I consider Sylvia Plath to be one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century and I promise, if you continue to read this blog, you'll hear a lot more about why. So this post might seem a little weird because I'm going to bash all over one of her poems.
No, it's not a pre-Colossus hiccup, or a thesaurus-driven villanelle from her Smith College days. It's a Confessional poem, straight out of her prime, from July 1962. And its a howler.
The poem, "Words heard, by accident, over the phone," is an important poem for Plath addicts and specialists because it describes a crucial life-event and the beginning of the dissolution of her marriage to Ted Hughes. Other than that, the poem has a literary value approaching zero.
Anyone can have a bad day, that's true. But that's not what happened here. I think the answer's much simpler.
Plath developed a method over the years for writing poems and this is an example of her writing without her bag of tricks. She was apoplectic about Hughes's cheating and dashed the poem off like an angry letter.
Here's the first lines:
O mud mud, how fluid!----
Thick as foreign coffee, and with a sluggy pulse
Speak, speak ! Who is it?
Gone is the usual Plath inventiveness with conceits, diction, and figurative language. All that survives is the "confessional" theme of adultery, which she dully compares to mud, foreign coffee and ... "the bowel-pulse."
The poem goes on to talk about mud for six more lines, then briefly compares the old land-line telephone to a tentacle (as in her poem "Medusa") before returning to images of mud: "Muck funnel, muck funnel".
Repeating the drab phrase is another glimpse into how impotent Plath was without her method.
I'm not saying Plath was anything less than a genius or that this one poem proves my point. There are others. But blog-time goes quickly. So tune in later for more. What I'm saying is Plath created a métier, a method for writing powerful poetry. This is her not using it.
Click Plath's picture above to read the full text of "Words heard, by accident, over the phone."
Hit the talk button above or below to let me know what you think of this or any other Plath poem.