Poems of the week: rediscovered Plath; Keats’ worst poem ever

Anna Journey, a VCU graduate student, recently discovered a previously unpublished poem by Sylvia Plath. That venerable arbiter of literary taste, Jane Magazine, calls it “a gorgeous sonnet about feeling blah”.

If you’ve read AS Byatt’s Possession (or seen its lightweight film adaptation), you know that finding an unpublished text by a significant literary figure is a career-making, or at least publication-making, stroke of luck. Indeed, Journey has an essay forthcoming in Notes on Contemporary Literature about the poem, and she deserves congratulations for not only finding it, but recognizing its significance.

Before I give my opinion about it, here’s the link to read the poem:

Sylvia Plath
Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts

Personally, I’m on the fence about this poem’s publication. It was an early work. Plath had time to publish it if she chose – but she never did. There is no record of its submission. It’s not that posthumous publication is wrong. Literary executors saved and published important works by many important writers, most notably Emily Dickinson. I don’t care if Emily wanted her poems kept private; I’m selfishly glad we have them. However, I don’t think “Ennui” lives up to Plath’s standard of published work, and if Plath chose to leave this one out of her body of work, I respect her decision.

On the other hand, it’s data. As a scientist, I abhor the waste of useful data. If this poem gives insight into Plath’s career and writing process, it’s valuable. So I guess I do want it published: as data, not art. But that distinction seems too subjective to be remotely valid.

The editors of Blackbird (and Plath’s estate, which gave publication rights) also considered Plath’s intent. In their Introduction, the editors suggest Plath may have intended to publish “Ennui”, because she labeled it with her contact information – evidence I think is pretty weak. The editors also justify their decision in terms of Plath’s legacy and reputation:

Few poets in the English language have been more widely read, or more wildly misinterpreted, than Sylvia Plath. Alternating waves of readers have seen her as a writer of courage, then as a figure of self-absorbed weakness. The meanings of her poetry and of her life too often have been evaluated solely in the light of her death. Some readers have even subscribed to the familiar notion that it was madness that drove her to create her most memorable work, madness that made it possible, a notion that is as anti-intellectual and anti-feminist as it is inaccurate. No poet of the twentieth century worked harder to acquire the craft, skill, and knowledge necessary to create poetry, and the triumph of the later work can be fully appreciated only in light of those early efforts in educating herself and the ambitious writing program which she set for herself when she was young. . .

In publishing Sylvia Plath’s “Ennui,” Blackbird wishes to recognize and celebrate the disciplined hard work she put into her early writing, work that made possible the astonishing achievement of her later poems, such as those in Ariel.

I do respect that. What I don’t get is the following:

Another, entirely different poem titled “Ennui,” less polished and rather slight compared to the poem published in Blackbird, is also included in the archive at the Lilly Library and labeled as “Ennui (II),” but we’ve not reproduced that work here, as it seems Plath had wisely rejected the idea of publishing it herself.

So basically, they released the unpublished poem they liked better as “art,” but preserved both as “data.” Hm. Maybe my gut instinct wasn’t so far off after all.

Regardless, “Ennui” is a solid poem. Many well-anthologized poets have done much worse in their early years. My (least) favorite example is Keats’s ghastly drivel below. I wish we could un-publish it. What was he thinking?

“Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain”
John Keats

WOMAN! when I behold thee flippant, vain,
Inconstant, childish, proud, and full of fancies;
Without that modest softening that enhances
The downcast eye, repentant of the pain
That its mild light creates to heal again:
E’en then, elate, my spirit leaps, and prances,
E’en then my soul with exultation dances
For that to love, so long, I’ve dormant lain:
But when I see thee meek, and kind, and tender,
Heavens! how desperately do I adore
Thy winning graces;—to be thy defender
I hotly burn—to be a Calidore—
A very Red Cross Knight—a stout Leander—
Might I be loved by thee like these of yore.

Light feet, dark violet eyes, and parted hair;
Soft dimpled hands, white neck, and creamy breast,
Are things on which the dazzled senses rest
Till the fond, fixed eyes, forget they stare.
From such fine pictures, heavens! I cannot dare
To turn my admiration, though unpossess’d
They be of what is worthy,—though not drest
In lovely modesty, and virtues rare.
Yet these I leave as thoughtless as a lark;
These lures I straight forget—e’en ere I dine,
Or thrice my palate moisten: but when I mark
Such charms with mild intelligences shine,
My ear is open like a greedy shark,
To catch the tunings of a voice divine.

Ah! who can e’er forget so fair a being?
Who can forget her half retiring sweets?
God! she is like a milk-white lamb that bleats
For man’s protection. Surely the All-seeing,
Who joys to see us with his gifts agreeing,
Will never give him pinions, who intreats
Such innocence to ruin,—who vilely cheats
A dove-like bosom. In truth there is no freeing
One’s thoughts from such a beauty; when I hear
A lay that once I saw her hand awake,
Her form seems floating palpable, and near;
Had I e’er seen her from an arbour take
A dewy flower, oft would that hand appear,
And o’er my eyes the trembling moisture shake.

A greedy shark? A lamb that bleats for man’s protection? Gag!

I need to go read some Plath as an antidote.

This entry was posted in Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Poems of the week: rediscovered Plath; Keats’ worst poem ever

  1. mdvlist says:

    Heavens! That IS some crappy Keats. You know, I used to think he was like that all the time, when I hadn’t read much more of his work than Isabella and the Pot of Basil. As for the Plath poem, I can’t say I find it all that exciting (give me a Vincent sonnet any day), but then, I’ve never really liked Plath all that much. Not my century, I guess. Even so, I’m quite on your side about the importance of publishing even have-baked juvenalia, hers or anyone else’s, for research purposes. Why shouldn’t we have it all? It’s not as if her rep (or Keats’s) is going to be irreparably sullied by the discovery of something that wouldn’t make it into the Norton.

  2. Dan Wright says:

    Yeah, ouch. I have met very little of Keat’s work I haven’t liked, but this one just made the top of that rather short list.

    As the previous comment said, I am all for the publishing (or at least preserving) crap, though. I’d love to see more works-in-progress and drafts, too… Not really for aesthetic enjoyment, but because it would be great source data for trying to understand the writing & publishing process a bit better then we do now. Also more data about literature is better then less…which is probably my librarian side talking!

Comments are closed.