On Poetry, Sylvia Plath, and Seamus Heaney
Tonight I was continuing to read and comment on my students’ poems. Each of them had to hand in twelve poems to me on February 21. So I’ve been reading them all through our Spring Break, and I’m still not done. It takes me a long time to read them, and to decide what to write on their poems. I keep reminding myself that I have been writing poems for roughly 55 years, and that at 20 I wasn’t writing the way I write now. It’s that whole thing of putting old heads on young shoulders. I want to write comments that will urge them on, that will be very specific.
Anyway, in the process of this, I stumbled upon an essay by Seamus Heaney in an old book of his that practically fell off my shelf this afternoon.
His essay is about the poetic development of Sylvia Plath. He says that she was a poet who “grew to a point where she permitted herself identification with the oracle and gave herself over as a vehicle for possession; a poet who sought and found a style of immediate speech, animated by the tones of a voice speaking excitedly and spontaneously; a poet governed by the auditory imagination to the point where her valediction to life consisted of a divesting of herself into words and echoes…” He observes that he found
“…in her poetic journey three stages which seem to exemplify three degrees of poetic achievement… “(Then he goes on to quote a passage from Wordsworth as a parable of these three stages)
Here is part of that passage from Wordsworth that I love, due to my love of owls:
( he stood alone).. by the glimmering lake;
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely palm to palm and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls,
That they might answer him . – And they would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call, = with quivering peals,
And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of jocund din!...
He also says that her poems are, “in Lowell’s words, events rather than the records of events, and as such represent the triumph of Plath’s romantic ambition to bring expressive power and fully achieved selfhood into congruence. The tongue proceeds headily into its role as governor; it has located the source where the fixed stars are reflected and from which they transmit their spontaneous and weirdly trustworthy signals…”
Now, this is the part I want to remember and share with my students:
“But before all this could occur, Plath’s tongue was itself governed by the disciplines of metre, rhyme, etymology, assonance, enjambment. ..” (152)
Anyway, the three stages:
1. The first task of the poet… is to learn how to entwine his or her hands so that the whistle comes out right…the satisfaction and justification implicit in that primary sounding forth of one’s presence. “Listen, I can do it! Look how well it turned out! And I can do it again! See:”
2. “When the vale fills with the actual cries of owls responding to the boy’s art, we have an image of the classically empowered poet, the one who has got beyond scale-practicing… This represents the poetry of relation, of ripple-and-wave effect upon audience; at this point the poets’ art has found ways by which distinctively personal subjects and emotional necessities can be made a common possession of the reader’s.”
3. The third kind of poetry Heaney finds in Plath is “that in which the poem’s absolute business is an unconceding pursuit of poetic insight and poetic knowledge… As the (poet) stands open like an eye or an ear, he becomes imprinted with all the melodies and hieroglyphs of the world; the workings of the active universe are echoed far inside him. ..
A degree of imaginative access where we feel the poem as a gift arising or descending beyond the poet’s control, where direct contact is established with the image-cellar, the dream-bank, the word-hoard, the truth-cave…an absoluteness about the tone, and a sudden in-placeness about the words and all that they stand for…”
I can’t go on any further about this in this entry – will have to return to it, because Heaney has a lot more to say about Plath’s poetry. This much is deep water enough. I need to think about it for a while.