As Rosenthal points out, “many of the motifs and developments” present in a “confessional” poem include:
...the alienation of sensibility by modern war and the technological displacement of human values, and the directions of [Anglo-American] poetry, particularly the Romantic and primitivist criticism of these tendencies, the emphasis on the individual as their victim, and the deliberate brutality of the speaking voice at the end to reinforce the impression of utter vulnerability. The fragmentation of the long poem is an aspect of alienation...
This ‘modernist’ tendency is also to be found in the Western novel too, at least since Balzac, but definitely and emphatically in the development of the “new” (naturalist?) novel with Flaubert and Zola (those novelists of the period following the failure of the 1848 “revolution”, aka the Second French Revolution).
The ‘new’ ‘confessional’ poem, however, has a “tangled” history, dating back to at least the Romantics. As Rosenthal observes again, “first,...the point of view that modern poetry expresses toward life in general is that of Romantic aestheticism”. Here ”The self seeks to discover itself through the energy of its insights into reality and through the sensuous excitement generated in it by its experience of reality. Since what is seen or experienced may prove utterly bleak, the poetry is a constant struggle to assert the encompassing validity of the feeling personality in the face of depressing realizations”.
The crucial figure in transition is, for Rosenthal, Yeats. Although Ezra Pound’s battle-cry “Make It New”, is the rallying point for, especially twentieth-century American poetry, to storm the barricades, Rosenthal fittingly looks for a Tradition of the New (the phrase is Harold Rosenberg’s) rather than for something “original”, “disruptive” or “rapturous”/ “scandalous”.
“Secondly”, Rosenthal argues, “[Anglo-American] poetry of political and cultural criticism centers on the individual as the victim.”
“Thirdly”, Rosenthal adds, “the private life of the poet himself, especially under stress of psychological crisis, becomes a major theme”. Moreover, “Often it is felt at the same time as a symbolic embodiment of national and cultural crisis. Hence the idea of [Anglo-American] poetry can be at once private and public, lyrical and rhetorical. Again, the continuing power of the Romantic tradition is clear, the specifically modern turn being the strongly confessional, literally self-exposing vulnerability characteristic of the statement. Sexual candor, frankness about family life, and confession of private humiliations of varying psychological kinds are not the only kinds of expression that vulnerability entails”.
Taking off from the “modernists” like Pound and T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, in Life Studies, “brought his private humiliations, sufferings and psychological problems” to bear upon “sexual guilt, alcoholism, repeated confinement in a mental hospital (and some suggestion that the malady has its violent phase)”. Thus Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” and Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” were true examples (as opposed to the “false” examples, resulting in the eccentric or the unusual poem in which “the nightmare is not so much described in detail but it is remembered as a specific experience that would surely prove significant if the speaker were ‘laid upon a couch’ and psychoanalysed”) of the ‘confessional’ poem. These two poems are also “superbly successful artistically” in their achieved “fusion of the private and the culturally symbolic”.
‘Confessional’ poetry, then, is not at all about an unvarnished expression for expression’s sake or for the sake of “disburdening” oneself of a private discomfort. It has to be (as Eliot had said about vers libre) even more aware of the imperatives of formal shaping and architectonics than an ordinary poem. In Life Studies, Lowell had worked his way toward sequentiality and evolving form; except, perhaps, in Poem for a Birthday, Plath, like Anne Sexton, wrote “occasional” poems rather than a “sequential” one. At her best, however, Plath is in control (through form and shape) of her materials, which are never allowed to get out of hand as mere “natural” self-expression.
In the opening pages of The Bell Jar, and especially in “Lady Lazarus”, “Daddy”, but also in “Tullips”, “Ariel”, “Cut”, “Fever 103°” and even “Morning Song”, Plath shows how even the thematic of “dying” can be “an art”, and not merely a “turning loose of emotion” (T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”). Plath artistically succeeds in her best poems in an endeavour to “achieve the balance of contrasted emotion”, a “new” “art-emotion”. In such ways does Rosenthal relate Plath to an ever-widening tradition—going back to T.S. Eliot and through him, to the Jacobeans like Cyril Tourneur and, ultimately, to the daddy of them all, Shakespeare. The problem, for Lowell in Life Studies, and Plath in her best poems, is to “saturate” a work with “a sense of objective reality while making it something more than merely a self-analytical case history”.
Thus, in “Lady Lazarus”, there is, a “slow release of energy” (i.e., “something more than” merely “private notations”) following:
...the self-mocking “I’ve done it again with which the poem begins, builds upon a rocking movement that becomes more powerful as the poem proceeds. At the beginning the speaker is not only mocking but describing herself literally. At the end, having pushed into the depths of her hatred of the whole matrix of family, cannibalistic erotic love and society that she is symbolically destroying by destroying herself, she promises herself a rebirth. The rebirth is couched as a threat: she will rise in her dramatic fury from the grave, she is a witch who ‘eats men’.
Of course, “Lady Lazarus”, “like many of the other poems of the volume Ariel (1965),
...is written out of a strange kind of terror, the calm centre of hysteria, the triumphant surge of affirmative projection that comes with a clear perception of despair by an energetically creative spirit”.
Rosenthal is in agreement with his friend Alfred Alvarez here: what distinguishes “Lady Lazarus” is “the objectivity with which [Plath] handles such personal material”.
However, it may be suggested here that the “split” or “divided self, the schizophrenic herself, ensures ambivalence of meaning and positions in poems like “Lady Lazarus”, “Daddy”, “Fever 103°”, “Cut”, “Ariel” and so on. It is the psychic mobility and energy of the speakers in “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” which makes these two poems perhaps Plath’s best.
In this context, “the poem is the thing”, the achieved fusion and wholeness of the “art-work”, the poem, providing what Robert Frost has elsewhere called, “a momentary stay against confusion.” Life may be chaotic, but art is, has to be, ordered, formed, realized and achieved. The merely “private” or “subjective” is significant as a poetic subject only when its iteration is also successfully, assimilated to the “culturally symbolic”, i.e., made unitary, integrative and totalized. Whatever cannot be contained within the art-form or art-emotion is to be eschewed, “trashed”, discarded or thrown on “ash heaps”. There is at work, here, “the dream of totalization, of poetic closure”. However as with Herman Melville, Sylvia Plath’s “worrying over the ‘father’, as it is inscribed in the genealogical and representational metaphor and the question of original writing [a clean break or rupture with the past] “is” radical, “genealogically”.
In tying Plath to the Lowell of Life Studies and then retrospecting to Pound, Eliot, Yeats to the Romantics, Rosenthal, for one, affiliates her to a predominantly “male” tradition, and perhaps “recuperates” her poetry to a quest for order and meaning, assimilates meaning to “tradition”.
The “Confessional poem”, then, may never be merely autobiographical. Every time Plath writes about her father and his tragic, premature death—in, for instance, “Electra in Azalea Plath”, “The Colossus”, “Full Fathom Five”, “All the Dead Dears” (at least by implication if not directly). “Little Fugue”, “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy”—she explores a relationship (of necessity, mostly one-sided and celebrated in the writing), the one with her dead father, from a new angle or perspective. In “Electra...”, the speaker, ambivalently, is “your, hound bitch, daughter, friend”, in “The Colossus”, the speaker is engaged in the task of “reconstructing” a dead father, in “Little Fugue”, the father’s premature death casts a long shadow over the daughter, who is herself now a parent, a shadow that falls across her endeavours to “arrange her mo(u)rning”, in “Full Fathom Five”, the ‘drowned’ father is seen as a ‘danger’ to the living daughter, and in “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”, the shadow of the father (shadow, not merely in the figurative but also in the Jungian sense) casts its ‘darkness’ over the daughter, who now emphasises the “Prussian” (‘Little Fugue’), or ‘German’, cast of the well-drilled and disciplined (i.e., “stiff’) father’s personality. A scientist father now easily shades off into “Herr Doktor”, “Herr Lucifer” (“Lady Lazarus”) or into a “Nazi” “commandant” in “Lady Lazarus” and academician in “Daddy”; he is, retrospectively, a vampire—Dracula—who has battened on the “blood” (guilt-feelings) of the family, predominantly, the daughter. He is identified, in these last poems—with phallocentrism (his “German” stiffness, imagined, in “The Colossus” as statuesque, “lifeless”), with logocentricism (his “German tongue” that “stuck” in the “Jew” (by choice) daughter’s “jaw”), with whatever is “male, rational, linear and scientific”, death-driven and inhuman (as in “Fever 103°”), “perfect” (as in “Munich Mannequins”) as diametrically opposed to the little girl (“Cut”). As a “historian of the self’, Plath, in these poems, confirms her post-romantic “plight, the perplexity of a self forever recasting and repeating itself as text”.
Not only do Plath’s “Confessional poems” inscribe repeated circlings over and reimagining(s) of her private life (especially in her search of the “origins” of her malady—Electra complex—in the premature death of her father, Otto), recording “the plight, the perplexity of a self forever recasting and repeating itself as text”, but also, in poems like “Lady Lazarus”, particularly, and “Daddy”, her narrative centre—the “I” of these poems—is fluid and mobile, “decentred”. In “Lady Lazarus”, for instance, the speaker “assumes” (as a sort of Female Proteus) multiple subject positionings. Thus, she is, at once, a suicide in a hospital “restored” to life by the “miracles” of modern—”male”, “rational” and scientific-medical—technology, a “suicide” maven, a “freak” at a fairground show (an “exhibit”), the “melted” “golden girl” (Cf. “Mary’s Song”) who apostrophizes “Herr Lucifer”, (a commandant at a Nazi concentration camp) and a “witch”, risen, like the Phoenix, from the “grits” of the ash-heaps. “Lady Lazarus” is a “true” schizophrenic poem, a poem in which imagined and written multiple selves all speak simultaneously and multiphonally, about their (imagined and written) “rebirths” and the “vertiginous” effect—and affect—that these “renaissances” might have on various audiences. Plath, in these poems, is not merely a modern-day, “Lady Godiva”, “exposing”, in public, her sense of injustice, grievance and also a resulting vindictiveness; she is also a “Lady Lazarus”, or the speaker in “Daddy”—people who might have an unsettling effect on the presumed “order” (male-dominated) that gives purchase to “dead hands dead stringencies” (“Ariel”). In a way, Plath’s later women protagonists “die” into their respective “her-stories”. Thus, for instance, in “Ariel”, the speaker, leaving “dead hands, dead stringencies” behind her, melts (like the “child’s cry” or the “melted down” Jews in the concentration camps, imagined as sacrificed lamb in “Mary’s Song”) into the “red” sky of the dawn (an image that perhaps partly owes its inspiration to Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’).
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
The “red...Eye” here, as an image, readily “melts into” the image of the prying, aggressive “male gaze” of the spectators at a fairground in “Lady Lazarus”.
Again, in “Daddy”, the speaker has virtually chosen “suicide” by choosing the “black man”, a life-thwarting—and denying—Dracula as a “replica” of her long-dead father. Perhaps, the “focus” in “Daddy” shifts—is “decentred”—from the girl to the (Transylvanian? American? English?) villagers who, having participated in “killing” the totem-like “Daddy”, now stomp and dance over the “dead” in a “healthy” exercise that returns “dust to dust” and “finally”, irrevocably, “kills”, at least in the writing, “Daddy”, thereby releasing both “father” and “daughter” from a “deadly” obligation.
In “Cut”, too, the speaker imagines herself as haemorrhaging (both physically and culturally) to “death”, a matter that calls for a “celebration”. In “Cut”, the “little homonculus” is not, a “homonculus” but a gyno—”thing” and Plath, in the poem, foregrounds this aspect, the female “genitals” as if to problematize a key theory of the “father” of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who had suggested that, in the Oedipus/Castration Complex, “Only the male genitals play a part in it [the theory], and the female ones remain undiscovered. In, Freud’s theory “the female genitals exist as the opaque reality which Freud’s theory [the Oedipus/ Castration Complex] must convert into a symbolic lack or absence in order clearly to maintain its own unity and coherence as theory”. Small wonder, then, that the Secretary in Three Women reflects:
Restless and useless, I, too, create corpses.
... ...I feel a lack.
In Plath’s poetry, “everything is a symptom of the same holocaust”. Death is everywhere, even in writing, and the possibilities of “dying” making it into a “perfected” “art” work endless, infinite.
As Derrida points out, this is the fate of Autobiography anyway. Derrida redefines autobiography as “thanatography” (writing death), a writing not of a living but dead author:
In calling or naming someone while he is still alive, we know that his name can survive him, and already survives him; the name begins during his life to get along without him, speaking and bearing his death each time it is inscribed in a list, or a civil registry, or a signature.
To rewrite Hegel, “The Birth of the Text” may be the “Death of the Author”. For, as Sylvia Plath herself recognised in her poem “Words”, writing itself is an ongoing, never-ending process of scission or self-division: The “intention” of the writer (speaker) is always already “othering” itself for reception in the ear of the reader (listener) and, further, writing always presupposes that a separation from the body (of the one who has written) has always already occurred:
After whose stroke the wood rings,
The indefatigable hoof-taps...
Perhaps the “border” between life and work can never be crossed or transgressed, there is nothing outside the text, and the text is an endless process of self-division. Perhaps there can never be a truly “confessional poetry” but only “circumfessional”. The “fixed stars” only “Govern a life”, not the writing, which has a life of its own, in the ear of the other, that is to say, a reader/listener. Sylvia Plath may have been wrong when she wrote, “The blood jet is poetry”. Derrida, too, tries to image an impossible writing that might include blood but that is an impossible chimera. For there is just “nothing outside the text”.
In “Among the Narcissi”, there appears to be an attempt to re-write the Oedipal drama in a “natural”, as opposed to “cultural”, context. The idealised father-figure, Percy, in “Among the Narcissi”, is “recuperating”, recovering “health”, at the age of eighty, four-score. (In an uncanny way, Percy here recalls Shakespeare’s King Lear). The displacement, in this poem, of the “cultural” to the (written as something “outside” culture) “natural” is a strategy—a tactic to return the poem to the Romantic (perhaps Unproblematic) Wordsworthian situation which is “recuperative” and “natural”. The “natural” relationship established in the poem between the convalescing octogenarian (Ottogenarian?) and the “star-like”, bright-faced flowers is, by its very nature, short-lived, evanescent. Besides a “caring” relationship is “cultural” rather than a “natural”: one is taught to care within culture. Finally, “narcissi” recalls Narcissus, the ultimate solipsist.