The poems had become unstoppable. She had kind of hit that mother lode, you know, like Brent oil or something. She'd gone through and found the reservoir. She was writing poems of an order that seemed to me quite extraordinary for this century....She was writing two or three a day, as though she'd tapped the mother lode to end all mother lodes of her creativity.
—A. Alvarez, interview for Voices & Visions series, 1988
Fifty years ago, Sylvia Plath struck the black gold at the heart of her turbulent personality and refined it into one of the greatest bursts of production in the history of poetry. October 1962 was her mensis mirabilis, the stretch that gave her nearly all the best poems in the volume published posthumously as Ariel. A. Alvarez believes there is "nothing in English poetry comparable with it except Keats's great year...when he was also writing against the clock." This is not quite true; during the Civil War Emily Dickinson averaged a brilliant poem every two or three days for three years. Still, as William Logan reminds us, Dickinson is a curious exception to a sobering rule: "Poets are rarely given—most are never given—months of such intensity; but, if they suffer them, they cannot sustain them."
Plath's output thinned to a trickle in the frigid London winter of that year. She died by suicide in February 1963, having almost literally written herself out of existence. The Plath of Ariel is famously obsessed with self-destruction, which takes on a purgatory and ecstatic quality in many of the October poems ("Ariel," "Lady Lazarus," "Fever 103°"), but in her final lyric, "Edge," becomes a quiet inevitability:
The woman is perfected. Her dead Body wears the smile of accomplishment, The illusion of a Greek necessity Flows in the scrolls of her toga, Her bare Feet seem to be saying: We have come so far, it is over.
The Ariel poems turned the dead Plath into a permanent controversy—into an eternal victim or villain, depending on whom you ask. They have been much praised and censured not only for their opening of private wounds (the loss of her father at age nine, her messy separation from fellow poet Ted Hughes) but for their co-opting of historical tragedy. In "Daddy" she compares her father and Hughes to Nazis and herself to a slaughtered Jew—"a presumption," Logan claims, "that with each decade looks more indefensible." Yet while her Holocaust imagery attracts most of the tongue-wagging, it is very much of a piece with the rest of Ariel, which also invokes Hiroshima, the Native American wars, Japanese kamikaze pilots, Klansmen, and much else. This is a poet who could see the bandage on her cut thumb as a "Ku Klux Klan / Babushka" and the cut itself as a gap out of which:
A million soldiers run, Redcoats, every one.
Late Plath, in other words, inhabits not only a fallen world but an absolutely toxic world, a world as diseased as her own mind and as treacherous as her own body. For her, all borders between that world and the self have dissolved; thus she feels entitled, even compelled, to drag the burden of mass catastrophe into the theater of her private tragedy. After all, the same world that kills millions of people wholesale will also crush her personally. Yet with several failed suicide attempts (pills, wrist-slashing, car crash) under her belt, she knows that death will come by no one's hand but her own. That's why she calls her thumb a "dirty girl" in "Cut"; that's why she fantasizes, in "Fever 103°," about shedding her former selves like "old whore petticoats" as she ascends "To Paradise." She can exorcise her "Fascist" father and "vampire" husband by rendering them grotesque, but she can't purge herself of the demon of herself.
* * *
Next February there will be many commemorations of Plath's death, but as October ends I'd like to honor the flourishing of her creative life. "Ariel," "Daddy," "Lady Lazarus" have been unwrapped and handled by countless critics already; I'd like to take a close look instead at the small "love gift" called "Poppies in October." It is short enough to quote in full:
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts. Nor the woman in the ambulance Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly ---- A gift, a love gift Utterly unasked for By a sky Palely and flamily Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes Dulled to a halt under bowlers. O my God, what am I That these late mouths should cry open In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
"Poppies" is for me the most uncanny of Plath's October poems, because it is both an ecstatic celebration of her creative/destructive powers and a quiet pre-elegy for herself. Yet its haunting quality derives first and foremost from technical mastery, not our retrospective awareness of biographical fact. Most thirty-year-old poets, no matter how doomed or suicidal, couldn’t pull off a convincingly "late" style without lapsing into melodrama. In fact, some of the weaker Ariel poems do just that. The success of "Poppies" is grounded in controlled, yet constantly surprising use of line and image.
The poem consists of four tercets of wildly varying length. The tercet structure is a gesture toward order in a poem about surrendering to a helpless awareness. In the first stanza, lines 1 and 3 almost spill out into the margins as the speaker witnesses the vibrant excess of the red poppies, likening it to the "overflow" from a bleeding woman in an ambulance (perhaps a recalled or imagined version of Plath herself). The second stanza contains the shortest lines in the poem as the speaker reins herself in, reacting with hushed awe to the scene before her.
In the last stanza, the terse "O my God, what am I" yields to a pair of lines that again enact an opening, an unfolding, although they never regain the length of the earlier lines. It’s as if the initial overwhelming impression and the subsequent pulling-back have uneasily balanced each other out. The speaker identifies herself absolutely with the landscape, interpreting it with eerie solipsism as a projection of her internal state. The next-to-last line ends with an image of violent release—"cry open"—that is immediately qualified by the images of "frost" and wintry-blue "cornflowers." We gather that some destructive force will arrest this late flowering, and that the "I" of the poem will be implicated.
Unlike "Ariel" and "Lady Lazarus," "Poppies in October" conceals rather than flaunts its impulse toward self-annihilation. It reads as Plath’s detached appreciation of her own artistry during her extraordinary month, and showcases the economy, daring, and precision of her late style. Its imagery blends the antique (frost, dawn, the heart as flower) and the modern ("carbon monoxides") into a lovely and chilling elevation of the self. It’s a poem stunned by what its poet is capable of, in every sense.