Poetry and the Self: A Closer Look at Identity and Confessionalism

Content Warning: suicide, stereotypes, appropriation, the Holocaust, mental illness, depression, mental health, physical abuse

Introduction


Dear Reader,


Hello & welcome to the final project of the semester for Authors II, Sexton and Plath.
Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are among some of the earliest writers of confessionalism, or confessional poetry. Confessionalism is a style of poetry that emerged in the 1950s-1960s and heavily relies on the “I” (or the personal self/identity of the writer). This style of poetry was unique to its time and their work did a lot to get the voice of women into the literary scene and heard around the world in general. Sexton’s and Plath’s poetry collections/novels are filled with deeply personal text about their selfhoods including their struggles with patriarchal expectations, motherhood, womanhood, and mental illness- specifically depression and suicide.


This paper aimed to look at poetry and the self in relation to Sexton and Plath’s works because confessionalism is so deeply intertwined with persona and the speaker. In Section One of the paper, the opening of the section will be a short commentary on Dr. Katherine McSpadden’s essay, “The Self in the Poetry of Anne Sexton”, under that will be four selected works by Anne Sexton, each poem will be paired with an analysis of use of persona in that specific work. Under Section Two, there will be another discussion of an essay by M. D. Uroff on Sylvia Plath, titled “Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration”, along with four poems paired with identity analysis. The third and final section of the paper will be an analysis and personal opinion on Charles Molesworth’s “”With Your Own Face On”: The Origins and Consequences of Confessional Poetry”. I hope you enjoy!

Table of Contents
Introduction 1
Table of Contents 2
Section One: Selected Works of Anne Sexton 3
Section Two: Selected Works of Sylvia Plath 18
Section Three: Consequences of Confessionalism 32
References 34


Section One: Selected Works of Anne Sexton
In “The Self in the Poetry of Anne Sexton” by Dr. Katherine McSpadden, Sexton’s use of persona is analyzed through her childhood self, womanhood and selfhood in Sexton’s poetry, the self in the religious quest, and the self as a poet. In chapter five of McSpadden’s work tired “The Self As Poet”, McSpadden analyzes Sexton’s use of poetry to analyze her identity:


“Sexton’s poetry is a quest for an understanding of herself, a sorting out of the conflicts among the multiple identities which she experiences, both those she has not chosen – child, woman, Protestant – and those she has – wife, mother, poet. All of these selves seem at times to be narrow and constricting, though all have the potential for opening out into a larger identity which can give her a sense of unity with other people and with nature and the larger universe” (McSpadden 137).


Sexton’s poetry reflects her many selves and most of her pieces, especially her poem “The Double Image”, deals with a combination of not one, but all of the above mentioned identities that Sexton commonly writes about. Because Sexton’s poetry is confessional, it often deals with a deeply personal identity.


Dr. McSpadden notes that Sexton uses poetry as a gift which opens her up to the possibility of using language to celebrate her many selves. To Sexton, writing poetry is how she makes sense of her many identities and roles:


“The poetic gift enables her to celebrate the selves and roles of this earthly life as complete and purposeful in themselves and, at the same time, through the power of words and the imagination, to transform them, by seeing in them a transcendent, spiritual dimension, an immanent vitality, which connects her with the world beyond the senses” (McSpadden 139).


The four Sexton poems selected below will analyze sexton’s selfhood, or personal “I”, through the context of a child, woman, spiritual, mother, and poet self, or a combination of many of these selves.


Anne Sexton, “Young”
A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling over me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother’s window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father’s window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman’s yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.


“Young”, a one stanza poem by Anne Sexton tells the story of Sexton’s childhood. The poem recounts Sexton’s experience as a young girl coming of age in her hometown while lying on the grass in the never-ending summer. Sexton writes about looking up at: “the wise stars bedding over me” (Line 8). In this state, she seems to be very curious about the world that hasn’t yet hurt her. She recalls praying to God, imaging that God could really see her, that He could hear her: “and thought God could really see / the heat and the painted light, / elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight” (20-23), these last three lines of the poem have the same tone as a nursery rhyme. I believe Sexton used this tone in “Young” to capture the essence of safety and nievate. In “Young”, Sexton’s childhood self is revealed through the lens of her older, adult woman self while looking through the doors of her memory: “A thousand doors ago” (1). Sexton reveals here that she was a lonely child with an imagination that would later turn into her writing, which would probably lead to keeping her sane for as long as possible while she was severely depressed. This poem, accurately titled “Young”, feels like a breath of fresh air and a good place to begin a focus on identity in Sexton’s myriad of darker works.


Anne Sexton, “The Fortress”
while taking a nap with Linda

Under the pink quilted covers
I hold the pulse that counts your blood.
I think the woods outdoors
are half asleep,
left over from summer
like a stack of books after a flood,
left over like those promises I never keep.
On the right, the scrub pine tree
waits like a fruit store
holding up bunches of tufted broccoli.

We watch the wind from our square bed.
I press down my index finger —
half in jest, half in dread —
on the brown mole
under your left eye, inherited
from my right cheek: a spot of danger
where a bewitched worm ate its way through our soul
in search of beauty. My child, since July
the leaves have been fed
secretly from a pool of beet-red dye.

And sometimes they are battle green
with trunks as wet as hunters’ boots,
smacked hard by the wind, clean
as oilskins. No,
the wind’s not off the ocean.
Yes, it cried in your room like a wolf
and your pony tail hurt you. That was a long time ago.
The wind rolled the tide like a dying
woman. She wouldn’t sleep,
she rolled there all night, grunting and sighing.

Darling, life is not in my hands;
life with its terrible changes
will take you, bombs or glands,
your own child at
your breast, your own house on your own land.
Outside the bittersweet turns orange.
Before she died, my mother and I picked those fat
branches, finding orange nipples
on the gray wire strands.
We weeded the forest, curing trees like cripples.

Your feet thump-thump against my back
and you whisper to yourself. Child,
what are you wishing? What pact
are you making?
What mouse runs between your eyes? What ark
can I fill for you when the world goes wild?
The woods are underwater, their weeds are shaking
in the tide; birches like zebra fish
flash by in a pack.
Child, I cannot promise that you will get your wish.

I cannot promise very much.
I give you the images I know.
Lie still with me and watch.
A pheasant moves
by like a seal, pulled through the mulch
by his thick white collar. He’s on show
like a clown. He drags a beige feather that he removed,
one time, from an old lady’s hat.
We laugh and we touch.
I promise you love. Time will not take away that.


In this poem, “The Fortress”, Sexton recounts a time she spent with her daughter, Linda, under the blankets of her bed. Sexton’s use of persona in this piece comes through as a mother sharing tender moments with her child. Sexton spends this piece using imagery to describe this specific moment, “Under the pink quilted covers” (1). In the first stanza, while teaching her daughter that the world is not in her hands: “live in not in my hands; / life with its terrible changes / will take you, bombs or glands”, the poem has a soft, dark tone. This piece speaks to Sexton’s self as a mother. Although still riddled with deeply bittersweet moments, “”The Fortress” is also full of love. One of the best moments of the poem is when Sexton writes for her daughter to: “lie still with me and watch” (53) for the “images” (49) that Sexton can share with her. Sexton ends the poem by saying that she cannot promise Linda that she will receive what she wishes for in life. Sexton writes: “We laugh and we touch. / I promise you love. Time will not take away that” (59-60).


Anne Sexton, “The Double Image”
1
I am thirty this November.
You are still small, in your fourth year.
We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer,
flapping in the winter rain,
falling flat and washed. And I remember
mostly the three autumns you did not live here.
They said I’d never get you back again.
I tell you what you’ll never really know:
all the medical hypothesis
that explained my brain will never be as true as these
struck leaves letting go.

I, who chose two times
to kill myself, had said your nickname
the mewling months when you first came;
until a fever rattled
in your throat and I moved like a pantomime
above your head. Ugly angels spoke to me. The blame,
I heard them say, was mine. They tattled
like green witches in my head, letting doom
leak like a broken faucet;
as if doom had flooded my belly and filled your bassinet,
an old debt I must assume.

Death was simpler than I’d thought.
The day life made you well and whole
I let the witches take away my guilty soul.
I pretended I was dead
until the white men pumped the poison out,
putting me armless and washed through the rigamarole
of talking boxes and the electric bed.
I laughed to see the private iron in that hotel.
Today the yellow leaves
go queer. You ask me where they go. I say today believed
in itself, or else it fell.

Today, my small child, Joyce,
love your self’s self where it lives.
There is no special God to refer to; or if there is,
why did I let you grow
in another place. You did not know my voice
when I came back to call. All the superlatives
of tomorrow’s white tree and mistletoe
will not help you know the holidays you had to miss.
The time I did not love
myself, I visited your shoveled walks; you held my glove.
There was new snow after this.

2
They sent me letters with news
of you and I made moccasins that I would never use.
When I grew well enough to tolerate
myself, I lived with my mother. Too late,
too late, to live with your mother, the witches said.
But I didn’t leave. I had my portrait
done instead.

Part way back from Bedlam
I came to my mother’s house in Gloucester,
Massachusetts. And this is how I came
to catch at her; and this is how I lost her.
I cannot forgive your suicide, my mother said.
And she never could. She had my portrait
done instead.

I lived like an angry guest,
like a partly mended thing, an outgrown child.
I remember my mother did her best.
She took me to Boston and had my hair restyled.
Your smile is like your mother’s, the artist said.
I didn’t seem to care. I had my portrait
done instead.

There was a church where I grew up
with its white cupboards where they locked us up,
row by row, like puritans or shipmates
singing together. My father passed the plate.
Too late to be forgiven now, the witches said.
I wasn’t exactly forgiven. They had my portrait
done instead.

3
All that summer sprinklers arched
over the seaside grass.
We talked of drought
while the salt-parched
field grew sweet again. To help time pass
I tried to mow the lawn
and in the morning I had my portrait done,
holding my smile in place, till it grew formal.
Once I mailed you a picture of a rabbit
and a postcard of Motif number one,
as if it were normal
to be a mother and be gone.

They hung my portrait in the chill
north light, matching
me to keep me well.
Only my mother grew ill.
She turned from me, as if death were catching,
as if death transferred,
as if my dying had eaten inside of her.
That August you were two, but I timed my days with doubt.
On the first of September she looked at me
and said I gave her cancer.
They carved her sweet hills out
and still I couldn’t answer.

4
That winter she came
part way back
from her sterile suite
of doctors, the seasick
cruise of the X-ray,
the cells’ arithmetic
gone wild. Surgery incomplete,
the fat arm, the prognosis poor, I heard
them say.

During the sea blizzards
she had her
own portrait painted.
A cave of mirror
placed on the south wall;
matching smile, matching contour.
And you resembled me; unacquainted
with my face, you wore it. But you were mine
after all.

I wintered in Boston,
childless bride,
nothing sweet to spare
with witches at my side.
I missed your babyhood,
tried a second suicide,
tried the sealed hotel a second year.
On April Fool you fooled me. We laughed and this
was good.

5
I checked out for the last time
on the first of May;
graduate of the mental cases,
with my analyst’s okay,
my complete book of rhymes,
my typewriter and my suitcases.

All that summer I learned life
back into my own
seven rooms, visited the swan boats,
the market, answered the phone,
served cocktails as a wife
should, made love among my petticoats

and August tan. And you came each
weekend. But I lie.
You seldom came. I just pretended
you, small piglet, butterfly
girl with jelly bean cheeks,
disobedient three, my splendid

stranger. And I had to learn
why I would rather
die than love, how your innocence
would hurt and how I gather
guilt like a young intern
his symptoms, his certain evidence.

That October day we went
to Gloucester the red hills
reminded me of the dry red fur fox
coat I played in as a child; stock-still
like a bear or a tent,
like a great cave laughing or a red fur fox.

We drove past the hatchery,
the hut that sells bait,
past Pigeon Cove, past the Yacht Club, past Squall’s
Hill, to the house that waits
still, on the top of the sea,
and two portraits hung on the opposite walls.

6
In north light, my smile is held in place,
the shadow marks my bone.
What could I have been dreaming as I sat there,
all of me waiting in the eyes, the zone
of the smile, the young face,
the foxes’ snare.

In south light, her smile is held in place,
her cheeks wilting like a dry
orchid; my mocking mirror, my overthrown
love, my first image. She eyes me from that face,
that stony head of death
I had outgrown.

The artist caught us at the turning;
we smiled in our canvas home
before we chose our foreknown separate ways.
The dry red fur fox coat was made for burning.
I rot on the wall, my own
Dorian Gray.

And this was the cave of the mirror,
that double woman who stares
at herself, as if she were petrified
in time — two ladies sitting in umber chairs.
You kissed your grandmother
and she cried.

7
I could not get you back
except for weekends. You came
each time, clutching the picture of a rabbit
that I had sent you. For the last time I unpack
your things. We touch from habit.
The first visit you asked my name.
Now you stay for good. I will forget
how we bumped away from each other like marionettes
on strings. It wasn’t the same
as love, letting weekends contain
us. You scrape your knee. You learn my name,
wobbling up the sidewalk, calling and crying.
You call me mother and I remember my mother again,
somewhere in greater Boston, dying.

I remember we named you Joyce
so we could call you Joy.
You came like an awkward guest
that first time, all wrapped and moist
and strange at my heavy breast.
I needed you. I didn’t want a boy,
only a girl, a small milky mouse
of a girl, already loved, already loud in the house
of herself. We named you Joy.
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it. I made you to find me.


Sexton’s “The Double Image”, a poem broken up into 7 sections, containing 25 stanzas, and a lot of rhyme, is a poem about Sexton’s relationship with her mother and her daughter, Joyce. As the title suggests, “The Double Image” in the poem refers to a few different ideas. The double image can be seen as the similar/contrasting images of: Sexton and her mother, Sexton and Joyce, Sexton and her mother’s portraits of themselves, and Sexton and humanity’s relationship with nature.


In section one of the poem, Sexton builds herself as a mother who was unstable after the birth of her daughter Joyce. Sexton opens with nature imagery: “I am thirty this November. / You are still small, in your fourth year. / We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer” (1-3). Sexton throughout the piece comes back to themes of nature/trees vs artificial themes. For example, Sexton compares nature to medicine: “I tell you what you’ll never really know: / all the medical hypothesis / that explained my brain will never be as true as these / struck leaves letting go” (8-11). Throughout the piece, Sexton’s deepest self is revealed to her daughter: “I, who chose two times / to kill myself, had said your nickname / the mewling months when you first came” (12-14). Sexton writes about how after she had tried to commit suicide two times, her daughter’s name, Joyce, came to her after giving birth. She also writes about the guilt that she felt after Joyce had got a fever. Sexton blamed herself for Joyce’s illness until she tried to commit suicide again and was taken to Bedlam for treatment: “I let the witches take away my guilty soul. / I pretended I was dead / until the white men pumped the poison out, / putting me armless and washed through the rigamarole / of talking boxes and the electric bed. / I laughed to see the private iron in that hotel” (25-30). Sexton then compares depression to the leaves on the trees: “Today the yellow leaves / go queer. You ask me where they go. I say today believed / in itself, or else it fell” (30-32). She tells Joyce: “love your self’s self where it lives”, and lets her know that love in herself is the only thing that will keep her whole, not a God or anything else. This also shows that Sexton was having doubts about herself as a woman/mother in the world and that she wants her daughter to grow up with self-love to keep her whole. “The Double Image is full of She writes that when she did not love herself, she spent time with Joyce in the winter, in nature.


In sections two through four of the poem, Sexton begins to recount the time she spent after Bedlam living in her mothers home. In this section, Sexton refers to herself as a “partly mended thing, an outgrown child” (60), this sentence shows how Sexton felt about returning from Bedlam. Sexton’s mother cannot forgive her for her suicide and with the possibility of Sexton’s death, her mother “had [her] portrait done instead” (56-58). Throughout this section, the mentioning of portraiture is used at the end of each stanza, showing how important it was for Sexton’s mother to create a portrait to solidify and overcast death. In “The Double Image”, portraiture is used to capture the dying. Sexton’s mother commissions a portrait of Anne after she returns from Bedlam, and Sexton’s mother commissions a portrait of herself when she is ill with breast cancer. Sexton writes that her and her mother’s portraits resemble each other, just as Joyce resembles her: “And you resembled me; unacquainted / with my face, you wore it. But you were mine / after all” (112-114). To Sexton, portraiture reflects a symbolic use of a stagnant identity, something that she has struggled to find in her life.


Sections five through seven of the poem wrap up Sexton’s return from Bedlam: “I checked out for the last time / on the first of May; / graduate of the mental cases” (124-126). Sexton looks at the portraits of her mother and herself, she writes of her mother’s portrait: “my mocking mirror, my overthrown / love, my first image. She eyes me from that face, / that stony head of death / I had outgrown” (168-171). To her own portrait, Sexton writes: “I rot on the wall, my own / Dorian Gray. / And this was the cave of the mirror, / the double woman who stares / at herself, as if she were petrified in time” (176-183), Sexton imagines her portrait as a reflection of her mother, just as Joyce is a reflection of her.


In the last stanza of the poem, Sexton notes that she gave Joyce her name so that she could call her Joy. She writes that she needed Joy in her life and that she didn’t want a boy:


I needed you. I didn’t want a boy, / only a girl, a small milky mouse / of a girl, already loved, already loud in the house / of herself. We named you Joy. / I, who was never quite sure / about being a girl, needed another / life, another image to remind me. / And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure / nor soothe it. I made you to find me. (203-211)


Sexton grapples with the guilt of using her identity as the mother of a daughter, “another image to remind [her]” (209) of it was like to be a normal girl. Identity and the self plays a generational role in “The Double Image” as Sexton tries to put use or reason to the pressure and sadness she feels for her mother and guilt that she feels for passing on the images of her life to her youngest daughter Joyce.


Anne Sexton, “Her Kind”
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.


In Sexton’s “Her Kind”, Sexton’s self takes the form of a witch throughout three, seven-lined stanzas. The narrative that Sexton uses in this piece is one of a woman that is misunderstood by society. Although Sexton’s identity is misunderstood in the piece, there is a heavy emphasis on freedom and womanhood. The word “woman” is repeated four times in the three-stanza poem and there are connotations of insanity in the piece: “lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind” (5), yet the tone remains calm and collected, almost effortless. The last stanza of the poem is an allusion to Joan of Arc who was burned at the stake for heresy and witchcraft. “Her Kind” is a reference to the oppression of women leading to madness, yet Sexton’s self is not ashamed to be a woman who has gone mad. In this piece, madness represents freedom. Sexton repeats the phrase: “I have been her kind” (7, 14, 21) at the end of each stanza, noting that she has been the kind of woman who is “out of mind” (5), the kind of woman who is “misunderstood” (13), and the kind of woman who is “not ashamed to die” (20). Sexton’s “Her Kind” uses female identity as a celebration of womanhood against the patriarchal expectations of the 1950s. As Dr. McSpadden mentions in “The Self in the Poetry of Anne Sexton”: “She has found her woman self, including her roles as wife and mother as well as more archetypal identities such as witch, wise woman, and earth mother, capable at times of leading to a more extended selfhood” (137).

Section Two: Selected Works of Sylvia Plath


In M. D. Uroff’s Criticism titled “Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration”, From The Iowa Review Vol. 8 No. 1, Urdoff looks at Sylvia Plath’s use of identity in confessional poetry. In Plath’s work, although they are unmistakably surrogates of Plath’s life, like The Bell Jar, Plath’s poetry takes on a more sinister, creative effort to symbolize her life. Urdoff writes: “Plath’s character employs all her energies in maintaining a ritualistic defense against her situation. She seems in a perverse way to act out the program of the poet whose informed and intelligent mind must manipulate its terrifying experiences” (Uroff 106), Uroff explains that in Plath’s work, she either plays the role of the character, the outsider, or someone drifting along in the chaos of her life. Uroff writes: “Plath manipulates dramatically in order to reveal their limitations… Plath’s outraged speakers do not confess their misery so much as they vent it” (105). Plath’s work, compared to Sexton’s, takes on more of a masked identity caricature or parody of her own identity who tries to engage and understand her experiences and translate them into poetry. Uroff also notes that: “In her poems, Plath is not concerned with the nature of her experience, rather she is engaged in demonstrating the way in which the mind deals with extreme circumstances or circumstances to which it responds with excess sensitivity” (Uroff 107), which differs greatly from the works of Sexton who seems to have a more direct way of describing the nature of her experiences, rather than the way in which she deals with them.


Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


“Lady Lazarus” is a great place to begin discussing Plath and her use of the self in her poetry. In this piece, Plath’s self is performing her suicide for a crowd of onlooking people: “The peanut-crunching crowd / Shoves in to see / Them unwrap me hand and foot— / The big strip tease. / Gentlemen, ladies” (26-30). Plath’s performative nature in this piece coincides with her life as a writer and a woman in the 1950s-1960s where women often had to be performative in their lives and careers to be a perfect woman. In “Lady Lazarus”, Plath wears her identity as a dying performance: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well” (43-45), perhaps because she has seen her life as a dying act all along. Plath spends a good deal of her poetry writing about dying and suicide, her identity is often wrapped up in the identities of the others in her pieces, as she cannot seem to stick to any identity that isn’t in a state of victimization, “Lady Lazarus” however, tells the story of a triumphant identity, who is not concerned with the sadness of suicide- but the power of it. In the poem, Plath has “a call” (48) for death, because she has tried twice before, the act/method of dying is something she claims she is good at. In the end of the poem, Plath’s identity transforms into a phoenix: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air” (82-84), in this closing stanza, Plath’s identity takes on a powerful role. “Lady Lazarus” is not just a poem about death, but triumph over life.
In stanzas three through five of “Lady Lazarus”, Plath uses visual imagery to portray her face as a, “featureless, fine, / Jew linen” (8-9) that can be easily peeled off to see what is underneath. Plath imagines her insides as terrifying, an image that strikes me as the emptiness of her identity. As seen in line 9, Plath hones in on a Jewish identity and Holocaust imagery quite often in this piece, despite not having any uncovered Jewish heritage:


“my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade” (4-5), “My face a featureless, fine, / Jew linen” (8-9), “So, so, Herr Doktor. / So, Herr Enemy” (65-66), “Ash, ash— / You poke and stir. / Flesh, bone, there is nothing there- / A cake of soap, / A wedding ring, / A gold filling. / Herr God / Herr Lucifer” (73-79).


Although this is a poem that is canon to Sylvia Plath’s career, her frequent use of an identity that she does not possess is a bit off putting. In these lines, Plath takes on the Jewish Holocaust identity to show that she, like many Jewish people/Jewish ancestors arose from the atrocity that was the Holocaust with power and vigor. The metaphor lands here but the identity that Plath takes on is problematic because she is not Jewish. Plath’s father was of German descent, which would explain her use of the metaphor, but there is no historical record of Plath’s mother or father having Jewish lineage, which I find to be inexcusable even for a great writer like Plath. Her use of stereotypes and identity that do not belong to her does not sit well with me, despite the fact that this poem is beautifully written. Clearly, identity is something that Plath has always struggled with, and her poetry reflects how her mental health and depression have pushed her narrative voice to be one that is victimized and often idealizing suicide, which was a very big struggle Plath dealt with in her real life as well, eventually dying by suicide in 1963. This is not the first time that we will see Plath take on Jewish identity to portray someone who was once victimized in her poetry.


Sylvia Plath “Daddy”
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time——
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
“The Colossus”
I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It’s worse than a barnyard.

Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.

Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of lysol
I crawl like an ant in mourning
Over the weedy acres of your brow
To mend the immense skull plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.

A blue sky out of the Oresteia
Arches above us. O father, all by yourself
You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.
I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered

In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
It would take more than a lightning-stroke
To create such a ruin.
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,

Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.


“Daddy”, like “Lady Lazarus” is a poem that I find quite problematic in terms of identity and the self. The poem, which is written in 16 stanzas of five lines each, or quintets, is a poem directed to Plath’s father who passed when she was eight years old. In the poem, Plath struggles with the loss of her father and her identity. In “Daddy”, we see Plath proclaiming that she has to kill her father: “Daddy, I have had to kill you” (6). In this piece, Plath once again takes on the identity of a Jewish woman in order to further her self-victimization narrative. Plath imagines her father as a German officer/oppressor and her a Jewish woman. In the poem, she places her identity in a marginalized and oppressed group because she feels that that is who she most resonates with, people who were once known to be broken and held down by their oppressor- in Plath’s case, her father. In “Daddy”, Plath writes:
I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. / And your neat mustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue. / Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You- / Not God but a swastika / So black no sky could squeak through. / Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you. (41-50)


The use of Jewish identity is, again, harmful and not Plath’s right to talk about- especially because in “Daddy” she uses the identity of a Jewish woman to push the stereotype that Jewish people are victims.


Plath’s narrative throughout “Daddy” shows her consistently trapped or frozen by her father’s austerity, Plath exclaims: “I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw. / Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak.” (24-28), in these lines Plath utilizes the repetition of the German word for “I” to note that her father’s presence in her life, or his lack of presence/his death, has made Plath feel like without her father she was never able to figure out her “I”/her identity. She writes, “I was ten when they buried you. / At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you” (57-59). Plath equates her identity to be meaningless because of her father’s death. Her suicide was an attempt to try and get back to her father, and after it failed she began to resent him for taking her identity from her. The only way to get herself back is to get rid of her father: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (80).


Sylvia Plath, “The Colossus”
I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It’s worse than a barnyard.

Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.

Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of lysol
I crawl like an ant in mourning
Over the weedy acres of your brow
To mend the immense skull plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.

A blue sky out of the Oresteia
Arches above us. O father, all by yourself
You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.
I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered

In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
It would take more than a lightning-stroke
To create such a ruin.
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,

Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.


In “The Colossus”, Plath imagines herself as a woman stranded with a huge, broken statue of a man. The poem is written in free-verse and contains six unrhyming quintets. In the poem, Plath cleans up the rubble and takes care of the giant statue of a man. Plath speaks of the statue in a tone of distress opening her poem with the lines “I shall never get you put together entirely, / Pierced, glued, and properly jointed” (Lines 1-2), Plath feels like the statue is perhaps someone who she feels she may never fully understand pieces or memories of. In “The Colossus”, Plath takes on not only her identity but the identity of this statue, carrying the burden and mystery of the figure as she curls up in the ear of the broken man: “Nights, I squat in the cornucopia / Of your left ear, out of the wind” (24-25). In my initial reading of this poem, and even now, I read the colossus to be Otto Plath, Plath’s father. With further looking, this piece also shows some identifiers of her ex-husband Ted Huges. There are many reasons one may speculate that Huges is the subject of “The Colossus”, including the fact that in the second stanza of the text Plath mentions that the speaker wonders whether the statue thinks he is some sort of God, which she has referred to Huges’s ego before. Hughes can also potentially be seen in the final stanza: “My hours are married to shadow” (28), an obvious reference to her marriage and how she felt that she could not compare to the shadow that Huges left her in professionally and personally. But with the analysis of “Daddy” we see some repeated themes here: Plath living in the shadow of her father, not having an identity beyond a large male figure, colossal statue references, “Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal” (“Daddy”, Lines 9-10), and lines 3-5 which could refer to her fathers German accent. Plath’s use of identity in “The Colossus” plays around with identity in two ways. Her identity is seen as miniscule compared to the giant colossus, and the identity of the statue is in mystery. Plath’s use of manipulation of identity in this piece is what makes the piece so special. She feels like her identity has become overshadowed by her father, and she no longer listens to the sounds of boats scraping on the stones of a landing (a reference to her childhood home in Massachusetts, perhaps the last fond memories she has).


Sylvia Plath, “Ariel”
Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Nigger-eye
Berries cast dark
Hooks—

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Shadows.
Something else

Hauls me through air—
Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.

White
Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.


“Ariel” by Sylvia Plath was one of her last poems, written a mere five-or-so months before her suicide in 1963. “Ariel” is constructed of ten unrhyming tercets that are broken up into ten stanzas, along with a single line stanza ending the poem. Although the poem itself is written in free-verse, it does contain some end rhyme and internal rhyme. “Ariel” is particularly interesting because Plath imagines herself with a different kind of identity than we are used to in Plath’s other poems- where identity is constructed with so much exuberance, drama, and imagery. In “Ariel” Plath deconstructs her identity into a thing of nothingness, her freedom comes from a lack of identity. Plath opens the poem: “Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances” (1-3), the imagery sets up a clean slate of nothing but darkness as a slow “substanceless” blue starts to illuminate hills and nature in the distance. The poem reflects themes of freedom, escape, and suicide as Plath rides off into the morning: “And I / Am the arrow, / The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the dive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.” (26-31), this is interesting because Plath shrinks her identity down to the size of a dew drop. Her identity literally dissolves away into nothingness in “Ariel”. The last line of the poem plays around with the double meaning of the word “Eye” vs “I” as well as playing around with identity, where Plath is both the dew flying into the sunrise and the sunrise itself. This poem reads to me as Plath disassembling her identity into different fragments of nature imagery, almost like her interpretation of dying and recounting the physical realm of her existence. “Ariel” is full of powerful language, but Plath’s identity dispurses into nothingness.

Section Three: Consequences of Confessionalism


In Charles Molesworth’s essay, “The Origins and Consequences of Confessional Poetry”, Molesworth discusses confessional poetry and its potential consequences. Molesworth writes on the emergence of confessionalism:


Confessional poetry gathered its concerns from two cultural forces: the awareness of the emotional vacuity of public language in America and the insistent psychologizing of a society adrift from purpose and meaningful labor” (Molesworth 163)


Because confessionalism was born out of an era that was incessant on the psychologizing of women specifically, both Sexton and Plath’s work was broadly read and criticized right out of publishing. Moreso, their works became extremely successful and important to women in the 1960’s as they were some of the first women to share their most intimate, personal thoughts.
Both Sexton and Plath recieved a great deal of positive reviews after publishing their collections and are still today seen as some of the most revolutionary feminist writers of the twenty-first century. This positive criticism and their works both being canonized in Western literature may not be all that it’s cracked up to be, as Molesworth points out in his critique of confessionalism: “The confessional poet wants in some sense to be his own muse… to make the individual artist a type of genius, the grand culmination epoch, an artistic style, and a vision of life. Only then can the poet take place with the immortals” (Molesworth 170). One of the major consequences of confessionalism, Molesworth notes, is the idea that the identity that is used by the speakers of Sexton and Plath’s work is that they may become taken too literally or that they may not always pass as literal enough (based on fallacies of metaphors, contradicting imagery, etc.)


Molesworth defines confessionalism in its most basic form as: “a commitment to recording as directly as possible the shape of private pain and intimate sickness, without regard to artifice or aesthetic transcendence” (Molesworth 174). In response to Sexton’s work, Molesworth writes that she was perhaps the most confessional of the early poets in regard to its most basic meaning but that Sexton’s subject matter can deem exhaustive. He writes that, unlike Plath, who, “seems to exhaust the verbal possibilities of the exacerbated sensibility” (Molesworth 174), Sexton’s work could become tiresome until, “finally the poetry is read more out of a duty to listen to the maimed than out of a sense of discovery or artistic energy… the public clutching of her awkward language becomes its own reproach” (Molesworth 175).


Molesworth’s consequences of confessional poetry are fair in some ways, as far as some of the work seeming exhaustive or that the identities of the writers can be taken too literally or not literally enough, but there is something special in the identity of confessional poetry. Confessionalism breaks down the walls of separation between self and speaker- making the persona and personal “I” united into one. Sexton and Plath’s poetry would not be canon in our society today if it weren’t for the uniqueness/distinctness of their voices and styles. To these writers, women in 1950s-1960s America, confessionalism wasn’t so much a stylistic choice as it was a vice, or a means of survival.

References

McSpadden, Katherine Frances, “The Self in the Poetry of Anne Sexton” (1984). Dissertations. 2327, 1894. https://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/2327 Accessed on 14 Dec. 2020.

Molesworth, Charles. “With Your Own Face On”: The Origins and Consequences of Confessional Poetry. Twentieth Century Literature, May, 1976, Vol. 22, No. 2 (May, 1976), pp. 163- 178. Duke University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/440682 Accessed on 14 Dec. 2020.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. The Colossus & Other Poems. New York: Knopf, 1962. Print.

Sexton, Anne, & Kumin, M. Anne Sexton: The complete poems. Boston: Mariner Books, 1999. Print.

Sexton, Anne. To Bedlam and Part Way Back. Houghton Mifflin, 1960. Print.

Uroff, M. D. “Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration.” The Iowa Review, vol. 8, no. 1, 1977, pp. 104–115. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20158710. Accessed on 14 Dec. 2020.

Abstract: “Poetry and the Self: A Closer Look at Identity and Confessionalism” is a paper that uses critical analysis to determine the ways in which confessional poets, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, use poetry to manipulate and/or reveal selfhood and identity through a body of work.

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Wylie Stephenson
Wylie Stephenson (she/her) is a Senior English major at Point Park University. When she isn’t writing poetry, she enjoys reading. Her favorite author is Neil Gaiman, and her favorite book is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. She is in the process of working on publishing her first collection of poetry by the end of 2022, she is also a TEFL certified teacher and hopes to be teaching abroad in the next few years.