Maeve O’Brien: Sylvia Plath and the Language of Oppression

The English language, the words we use to speak and the texts that we write are a construct and product of patriarchy. This white male language, enmeshed in a colonial and racist history, has been forced upon lands and peoples, controlling how words and expression are defined, conveyed, written or spoken.

Accordingly, for female-identified writers, the act of trying to document their lived experiences in a language born out of what bell hooks calls ‘conquest and domination’, is rife with difficulties.

Adrienne Rich problematised the paradox of how individuals subjugated by patriarchy are expected to write in this oppressive ink in her poem, ‘The Burning of Paper Instead of Children’ where she declares, ‘this is the oppressor’s language, yet I need it to talk to you’. How can female-identified writers hope to communicate any semblance of self or aspect of their lives, thoughts, bodies or emotions in a language that is fundamentally structured against them? Indeed, for women of colour, trans women and all other intersections of female experience, the act of writing in a text that rigidly defines and restricts their lived experience proves to be almost impossible.

 

(Draft of ‘Stings’ written on Smith College memorandum paper, 1962)
(Draft of ‘Stings’ written on Smith College memorandum paper, 1962)

 

Sylvia Plath’s entire literary output can be read as an embodiment of a lifetime spent attempting to ‘talk’ in a language incapable of holding female bodily and emotional experience. Throughout her poetry and fiction writing, Plath struggled to find the words that could match the feelings, emotions and opinions she wanted to communicate.

While a student at Smith College in the early 1950s and later at Cambridge University from 1955-57, Plath’s poetic practice involved poring over her thesaurus and choosing every single word in her poems with exacting precision because it was so difficult for her to find the vocabulary necessary to convey meaning. Accordingly, Plath’s early poems and her first collection, The Colossus are known for their pleasing docility and adherence to traditional writing structures that reflect the emphasised importance of white heteronormative rules and regulations enforced on literature in the western world in the pre-second wave feminist mid-twentieth century era:

In the circus tent of a hurricane

designed by a drunken god

my extravagant heart blows up again

in a rampage of champagne-coloured rain

and the fragments whir like a weather vane

while all the angels applaud

(‘Circus in Three Rings’, Sylvia Plath)

Upon her return to America in 1957, where she worked at Smith College as a lecturer and later as an administrative assistant in Boston, this plan of action that involved ‘ringing’ words in her thesaurus and placing them into her poetry became futile. Between late 1957 and 1958, Plath experienced a debilitating writer’s block that left her fearful of the blank page in front of her. She wrote in her Journals, ‘I must overcome my fear of facing a blank page every day, acknowledging myself, in my deepest emotions, a writer, come what may’.

‘Poems, Potatoes’, a piece written in 1958 reflects Plath’s creative frustrations at this time, where she likened the possibilities of text to stodgy, inanimate potatoes that could not secrete their intended meaning. ‘Poems, Potatoes’ probes the distinction between words that merely sit on a page without implication and words that are energised and fused together by the realisation of meaning: the integral action that creates poetry.

Sturdy as potatoes,

Stones, without conscience, word and line endure,

Given an inch. Not that they’re gross (although

Afterthought often would have them alter

To delicacy, to poise) but that they

Shortchange me continuously…

(‘Poems, Potatoes’, Sylvia Plath)


Plath was continually ‘shortchanged’ by the sturdy words that could never fully realise her intended meaning. But she worked hard at her craft, and forced herself to confront her blank pages and write in them. She forced herself to read and keep writing, and after travelling across Canada and the United States and spending time at the Yaddo writers’ colony in Upstate New York in 1959, she broke through her block and began to write productively again. Her subsequent move back to England in late 1959 and experiences as a homemaker and wife as well as her pregnancies, miscarriage and the uncertainty of heightened Cold War tensions provided much creative inspiration and during this time period, Plath consistently wrote poetry and short stories and completed her only full novel, The Bell Jar.

 

(Cover of a later edition of ‘The Bell Jar’)
(Cover of a later edition of ‘The Bell Jar’)

Despite this productivity, Plath’s battle to speak in a text incapable of holding female bodily and emotional expression remained. Poems written in 1960 until early 1962 contain a huge number of repetitions, with words such as ‘hooks’, ‘lack’ and ‘shriek’ appearing again and again in work of this period. These reiterations suggest that Plath was consistently running into dead-end stops, that she had run out of vocabulary options and instead re-used the best descriptions she could find.

Although poems such as ‘Tulips’, ‘The Surgeon at 2AM’ and radio play ‘Three Women’ all demonstrate Plath’s command of the English language and text as well as her sensitivity as a poet; repetitions throughout these poems signify that despite her creativity, Plath’s writing was still mired in the prison of patriarchy that controls and determines how we speak and write:

Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage –

My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox

My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;

Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

(‘Tulips’, Sylvia Plath)

It is a garden I have to do with – tubers and fruits

Oozing their jammy substances,

A mat of roots. My assistants hook them back.

Stenches and colours assail me.

This is the lung tree.

(‘The Surgeon at 2AM’, Sylvia Plath)

Here is my son.

His wide eye is that general, flat blue,

He is turning to me like a little, blind, bright plant.

One cry. It is the hook I hang on.

(‘Three Women’, Sylvia Plath)

By late 1962, Plath had moved to North Tawton in Devon with her husband and had two children under the age of three. The ensuing breakdown of her marriage and malfunction of the gendered norms and expectations she had invested in provided a catalyst to Plath’s creative process. In autumn 1962 she began to write the poems of Ariel that she is most remembered for: composing over thirty within this time. During this fevered stage of constant writing, for the first time, Plath began to challenge the oppressive restrictions of text that had always imposed upon her writing practice.

 

(Sylvia Plath with her children, outside Court Green, North Tawton, 1962)
(Sylvia Plath with her children, outside Court Green, North Tawton, 1962)

 

In poems such as ‘Cut’, ‘Lesbos’, ‘Letter in November’, Plath subverted traditional definitions of words so that the objects, events and bodily functions of women became of pivotal importance in a new literary canon where plates, knives, domestic accidents, pregnancy and the everyday took on new meanings like never before. In contrast to the dominant literary practice of white, male, heteronormative experiences that saw female bodily and emotional experiences castigated and eschewed, Plath tore down the stifling walls of patriarchy and insisted that distinctly female realms are a space worthy of poetry.

I am no drudge

Though for years I have eaten dust

And dried plates with my dense hair.

And seen my strangeness evaporate,

Blue dew from dangerous skin.

(‘Stings’, Sylvia Plath)


In this time period, Plath wrote on every scrap of paper she owned – front and back. She reclaimed the words that had been so defined by patriarchy and remade them anew: no longer governed by such oppressive rules and regulations. The achievement of the poems Plath wrote in autumn 1962 is undeniable. But it cannot be said that well-known poems like ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’ represent the pinnacle of her literary accomplishments. Susan Sontag has remarked, ‘whatever goal is set for art eventually becomes restrictive, matched against the widest goals of consciousness… older artistic goals are assailed and, ostensibly, replaced; outworn maps of consciousness are redrawn’.

And certainly Plath’s battle with language lasted long after the creative fire of autumn 1962 quelled. The gnawing restrictions of text reared its head once more. Despite Plath’s best efforts to inject new meaning to words that have been so defined by the white male literary history, with poems such as ‘Brasilia’, there is a sense that Plath’s re-imagination of textual definitions and meanings had lost some of its power and that by late 1962, she was once again exhausted and stifled by the limitations of words.

 

(First edition of ‘Ariel’, 1965)
(First edition of ‘Ariel’, 1965)

 

At around this time, Plath decided that Ariel was a completed book. By mid-December 1962 she wrote to her life-long mentor Olive Higgins-Prouty telling her she had begun work on a new collection. This little-known fact provides a stark contrast to the copies of Ariel that sit in bookshops around the world today. Indeed, Ariel, as we know it is a book that has been edited and restructured to combine Plath’s 1962 work with her new vision of poems written in early 1963. Knowing this gives the poems Plath wrote in 1963 a different complexion and suggests that Plath’s ‘final’ poems were in fact the opposite – a new creative burst.

Following the dissolution of her marriage, Plath left the rural isolation of North Tawton and moved back to London in December 1962. Here, she adopted an altogether different approach not only to her writing but the aesthetics of her existence. Her London flat was minimally decorated. She curated a ‘spartan-like’ interior with white walls, white floorboards, no curtains and very few decorations bar children’s toys, her books and a poor box stolen from her neighbouring church in North Tawton.

It was in this flat, alone, in the bitter first months of 1963 that Plath cultivated a practice of poetic language that was unencumbered by the patriarchal restrictions of text and the English language. Plath evolved from writing the explosive, exclamation-filled pieces of Ariel to culling and removing words, rendering her poems as wordless as possible. She moved her poetic practice away from text, and instead spoke in silence, nothingness and blank spaces.

Many writers, artists and composers in the mid-twentieth century sought a similar escape from the oppressions of the English language and text. The events of the Second World War asked serious questions about the capabilities of text and language given how difficult it was to accurately convey the horrors of war and the postmodern human condition in poetry, music or art.

For female-identified writers, the sturdy rigid words handed down by man’s speech, in books and artwork were no longer enough. Silence, nothingness and blank spaces provided a powerful option where the authority of old ways of speaking and writing could be challenged.

As contemporary American poet Jorie Graham comments, for women writers, ‘…twisted syntax, breaks against smooth sequence or sense, line breaks of queer kinds, white spaces, interruptions, dashes’ in poetry ‘are all tools for storming the walls’. Accordingly, mid-century writers like Plath chose to make ‘an art of silence’ and attempted to forge a language unrestricted by patriarchy and old literary traditions to illuminate their bodily and emotional experiences.

 

(St. Peter’s Church, North Tawton, where Plath took the ‘Poor Box’ from in 1962)
(St. Peter’s Church, North Tawton, where Plath took the ‘Poor Box’ from in 1962)

 

A key example of Plath’s move towards silence is seen in her poem, ‘The Eavesdropper’, which she began writing on 15th October 1962. Plath generally brought every piece of writing she worked on to completion and when she came back to ‘Eavesdropper’ in her London flat on New Year’s Eve of that year, she cut the entire piece. Plath removed at least half of the words from her initial drafts and set the precedent for how the rest of her poetry would be shaped in the weeks thereafter.

All of Plath’s subsequent poems were edited down and broken into small fragments where words were left exposed to blank spaces. These poems emphasise that we must pay attention to what is being ‘written’ in the silent spaces, pauses and line-breaks that surround text.

French feminist theorist Héléne Cixous has observed women’s writing as ‘white ink’. When written on a white page, white ink is invisible. But the writing does exist and has presence – it is traceable to the touch of a body. The white ink of female emotional and bodily expression cannot be read through traditional literary structures where patriarchal characteristics are exalted. But when reconceived by values that are not characterised by existing patriarchal structures, we are able to see, read and feel white ink. For example, with the ongoing evaporation of text in ‘The Munich Mannequins’, silence ruptures the ‘oppressor’s language’ and articulates emotions and bodily expression felt only through intangible pulses of meaning.

Glittering

Glittering and digesting

Voicelessness. The snow has no voice.

(‘The Munich Mannequins, Sylvia Plath)

It is in ‘Edge’, Plath’s final poem, where her systematic cutting down of words and prioritisation of silence space is best demonstrated. The changing of titles, from the original ‘Nuns in Snow’ (scribbled out on previous drafts), to ‘The Edge’ and finally ‘Edge’ illustrate Plath narrowing down the frame of her poem. She removes irrelevant words and entire verses are deleted, so that descriptions are as bare and minimal as possible. By lessening her narrative to the smallest possible role, Plath’s poetry enters a new realm of expression where silence transcends the shackles of text and reverberates multitudes of different meanings to the reader.

 

(Plath’s obituary in the Observer Weekend Review, by Al Alvarez, 1963)
(Plath’s obituary in the Observer Weekend Review, by Al Alvarez, 1963)

The radical overhaul of silence as a space of empowerment and its use as a form of language meant that communicating about women, women’s bodies and female-identified experiences was not such an impossible feat anymore. As Plath alludes to in ‘Edge’, a war in the battle to write and speak freely in a language ungoverned by patriarchy had been won.

Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:

We have come so far, it is over.

(‘Edge’, Sylvia Plath)

This poetic breakthrough matters today because women of all identity intersections still struggle to have their voices heard to varying degrees in a language and literary community unfriendly to disruption of the patriarchal power structures in English language and literature. The application of silence as a language introduced new possibilities for expression, as Plath’s allusion to the ‘crackle’ of radio signal in the final lines of ‘Edge’ signifies. Plath was willing to venture into this crackling realm ungoverned by structures and traditions and continue down a path of experimentation, away from speech.

However, Sylvia Plath died six days after she wrote ‘Edge’, alone in a foreign country, in a cruel winter, having been prescribed medication that had previously had a detrimental impact upon her health.

Suicide has been defined as ‘the ultimate silence’ and many critics suggest that Plath sought this silence out. That she stared too long into the abyss and it stared back. However, this interpretation is incongruent to what Plath worked hard to achieve in her poetry. She found freedom and empowerment when ridding her poems of words. In silence, without restriction, Plath lived.

Maeve O’Brien is completing a doctoral thesis at the University of Ulster, reading silence in the work of Sylvia Plath. She has also published academic work in Plath Profiles and The Ted Hughes Society Journal, amongst others and serves as board member and social media coordinator for the Sibéal Feminist and Gender Studies Network. She blogs at The Plath Diaries and tweets at @ThePlathDiaries.

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2 thoughts on “Maeve O’Brien: Sylvia Plath and the Language of Oppression

  1. Many thanks to Maeve O’Brien for this fine article on Sylvia Plath. The article serves as an excellent introduction to some of the basic assertions behind feminist literature in the late twentieth century, as well as Sylvia Plath’s place in pre-second wave feminist literature.

    I found especially useful O’Brien’s description of the evolution of Plath’s technique through her entire literary output, an evolution that, according to O’Brien, actually included two distinct period’s of writer’s block, one in late 1957 through 1958, and then a second one in late 1962, occurring after many of the poems included in “Ariel” were written.

    Surprisingly, O’Brien maintains that Plath experienced a new “creative burst” after this second period of creative occlusion, in part because she had separated from her husband Ted Hughes and moved to London with her two children, but also because Plath chose to adopt a more austere approach to both her life and her art, an approach that provided her with a “poetic language that was unencumbered by patriarchal restrictions of text and English language,” according to O’Brien. This austere new poetic language may be seen in Plath’s final poems, such as “The Eavesdropper” and her final poem “Edge”, finished only six days prior to her death.

    Perhaps the most surprising assertion in this interesting article is that Plath’s death in February, 1963, was precipitated by the prescription of medication known to be detrimental to Plath, rather than any demons that may have been haunting her, and O’Brien intimates that this assertion demands a fresh rereading of much of Plath’s final work.

    Thanks again for this well-written and provocative article.

    Like

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