Wednesday, February 13, 2013
February 13, 2013: I Love Plath’s Most Personal Poem
[In honor of Valentine’s Day, this week I’ll be highlighting a handful of the many things—moments, voices, interesting little details that mean a lot—that I love about America. I’d love if it you’d share some of your loves for the heart-y weekend post!]
On the text that expresses the universal experience of new parenthood as well as any I’ve encountered—while still being clearly its unique and talented author’s handiwork.
First I have to ask you to check out a couple of past posts: this one, on the incredible challenges of parenting in general and motherhood in particular; and this one, on Sylvia Plath’s much more varied and rich body of works than we often give her credit for. I’ll understand if you skip right to the next paragraph, but I’d love for you to have a sense of both of those posts before I move forward here. Thanks!
Welcome back. Given those two posts, it’ll likely come as no surprise that the poem of Plath’s on which this post focuses, “Morning Song” (1961), is about motherhood; new motherhood, and the experience of new parenting overall, to be exact. I’ve seen critical arguments that the poem is bleak or cynical, but I don’t think that’s nearly the whole story; instead I’d argue that it captures, in its six three-line stanzas, the many different emotions and sides to new parenting, from those darkest responses (which are definitely there, especially with a first newborn, whether we like to admit it or not) to the more awed and amazed and powerfully inspired ones. To me, the poem’s best stanza, and its most Plath-ian metaphor, captures those multi-faceted responses pitch-perfectly: “I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand.” But if that doesn’t seem amazed enough, the next stanza (and these two occupy the poem’s midpoint) moves more toward those emotions: “All night your moth-breath / Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen: / A far sea moves in my ear.”
Great stuff. But in my title I called this Plath’s most personal poem—and given that this is the poet who wrote about her suicide attempts (“Lady Lazarus”) and her love-hate relationships with her dead father and estranged husband (“Daddy”), among many many many other profoundly personal topics, that might seem to be a stretch. But to my mind, those poems are personal yet performative, the confessional mode as a combination of diary and one woman show. That’s not a bad thing, but neither is it raw or intimate enough to be truly personal. Whereas in “Morning Song,” written when Plath’s first child (her daughter Frieda) was 8 months old, I believe we’re getting something far more immediate, a genuine reflection (note again that cloud-mirror metaphor) of all that Plath was experiencing and feeling in that first year as a mother. Granted, she still turned it into a dense and complex poem; but that was Plath. I love her, and I love this poem most of all.
My next American love tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Loves you’d share for the weekend post?