Plath’s Dance

December 5, 2010

Before this class, the only Plath poem I had “studied” was “Edge,” and that was back in high school. We did–for lack of a better adjective–a rather reductive reading of it, and then it was over, and I said goodbye to Plath. Until now.

Plath’s creative drive was immense; writing so many excellent poems in  just a short span of time (two years) must have been exhausting, and maybe even exhilarating for her. Or maybe it was just a release of her energy into her craft; maybe it was therapeutic for her. It likely could have been all these things.

Reading and studying Plath’s work this semester has been challenging and rewarding, and for both of these reasons (among many others) she’s been my favorite of  the contemporary poets we’ve examined this semester. I had a hard time deciding which poem of hers I wanted to talk about–it being a close call between the wonderfully strange “Zoo-Keeper’s Wife” and the somewhat vague “The Night Dances.” I’ve decided to talk about the latter.

After reading Helen’s post about her thoughts on “what poetry is,” I knew that there was some element in Plath’s poem “The Night Dances” that made me have one of those moments where i felt that “hand to hand” connection–that particularity and personal union that I felt was deeply ingrained in my conscious emotional experience. It’s not something i can really place my finger on, unless I were to say “oh yea, well I feel that she’s questioning the reason behind her inability to contain another’s spiritual essence within herself.” And in a sense that is what i think this poem is about;  but I also feel that there’s something lost in the translation of that emotion into my words. Plath has translated that feeling a thousand times more successfully than I could translate it in any kind of rhetorical language of my own.

And maybe that’s an essential part of what poetry is. I really agree with what Helen has said in her post. In my interpretation of what she’s arguing, it seems that she’s putting forth that idea that poetry is more about communication than representation. I’m not sure that Mr. Heaney would agree with her, but I certainly do. And why can’t it be both representation–symbolic and otherwise–of some essential human experience, and, a communication of that experience? Maybe one doesn’t necessitate the other, but I don’t think that either is mutually exclusive. I think part of the beauty of poetry is that it stretches the limitations of language’s ability to represent an often abstract and yet worldly human experience in a way that communicates some intangible emotional core (contained within the semantics of that language). Poetry necessitates communication; if nothing is semantically understood (by a reader) within the words the poet uses to translate his or her experience, than nothing is gained. Perhaps a second part of that beauty inherent in poetry is our willingness (perhaps unconsciously) to search for that abstract element of emotional communication.

In a way, my brief analysis of Plath’s poem “The Night Dances” is reductive. I think that by trying to represent my own emotional connection to the poem, I am, in a way, performing (not to use too many engl 295 terms) a representation of a representation, and within that space–between the translation of language, there is some essence of the beauty, and perhaps that beautiful ambiguity in the poem that is lost. I’m opening up a gap. I’ve been trying to think of an analogy to describe what I’m thinking, but I’m struggling. The closest thing I can think of is if Plath’s poem is a chord (as in a combination of musical notes), then my understanding and interpretation of her poem is like pulling apart those notes and playing them at separate times, and in a random order. The same sound wouldn’t be communicated–sure the notes would be essentially the same, but the effect, and the “way” in which you heard them would be different. And there would be an acoustic gap between each of the notes too.

However, just because there is something lost in my written explication (and translation) of the poem, doesn’t mean there is that same loss of beauty in what I feel when I read Plath’s poem. It’s my inability to recreate that emotional communication through language that signifies the loss of the poem’s true “essence;” but by the same token, my desire to express what I feel about the poem proves the beauty of the poem in the first place; it proves that there must be some aspect of the poem’s essence which compels me to want to try and describe my emotional connection to it. In that sense, the poem’s communication has succeeded; it is beautiful because it communicates to me some compelling and abstract emotion that I struggle to put into words.

(sorry, that was a really disorganized jumble of thoughts)

I think that last seven lines of this poem communicated to me this strange and resonant feeling. Plath writes, “Why am I given/These lamps, these planets/ Falling like blessings, like flakes/ Six-sided, white/ On my eyes, my lips, my hair/ Touching and melting./ Nowhere.”

To address the notion of representation, I think Plath’s use of language here represents an the abstract emotion of loss, and a questioning of the fleeting nature of life. Plath has compared these physical things–the snow flakes, lamps, even planets–to the abstract memory of her lover’s “gestures” and her memory of what it feels like to be in love. She writes about these lost feelings when she writes that “The comets/ have such a space to cross,/ Such coldness, forgetfulness.” I find the beauty in this poem lies in both the language’s ability to represent abstract emotion through physical things in the material world, and also in that way the language communicates to me some strange, maybe even unconscious feeling that i too have felt Plath’s question–that I’ve also felt the lamps, planets, and snowflakes falling and melting away, captured in that moment only. I don’t think that poetry’s communication–that “hand reaching out to another hand” feeling–and poetry’s representation through language are mutually exclusive terms. But when it comes down to it, that “hand holding,” that immediacy of connection, comes through most directly in poetry’s ability to use language in a way that communicates to the reader that resonant emotion.

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