Writing about Death, Plath and Merrill

During our class presentations, I found some very interesting similarities between Renate’s poem, “Balloons” by Sylvia Plath, and the poem that I presented on, James Merrill’s “Christmas Tree”. The idea of a poet writing at the end of their life was present in both of our poems, and the poignancy and sadness associated with the coming of death was evident in both. In “Christmas Tree”, Merrill writes about his impending death, and the expectations that he has and that others might have. Merrill writes, “Brought down at last/ from the cold sighing mountain”, and says that he has been “cherished, kept warm,” perhaps by friends and family or critics. The tone of Merrill’s poem is nostalgic, it seems, but not necessarily depressing or conflicted. There seems to be some significance to the phrase “brought down at last”, and later, the description of his physical state, “the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals plowed back into the Earth for lives to come,” These lines seem to suggest Merrill’s reaction to his illness, as he died of complications related to AIDS. Additionally, I think the poem’s illustration of a family owning a Christmas tree and then getting rid of it as soon as Christmas is over alludes to the idea that Merrill’s reputation and body of work were seen as a part of his identity, and he hopes that his legacy will remain despite his physical death. Merrill also references his critics and perhaps his family and friends, in lines such as “it did help to be wound in jewels, to send their colors flashing forth from vents in the deep fragrant sables that cloaked me head to foot,”. I think these lines also refer to Merrill’s perception of himself in the eyes of others, and how his death is significant but also somewhat trivial because while he will die, his work will remain.

In comparison, “Balloons” seems to take on a more cynical tone, and perhaps that is due to the way that Plath died, by suicide, instead of a medical condition, like Merrill. Similar to “Christmas Tree”, “Balloons” was one of Plath’s final poems. She writes about the goings on in a home, writing, “Since Christmas they have lived with us, guileless and clear, oval soul-animals, taking up half the space,”. Her observational tone seems to realize certain changes or aspects of things around her, especially in reference to her children, when she writes “your small brother is making his balloon squeak like a cat. Seeming to see a funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,”. This line seems to describe a mother watching her child eat a balloon, and given what we know about parenting and child safety, it seems like the mother is not fully present and seems ambivalent about her children. The tone of ambivalence is evident throughout the poem, with Plath’s observation of “invisible air drifts, giving a shriek and pop”. As Merrill also frequently does, it seems that Plath is taking normal, everyday situations and attributing a sense of foreboding to them in order to help us understand her impending doom and detached sense. I think the use of a family and home in this poem is significant because it shows Plath’s evident lack of concern and emotional connection to her family and children, as well as the state of the home, which goes against the traditional female role of mother and homemaker.

The two poems, both written at the end of the poet’s lives, are at once poignant, foreboding, and observational. Both poets seem to reflect on their experiences but also have come to terms with their impending death, and they seem to reference outside relationships which will be affected by their deaths, which I think is an important aspect of both poems, given the lives lead by both Plath and Merrill.

Niedecker on Marriage

Today in class we discussed one of Lorine Niedecker’s Poems 1965-1967 on page 228 of Collected Works which discusses marriage. From the beginning of the poem, Niedecker’s take on marriage implies a sense of constriction and expectations involved in a marriage. The form of the poem assists Niedecker in conveying this message. The first line, “I married”, is followed by a few indented lines. The next line which falls on the same margin as the first is “someone.” The juxtaposition of these lines is interesting because, as we discussed in class, the reader’s eye jumps from “I married” to “someone”. If you continue to read in this way, the poem reads, “I married someone, he drank too much, I say, I thought”.

The speaker does not sound particularly amicable towards her husband, describing the reasoning behind her marriage as being “for warmth,” as if implying that the marriage was an answer to loneliness rather than out of love. Additionally, she describes their living conditions, writing, “we lay leg in the cupboard, head in closet,” implying a claustrophobic living situation, and perhaps, a claustrophobic marriage.

The poem also seems to comment on the idea of marriage in society as a standard by which all women should configure their goals. Niedecker writes, “I married in the world’s black night for warmth, if not repose. At the close-someone,” and “I hid with him from the long range guns.” These lines seem to imply that the speaker married to avoid the harsh criticism of those who expected her to, and that the identity of her husband is not as important as the fact that she is not alone, regardless of whether or not she is in love with her husband.

Finally, I found the last lines of the poem to be the most difficult to interpret. Niedecker writes, “I married and lived unburied,” I found this confusing, but I take it to mean that the marriage and consequent events of the speaker’s life were dulled and lessened by a marriage she did not feel internally compelled to take part in. I also thought it was very interesting that Niedecker chose to end the poem with “I thought-“, implying that perhaps her thoughts became less necessary and important within her marriage and, ultimately, her life due to the constriction of the relationship.

Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended”

We spoke in class today about Ashbery’s poem “Soonest Mended”. As the article by Koethe and the interview with Poulin discussed, Ashbery’s poetry is full of descriptive imagery and often is told through the voice of a strong, observant yet frequently ambiguous narrator. Ashbery purposely leaves out specific information about the personal history of a narrator, leaving the reader instead to consider the imagery and setting of the poem through the narrator’s observations and emotions. Some questions I had while reading the Koethe article were about the relationship of the characters in “Soonest Mended” who make up the “we” that is referred to throughout the poem. In class, we discussed the possibility that “we” refers to a generation. Instead, I think the “we” is characterizing a specific relationship between two people. I read “Soonest Mended” as somewhat of a coming of age story, and this meaning can be applied whether we read “we” as a group or as individuals. When I read this poem, as well as others by Ashbery, obvious questions about the speakers arose as well as questions about the setting, meaning, and metaphors used. I think “Soonest Mended” is one of the more relatable poems we read, and many different stylistic aspects of Ashbery’s work as a whole are present throughout the poem.

“Soonest Mended” begins with a description of life in the past, it seems, for the speaker. Various cultural references are made to “heroines in Orlando Furioso” (l. 3), “Angelica, in the Ingres painting,” (l. 6), and “Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile,” (l.11). The speaker then seems to lament this presence of culture and the past, saying “Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused about how to receive this latest piece of information. Was it information? Weren’t we rather acting this out for someone else’s benefit, thoughts in a mind.” (l. 13-16). This realization and sudden questioning of meaning and purpose gives the reader a sense of the shift in tone in the poem, and indicates the passage of time.

Next, the speaker seems to experience somewhat of an epiphany, noting that problems that used to seem important, such as “food and the rent and bills to be paid,” (l.19), are now trivial. Here the pronoun “our” comes in to the poem, with the declaration, “to reduce all this to a small variant, to step free at last, minuscule on the gigantic plateau-this was our ambition: to be small and clear and free,” (l.20-22). I marked these lines as I read as a possible allusion to a coming of age story, because they seem to characterize a realization of purpose and possibility for a speaker who has been living life in one way, but without real reason.

Lines such as “ holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off, with an occasional dream, a vision: the upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away,” (l. 27-30), and “we are all talkers it is true, but underneath the talk lies the moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor,” (34-37) imply a relationship to me. The imagery of holding on tightly to life as it makes sense and dreaming of someone, and the idea of talking without saying what is really meant, and instead saying things that are “untidy” and “simple” made me think of a relationship, perhaps between young people, that is changing as both people grow up. The relationships of characters in Ashbery’s poems can be difficult to understand because of the ambiguity of the speakers and other people, but physical and emotional descriptions such as these create more concrete images for the reader.

Finally, the idea of Ashbery’s characterization of freedom, characterized in Koethe’s article as his ability to “make palpable that ‘specific kind of freedom’, that sense that ‘we are both alive and free’ which is Ashbery’s poetry’s most distinctive characteristic and the one that makes it so valuable,” (Koethe 100), is present towards the end of “Soonest Mended”. The speaker goes on to describe the obstacles he or she faces after the realization of the desire to be “small and clear and free,” (l. 22). Ashbery writes, “These were moments, years, solid with reality, faces, nameable events, kisses, heroic acts, but like the friendly beginning of a geometrical progression not to reassuring as though meaning could be cast aside some day when it had been outgrown,” (l. 52-56). These lines clarify the idea that change is inevitable and ultimately rewarding and life-shaping, and emphasizes Ashbery’s concept of life as not only a series of events and the passage of time but also the sensation of being alive, taking part in relationships and making decisions.