Jun 7, 2011

Sylvia Plath's "Mirror." William Logan and Sharon Olds, continued

I'm not ready to leave the issues and questions I've tried to stimulate in the previous two posts about William Logan, Frieda Hughes and Sharon Olds.  However, my mysterious attraction to my own photo of a fish, along with the humorous comment about it from Pasadena Adjacent at my last post,  have recalled for me a poem by Sylvia Plath.

Since Sharon Olds is sometimes discussed as Plath's psychic daughter, and Frieda Hughes is Plath's actual daughter, and William Logan writes about them all, and I write about William Logan writing about them all, a practice that William Logan has mockingly called Theory . . . well, all the stars seem in alignment for us to consider the three luminaries: William Logan, Sharon Olds, and now Sylvia Plath.

Here is "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath:  'Mirror' by Sylvia Plath

First, I'm interested in my own acceptance of Plath's bold, explicit, perhaps self-indulgent switch in speakers to open the second stanza (or verse paragraph): "Now I am a lake." Part of me wants to reply, "Really. You get to be what you want, when you want. Well, I'm an avalanche, baby, and I just crashed some boulders into your lake, just cluttered you up, just obliterated your arrogant damned lake."

Does she get to do that, simply change horses in midstream because she feels like it and then she can shout it from the rooftops? Doesn't that break some important rule? Is she thumbing her nose at old stuffed shirts, telling them (us? me?) to stuff it if we can't loosen up, can't take a joke? But this is no joke, is it? This is aging, this is shriveling, flesh-gone-to-scales mortality, isn't it?

I feel as if Plath has seized something of mine, and I've said that's okay, boss, go ahead, you can have it. Maybe I didn't want it anyway, though I wasn't sure yet. But go ahead, take it. It was only my cornucopia, my horn of plenty of male logic. It wasn't doing me much good, and your mood, or your mysterious . . . strategy . . .  is surely more important.

Secondly, I'm intrigued by the power of the poem's closing: "rises toward her . . .  like a terrible fish." Sometimes I have images, or personifying glimpses, of old age that are not unlike terrible fish. Yet I'd never have pinned them down and thought, "Oh, yeah, terrible fish, that's exactly what I saw-felt-imagined."  My images had nothing to do with fish, yet I'm perfectly satisfied with Plath's decision that a fish is what she and I both saw in the mirror.

Finally, I am thoroughly satisfied with her vague adjective, "terrible." Why?  Usually I'd ask for something more precise to describe the poem's most dominant image, the fish; but "terrible" seems not just acceptable, but perfect. Maybe it's because I don't usually think of fish as terrible; or maybe something more individualizing about this fish would distract and separate me from the real issue and its creator, while a "terrible" fish, rising at me, feels like just the right transmogrification to capture the universal insult of aging. From flesh to scales in the stroke of a pen. Or tick of a clock.

I wonder if William Logan would say that Plath has managed to capture an unflattering portrait of the human body without resorting to the peep show tactics he attributes to Sharon Olds.  I sure think such wondering is important fun, like a seventh grade dance, where we're all fools, and, whether we dance or stand against the wall with our hands folded, we're glad to be there. But don't tell a soul.

'Mirror' by Sylvia Plath



Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm in a bad mood because I'm battling a raccoon in the basement. The score is 1-1.

Plath irritates me, but so does the raccoon. So after I win the battle, I'll take a cup of something and read your piece with all the attention it deserves.

Until then, you're my dugout. Ok, once more into the breach.

Banjo52 said...

Had a raccoon mom and her litter in the garage rafters a few summers ago. That's not as bad as basement of course, but pretty smelly, and it took the professionals two attempts to get 'em out, after I failed. No poet can stand up to that, maybe. I try to keep the dugout air conditioned.

Jeff M said...

Soak a few rags in ammonia and hang them in the basement. The raccoon will leave from whence it came.

Anonymous said...

I just read Jeff's first line and thought it was a commentary on Plath.

Thanks Jeff, I'll try anything except an exterminator.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Can't a lake be the metaphor for the mirror? Or are you pulling my leg?

Maybe you should offer a blog post on "Now I am...". We could all chime in on what we would now be: a Grand Torino - no, wait, a snowy egret, - no wait, a pine tree. Take our answers and write a poem out of them. Or a haiku. Are you ever going to discuss haikus? I have a killer one for you, one I have been saving.

My 29 year old niece asked me who Sylvia Plath was. She never had to read the Bell Jar in high school (she didn't have to read Great Expectations, The Scarlett Letter, 1984, or Animal Farm, either. What is this world coming to?). Sylvia Plath... Sharon Olds. Hmmm.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

When I was doing the bee mural, a friend of mine presented me with Plath's bee poetry. I love the line "I have simply ordered a box of maniacs."

I was never assigned the Bell Jar. Since I was always in the idiot classes, teachers made it a point to assign us what I refer to as juvy lit. The Outsider, Rumble Fish, The Pigman and 1984 (at least four times). Bell Jar was a choice. I suppose part of my taste can be attributed to the "personal is political" school of thought. It was a counter balance to all the anti craft theory based education that informed the work of successful artist' and leading art schools. For that reason I will always like the Old's, Bukowskis and Mary Kerrs (although I can't seem to get through her latest memoir Lit which is about her redemption). I'm not afraid of the dark. I seem to welcome it.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

oh yeah, nice fish

Banjo52 said...

AH, LOL. Right on the money.

Brenda, yes, I think the lake is a second kind of mirror (one which contains a terrible fish!). It’s the abruptness of Plath’s switching to the lake that always surprises me. But surprise can be a good thing, and like this one more than I don’t. At least it’s clear and she’s not playing riddle games with us, the way so many poets do.

I’m interested in your idea for an additional blog post. Notice that I have a permanent turtle photo . . . and some other ones recently.

And yes, haiku will have its day. (Though it’s not a form that’s elicited a lot of successful responses from me, I’m afraid).

Brenda and PA, I wonder if we all worry too much about what the kids are reading. We can’t cover it ALL in high school or even college, so I think the trick is to offer titles that are likely to interest them when they’re alone and provoke memorable group discussions, both in and out of school. I’ve sat through too many meetings where teachers, un-tranquilized, weep, moan, and shout that the children are going to sleepwalk to the cemetery, fall into an open grave, and sink straight to Hell if they don’t read __________ or if they do read ___________. I say calm down and offer what will stimulate most. If they don’t get to Milton or Plath (what a combo!), they and their souls WILL survive.

PA, I can go with you on Plath, Olds, and Kerr (the poetry at least), but sorry about Bukowski. I know he’s got a large, enthusiastic following, but I haven’t been able to join it. Gave him another look (yes—brief and superficial, but my several-eth look) a few months ago, and sorry, but can’t do it. Mostly I hear barrels of self-love pretending to be self-loathing, plus a plethora of shock value. But I do agree that we can get so far into theory about art and literature that we slight the primary source. On the other hand, I’m thoroughly enjoying my reading of theory lately. Maybe in later years one has a better sense of how much to value it, plus a clearer sense of what one’s own theories are?

I think Steinhem’s “Everything political is personal” and its reverse (which way was her original?) is one of the most valuable things ever uttered—that is, as I construe it, which may or may not agree with her intent. Why is America not talking more about that idea?

PA, the fish thanks you.

Jeff M said...

Bukowski! Better than The Bard --- hands down.

Jeff M said...

Bukowski! Better than The Bard --- hands down.

Banjo52 said...

Now, Jeffrey, let's not be extreme . . .

Banjo52 said...

P.S. To all, the number of my typos, at least in visitor comments, troubles me. Enough to be more careful? Maybe not. Bukowski would welcome them . . . :)

Jeff M said...

It's true, I'm afraid. Can you read The Bard after a few drinks?

Jeff M said...

And Bukowski rarely mispelled his words, by the way. You're thinking of that twit E.E. Cummings

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Listen to Jeff M

Banjo52 said...

No fair tag teams!

Anonymous said...

"I have looked at it so long / I think it is a part of my heart." This line, coming from the mirror itself, is one of my favorite lines of Plath, ever.

The mirror confuses a wall with its heart. I love the idea of a mirror worrying about losing its own essence because of what it has reflected for so long.

Banjo52 said...

somewords, no argument here. To offer that my self is a confusion (conflation?) of mirror, heart and wall . . . ! That takes guts, and it's probably a good insight from any of us.

I wonder if Logan and Olds have found any walls within their hearts.

Narcissism and self-pity are probably two of the risks Plath takes repeatedly, bringing criticism upon herself (or was all of the criticism posthumous?). I challenge those who snarkily challenge Plath: how about we all reveal to the public what we see in ourselves in our most honest, naked moments.

Might that lead to world peace?

Lovers' Lane