Two months ago, I had hardly read any of Sylvia Plath’s poetry. Despite having read The Bell Jar twice times over the course of my teens, I always thought of her poetry as dull. However, during the fall semester, I wrote an ekphratic poem for my workshop about Plath’s 1950 painting, “Two Women Reading”. Since I was writing a poem about a poet’s (visual) work and cultural place, I figured I should actually read some of her poetry. I didn’t own any of her books, so I pulled out my Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature and read her included poems, my favorite of which was “Disquieting Muses”. I grew fascinated with her use of repetition and decided to take on her final book, Ariel, as part of my winter reading.
After having read (most of) Ariel, I stand by my belief that Plath’s use of repetition is the most interesting aspect of her work; it is also the most painful. Reading poem after poem, they all start to elusively blur together into obscured rants on her lack of enthusiasm for motherhood, men, and life in general. Almost all of her poems are free verse but are still written in tercets, sestets, or octets, which further masks the differences between them, leaving me to conclude that repetition is both what kills and what redeems Plath’s poetry.
The most interesting use of repetition that can only be seen by examining Ariel as a whole is the use of repeated words. ‘Horse’, ‘cat’, ‘sticky’, ‘mirror’, ‘black’, ‘potatoes’, and ‘moon’, among others, are all repeated every few poems throughout the book.
Due the memorable opening lines of the poem the book is named after, “Ariel”, one of the most obvious repeated words is ‘blue’. Everything in Ariel is ‘blue’. She doesn’t try to mask it with synonyms like ‘azure’, ‘cobalt’, or ‘sapphire’. Everything is shamelessly ‘blue’, from the aforementioned opening tercet in “Ariel”— “Stasis in darkness./ Then the substanceless blue/ Pour of tor and distances.”— to the head of an illegitimate baby (“A Secret” line 18), lightning (“The Other” line 5), and something more typical, grievances (The Courage of Shutting-Up line 11).
With some of the other repeated words, it becomes more interesting how she manages to fit them in so frequently; one of those words is ‘acid’. The second time I saw the word, I thought it was a coincidence. The third time, I started thinking, What’s up with Plath and acid? Considering that the first use of the word is in the context of ‘Acetic acid’ (“The Couriers” line 3), which is a key component of vinegar, it’s difficult to link her fascination with ‘acid’ to her fascination with morbidity.
In “Lesbos”, a poem in which she manages to toss the term in twice, she writes an apostrophe to the substance, “O vase of acid,/ It is love you are full of. You know who you hate,” (lines 70-71). The previous place ‘acid’ is mentioned in the poem is with a figurative threat that acid rain will shower the cheating husband when he leaves (line 46), which we cannot help but tie together. It’s also notable that the four lines following the first ‘acid’, she also manages to throw in the word ‘blue’ twice. The use of these repeated words draws implicit connections between the poems and between elements within the poems.
Similarly, within a single poem, her flowing use of prosody connects one image to another. This is most apparent in “A Secret”. The first three quatrains are characterized by the repeated use of assonance in the words ‘you’, ‘two’, ‘huge’, and, of course, ‘blue’. The fourth quatrain circles around this sound: “They stare from a square, stiff and frill./ They are for export,/ One a fool, the other a fool.” (lines 14-16). This ends on the assonance established at the beginning of the poem, ‘fool’ going along with ‘two’ and ‘you’, even though it is no longer at the end of the word.
Establishing prosodic patterns, deviating from them, then returning to them in a different form is common in her writing; it is one of the things I most admire. Her use of repeated sounds is so prominent that one hardly notices that she often uses them in sporadic end rhyme.
While reading Ariel, I often found myself spending more time mapping out prosodic patterns than examining the meaning the poems. In fact, her use of prosody became so engrained in me that when I sat down to write, my poetry started to sound eerily like her’s. That was when I knew I needed to get away from Ariel’s repetition, leaving the last quarter of the book unread. I plan to return to it someday, but reading a book of Plath’s poems cover to cover was dizzying. I am excited to put Ariel away and turn to the narrative regularity in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies.