Monday, October 14, 2013

ModPo 2013 #38 The Brilliant, Burning Negative Plath: On Wilbur's "Cottage Street, 1953"

Image of Sylvia Plath reported missing in 1953 from

Richard Wilbur, "Cottage Street, 1953"

Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs. Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me.

Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or lemon, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.

It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless.

I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.

How large is her refusal; and how slight
The genteel chat whereby we recommend
Life, of a summer afternoon, despite
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.

And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and-eighty summers of
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love.

Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.

[The following note has been provided by Richard Wilbur:] "Edna Ward was Mrs. Herbert D. Ward, my wife's mother. The poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was the daughter of one of Mrs. Ward's Wellesley friends. The recollection is probably composite, but it is true in essentials."


I've always been intrigued by Sylvia Plath. I find her more interesting than Richard Wilbur! Ha! But this was a very interesting poem. This is the poem from the "successful," stable poet eyeing the damaged (but free!) poet that was Sylvia Plath.

As mentioned in the video discussion, it's hard to tell if he was putting down the resulting poems of Plath. There is that word, "free" but right beside it are two potential negatives: "helpless," and "unjust." Helpless might be the refusal to be helped. I get that. But unjust? There was a suggestion that this might imply unjustified. In my own opinion, I think freedom (with all those costs) was worth the price.

Wilbur himself says that the "refusal," the "brilliant negative" was too large, way too large for the "slight genteel chat." I might say the same for the slight and cadenced genteel poem versus the wild wailing of "Lady Lazarus."

Wilbur talks about Edna Ward's grace and courage, privileging the long (and long suffering) life over this inexplicably drowned girl who sees life as a sentence ("condemned to live"). I can imagine the same puzzlement and helplessness that anyone might have over someone who is mentally ill. But being depressed and mentally ill is different from being the writer of poems that capture the pain of that existence.

No, Richard Wilbur, "the published poet in his happiness" and the "genteel chat" and the niceties and comforts of traditional meter and rhyme will not be enough. At least not for as great and haunted a poet as Plath.

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