Not Angst, but Despair by Evan J. Peterson

Editor Staff, Poetry, January 17th, 2012

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Intimate Monsters: Examining the Value of Horror in Poetry

This month, I have chosen to write about one of my favorite poets because I thought it would be easy. Instead, I find myself deeply invested in the defense of a frequently maligned woman, one who murdered herself rather than endure her pain. 2011 was a tough year for many of us, and pain was no stranger. Perhaps this is why I feel the need to defend Sylvia Plath and her poetry of despair.

As a youngster, I wrote a lot of poetry, mostly angsty adolescent stuff and declarations of infatuation. However, as a reader, I consumed very little of it (which is unfortunately typical of young people who write a lot of poetry). I read horror fiction instead. Poetry was a mode of self-expression and catharsis rather than an art form that I understood or even appreciated.

During my first poetry class in college, I read Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” which changed my life. I do not exaggerate; this poem showed me that effective poetry could be written in the horror genre, and that changed the direction of my writing and my academic work. “Lady Lazarus” made my jaw drop.

The speaker, in Plath’s own words, has “the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first.” That description barely does justice to a poem in which the speaker wants to die but can’t stay dead, in which she becomes a circus freak, Holocaust victim, zombie, and phoenix all at once. It sounds like the plot of a schlock film, but Plath pulls it off in a way that nearly makes me cry in empathy. To hell with two roads diverging in a yellow wood. Reading “Lady Lazarus” bound me permanently to the pursuit, appreciation, and creation of the horror poem.

“Lady Lazarus” can be found in Plath’s posthumously released second poetry collection, Ariel, which is far wilder and more intense than her first collection, The Colossus. The harrowing despair comes forward so often in this work that I’m somewhat hesitant to call it “horror” poetry, but I’ll do just that. The despair is at the core, but the horror is in the atmosphere and images. The images are not merely surreal; they’re mad, not the psychedelic visions of Ginsberg, but the tortured hallucinations of a disturbed mind and soul. Ariel is radiantly, sublimely disturbed. I feel a bit embarrassed for finding so much to appreciate in someone else’s misery, but she expresses it in a way that’s plainly impressive and fascinating.

Although “Lady Lazarus” may always be my favorite, the poem that best exemplifies the horrifying madness and despair of Ariel is “Fever 103°.” This is a record of delirium brought on by physical illness, and it offers a cascade of disquieting images. A baby choking on smoke becomes a “ghastly orchid,” which becomes a “Devilish leopard!/ Radiation turned it white/ And killed it in an hour.” Plath also summons Cerberus, Hiroshima, and Isadora Duncan, the world-famous dancer whose neck was broken when one of her favored silk scarves caught in the wheel of a car and cracked her dead.

The poems that Plath wrote in the six months prior to her suicide are rife with such horrors. In the poem “Cut,” she describes the “thrill” of cutting her thumb nearly off: “A celebration, this is./ Out of a gap/ A million soldiers run,/ Redcoats, every one.”

In “Thalidomide,” which is titled for the scandalous morning-sickness pill that led to severe birth defects, she writes about “The indelible buds,// Knuckles at shoulder-blades, the/ Faces that// Shove into being…” (note: “Thalidomide” is not found in many editions of Ariel, but was written during the same time period and is found in her Collected Poems).

The last poem she wrote, a week before she died by her own hand, is “Edge.” It begins,

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment…

and it ends as follows:

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

Let us excuse Plath’s tendency to wallow. Her brilliance and confessional audacity overshadow accusations of melodrama. Let us excuse her seeming insensitivity in comparing her own emotional pain to that of the victims of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. The fact is that despair is goddamned despair, regardless of what the individual heart has attached it to, and despair kills.

Some scoff at her and claim that her problems were purely First World, that she overdramatized the grief of losing her husband to another woman, and so on. This is just cruel. One might as well reduce her to her zodiac sign—Scorpio: known for intensity. Judging her ability to cope with pain won’t change the fact that a brilliant artist murdered herself at age 30, while her two small children were in the next room. This transcends selfishness and anyone’s understanding. This demonstrates a misery that won’t be endured.

I have never read another poetry collection quite like Ariel, and I don’t want to especially. While I find so many of the poems stunning, I wouldn’t wish upon anyone the internal conditions that generated them.

~EJP

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evan peterson poet poetry writing for nailed magazineEvan J. Peterson is the author of Skin Job, (2012 Minor Arcana Press). His zines include Secular Exorcisms, The Ecstatic Tarot, and Hello Kitty Chainsaw. A poet, fiction and nonfiction author, columnist, editor, performer, and teacher, Evan’s recent work can be found excerpted in the New York Times and in Weird Tales, Court Green, Assaracus, Aim For The Head: An Anthology Of Zombie Poetry. He is the newly appointed creative director/editor of Minor Arcana Press.

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Staff

More than one editor and/or contributor was responsible for the completion of this piece on NAILED.