Thursday, April 06, 2006

Sylvia Plath and Tuna Salad

There has been a dedicated campaign from the right and center of poetry to impact the modernist canon. The first goal is accessibility, as opposed to the "difficulties" of modernism; the second, I fear, is cultural change. The major players are Dana Gioia of the NEA, John Barr of The Poetry Foundation (with funding from Ruth Lilly), Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, and Garrison Keillor of NPR. Here is a quotation from Keillor's introduction to his anthology, Good Poems:

"When you compare Bishop to, say, her friend and mentor Marianne Moore, the mentor pales severely. Marianne Moore was a dotty old aunt whose poems are quite replicable for anyone with a thesaurus. A nice lady, but definitely a plodder, and it would be cruel punishment to have to write a book about her. Her contemporary, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who played the glamorous broad and taxi dancer to Moore's bunhead librarian, wrote more that is still of interest, whereas Moore's reputation must be due to the fact that, in the republic of letters, there are many more Moores than Millays. From Millay it's a straight shot to Anne Sexton, a writer of profound exuberance and wit and a hot number, and her cohort, the beautiful horsekeeper, Maxine Kumin, two women who, forgive me, make St. Sylvia Plath look like a tuna salad."

This passage is as rich in sexist stereotypes as Where's Waldo? is in Waldo. Moore's "The Fish" is filled with sensual and linguistic detail. Sensual, as in "of the senses" not as in "glamorous broad." The poem begins:

The Fish

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.

Where's the difficulty? It's one fierce, attentive, sympathetic seeing after another. The fish are underwater, of course, in an aquarium. In their slow swimming, they seem to "wade "through decorative black jade placed by an aquarium designer. A crow-blue (nice!) mussel opens and shuts like an injured fan, the force of which adjusts the grey sand (poetic license: ash) at the bottom of the tank. The poem's eye is public. Its music is evident but has a secret--the lines of each stanza are measured as follows: first line, one syllable; second line, three; third line, nine; fourth line, six; fifth line, eight. Moore is, yes, something of a formalist, but an eccentric and inventive one. Moore's talent does not exclude that of Bishop. As their biographies reveal, Millay and Sexton were actively, almost frenetically sexual, therefore what, easy to understand as poets? The erotic comes in many forms including the sublimated, and eroticism is not, at any rate, a reasonable standard for a poem.

As for the more beautiful woman poet, Sylvia Plath or the "horsekeeper" Maxine Kumin (there's nothing like the odor of the stables to get your D. H. Lawrence up), we must judge for ourselves.