Plath & Sexton Lecture

It's conventional to cite Lowell's direct influence on Sylvia Plath & Anne Sexton, both of whom were his students in the poetry writing class he mentions "teaching on Tuesdays" at the start of "Memories of West Street." Lowell's name is almost as large as theirs on the covers of their books, where his prose defines the context for their poetry. But that's not fair to either woman. As I know, teachers often learn a lot from their students. It may be that both Plath's & Sexton's names should be on the cover of Life Studies.

I was hoping, in fact, to learn from the students today. I began with a confession of my own, about how inadequate I am as a critic of these extremely honest, anguished confessional poets. They make me nostalgic for that village blacksmith Longfellow celebrated as a common hero back in the 1840s, who has experienced loss and pain, but keeps pounding away at his anvil, trying to be socially productive. On the other hand, for a lot of contemporary readers, Sexton and (especially) Plath have a kind of mythic status -- the powerful dark emotions expressed in their poems and the fact that both committed suicide make their lives and work seem somehow exemplary of our time, with its severely diminished expectations and its skepticisms about socially sanctioned experience.

I tried to get at least part way into their poems by comparing them to Dickinson, who also made her own emotional life the occasion for her art. I tried to make two distinctions. First, Dickinson deliberately withholds the biographical facts behind her poems -- "It was not death," for example, but she doesn't say specifically what "it" was. Part of the power of contemporary confessional poetry, however, is the sense it has of really exposing the most conventionally private parts of the poets' lives -- addictions, infidelities, and so on. I also contrasted the way Dickinson seems to be writing to interpret or understand her feelings, to transform emotional experience into meaning, whereas I think part of the power of Plath's and Sexton's poems is the sense that they can only express, they can't exorcise or transcend, the anguish that is their emotional occasion. Realizing how uncomfortable I am with their work made me realize that one reason I've spent my life with literature -- i.e. at that one aesthetic remove from life -- is that I count on art, and the way it displays the capacities of the human imagination, the creative will, to represent a kind of defense against the utter pain that life can inflict. The fact that Plath and Sexton both took their own lives, because they could not otherwise escape that pain, seems almost one of their credentials as poets of modern experience.

There is no denying their cultural significance. For example, I've been in a number of homes where just about the only volume of poetry on the bookshelf was Ariel; you could, in fact, make a good case that it, not Howl or Life Studies, is the "single most important book of poetry published in America since World War II." So with that in mind, I asked the class why you thought our time was so attracted to these poets. There were some really helpful answers, stressing the authenticity of the poems, their accessibility, their self-consciousness about "performing" the self for an audience held captive by their power -- what Plath calls "the big strip tease" in "Lady Lazarus."

We also listened to Plath reading "Daddy" -- and ending by listening to Sexton read "Rowing," i.e. we ended "still rowing."


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