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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Number 110: Sylvia Plath "Mad Girl's Love Song"

Mad Girl's Love Song
"I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)"

--Sylvia Plath

Hap Notes: It's very hard to talk about Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) without getting a little angry for a variety of reasons. Her suicide has been the cause of much speculation and has been used by some writers in the women's movement as a banner for the frustrations of creative women. Her husband, the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), was very publicly accused of abuse and neglect, her doctor has been accused of neglect for prescribing anti-depressants (which often do just the reverse in depressed patients), and you can still find people who, upon reading The Bell Jar (Plath's semi-autobiographical novel), suddenly feel that they, too, are exactly like Plath. All of this is balderdash and snail spittle. There may be elements of truth in all these statements but depression is like diabetes-the person who has it has to control it by themselves.

There is a certain glamor attached to attractive, sensitive, depressed, suicidal young women in our culture and, quite frankly, it's repulsive. Speaking as a woman who has had brushes with far far too deep bouts of depression and a couple of breakdowns I can categorically state that depression will soak up all the love you can give to a depressed person and it will never be enough because the person whose love they desperately need is their own.

Plath suffered her first breakdown when she was 22. Remember that in the days that Plath was treated there was a thought that after a depressed patient got "better," they were cured. The variety of depression Plath had (most likely genetic and recurring) is the kind that takes the patient's constant care-taking vigilance to head off and avoid. I do not believe she was given the skills or the therapy to do this. She was given electro-convulsive therapy (shock treatment in the popular vernacular) and released as "recovered."

Of course, poets are supposed to be depressed aren't they? So it's part and parcel with the "job" right? Well, no, although there are studies that show (Goodwin, Jamison) that depressives and manic-depressives have a brain chemistry that gives them a different and often, creative, perspective on the world. You can't blame Hughes for Plath's depression or suicide any more than you can blame (tempting though it may be) Courtney Love for Kurt Cobain's. Depression is a poorly understood chemical imbalance in the brain. Suicide often seems to be the answer to be let out of the suffering of depression. When the world seems to be drained of any possibility of happiness (or even just everyday "normalcy") suicide appears to be the way to make this horrible helpless, hopelessness go away.

This is diagonally off topic but if you are intensely depressed by the world in general you have good reasons for this. There's a lot wrong with the world. However, there are things that make life precious and juicy and delicious and if you cannot see this, you need to get help and I'll warn you that not everybody who helps you will be right for you and you cannot give up because there are things that require your attention in the world. Your sensitivity is important to balance out the hatred and prejudice in the world- you have to battle on to counteract this. Each person on the earth is needed for something- if you haven't found what it is yet, keep on trying. You come equipped with powerful stuff to maintain happiness- you just haven't figured out how to use it. Don't give up. Just sayin'. Get some help but don't expect that a pill will solve your depression- you need to actively monitor your own treatment. Yeah, it's a pain in the patoot but the results are true happiness. No kidding. True happiness is in you, waiting for you to find it. Of course it's hard work. Most things are but it gets easier and easier every day. I kid you not. Do not give up.

Okay, back to Plath. She was a gifted student in high school and college. She was friends in college with Anne Sexton (who had her own depressions) and she studied under Robert Lowell (this is beginning to sound like a blue print for depression, huh?) Her fame rests on two fairly decent books of poetry and a book of fiction. She speaks to a lot of people who are dealing with the early growing pains that one feels in their 20s; her voice resonates with them because of her fierce brilliance with the words that describe her feelings. She can be comforting to those who feel alone with these thoughts.

I think in our poem today (yes, it's a villanelle) Plath is talking about life, in general, as a lover. The thunderbird is a Native American legend of a huge bird who creates the thunder and moves the clouds with its giant wings. There are legends that talk of thunderbirds mating with humans (they are shape shifters). I have heard it said that this poem is about Ted Hughes but since Plath wrote this poem in 1951 and met Hughes in 1954 this is impossible. She may be speaking to another man but I think it's more likely that she is speaking to life, here. Everything in the poem is either dark or leaving her- even God and Satan. There is no hope in the poem that when spring returns she'll feel the thunder of life. With her eyes closed, the world is black, when she opens them, things are worse. There are strong hints of suicide in the poem, yes?

Here's a good Plath quote:
"I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited."

and another: "I have never found anybody who could stand to accept the daily demonstrative love I feel in me, and give back as good as I give."

and another: "God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of "parties" with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter - they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship - but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering."

You can find more Plath here:

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