Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sylvia Plath's "I Am Vertical"

As an experiment I have opened to a random page in Sylvia Plath's The Collected Poems (New York: Harper's and Row, 1981). The volume encompasses four collections of poetry: The Colossus, Ariel, Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees (all copyright dates 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981). She died in 1963 at the age of 30. Four of the poems in the collection originally appeared in The American Poetry Review and four in The New York Times Book Review. I opened randomly to page 162, poem numbered 143: "I Am Vertical" (28 March 1961):

I Am Vertical

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam a new leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one's longevity and the other's daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them --
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

Two ten-line stanzas, pentameter couplets in the first stanza, mostly longer couplet lines in the second. If someone knows how to describe this metrically, or Plath's formalism, please do.

[Tiel Aisha Ansari writes, "If I had to describe this poem in formal terms, I think I'd say it's made up of two ten-line stanzas of unmetered slant-rhyme (very slant) couplets. There's a distinctive rhythm there but it doesn't answer to any metrical description."]

I wanted to see by way of this experiment, what I'd find in a randomly chosen poem. "Strewing" is the precise word. As I see it, it is a stirring but quiet nature poem that premeditates a passing -- or (past-)blooming -- death.

Here is a poem I wrote while consciously studying Plath in 1985 or 1986. I was 23 or 24 and working at a veterinary clinic after college. I remember working very hard on the poem while not approving of myself for cutting after her pattern.

Portrait of a House Guest

They stuck her there in the spare
dank corner, sheets like hers
spread out: folding roses,
winter daisies, yellow red

learned flower forms. Her
pale hair has wings,
independent movement, she has
Saturn eyes, Italian.

Reading under leafless trees
after a day grown fatter
they find her red, grazing
wool scarf. Like ashes

she catches them, stutters,
(it's part of her art),
"Let's cook when we're ready."
They never leave her,

the pale trusted nose,
but she's turning
like hookworm or maple leaf
wrinkled, trammeled, gold.

If something were suddenly to happen to end my life, and if someone going through my files put her or his hand randomly on this poem, I would (in my absence) feel reasonably at ease. The poem doesn't represent my writing 23 years later, but it represents my poetry then. There's no note to explain that I was studying Plath in the poem. What I have are letters -- sent and unsent -- not a diary. That I was studying Plath is not something I would have written to anyone then, but something my manfriend could see me doing at the (horizontal) door we used for a table. He might not recall it but like most readers recall the biography.

I avoided her biography in the sense that I was afraid to marry and have children, though I wanted to. I deliberately set out to have a career in teaching cw, based on my familiarity with another famous younger writer (not suicidal, socially or actually) who had done that.

That I felt uncomfortable patterning my work after Sylvia Plath's or other women writers' work as I later felt and continued to feel and to dodge them while reserving affection for their writing suggests their influence in a wider way. Is it a sign that a writer is "major" to wish to stay out of her path? As if being influenced by her were a proof of her magnitude. As if being influenced were in some way a show of the one's originality and the other's lack of it. There may be, even then, a depth to the reading that perceives originality.

Plath's novel The Bell Jar and her Journals further extend her body of work -- the journals alone seem "major."

[This entry is a reply to Annie Finch's query on the Women's Poetry Listserv. re: Sylvia Plath's standing as a "major" poet then under discussion at Harriet Blog.  Christine Hamm plans to include this essay in an anthology about Plath's poetry not centered on her suicide.  Slightly revised version appears at Fictionaut.]

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Elsewhere on the web for March 2009

onedit issue 12, ed. Tim Atkins: three poems

Mike's Writing Workshop & Newsletter, ed. Michael Geffner: Cut It Up and Go Home, writing tips

The Cartier Street Review, ed. Bernard Alain: featured site chapbook

Big Bridge, ed. Michael Rothenberg and Vernon Frazer (forthcoming): four short stories

Acceptance is to her a phenomenon

Why does she engage if it teaches literature agrees that living is an husband. What you were given as experience -- accident this is as you write about it. You were given blame for action as experience by cause and effect now. If you take apart blame and even forgiveness is too rigid. She thinks of that purpose as to give men sexual destiny. She believes action result of grave faults in a person’s life is not her phenomenon. Go on living each trouble born is accepting human being teaching gratification literature. She is a feminist invented at A.A. Fate is activities selected. She embodied no acceptance without A.A. She has invited to live the many of them her own, that in other such as -- specifically, her husband -- caused by the person in it. She thinks to in his environment if she were not to be pleasuring she would not be she. Or s/he your.

Rationing a portion of her brown bear sympathy for the rapist whose victim laid a trap and counterclockwise he relents at her. With brown bear's nature rubs atop her. Police would shoot him. Victims! scales nethering -- left the car or tent again. Sit inside it. She, professor, seeds joy at animal virtuosity. He wins her (almost) and never tardily.

[Sad linguistic terms for it.]

What you were caused by the person in it and effect. She in other activities such as teaching believes each she thinks going on living forgiveness is to live A.A. She has give men -- she is a feminist. Not to be she is embodied. She thinks of her grave faults invented at A.A. She believes no teaches literature given as an experience -- this is as you believes action in a person’s life is human being is to blame for action in rigid. Acceptance is a phenomenon accepting that she was born specifically, her now husband -- sexual her husband she would not be in of them her own. Why does she if it agrees that living is an accident by cause environment. If you take apart she her destiny. She believes fate is and even about it. You were given as without literature purpose that is to is the result of if she were.

Sympathy for the rapist left the house again with brown bear's nature what animal virtuosity. Wins (almost) and never tardily relents at her. Brown bear rationing a portion of her. Victims! scales nethering -- sit inside it. She, professor goes joy at whose victim laid a trap for him climbing on her professor and counterclockwise. Police would shoot him.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Journey of Man

An internet friend, Seamus, writes:

When I was 14, I hoped that one day I would have a girlfriend.

When I was 16 I got a girlfriend, but there was no passion, so I decided I needed a passionate girl with a zest for life.

In college I dated a passionate girl, but she was too emotional. Everything was an emergency; she was a drama queen, cried all the time and threatened suicide. So I decided I needed a girl with stability.

When I was 25, I found a very stable girl but she was boring. She was totally predictable and never got excited about anything. Life became so dull that I decided that I needed a girl with some excitement.

When I was 28 I found an exciting girl, but I couldn't keep up with her. She rushed from one thing to another, never settling on anything. She did mad impetuous things and made me miserable as often as happy. She was great fun initially and very energetic, but directionless. So I decided to find a girl with some real ambition.

When I turned 30, I found a smart ambitious girl with her feet planted firmly on the ground, so I married her. She was so ambitious that she divorced me and took everything I owned. I am older and wiser now, and am looking for a girl with big tits.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Citizens: a fragment

B: Write an essay about war for the checklist.
A: Did it, only it was a short story.
B: Write a poem with synecdoche.
A: I confuse it with metonymy.
B: Write a poem about the economy.
A: I did that, but it's a cut-up.
B: Write a short story about men for the gym teacher. Write a candle for the century.
A: How do I end it?
B: Write a synopsis.
A: I wrote a synopsis for the regional agent. They were unimpressed.
B: Write about sex. Write a negligee.
A: I wrote about sex. My friend wrote a negligee. Agents were unimpressed.
B: Write for your friends.
A: I lost my friends.
B: What if men are your friends?
A: Start over.
B: Forget the past.
A: Cry.
B: Die.
A: Sing.
B: A useful talent.
A: I need the past for writing purposes.
B: The moment is all.
A: For artists, not for writers.
B: Write a long joke.
A: Various items -- puddles, frogs, fog, flag stripes.
B: Term litmus.
A: Self-leadership.
B: Encourage, enlighten, and entertain.
A: Be loyal, frank, and merry.
B: Marry for love.
A: Substitute Swiss for German.
B: Buy now.
A: Do nothing.

Friday, March 20, 2009

One-word Q & A

excel? hid
hair? lighter
father? beloved
treasured? boxes
dream? book
drink? fruit
goal? partner
room? leather
fear? steady
future? land
bakery? German
wish? country
roots? Scandinavian
action? stretch
wearing? leggings
TV? off
pets? memorial
computer? HP
life? sentences
mood? glad
missing? group
car? styling
store? Target
summer? warm
color? roygbiv
laughed? morning
cried? huh?
email? writers
foods? fruits
place? Duluth
friends? meditating

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

W'assup with Edward Albee?

I have never liked it that Edward Albee's title, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" could stand in for Woolf's works themselves and even for his own. That title is all that many supposedly literate people know about her, even if they didn't read or see his play. Invoking it suggests a general audience, one not convinced of Woolf's achievement. It awakens a boyish disregard for "crazy ladies." "Madness" may define it generically, but much, much is known about manic-depression that was not known when Woolf died in 1941. In our day, m-d is treatable -- it is as if she had killed herself for having contracted TB -- something no one might need to do today. [See the fascinating article about Dr. Alice W. Flaherty in The New York Times, March 17, 2009.]

I read all of Virginia Woolf's works in college and immediately afterward before going to graduate school -- her essays, novels, short stories, letters, and diaries. I read an occasional biography. I studied Sylvia Plath's poetry in detail, too, and later her journals. I read into these works as a young woman writer but not as a writer with mental illness. I believed then that Woolf had ended her life at 59 because of air raids over London. She was a pacifist. Her age at death is important because she was not young but died at the same age as Donald Barthelme, for example, whom we regard as just slightly prematurely concluded -- and who never stopped drinking and smoking prior to having throat cancer.

While it is possible that Virginia Woolf feared institutionalization -- as many, many older people do, including people who are not writers or artists -- is there proof of it to replace my long-standing belief that she had again become morbidly ill due to war? Louise de Salvo argued that Woolf had lifelong intermittent mental illness due to sexual predation by her half-brothers when she was young. The film, Tom & Viv, suggests that V. Woolf had to do w/ the lifelong confinement of T. S. Eliot's wife, Viv. At least one researcher has suggested that Woolf killed herself to ensure her legacy when she considered her work completed, but does suicide succeed in doing that and for whom?

Early reports of David Foster Wallace's death were met with derision and foggy accounts on the internet. Then in a letter to the NYTimes his father wrote that Wallace had exhausted over decades all available treatments for his depression -- medications (with troubling side effects) and shock treatments. I realized that his early genius -- documented by his works -- could not compensate for the severity of his depressions. It needed to be understood sympathetically if possible. More recently, an article about him in The New Yorker reveals that Wallace wanted to be "drug free" after having been treated for marijuana dependency at a 12-step program. He had, in short, stopped taking medication and ended his life. He wrote in diaries and letters that he could no longer write fiction. It will be up to critics -- and he has their attention -- to evaluate his last novel. Wallace's significance and contribution as a younger-generation writer fit him into a hierarchy of important American men writers whose final values have yet to be determined -- perhaps, he, too, was hoping to sweeten his own legacy by his death.

What does "confession" have to do with it?

I've been rereading John Berryman's novel, Recovery, an amazing book, a book, like Barthelme's stories, to make a woman laugh like a man, and thinking about his legacy, especially in MN where there are many "wholesome" writers who reject his importance while emphasizing their own -- in eclipsing Berryman's position in MN and in literature they are proposing that "health" produces more important works. Believe me, most of the "wholesome" writers who reject Berryman's legacy are destined to have importance in their writing communities and in their own lives, which is not to say more. I wonder how Robert Bly views Berryman in light of these questions.

Notes toward theater with apologies ... notes toward apology with theater ... for momentarily turning on academic procedures in my previous letter -- my group see ourselves as hardworking gov't employees. Our products are not-for-profit, and the taxpayer doesn't want to pay anyone's sustenance.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On greatness

There once was a man from Rochester
whose poetry marched with a feather (1)
I'd ask the man flat
(if I still had a hat)
whose spines would be covered in leather

(1) Compete

one entry found
Main Entry:
com·pete           Listen to the pronunciation of compete
intransitive verb
Inflected Form(s):
com·pet·ed; com·pet·ing
Late Latin competere to seek together, from Latin, to come together, agree, be suitable, from com- + petere to go to, seek — more at feather
: to strive consciously or unconsciously for an objective (as position, profit, or a prize) : be in a state of rivalry <competing teams> competing for customers>