UNFORTUNATELY AND UNDENIABLY, the first reaction to the linking of the names Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath is not that they were distinguished poets, or two women who achieved that distinction, but that each took her own life. In each case, a sort of mystique of suicide arose, which fogged the stature of the poetry and resulted in an emotional excitement, part compassion, part necrophilia. Complicating judgment was the fact that both poets used their suicidal impulses as material for the greater part of their work, making it impossible to consider the latter without the former. And yet, time has helped a little.
Now their collected poems--though small advantage to at least one of the poets--give an opportunity to see their work in its totality, to attempt to free it from the domination of the events of two harrassed lives. Perhaps disposing of similarities can clarify the quality of each poet's uniqueness. Both were, early in life, drawn by the magnet of death; both felt constantly threatened. Sexton writes: "The world is full of enemies,/ There is no safe place." Plath, of "the bitterness between my teeth,/ The incalculable malice of the everyday." Both found the fact of identity intolerable. Plath repeats with horror, "I am, I am, I am" and "Myself, myself!" In Sexton's work, the distaste for others is no match for the cold disgust she increasingly feels for herself.
But these obvious similarities tend to obscure the more important differences. Ultimately, the poetry of Plath comes through as less marred by the exigencies of her struggle. But here dates intervene. If Plath had lived longer, would her late poetry have disintegrated as Sexton's did? A "Collected Poems," in Sexton's case, can be of service to her place in poetry only by giving, once and for all, an overview, a totality from which the best can be extracted and preserved. The best poems are formidable, both brilliant and memorable. Most of this best poetry is in the book's first two sections, "To Bedlam and Part Way Back" and "All My Pretty Ones." There are--decreasingly --poems to be rescued from the late work. Someone will edit a final "Selected Poems" which shows the poetry at its strongest, compelling, original poetry which will be around for a long time.
In the Complete Poems the best is bogged down by work ranging from the partially successful to the dismal. Two difficulties loom in the matter of considering Sexton as a champion of women's freedom, including the freedom to use subjects formerly taboo, and as celebrant of womanhood. The fact is that such poems are of use only when they succeed as poems (otherwise they produce a sort of poetic backlash); and the other is that Sexton's growing distaste for herself is so often concentrated on aspects specifically feminine. There is a persistent note of dismay at losing or failing to please the male--father, lover, doctor. There are repeated references, by the mother of daughters, to the boy child she never had. In the span of time used otherwise, she says, "I could have gone around the world twice/ or had new children--all boys."
The consuming self-distaste and the dictatorship of the ego are her poetry's enemies. In a fine early poem, "Starry Night," she sounds her note: What the starry night gives is the recipe for her own death. Here, this succeeds; but whereas the Plath poems--like the letters of Van Gogh--come white-hot from the center of an experience, those of Sexton have, increasingly, the self- consciousness of a watcher in a mirror.
The techniques which served the early poems well become static and stultifying: repetition used as the poem's framework, similes snatched from a contrasting mood. The one-liners (often witty, often very funny) of the fairy tales later begin to click like a mechanism.
Perhaps now that the work is here in its entirety, the debris can be pushed aside, and the small potent core of the best work be exposed and preserved--that work of which Maxine Kumin writes with such sensitivity in her moving and generous preface.
Unlike Sexton, who began to write poetry at the suggestion of her psychiatrist, Plath early and always cared passionately for poetry. Equally early, she began to be drawn to the idea of her own death. Her vocabulary itself is that of destruction: shrivel, devour, raved, starving, scorched, ravaged, charred. The interesting thing is how she grew to control that vocabulary.
While there is little indication of the quality of the mature poems in an appended section called "Juvenilia," it is instructive in other ways. Already there are glimpses of something radiant and understood of which all good things are a part, which is daily threatened or destroyed by reality. Always the pragmatic, the daily, works against those glimpses. Significantly, even then Plath believed that the death wish itself was corrupt. Already, she wrote baldly of those happy to be dead: "They loll forever in colossal sleep;/ Nor can God's stern, shocked angels cry them up/ From their fond, final, infamous decay." ("The Dead")
In the book proper, the early poems are often obviously derivative. Yeats, Hopkins, and, oddly, Ransome hover in the air, quite apart from the overt imitation of Roethke, done as exercises. But the poems gather strength, and many of them begin even to spring free of the obsessions, and other human beings and nature become their source; "The Net-Menders," "Stars Over the Dordogne," "Wreath for a Bridal" and "The Thin People" are examples. Even the ferocious last poems, truly terrible, cling to a coherent force. Aware of the sad, cruel fact that the suicide's repetitive rehearsals become ultimately boring, she can write of "old imperfections . . . Dug in first as God's spurs/ To start the spirit out of the mud/ It stabled in; long used, became well-loved/ Bedfellows of the spirit's debauch, fond masters." ("The Companionable Ills")
Though in her desperation and panic the actuality of childbirth seemed to Plath a horror, several of the rare poems of happiness deal with the newborn. "I have never seen a thing so clear./ His lids are like the lilac- flower/ And soft as a moth, his breath./ I shall not let go./ There is no guile or warp in him. May he keep so." ("Three Women")
In the intolerably difficult last year, of "nights without peace, terrible with dreams," when her circumstances seemed tailored to despair, ("I die with variety/ Hung, starved, burned, hooked") she still kept somehow a fierce honesty. There is very little real dross in the poems; unlike the skillful and glib prose of The Bell Jar, they hold up.
In the bitter months preceding her death a torrent of poetry came. Yet the poems, erratic and violent, never go slack, never employ tricks, never manipulate the reader. She knew there were things outside herself that she must try to reach. On a broadcast for the BBC, she said, "I do not like to think of all the things, familiar, useful and worthy things, I have never put into a poem." However obviously useless it is to speculate on the future poetry possible from a woman who died at 33, it is hard not to believe in the prospect of growth and stature since even the last almost totally destructive months did not gut the core of her control. The introduction and notes by her husband, Ted Hughes, are advisedly unemotional. Perhaps for that reason a few lines of his notes are too eloquent for comment: "On 17 January (1962), SP's second child, a son, Nicholas, was born. . . . She and her husband separated in October. Thereafter she was dependent on home help. In December she moved with her two children to Londultifon, to a flat . . . in what was to be the coldest winter in England since 1947 . . . On 11 February (1963) she died of her own hand."
In the end, we have received from these two lives and deaths durable poetry.