Sylvia Plath’s Full Stops

No postwar English language poet has received such unmitigated critical acclaim as Sylvia Plath. And rightly so. Her work is at once seminal, canonical, apocryphal and apocalyptic. She broke completely new ground as a fiercely female poet poised uncomfortably between the dark memories of the recent world war and the dubious freedoms and comforts of a hedonistic age of mass-consumption that had only just begun. Her poems combine untamable churning depths of emotion with supreme artistic self-control, drumming out a painstakingly honest, unwelcoming and unwelcome, anthem for the baby-boom doomed generation of youth to come.

Like William Carlos Williams, Plath mastered the clipped metrically unconventional line. But, whereas Williams used this modernist technique, mollified by enjambment, to promote a languid impressionistic sympathy for nature, fellow human beings, and, frankly, himself, Plath turns out self-flagellating whip cracks of lines, clearly punctuated by pregnant pauses and sharp stops, allowing neither the reader nor herself the respite of the enjambed phrase.
Compare the first stanza of Williams’s The Widow’s Lament in Springtime, which I cited in an earlier post, with the first stanza of Plath’s Tulips, to which it bears a certain superficial metrical and thematic resemblance.

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to the surgeons.

The rhythm here comes in stops and starts, marked by punctuation and harsh conjunctions and eruptions of direct speech. The only lines that come close to an enjambment—the third and the fifth—are deliberately hampered and held back by clumsiness and ambiguity. The punctuation of “quietly/as the light lies on these white walls” suggests a simile, but the line-break tempts us to read ‘as’ as a conjunction, itself ambiguous, hovering semantically between ‘because’ and ‘while’.

Compare this with Williams’s use of ‘as’ in the introduction to the Widow’s Lament. “the new grass/flames as it has flamed/often before,” in which the comparative use of the word is totally unambiguous, serving the purposes of a comforting nostalgia.
There is always something deliciously and delicately sadomasochistic about the way Plath forges words into sweetly savage little stanzas and fragmented lines. Yet her work is as utterly and refreshingly devoid of self-promotion or pomp as knitting is.

Plath understands, as is evident from her harrowing descriptions of suicide attempts in The Bell Jar, how the comfort of supposedly womanly and homely virtues is not a desirable end in itself, but part of a lethal mix of oppression and misogyny that poisons the human race. The trap of the pursuit of happiness drags a death-drive in its wake…Genocide, suicide, infanticide, the sempiternal abuse of women and children and human beings in general for the sake of a cynically utilitarian view of fulfillment and order constantly haunt her work…

Her last poem, Edge, ends ominously with the words “The moon has nothing to be sad about,/staring from her hood of bone.// She is used to this sort of thing./Her blacks cackle and drag.” Comfort, accommodation, and the absence of sadness are equated with the black arts of Hecate. While Williams’s imagined widow distances herself from the at once grim reality and potential comfort of self-destruction with more wistful and softly-focused emotions: “I feel that I would like/ to go there/ and fall into those flowers/ and sink into the marsh near them.”

One of my favorite Plath poems is Mushrooms… It was her last poem of 1959 and long precedes the manic flurry of creativity in the weeks and months before her death, for which she is best known.

Nature for Plath is not a source of solace, awe or inspiration, but rather some kind of infestation that needs to be battled or curbed, like weeds on a picket-fenced lawn or methicillin-resistant bacteria. Like the tulips at her hospital bedside, it is something artificial, invasive, nauseating. Like the gnarled root of a tree, whose grubby yet persistent existence bugs Jean-Paul Sartre’s alter ego in La Nausée.

Plath inverts the romantic notion of the sublime, but much more sharply and more viscerally than her existentialist and beatnik contemporaries. For her, existence does not precede or transcend essence; it fundamentally infests it. Life is as nauseating and futile as a fair-ride is; the freedom and the bondage, the apparent license combined with apparent safety, equally distasteful and equally fake, the vicious pair roped unwillingly and unwittingly together by chromosomes in the womb and beyond. We are locked in a constant three-way battle between zest and disgust, and the cold comfort of the lure of death.

In Mushrooms nature anthropomorphically vaunts its (self-) destructiveness, despite and because of its meekness and innocence.

“we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.”

There is something Nietzschean about the idea of the meek inheriting but infesting the earth. Plath’s poem glides effortlessly over the question of good and evil.

There are sharp shifts of register in this poem, often from one line to another and even within lines. Sharp edges, which, like needles or knives, are at once homely and potentially deadly.

“We shall by morning” seems lifted from a general’s exhortation to his troops. “Inherit the earth” is a phrase obviously ripped from the gospel, but separated from the meekness that canonically qualifies the subject by five painful lines. The tercet ends “Our foot’s in the door”: with a vernacular reference to the bullying tactics of a travelling salesman, gold-digger or Gestapo officer and a deliberately clumsy sudden pronoun ambiguity, as the carefully maintained first person plural collapses into a single aggressive foot, bringing the poem to a metrically and semantically apt conclusion. There may even be a jazz-like joke in here at the expense of the fussily old-fashioned arrangement of poetic feet—a spondee (our foot) precedes an inverted dactyl (s’ in the door), the exact opposite of the norms of classical verse. Plath expertly turns tradition on its head with a bitter wit.

“Our kind multiplies” inter-discursively references racist discourse, whilst subverting it by replacing the usual exclusive third person plural possessive pronoun with the first. The hint of a Biblical reference is also undermined by substitution of an understood second person imperative (“Go forth and multiply!”) by the willful and somewhat sinister triumphant inevitability of the first person plural—a collective ego run wild rather than a compliant flock.

The word ‘kind’ is the hinge of this clipped but crucial line, poised subtly, dark yet sweet, semantically-speaking, between the racist, exclusionary connotations of the noun, and the commonplace sentimentality of the adjective, and tipping down like a see-saw into a Biblical euphemism for sexual reproduction translated into mathematical abstraction. Plath packs so much psychosexual history into this short line that it feels aptly, for good or ill, fit to explode.
I would argue that it is best to read this poem backwards, as it often is with poems. Working backwards from “our kind multiplies,” we get to “nudgers and shovers/in spite of ourselves”. At this point we realize that, despite the unremitting, perhaps deliberately mesmeric use of an anthropomorphic first person plural, Plath is ‘actually’ (if that means anything in her precociously ‘virtual’ approach to her work) referring (under erasure) to her own experience of womanhood and procreation. At the time of writing of this poem, she was half-way through her first pregnancy.

The ‘nudgers and shovers’ seem to be both fetuses fighting their way out of the womb and cocky ad-men seeking advancement in their career within a brutal capitalist system… To this dark revelation, she appends “in spite of ourselves,” giving the line a final hamartiological umbilical twist. Human beings transcend the pursuit of wealth and status, into which they are unleashed at birth, but are inevitably, from the outset, dragged into it. In a single terse couplet, Plath juxtaposes capitalist and social Darwinist cynicism with a religious notion that babies are born against their better nature, pure pre-existent souls corrupted from the outset by the act of copulation and conception.

Plath, however, is a master of the subtlest ambiguity. The ‘nudgers and shovers’ may be the fetuses in their mothers’ wombs, but they could also be the mothers themselves, forced by instinct to push out babies in labor, irrespective of their true desire to do so.

“We are shelves, we are/ tables, we are meek/ we are edible,” still working back through the poem, is the next stanza. The unfathomable ambiguities of the persistent ‘we’ cluster together here. Are ‘we’ women, children, human beings in general? Or perhaps just mushrooms? A basic form of life feeling its way out fumblingly into the darkness of the world.

Mushrooms spring up from the lawn overnight or can be grown indoors on shelves of fertile earth in attics or airing cupboards. They can be a source of nutrition, delirium or deadly poison. Unlike plants and animals, fungi do not require taming, tilling, harvest or slaughter. They pop up out of the dark, already good to eat… There is something Saturnine about them. They do not partake of the cycle of photosynthesis. Unlike newborn babies, animals or plants, they play no part in human lives as sources of affection, companionship or decoration… We feel no romantic or sentimental attachment whatsoever towards them. Their value is mired in myth. They are simply edible, fungible, seemingly inexhaustible products of the earth, parasites or symbiotic slaves to the supposedly nobler animal and vegetable kingdoms. All life, Plath suggests, however, may be like this.

“We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
*
But who are ‘we’/’they’? Although the first half of the poem is gorgeously mushily mushroomy and could easily and brilliantly have ended at line 18 with the delicious intermixing of anthropomorphism and pure description that is “shoulder through holes,” the second half is crucial to the true meaning Plath intends and this is invited in by the unexpected and metrically eccentric enjambment of an evocative “we” hanging in the middle of the poem at the end of the 18th line.

“We” in English and most other Indo-European languages is a highly ambiguous pronoun. There is no distinction between the exclusive and inclusive (me and you; or me and you as opposed to them). The mushrooms declaring themselves anthropomorphically as ‘we’ in Plath’s poem seem to be inserting themselves as aliens into the individualistic ordered world of the author; pushing their way in, one foot aggressively fixed in the door. An imagined “we” opposed to ‘us’, like rats or dry rot. On the other hand, there is the ‘we’ that is the first person singular plus another first person singular… The grammatical archetype of truces, trysts and affective ties.
Plath brilliantly combines two or more meanings in this hanging ‘we’. The mushrooms as a chthonic force of nature, marshalling themselves against humanity; children in the womb worming their way into our affection, forcing themselves into existence; we the parents, obstetricians, gossiping midwives, interfering pastors and priests, urging them to be born.

Mushrooms is a monumental, almost perfectly executed, poem that deals subtly, yet dispassionately, with the profound—perhaps ultimate—question of what it means to come into existence or bring a living creature into being, from the unique viewpoint of a troubled, talented woman with a child kicking in her womb.

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The British Labour Party and Scottish Independence

Margaret Thatcher liked to boast that her greatest achievement was the creation of New Labour. By this she meant the emergence of a labour party opposition that broadly accepted the supposed neoliberal consensus, the privatization of industry, the disempowerment of the trade unions, and the moral validity of militarism at home and abroad.

This, however, is a highly skewed perception of recent British political history. It could just as well be said the greatest catastrophe of the Thatcher years was the corruption of the Conservative Party, which turned in on itself and ceased to be the moderate right-of-center political grouping it once was, committed to defending the interests of business and the rich, but also broadly accepting of the basic tenets of social democracy, the need for greater equality, and the declining significance of the UK in a post-colonial more interconnected world.

The legacy of the Thatcher premiership forever riven by personal and ideological rivalries and inclined to unduly bitter and hawkish attacks on perceived adversaries began with the ignominy of the Iron Lady herself being ousted by her own party, and led to two decades of Tory-on-Tory ideological strife, assuaged only by the election of a nondescript but personable leader and the fears and necessities of coalition government. Strife, rancor and dissatisfaction are however still the principal undercurrents in conservative politics and the emergence of UKIP as a countervailing force is merely the latest manifestation of this ongoing failure of the conservative party to rally itself as a whole around broadly acceptable center ground. It is against this backdrop of a chronically fractured neoliberal-leaning right that all analyses of contemporary British politics should be viewed.

In Scotland, the political landscape has changed so much in the past 60 years that it cannot reasonably be described to have the same polity as England and Wales. In the 1950s, unionists and Conservatives dominated in Scotland and the idea of independence or even devolution was entertained only by an eccentric few. Since then, conservatism has waned in Scotland and under Thatcher and her successors shrank so drastically, that there is now only one Tory MP north of the border. In the 1980s the Scottish Nationalist Party cleverly positioned itself to the left of Labour in attacking neoliberalism and the Thatcher régime. Support for independence consequently grew, fuelled by the not unreasonable view that conservative English politics were being foisted upon the Scottish people against their will.

In 1997 Tony Blair’s new Labour administration granted Scotland and Wales their own parliaments and a much greater degree of self-government. The belief, at the time, was, that with no conservative opposition to speak of in these countries, Labour would dominate these devolved parliaments in perpetuity. Instead of this, what actually happened in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, was that the nationalist parties were strengthened as the main opposition to Labour and, in Scotland, succeeded in ousting Labour as the party of government, leading inevitably to the referendum on full independence that will take place on September 18th of this year.

As a lifelong Labour party supporter, I view the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK with some trepidation. In recent years, Labour has depended on its predominance in Scotland for seats in Westminster and there is a real danger that without these the party would never again be able to form a majority government in the rest of the UK.

However, the case—both moral and economic—for Scotland as a small independent nation, akin to Norway or Finland, is both compelling and longstanding, and should, in my view, trump any cynical party political considerations.

The history of Europe tends to focus on the wars and subsequent reconciliations that have ravaged its heartlands. The most successful parts of the continent, however, are those that have, for reason of secession, geographical isolation, treaty obligations, or accident of birth, opted out of this grand game.

Year upon year, tiny North European countries, such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland dominate lists of the most livable societies. These are countries that have a deeply entrenched culture of social justice and that punch economically, politically, and militarily on the world stage way above their demographic weight. They have not achieved this by way of colonial ambitions, but by retreating into their homelands and consolidating their economies around the prudent exploitation of natural resources, social justice, a stern sense of morality, and a tenacious defense of the most basic human rights.

The social, financial and symbolic consequences of Scottish secession are largely imponderable. UK politics, to left and right, is carrying on in the blithe belief that it is unthinkable. That may well be wise. But the fact is that, whatever the result of the referendum, nearly 50% of Scottish citizens want to detach themselves from the United Kingdom and join the club of socially progressive North European nations. This is a desire that will surely one day be achieved.

Furthermore, fears of a Labour meltdown in England, should Scotland secede from the Union, may be somewhat exaggerated. No Labour government has ever depended solely on Scottish votes for its majority and there is no reason, especially given the parlous state of the Tory party and the implosion of the Liberal Democrats’ base of support, to imagine that the next one will be any exception. The Labour Victory may fall short of a landslide, but that, as 1997 and 2001 should have taught us, might not be such a bad thing.

It is true that in 2010, were it not for Labour’s persistent grip on many Scottish constituencies, David Cameron would have achieved a majority in the House of Commons and avoided the need to enter into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. But could the policies of such a one-party government have been any worse than those of the present one? In fact, the situation may have been less favorable for the Tories, since, without the stick of a slim coalition majority to beat them with, backbenchers may well have been much more inclined to rebel. Furthermore, Cameron would not have been forced into a fixed five-year marriage of convenience—something alien to the British parliamentary system and arguably incompatible with its democratic principles. As it stands, the government must drag on for five full years, come what may, simply because a minority coalition partner, with dwindling popular support, has been cowed into total submission. A slight Tory majority in 2010 might have already fallen to a vote of no-confidence, as unfavorable by-elections took their toll and disgruntled backbenchers defected to the far right.

Another factor that needs to be taken into consideration is that, were Scotland to secede from the UK in the next few years, the political landscape of both countries would change. The North of England and Wales, for example, would take on a much greater relative weight in the shrunken UK, leading to calls for greater devolution of powers to these regions, which may benefit Labour, as it did in Scotland in the 1980s.

An independent Scotland could, therefore, just as easily be perceived as a victory (both moral and actual) as a disaster for Labour. It would tell that a major portion of the old UK was so disillusioned with heavy-handed neoliberal policies emanating from London that it felt obliged to secede. That is pretty good rhetorical ammunition for any party seeking to unseat the Tories.
On achieving independence, the SNP would lose most of its raison d’être and Scotland would probably drift back to its natural social-democratic roots, while acting more effectively as a thorn in the side of any future right-wing government of the rest of the UK, showing how more socially progressive policies lead to greater equality and economic prosperity and a better quality of life.

Some yes voters in Scotland envisage precisely this scenario, viewing Alex Salmond as a buffoon, useful for drumming up redneck support for independence, but ultimately dispensable, once a post-Independence Scotland is turned back over to Scottish Labour Party rule.

None of this, however, to be honest, is likely to happen. While the polls show a late surge in the Yes vote, it is unlikely to top 50% of the population. The most probable outcome is one similar to that which occurred in Quebec in 1995, when the pro-Independence vote swelled dramatically in the final days before polling, but still lost out by 0.25% of a percentage point.
But one of the many refreshing features of the Scottish referendum is the fact that it doesn’t really matter who wins. It is not a zero sum game. Whatever the outcome, it will have been established that nearly half of the population are so dissatisfied with government from Westminster that they would rather take the (admittedly great) risk of secession. Of the half that voted for the Union, more than half (probably by a wide margin) are opposed to the current UK government and are banking on the Labour party returning to power at the next nationwide election.

If No prevails, the SNP will not entirely have lost its moment of glory, since further devolution to a nation, 50% of whose populace desires independence, is practically inevitable, whatever party prevails in Westminster. Its support, however, will surely wane and drift back to Labour, providing even greater Scottish ballast for a 2015 UK Labour government.

Scotland and the Labour Party win either way. And the very fact that a referendum is occurring at all provides yet further evidence of the extent to which the Conservative Party is still out of touch and in disarray.

The Sweet Inception of War

The First World War broke out one hundred years ago, changing or ending many people’s lives forever and ushering in the supposedly short 20th century, into whose slipstream everyone alive today was born.
I have, thanks to my cousin Alison—an assiduous family archivist—an ancient photograph of my grandmother and her school colleagues on graduation day, at the end of the 1913/1914 academic year, days before the outbreak of what would come to be known as the Great War.
My grandmother was ten years old at the time. As recently as one hundred years ago, this was the normal school-leaving age for all but the super-rich in the wealthiest country in the world.
The poetic license of hindsight perceives an expression of foreboding in the eyes of these stiffly-posed but still obviously fidgeting children forced before a camera. Their faces distorted by a combination of their own discomfort and the low-tech of slow shutter speed photography.
It is impossible not to wonder how many—of the boys—would go on to lie about their age and enlist to die on the front or how many blanks would be left in the coming decades, as these children succumbed to tuberculosis, Spanish flu, psychological and economic depression, or the perils of a precocious unplanned pregnancy.
But the picture also summons up a heart-wrenching, albeit obviously illusory, feel of pastoral nostalgia for an imagined age of innocence that preceded the industrial carnage of the decades that ensued. The last summer before the lingering fog of gas and war set in. A horror that has never quite dispelled.
*
The causes and the origins of wars tend to remain hotly disputed for centuries, if not millennia; the truth disappearing into the mists of dirt kicked up by competing myths, as time inexorably recedes and consequences become grist for new mills. One street in Sarajevo still erects a statue to a hero who is arch-villain in adjoining neighborhoods.
The utopian pretensions of European union are still frayed by ancient feuds: the feisty independence of Anglo-Saxons, tensions between hard-nosed Teutons and romantically-inclined Franks eyeing each other warily across the Rhine; condescension towards the people of southern Europe, and daggers drawn with new poorly-crafted Islamic nations grudgingly chiseled out of the sand and rock of the battle-scarred ancient lands of the Middle East by supercilious European powers decades ago.
The horrors of the unfinished business of a century ago are now played out in Gaza, Aleppo or Mosul, for our entertainment every day on TV. And the same murderous or dismissive sentiments prevail.
*
The part of Virgil’s Aeneid—an ancient Roman Latin epic poem that I am old enough, for good or ill, to have had to study at school—that moved me most was always the introduction to Book VII. It marks the transition from the Odyssean to the Iliadic half of the Latin poet’s subtly subversive propagandist epic, reversing the logical and chronological order of its orally-transmitted Homeric precursors.
Homer’s semi-mythical heroes, slighted by an elopement, set out on an epic honor killing, get bogged down in an eleven-year-long largely thankless slog of a war, win by a ruse, trash Troy, and, with the exception of the wily Odysseus, are cut down by the consequences of their own misdeeds, as they wend their way back home across the perilous sea between Turkey and Greece in boats held together by twigs and rowed by slaves.
Virgil’s epic is almost the opposite. Refugees from a ravaged Troy drift around the Mediterranean, defy the outright rejection and the subtle poison of seduction of foreign lands and eventually wash up, like modern-day African immigrants, on Italian shores: their supposed promised land.
Book VII begins with the tantalizing promise of a happy ending. The Latians are keen to show hospitality towards the new-comers; the Trojan immigrants eager to fit in. They are on the verge of an historic peace agreement, until a pet deer belonging to a princess strays onto this tense world-historical scene and is accidentally shot dead by border guards. All hell—literally in the imaginings of the ancients—breaks loose… A bloody repetition of the Iliad ensues…
Virgil’s epic ends on a note of poignant and daring ambiguity. Aeneas overcomes his arch-enemy (Turnus) in a final single-combat showdown, yet is prepared to spare him and put an end to the seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence, until he notices that his rival is wearing a trophy plucked from the corpse of a beloved young protégé he has killed in the course of the war. Rage and revenge condense into a savagery of summary justice and the epic ends with Aeneas butchering his defeated enemy. The end of the war is precipitated by the very same sentimentality that sparked it in the first place. All does not augur well…
*
The First World War was triggered by a romantically-inclined adolescent killing an archduke swathed in the romance of a jaded Empire. The current round of violence between Israel and Palestine was sparked by the murder of four adolescent boys from both sides. Their ghosts surely cry out more for reconciliation and remembrance than vengeance and retaliation and yet their very innocence remains a cause for war.
The blanks left by the dead in the school photo of my grandmother’s graduation ceremony urge us to flesh them out with tender yet dispassionate memories, not idolize and avenge them by gouging out the images and the eyes of others. An excess of sentiment, amidst conflicting views of righteousness, only serves as an accelerant for the arson of hate. Sometimes justice is best served by forgetting the sentimental causes of war, forgoing nostalgia for the apparently golden age that preceded them, and forgiving the injustices to which they eventually gave rise; tearing off the end of the page. Moving on…