Bitter Fame, Anne Stevenson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, is often maligned, but it has its wonderful points. One of the best sections is on Plath’s residency at Yaddo (which she shared with Ted Hughes) — a period when Plath was reading a lot of Jung and Theodore Roethke and, under the latter’s influence, wrote “Poem for a Birthday” (representative line: I housekeep in Time’s gut-end / Among emmets and mollusks, / Duchess of Nothing, / Hairtusk’s bride.; the poem’s entire seven-part sequence can be read online here. It’s the last poem listed under “1959”).
In her own (excellent) biography of the Plath-Hughes marriage, Her Husband, Diane Middlebrook passes over “Poem for a Birthday” quickly, dismissing it as overly imitative of Roethke. But Stevenson spends a significant amount of time on the sequence, and her interpretation of the poem’s imagery is sensitive and stirring. She writes, “These are poems of nightmarish regression comparable to Roethke’s ‘mad sequences,’ attempting to reproduce in infantile images and language the mute appetites of babies and beasts.”
In college I’d been exposed to a few poems from Roethke’s “mad sequences,” but they never took — other people’s nightmares are sometimes too opaque — and up until recently the only poem of his I knew well was “My Pap’s Waltz.” But lately, I’ve been reading a lot of him. Here’s one of my favorite bits to re-visit. It’s the fourth part of “The Dying Man,” a poem in five sections written in memory of Yeats. This part is called “The Exulting”*:
Once I delighted in a single tree;
The loose air sent me running like a child–
I love the world; I want more than the world,
Or after-image of the inner eye.
Flesh cries to flesh; and bone cries out to bone;
I die into this life, alone yet not alone.
Was it a god his suffering renewed?–
I saw my father shrinking in his skin;
He turned his face; there was another man
Walking the edge, loquacious, unafraid.
He quivered like a bird in birdless air,
Yet dared to fix his vision anywhere.
Fish feed on fish according to their need:
My enemies renew me, and my blood
Beats slower in my careless solitude.
I bare a wound, and dare myself to bleed.
I think a bird, and it begins to fly.
By dying daily, I have come to be.
All exultation is a dangerous thing.
I see you, love, I see you in a dream;
I hear a noise of bees, a trellis hum,
And that slow humming rises into song.
A breath is but a breath: I have the earth;
I shall undo all dying by my death.
*Taken from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke.