Sugar can cure everything, so Kindness says.
Sugar is a necessary fluid,
Its crystals a little poultice.
O kindness, kindness
Sweetly picking up pieces!
My Japanese silks, desperate butterflies,
May be pinned any minute, anesthetized.
And here you come, with a cup of tea
Wreathed in steam.
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
You hand me two children, two roses.
--Sylvia Plath--from "Kindness"
I've been reading Expansive Poetry ("Essays on the New Narrative and the New Formalism"), and I've been surprised by several things. I'm in strong agreement with the central point of the essays: that the state of modern poetry is miserable because of institutionalized scorn of form and narrative in poetry. But there are also some worrisome claims in the essays that hint at an unfortunate backlash against free-verse lyric, regardless of quality. No less a critical mind than Richard Moore in "Tristram's Rhapsody" sallies forth swinging in every which direction. In one particular stroke he disparages the cult that has surrounded the suicide-poets of the 20th century, naming Plath, Sexton and Berryman.
From a critical point of view, it's pretty silly to lump in Plath with the other two. Plath is one of the great poetical geniuses of the 20th century, and the other two wrote verse that turns your ear to tin and your eye to wax. John Berryman especially is so woeful that I boggle at his popularity within the establishment. Are there really no critics who can sense that there is no music, no keenness with diction, and no intelligence of theme in, say the celebrated 77 Dream songs? Do they really see him as heir to Pound and Carlos Williams? As for Anne Sexton, at least her work is not palpably offensive to the poetic taste, but it is dull and devoid of craft.
In "The Other Long poem" Frederick Fierstein, also the book's editor, says:
After a while the total work of such poets as Plath and Sexton seems an endless monologue spoken by a character with little insight, who never grows, who is bathetic rather than tragic.
Strangely, I've never felt tragedy in Plath's work. Rather, I've always felt an intense practicality. She gives a sense of taking life as it comes, good and bad, and inserting it directly into her poems without losing much of the quick. It's hard to find any bathos in such perceptiveness. Her suicide was certainly tragic from a biographical point of view, but that impending tragedy hardly oppresses her work.
I don't know the details of the Sexton and Berryman suicides, except that they came in the 70's, after Plath's, but I have trouble seeing what suicide has to do with poetic achievement. Moore seems to argue that the entire mood of "confessional poetry" impels the writer to prove his demons in the ultimate way. Even if one admits this rather backward reasoning, I don't see how it concerns the reader. What concerns the reader is the quality of the work.
Plath had a key poetic quality which I believe is innate, rather than learned: instinct for apt words. She put a lot of effort into the key poetic quality which I believe is learned rather than innate: mastery of form. She wrote a lot of well-measured poetry throughout her career, much of which she later wrote off as "juvenilia", but still had the sense to publish. I think she was impelled towards insistence of free verse by the prevailing winds in poetry at the time, not least coming from her husband Ted Hughes, another great poetical genius who was capable of horticulture in that infertile ground. It does feel to me, reading her work, that she was nearing a reconciliation of her expressive genius with the boundaries that she mistakenly saw in form. I think that if she had lived to publish another book's worth of work, she would have risen to the stature of Eliot and Pound in that work. In the end, she limited herself too severely.
This brings me to the passage I quote above. It has a very odd structure, where approximation of iambic pentameter breaks down to shorter, unformed lines, and then back to the blank verse, and then back to the unformed lines. It seems to me that she uses the blank verse where she is being declarative in what she is saying, and breaks from form where she wants to be fragmentary, and stereotypically imagistic. I think this is on purpose, even if subconsciously so, but it is a dangerous game. Plath has confined herself to a narrow road with failure on either side, yet in the end she is brilliant enough to pull it off. We as readers find ourselves sympathetic to the correspondence of music and sense, even when both music and sense lurch to the dissonant.
The remarkable thing is how little Plath's self-imposed limitations subtract from the great legacy of her work. It does present her with a small problem in consistency. She has one or two score great poems, and a much larger number of poems of much lesser quality. But a poet's success always derives from his great works, and not from the rest, regardless of how voluminous. It doesn't matter that Nerval wrote a lot of drudge since he did manage to squeeze out Les chimères, from which, for example, "Delfica", subject of an earlier "Quotidie". Plath will be appreciated, and her work will influence later poets long after the poeticules Sexton and Berryman are forgotten (which won't take long). She cannot be lumped in with the other two just because they all committed suicide, or because they were all known for free-verse lyric.
Moore also launched an attack on Pound and Eliot, and I think he falls even wider of the mark in those cases, but that's a subject for another note.