"Introducing the poetry of Sylvia Plath" #625Lab

Wordcount: 3400. My masters thesis was only a bit longer than that ðŸ˜¬... I really don't know what the point of writing so much is in the context of the Leaving Cert. Unless you're superwoman, you're not going to be able to write so much in the exam. See here for timing and essay length ideas.
Sylvia Plath Leaving Cert English

You may also like: Full H1 notes on Sylvia Plath

Hello everyone. Today I'll be introducing you all to a poet I've recently studied, Sylvia Plath. I really enjoyed Plath's poetry and I hope you all will, too. Throughout this talk I'll be speaking about Plath's role as a mother and a poet, her personal anguish, the way she used language and imagery and also with the aid of some of my favourite poems of hers called "Arrival of the Bee Box", "Child", "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" and "The Times Are Tidy".
Something that was clear to me when I began to study Plath's poetry was that her life on the surface was unlike ours - she had access to a good education, she was not living in poverty and she was a hard worker. However, upon further inspection I realised that her life was one of suffering and angst.
When Plath was only eight years old, her Dad died. Plath has written that he was a bad father, and it was said that he was extremely tyrannical at home and a "sticker for order and a lover of logic", meaning he was pretty much oppressive and acted like a dictator when she was growing up.
After she had been praying to God every night for her sick father's recovery, he died. She announced, "I'll never speak to God again". She was extremely upset as she had been taking care of him at home tirelessly, and to make matters worse she wasn't allowed to go to his funeral by her mother, Aurelia Schrober. This is something that Plath never forgave and she has expressed her anger and grief over her father's death many times in her poems. For me, this seems like the beginning of Plath's tough life. (I sincerely doubt that these three paragraphs are going to get the author any marks. She's not talking about the poems, hence it's not relevant.)
As a result of her over-working and self-deprecation, she had a nervous breakdown while teaching in a college in 1953. She was then given bi-polar electro-convulsive shock treatments that further damaged her mental health and spiralled her into depression. Depression was common in her Dad's side of the family, and unfortunately it affected Plath's life, too. She set her expectations to an impossibly high standard and was terrified of being forgotten and not producing good enough poetry. This is reflected in two poems I'll be speaking about, called "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" and "The Times Are Tidy".
Plath's depression is something I have come to understand through her poetry, as she alludes to it often and expresses her feelings of worthlessness and angst in many fantastic poems.
Her depression heavily affected her role as a mother. She felt inadequate as a mother and that motherhood was destroying who she was before. She loved her children very deeply but felt disorientated and distanced from them and struggled with the responsibility that came with motherhood. I found this in her poem, "Child".
Plath's marriage with Ted Hughes, another famous poet, experienced many bumps. Hughes had an affair with another woman, which tore Plath, and their marriage, apart. Plath records this in her poem, "The Arrival of the Beebox", which I will also be telling you all about in a moment.  
In Plath's poetry, her use of language delivers her deep emotion and story perfectly. She often uses concrete description to introduce us to her poems, and then metaphors and similes to expand the poem beyond the tangible, and convey her feelings to the reader. (Can you think of a poet who doesn't do this? This is too generic, hence it's not going to get much marks.)
Many of Plath's poems, for me, sound like everyday speech- they're not distinctly rhythmic. This gives the poems a light and easy sound, and allows for flexibility in rhythm and pacing. Sometimes, if her mood is rigid and distant, she'll reflect this in the pace; the same when she is comfortable or speaking of something fondly, such as her children. (This is much better, but there is no point in saying this without giving examples.)
Her use of short, complete lines allow for a cold, stern quality in the poem, but, as I said, longer stanzas give way to allow for exploration of ideas and description. (Say this in the context of a particular poem.)
She also uses assonance often, to reflect the mood of the poem. This can be seen in the poems I enjoyed reading. (Context required.)
Her use of personification is also something that I particularly enjoyed. She uses nature and animals, things so pure, to describe her disturbed mental health, a contrast unique in Plath's poetry (what's unique exactly?). She sometimes uses the sea as a metaphor for fear of the unknown, however I particularly found personification in "Arrival of the Bee Box", where she personifies the angry bees as 'like a Roman mob', describing her wild, uncontrollable, and claustrophobic thoughts. (This is more like it!)
She even personifies nature as herself, which I saw in "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" and "Child". (Would be much better with quotation.)
Plath employs surreal imagery that I found, at some times, bizarre and unique. In "Arrival of the Bee Box", she compares her bee box to a "midget coffin", and a "box of maniacs". Additionally, the images of "African hands", "furious latin" and "black on back, angrily clambering" are provocative and uncomfortable, giving us an understanding of Plath's feelings in the poem. In general, this sort of eccentric imagery gives us insight to her disordered mind and deep sadness.
For me, this is what made Plath's poetry so compelling to read, however I also enjoyed how she uses simple and clean images such as "color and ducks" in "Child" and "the clear vowels rise like balloons", in "Morning Song". These are instantly recognisable for me as images of innocence that she associates with her young children, whom she loved deeply. (This is a very nice little paragraph. This is what I mean by context.)
As I mentioned before, she often uses nature imagery to convey the deep emotional trauma she was feeling. This also comes through in her use of pathetic fallacy, which was notable in "Black Rook in Rainy Weather". This could be to reflect her angst and pain, or to symbolise new beginnings. I'll talk more about her use of pathetic fallacy in the poems to come. (A quote?)
Plath often uses biblical imagery in her poetry. I thought this was ironic, as she resented God from a young age, but on further inspection I found that it wasn't always as pure as it seemed, and she felt detached from it, using it to reflect the hopelessness and lost feelings of being lost that she had. This stems back to the disconnection and hatred she developed towards God when she was young. An image of a certain "light" reoccurs (where? Explain, otherwise this won't get marks :( ), whether longing for it to appear or fear about it disappearing indefinitely. This is a metaphor for happiness, fulfilment and recovery for Plath, which she never achieves.
Now I'll be introducing everyone to my favourite poem of Sylvia's, "The Arrival of the Bee Box". This poem explores the themes of entrapment, discomfort, fear, identity and control.
She opens the poem with a concrete illustration;
"...this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift".
This simple description provides contrast to the startling imagery and quickened pace to follow.
She describes the box as,
"the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby".
These images are unsettling for me- a "square baby" is unnatural and odd. I think that they're also quite funny- they show a witty side to Plath, again providing a contrast to what is to follow.
She says that she has to live with the box "overnight" and that she "can't keep away from it". This where I first start to recognise the box of bees as a metaphor for her depressive thoughts and mental state. She mentions that there is "no exit", implying that she feels trapped in life, making the reader feel claustrophobic. (This is H1 stuff right here. The author clearly knows enough - and more - to get the coveted 100 points in English, but it's super important that she presents her knowledge in a certain way, i.e. without the preceding abstract musings and biographical detail.)
As I mentioned before, the images of "Black on black, angrily clambering", and "furious Latin" in "unintelligible syllables" lend themselves to her feelings of fear of the unknown and confusion. Claustrophobic and, to be honest, just plain weird, they perfectly describe what I imagine her thoughts are like. The assonance of an "l" sound in "unintelligible syllables" is hard to pronounce, reflecting this.  (Don't repeat yourself.)
She tells us;
"They can die. I can feed them nothing. I am the owner."
For me, she is attempting to synthesize some sense of identity. She is trying to reassure herself of her own power, over the bees, or, in a deeper sense, the thoughts that enter her mind.
Contemplating setting them free, she describes her outfit as a "moon suit and funeral veil". The funeral image links back to her description of the box as the "coffin of a midget", suddenly casting a shadow on the poem, referencing death. In my opinion, it is at this point that the poem takes a dark turn.
She tells us;
"Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary."
For me, this symbolizes her suicidal thoughts. The "box" is her mind, the "bees" her thoughts and the beekeeper" her inner conscience trying to battle her depression. She wants to take control of her life, to be "sweet God", but feels that her mental health is so bad that her only escape is to take her own life. This dark ending gives me chills and has given me a huge insight to Plath's way of writing. She almost never tells us plainly how she feels- she must make us feel the emotion she does, to put us through the sensations she experiences. Another thing that I love about her poetry is how one can interpret it differently- some of you may disagree with my slant on the poem but that's what makes the reading experience so thought-provoking.
"Child" is another poem that is very thought-provoking. This poem was written just after her son's first birthday, and less than two weeks before her tragic suicide. I found this poem deeply saddening, and that it gave me significant insight to the way she felt towards her children and the emotions she experienced during motherhood.
She begins the poem by describing her son's "clear eye"- untainted by the horrid things she has seen in the world. It is the "one absolutely beautiful thing"- meaning that, with all of the grief and trauma in her life, her son is the only glimpse of happiness. I think that this is a bittersweet beginning to the poem. Something I've noticed through her poetry is that although there are beautiful things in her life and she gets pleasure from them, they are never untainted by Plath's mental illness.
She tells us that she wants to fill his eye with "color and ducks"- she wants to ensure that he only sees the beauty in the world.
She goes on to foresee her son meditating the names of plants; "April snowdrop", a delicate, pretty flower, and "Indian pipe", a plant that lives in darker parts of the forest and feeds on rotting plants. I personally think that she is personifying the plants as her son- he is pure and innocent, however he exists in Plath's dark world. This also suggests that he is feeding on her, and the life she used to live. This gives us a glimpse of the identity loss she feels as a mother.
He is a "stalk without wrinkle"- untainted, innocent and young, unlike her. I think that she is reflecting her self-hatred and worthlessness as an ageing, emotionally scarred mother, in comparison to her new child with his unspoiled mind. (All of this is true, but the author is really labouring the point. I understand that someone who knows their stuff so well feels compelled to get it all down on paper, but don't get greedy. Only go for the highlights. If not, you will run out of time and that, more of less, means you dramatically reduce your grade.)
She wants him to be a:
"Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical".
Note her use of "should" instead of the previous "I want to". I believe that this echoes her uncertainty and foreshadows the darkness that is to come- taking her own life. As we know, she did so two weeks later, which makes me feel as if this was poem showed a heartbreaking conclusion that had been made in Plath's mind. (Here the author makes biographical detail super relevant. Compare this to her opening spiel on Plath's biography.)
The fourth stanza sees Plath reduced to a 'troublous / Wringing of hands", suggesting the hindrance she feels she will be on the child's life and the agitation and anxiety she feels as a mother. "Wringing of hands" is spine-chilling as this the body language of someone nervous and on-edge, which we know Plath was as a mother, constantly terrified of motherhood and its responsibilities.
She ends the poem by describing "this dark / Ceiling without a star." She is personifying herself as the ceiling, telling us how insignificant she feels as a mother and human being- she is a ceiling, or sky, without stars.
I believe that this could also be reflecting the depressed, dormant state she seemed to be living in- lying in bed, staring at the ceiling in darkness, or a comparison of herself to the child's nursery ceiling, where she has hung star decorations. Either way, I found this ending upsetting and that it accurately conveys the deep despair Plath was feeling.
This is one of the many times she uses light (or, seen here, a star) as a metaphor for hope and happiness - here, she is certain that it has disappeared forever.
This poem uses many effective linguistic techniques. The poem's title, language and form are simple and concise. "Child" as a title is affectionate, while reflecting the distance she feels towards him. between them.
The first line is the longest of the poem, forming a completed sentence. The rest of the poem forms the second sentence, as Plath becomes carried away while talking about her child's future, before her tone changes and the poem abruptly ends; she turns her gaze inward and thinks about herself.
She mentions "zoo of the new" in the first stanza, a playful line that could be from a children's book.
In the first part of the poem she uses "oo" and "ah" sounds, mimicking typical baby-talk as she speaks about her child's future. However, as the poem moves onto her self-reflection she uses broader nouns such as in "dark / Ceiling without a star". This reflects the gloomy atmosphere.
Motherhood is a huge theme in this poem, and this poem gave me a certain understanding of how she felt as a mother. Hope is also expressed as a theme, as she lists the hopes and dreams she has for her son, with love being another prominent theme - this poem, although frightening and upsetting, is a declaration of her love for her son.
"Black Rook in Rainy Weather" is another poem that I loved. This poem explores poetic inspiration- or lack thereof. It also discusses Plath's depression and fear of failure.
She describes herself as a "wet black rook / Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain". This is a metaphor for her tedious creative process- writing and rewriting again.
She mentions a "minor light" and "celestial burning"- here we see again this certain "light". In this poem, it is a metaphor for inspiration and ideas, of which she just cannot grasp. She describes them as "spotted leaves as they fall", another case of Plath using nature imagery. I loved this metaphor.
Personally, I love the beginning of this poem as a whole. She perfectly conveys her boredom, and I can imagine her sitting on the "kitchen table or chair" she mentions, waiting for the lightbulb moment to happen - a moment I'm sure we have all experienced.
She describes the ideas as striking "even in this dull, ruinous landscape". I take it that she is describing her depressed mind, and I think it's extremely sad that she thinks it is "dull" and "ruinous", considering all of the amazing poetry of hers we've looked at so far. This is just one example of Plath discussing her feeling of idleness and worthlessness.
It extends into the seventh stanza- she describes her "lightbulb moment" as a "brief respite from fear / Of total neutrality". As I told you all before, Plath was terrified of not being successful. She never felt accomplished or good enough, and set herself to impossibly high standards.
Going back to her description of "this dull, ruinous landscape", she talks about "trekking stubborn through this season / Of fatigue". The verb "trek" stands out for me- she is struggling to cope with her life. She says;
"I shall
Patch together a content
Of sorts."
Again, you can all see that although those "spasmodic tricks of radiance miracles" or the "light" that she mentions comes now and again, she is never truly happy in her life. "Of sorts" implies that she will make-do, but the irony is that the "content / Of sorts" is her feelings towards the extraordinary work she produced, yet was unsatisfied with. I feel like this reflects that artists are never happy with their own work, but it is magnified ten-fold in Plath's case.
This dissatisfaction produces the overall theme of depression in this poem. It manifests as a fear of feeling total "neutrality"- Fear and hope are also major themes, and they provide an interesting contrast in this poem, showing us the extremes of emotion in her mind.
We are allowed to see these personal glimpses of psyche through her consistent use of the personal pronoun "I", making the atmosphere intimate. It's almost as if we are hearing her talking to herself.
Like "Arrival of the Bee Box", the eight stanzas in this poem are unrhymed, making the tone more conversational- truly as if we are hearing her innermost thoughts as they develop.
These thoughts are boldly announced in her next poem, "The Times Are Tidy". Written just as she had resigned from her job at Smith College, this is a straightforward commentary on the modern world around her, in comparison to the more magical fairy tale world of the past.
I think it's important that I tell you all that Plath's family was German, and they read lots of German fairy tales, studying the culture in detail. This comes through a lot in the poem. (All of these little bits of addressing the audience show fantastic awareness of the task at hand. However, the scripts will have been collected, packed and sent off to the examiners by the time this would be written...)
Plath begins by telling us how "unlucky the hero born / In this province of the stuck record". "Hero" is the first example of folklore imagery, and she uses it sarcastically. The poem is laced with irony, this being the first example. The metaphor of a "stuck record" conveys the boring, unadventurous world she sees and how "unlucky" those born into it are.
The "most watchful cooks go jobless"- a bitter observation by Plath, contemplating how the most skilled people are unrewarded for their talent.
"The mayors rôtisserie" is an interesting metaphor- it links with the unemployment of the "most watchful cooks". The spinning of the record and rôtisserie are both two repetitive motions, much like the world in Plath's eyes. These metaphors are slightly peculiar and witty.
More dark wit enters the second stanza as Plath says that even knights battling dragons would be unoccupied- another reference to folklore. The dragon is reduced to a "lizard, / Himself withered". I don't know if you'll all agree, but Plath is telling us how time has moved on from the adventure and heroic deeds of the past- slightly controversial but effective nonetheless.
The controversy continues as Plath says that the last witch was burned "eight decades back", along with its mythical accessories- "the love-hot herb, the talking cat". These exciting things contrast sharply with the monotonous circles and spinning motions we looked at before. Like the dragons, the witches are no longer a threat to the children. She continues with "the children are better for it"- a sarcastic remark. It's obvious to us that Plath thinks the magic of life is ruined by the overly filtered modern culture. I personally relate a lot with the message Plath is sending in this poem, and think that perhaps you could too. For this reason, it's one of my favorite poems of hers.
Another reason why I adore this poem is that it shows Plath's incredible way of writing. She repeats "o" and "u" sounds in stanza one, and "k" sounds throughout. The repetition of "t" in the title- "The Times Are Tidy - have the same effect. This regular structure reflects the predictable and boring society described in the poem. I know that compared to the other poems this seems dull and plain, but you must see that is Plath's aim, and she executes it perfectly, as with all of her other poetry.
I don't know about everyone here, but Plath is one of my favorite poets on the Leaving Cert course. I find her poetry compelling and unique while still being relatable to me, and you too, I would imagine. I hope that from this talk you will all explore the rest of her poetry as it is excellent, and worth the read.
Thank you all for listening.


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