Off Topic: 'Letter in November': The Joyful Plath

Sylvia Plath’s ‘Letter in November’ is my favourite of her poems; one that I love in a body of work that is remarkable considering its limited period of creation.

The poem is defined by the same intangible and unstable narration as her most haunting and vengeful poems, yet it presents something closer to mania. Its abruptness and guise of simplicity is what makes it such a standout for me, with the charming and confident phrasing of the poem comfortably compartmentalised in my memory, just as Plath dramatically truncates the poem to convey the excitement and heightened emotion of her poetic voice. It begins:

Love, the world
Suddenly turns, turns color

and then trails off with ‘It is the Arctic,’ the description of which bridges the stanzas of this incoherent, almost stream-of-consciousness style narration. Plath clearly marvels in the joyful bluntness of the poem with the qualifying ‘turns color’ playfully pretending to elaborate, but only providing an increasing number of blank contrasts. The metaphor of the switching on of colour is also rather obvious, but the phrasing is so simple and yet so far from normal syntax that it just begs for repetition. It seems essential by its own brute force. Plath may be said to be the poetic equivalent of style over substance, but of course this phrase is meaningless and almost always problematic. The poem is about being happy. That’s it. So, what? I often hear the phrase applied to people like Zack Snyder, and I find the implication that his style is in any way interesting quite insulting. Ultimately style can have its own substance, and Snyder’s images become muddy and meaningless. Plath proves that simplicity can convey volumes. 

The use of absolutes is also interesting, as this simple wordplay and use of contrasts can be threatening for Plath. This is suggested in her poem “Wuthering Heights”, in which her unease is conveyed by the description of herself as:

the one upright
Among the horizontals

In this poem, on the other hand, she is controlling of nature, which is seen as a meaningless aesthetic symbol as she is ‘Squelching and squelching through the beautiful red.’
There are probably very few words more despised for their meaninglessness than ‘beautiful’, and the poem acknowledges this through the use of ‘stupidly happy,’ suggesting a voice aware of the improbability of this simplicity. As well as her dark subjects, I suspect the apparent simplicity of some of her poems is what leads imitators to so poorly mimic Plath’s writing. Yet, isn't it the subtle juxtapositions of control and mystery that makes this seemingly quaint poem rather strange and somewhat haunting?

The final two lines of the poem,

The irreplaceable
Golds bleed and deepen, the mouths of Thermopylae

are quite astonishing in a strange way. I mean, for a poet as visceral and tangible as Plath, this mythical image is so vague and obscure, yet it becomes vivid simply through the filtered-down and manufactured cultural imaginary of Thermopylae. Indeed, if ancient civilisations were to be characterised by one colour, it would be gold.
The titular 'letter' is rarely acknowledged, apart from the direct address of

Imagine it ----
My seventy trees
Holding their gold-ruddy balls
In a thick gray death-soup

Of course, we can ‘imagine it’, and the succinctness is successful purely because of the universality of these images. Note the use of ‘my,’ though; her happiness has a distinct tie to the act of ownership. This control is tensely insecure in an environment described in such indefinite terms. The present tense of ‘bleed and deepen’ shows the moulding of colour, the strange manipulation of objective fact that reaches its paramount in the insecure image of Thermopylae, which is proven and sustained, but ultimately rather arbitrary, distant and chaotic. Equal to the despair in Plath’s work, there is a godlike control and force that belies her rather tenuous relationship to the physical world.


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