Sylvia Plath’s poetry has been recommended to me by nearly every professor or teacher of poetry I have ever had. Now, having read The Colossus and Other Poems, I can see why. Plath’s modern voice–free verse and ripe-to-splitting with evocative imagery and metaphor–feels very similar to my own poetic voice.
Despite this, I am left with an overall sense of disappointment with her poetry. The Colossus and Other Poems seems like a half-baked collection of poetry a college student might hastily put together for an undergraduate thesis. What didn’t I like? In particular, many of her poems followed the simplistic structure of: describe a scene (perhaps a field, a shipyard, or the view out the window) in beautiful detail. Find something dead in it or related to it, and end with a macabre flourish. In general, I disliked that her poetry felt like getting hit with overhead repeatedly with a morbid sledgehammer. After a few poems I felt a creeping sense of “I get it” when each poem circled around to a stanza or set of lines that presented death on a silver platter in a burnt, ochre-hued landscape. I get that collections of poetry need to be thematic, I just like when that theme is woven into the collection with a bit more nuance and subtlety.
My other gripe, and perhaps this one is a bit more personal, was her continual references to classic plays and works. It felt to me like her time spent at Cambridge was shinning through those references with a nose-upturned, better-read-than-thou snootiness. That condescension clashes horribly with her down-to-earth, freeform poetry.
Lets look at a few of her poems in more depth.
“Sow” was the first poem I highlighted as one I enjoyed. The imagery is rich and evocative and it brings the reader to a place of pondering the way time turns savage boars into common domesticated pigs. Similarly “Eye-Mote” is a beautiful poem in the way it cuts to the quick in describing a painful physical experience. I still hold the mental image of a field of horses slanting away into a visual margin firmly in my mind.
“Hardcastle Crags” serves up great examples of beautiful imagery (“Sheep drowsed stoneward in their tussocks of wool, and birds / twig-sleeping, wore / granite ruffs…”) right next heavy-handed, amateurish lines about insomnia and sleep-walking (“Her eyes entertained no dream / And the sandman’s dust / Lost luster under her footsoles.”)
“Point Shirley” is a lovely poem. I quite enjoyed the way she evokes the turmoil of thoughts and (mostly negative) feelings she has about her grandmother and the moment in the fourth stanza in which she becomes much more lucid when focusing on a common, happy childhood memory–her grandmother baking apple cakes.
“The Thin People,” “Mushrooms,” and “Snakecharmer” all have an excellent economy of words that allows Plath to be sharp and incisive in delivering her imagery to the reader. “Mushrooms,” despite its weak ending, is probably the best example of this. It almost reminds me of a Kay Ryan poem.
“Watercolor of Grandchester Meadows,” “Blue Moles,” and “Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor” are all poems that fall victim to the formula I described above: she describes a beautiful scene, then ends looking at a corpse or something dead. “The Ghost’s Leavetaking,” “A Winter Ship,” “Man in Black,” and “Medallion” are all so focused on death and the macabre that there’s little else to say about them.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “The Colossus” itself. I was not overly impressed with this poem for one main reason: it’s far too vague. I understand that a certain amount of nuance and vagary are not just tolerated but expected in poetry, but when a poem is so vague that you’re left wondering what it’s actually about, I think it loses a degree of quality. After reading it I poked around at other’s reviews of it, and found that there is no clear consensus about the poem’s meaning. Maybe it’s about her father, maybe it’s about the patriarchy, maybe she’s proclaiming that she will stick to her father’s ideals forever, maybe she’s declaring freedom by relinquishing those ideals… you get the idea.
While poking around at those reviews of “The Colossus” I discovered that many critics feel the same way I did about The Colossus and Other Poems. There was a general consensus that this collection is a bit sophomoric, and that her true masterpiece is Ariel, a collection she finished before she committed suicide but wasn’t published until two years after her death. I’ve picked up a copy and am curious to peruse it. Until then, I’ll remain firmly on the fence about the quality of Plath’s poetry. While her work certainly has moments of beauty it is laced with shortcomings that are often hard to get beyond.