[This essay was first published in the Sewanee Review (winter 2016).]
Long after Sylvia Plath extinguished herself in a whirlpool of despair, illness, theater, and vengeance, her husband, Ted Hughes, tried to describe the ecstatic, suffering anxiety that was a central element of her personality:
Searching for yourself, in the dark, as you danced,
Floundering a little, crying softly,
Like somebody searching for somebody drowning
In dark water,
Listening for them—in panic at losing
Those listening seconds from your searching—
Then dancing wilder in the silence.
I think about him, battered relic of Plath, composing those lines so many years after the fact; still struggling against her terrible allure, against his own rash and fumbling failures as her dance partner. The powers-that-be, it seems, saw fit to inflict him with a lifetime spent facing the music—though he hobbled onward, grievously damaged yet wielding his vocation to the end. If not sustenance, poetry was at least a few scant drops of water in the wasteland.
Nonetheless, “the living, writers especially, are terrible projectionists,” wrote Adrienne Rich. “I hate the way they use the dead.” She, widow of a man “who drove to Vermont in a rented car at dawn and shot himself,” had cause to know. But despite numerous exemplars, drama is no prerequisite for household sorrow. Mere tedium will do. In an 1855 diary entry, Jane Welsh Carlyle lamented, “The evening devoted to mending; Mr C’s trousers, among other things! ‘Being an only child’ I never ‘wished’ to sew mens trousers.” Her emphases are inscrutable. “My Man-of-Genius-Husband,” she called Thomas Carlyle. And yet “we aggravate one another’s tendencies to despair.”
Standing outside, watching, is not necessarily what these writers did, for they, too, had the run of the house. Yet some inner door was always locked. Speaking of Anne Sexton, her daughter Linda said, “I always lived on that brink of fear that she was going to fall apart and really kill herself.” Meanwhile, “talking to Linda was like talking to her own soul, Sexton remarked.” On either side of a cracked window, the glass shimmered, distorting the moonlight. The mother lit another cigarette and wrote,
Oh, little girl,
how do you grow?
You grow this way.
You are too many to eat.
Children and parents, parents and children. Listening to the radio, I hear a woman ready herself to climb sixteen flights of stairs to carry supplies to her elderly parents, who refuse to move down to her fourth-floor apartment, even though a storm has devastated the city’s power grid. “It is what it is,” she says, resigned. I turn off the radio and open a biography. “I hope,” writes Charles Dickens to his youngest disappointing son, “you will always be able to say in after life, that you had a kind father.” I close the book and scroll through the day’s news. Colm Tóibín points out, “You have to be a terrible monster to write. . . . Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have told you, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you. You’ve no right to be here.”
I often tell middle and high school students that art is power. At their age, they are usually still surprised by this idea. “Artists can possess,” I tell them. “They can manipulate; they can lie; they can extract vengeance; they can kill.” I pause. “Once, in a poem, I killed my children.” These words are half a joke. In the poem, it was more as if one son had never been born.
“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique,” wrote James Baldwin. “All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” And it is terrible, terrible, when what we love is also the anguish we vomit up. For how many slow hours did Rainer Maria Rilke linger in the Jardin des Plantes, suffering alongside the suffering beasts, before he began to understand how to invent “The Panther”?
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
“Writing is not therapy,” I tell my puzzled students. “Often, you feel worse after you finish a poem.” On the whole, this is not what they are expecting from art.
Nor are they expecting the ruthlessness of creation: the melodrama, the exaggerations, the false fronts and manufactured views. Robert Lowell tried to explain its workings.
Caged in fiction’s iron bars,
I give this voice to you
with tragic diction to rebuke the stars—
it isn’t you, and yet it’s you.
Listen to the shame and hubris in his words, the helplessness, the gasping clutch at glory. But the you of the poem, sitting alone in her twilit room, no doubt heard something quite different, and perhaps it drove her to close the windows and turn up the television volume to drown out the sound.
Even when the you flits outside the margins of the work, her shadow staggers under its weight. Robert Frost imagined his wife, Elinor, as the “ideal reader” of nearly all of his poems. “Each book was written . . . ‘for love of her,’” and her death staggered him. “I’m afraid I dragged her through pretty much of a life for one as frail as she. Too many children, too many habitations, too many vicissitudes. And a faith required that would have exhausted most women. God damn me when he gets around to it.”
Yet had she stayed alive, Frost would not have thought twice about adding more stones to his wife’s load. “You have to be a terrible monster to write,” said Tóibín, for selfishness walks in monstrous tandem with guilt and invention. Infuriated by her philandering husband, exhausted and grieving, Plath nonetheless furthered her own ends, making specific, deliberate use of the crisis, ruthlessly dramatizing its characters and events.
And I, love, am a pathological liar,
And my child—look at her, face down on the floor,
Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear———
Forty years later that child recalled, “She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress.”
Jealousy, scorn, defensiveness, bravado, indifference: all and more may drag a family of obsessives to their doom. “There are many families in which nobody writes poems,” said Wislawa Szymborska, “but once it starts up it’s hard to quarantine.”
Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.
As Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s estranged son Hartley wrote after his father’s death,
I have been cherish’d and forgiven
By many tender-hearted,
’Twas for the sake of one in Heaven
Of him that is departed.
Because I bear my Father’s name
I am not quite despised,
My little legacy of fame
I’ve not yet realized.
And yet if you should praise myself
I’ll tell you, I had rather
You’d give your love to me, poor elf,
Your praise to my great father.
Despite their honor and modesty, the words do not quite hide the fatal whirlpool. But even well-loved, well-matched partners, friends, parents, children carry the burden of one another’s art. Writing to Jane Kenyon, Hayden Carruth mused, “Meanwhile, the rain falls beautifully. The murmur on the roof is musical and variable. I am in the bedroom so I can hear it, and Joe-Anne has finally stumbled out of bed and gone to work. She’ll be back in a couple of hours. We—all of us—are burdened by history, no doubt of that, but the burden is not so great that we can’t respond to the same events when they recur in the present, the rain, the sunset, the opening of the day lilies. And I suppose that’s a boon.”
Kenyon’s husband, Donald Hall, who watched her die of leukemia, later spoke of how he and his wife had learned to exist together. “Each member of a couple is separate,” he said; “the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing.” For these two poets, poetry was naturally a third thing, but of necessity it could not be the only one.
For years we played [ping-pong] every afternoon. Jane was assiduous, determined, vicious, and her reach was not so wide as mine. When she couldn’t reach a shot I called her “Stubbsy,” and her next slam would smash me in the groin, rage combined with harmlessness. We rallied half an hour without keeping score. Another trait we shared was hating to lose. Through bouts of ping-pong and Henry James and the church, we kept to one innovation: with rare exceptions, we remained aware of each other’s feelings. It took me half my life, more than half, to discover with Jane’s guidance that two people could live together and remain kind.
. . . though kindness is no savior.
“Dearest,” wrote Virginia Woolf, in the suicide note she left for her husband Leonard, “I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done.” But “complete happiness” is not enough to save a life. Watchers are left to evoke the ghosts. Recalling her sister Olga, Denise Levertov said, “Now as if smoke or sweetness were blown my way / I inhale a sense of her livingness in that instant.” There’s a fragrance of a pleasure in such heartbreak: “poetry,” as Frost mused, “has a vested interest in sorrow.” The will to display those sorrows, as if they “could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress”—this is what drives the sentences down the page, what drove Levertov to patch and burnish her grief. “I had flung open my arms in longing, once, by your side, stumbling over the furrows—”
Oh, in your torn stockings, with unwaved hair,
you were trudging after your anguish
over the bare fields, soberly, soberly.