocked her breast, and made her enact a theatre of clashing images and symbols. She wreaks her oblique revenge on her progenitors who created her a female in a world of male sway and hegemony. And, thus, in her verse she assumes many a role in relation to the victim-victimiser theme, a daughter set adrift in human chaos.

The demonic drive, then, become a requirement of a psyche maimed at birth. In a journal entry, Plath says, "I have a good self that loves skies, hills, ideas, tasty meals, bright colours. My demon would murder this self by demanding that it be a paragon."

In Lady Lazarus:

Herr God, Her Lucifer



Out of the ask

I risk my red hair

And I eat men like air.

But, finally, itís as a wife that all the freight of fears and repressions as a woman is sought to be unloaded in her verse. Now the dykes are fully breached, and a Niagara of lament protest, invective and indictment breaks out in the form of stormy poems frothing in their ire and wrath. It may, however, be observed in passing that though these poems were written when her marriage with British poet Ted Hughes was on the rocks, they do not lose their artistic discipline and control. Mostly, they are tightly and efficiently structured with her lapidary skill.

But the colour of the Devonshire skies began to change soon enough, and the sweet gingerbread of marriage lost nearly all the icing. Her husbandís infidelities and professional jealousies, and her own prickly and provocative personality did not take long to tear apart a relationship that was even otherwise under continual siege.

Their coming together was, of course, good for her poetry, but wicked for their lives. They drained each other of the juices of love, and, in the end, produced a weird, wild verse, and a wilder poetics. A uniquely feminine voice with all the force of a male intellect became her "signature tune". To quote her own words from a BBC broadcast, she had started "courting the experience that kills". But, itís in The Couriers that the marriage ceremony is rebuked most in that cryptic, ginger-sharp gimlet style Plath had now fashioned for the working out of her multiple injuries and abominations:

A ring of gold with a sun in it?

Lies, lies, and a grief

Frost on a leaf, the immaculate


In her Letters Home, she maintains a curiously light tone, and even a dry kind of cheeriness, but the smarting poems give the game away. In a letter to her mother, she writes thus on the subject of happy marriages: "Let The Ladies Home Journal blither about these." Marriage for her had become a trap, a swamp, a blind ditch.

And this brings me back to where we started, to wit, her suicide and intense poems some of which were written at 4.30 am in the hush and chill and dark of the hour. Even the titles ó The Surgeon at 2 a.m, Amnesia, Thalidomide, Death and Co ó indicate the approaching night of storm and dissolution. Indeed, all such poems are voices from a graveyard. The last poem she was to write, less than a week before her death is ominously called Edge, and it shows how she was making herself ready for the leap into the unknown.

A difficult daughter, a tortured woman, a violated wife, a misfit mother ó all these roles are finally subsumed in the grand role of the "artist" Plath who could subdue life, not to her necessities, but only to her art!