Friday, November 26, 2010

The One That Got Away

Poem by Richard Sassoon (Plath's love before Ted):

RAINBOW

On my plot of earth nothing but dandelions
turning to seed - actually the dandelion, as it's
an asexual thing, purely itself, immutable -
while my neighbors' wild poppies are blossoming,
one more seemingly every hour. Those
magnificent orange-red, origami-like petals
will soon be dropping away and scattering
everywhere, a festival of crinkled hue and cry,
while the little grey parachutes, dandelion
seeds, fly off hither and thither to naturalize,
even spiritualize, the tidy lawns of expensively
cared for, non-indigenous bright green grasses.

That common, sexless life eternal... the exotic
life-sex-and-death ... skillfully creative and
quite banal arts and the artificial too - this
very moment my own vital-mortal spirit is
bowing down to honor them all - finite
details, quickly here and then never so,
conjured with their own conjuring conjurers
(seer, seen, and seeing suddenly made one again
briefly) out of the vast unknowable, never itself
even born: the only ever-infinite mystery...

O!-
how my red heart expanding is laughing at this small,
pale white, wrinkled face about to become a skeleton's
skull with holes where the bright blue eyes now
are turning tearful, like two earth-bounded
heavens clouding to lavish all the living
worlds with rain... and rain and rain...
while the sun yet shines so the ultimate symbol
of all, the rainbow, there and not there, appears...

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And speaking of poppies, here's Plath on October 27, 1962, her birthday, 3-1/2 months before she died (the date of Sassoon's poem is unknown):

POPPIES IN OCTOBER

Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly --

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.

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I'd always thought of Sassoon as being pretentious. Knowing nothing about him other than what Plath had written in her mid-'50s journals (slight, artistic, Gallic, rich, decadent -- the alleged "mistresses" and spankings and whatnot). I'd never known that he was an actual writer (or painter). Knowing Plath as I thought I knew her via her work, I assumed that Ted Hughes was, "of course," the "ultimate mate" for her, given her overt hero-worship and apparent love of extremes. Upon my first reading of the Sassoon poem above, I immediately focused on what I initially (knee-jerkingly) considered his "wishy-washy"-ness, phrases like "to naturalize, even spiritualize" and "non-indigenous." And then his admiration for the "asexuality" of the dandelion... But here's the thing: Sassoon's poem is actually subtle and thoughtful, considering the value of both the dandelion and the poppy -- and of being and not-being -- and not judging either, but just wondering at the mystery of both. His thoughts seem purely his own.

Hughes, on the other hand, while one of my favorite poets, and an obviously skilled and deep-feeling one (the only poet who has ever made me cry), seems spiritually rough and clumsy in comparison. Hughes's language/thought is heavily invested in the heartily physical, and in raw acts practiced in the natural world; and when he goes inward, he reaches immediately for the mythological, hardly ever trusting his own thoughts. A search for human-crafted patterns of thought and behavior stretching back thousands of years. Interesting. But not ORIGINAL. Or truly indicative of the actual range of human (not animal) thought. He doesn't think for himself.

I can't, of course, judge Sassoon's thought-patterns and/or self based on one poem. But his poem above is "merciful." It's open and accepting of VARIOUS patterns found in the universe. Not just focused on the black-and-white, allegedly "fixed" and destructive patterns that Hughes tends to feel guide everyone's destiny. Plath's work -- and, I assume, psyche -- despite the extremities of emotion, actually veers between the two philosophies; while being drawn to the darker side and thus influenced by Ted's harshly deterministic, uber-negative world view, her creative work is actually a lot more open and receptive and similar in thought -- the simultaneous existence of mercy with horror -- to Richard Sassoon's.

I think the hyper-positive fake world of 1950s America got the better of her. Plath was good at her constructed role in that society, but inwardly distrusted it deeply since her own actual dark thoughts were not the thoughts that were being thrust upon her. And so she turned to their opposite -- Hughes and his various, usually tragic, mythologies posing in the guise of "reality," which, it turned out, are equally as false. In her work -- in her purest of selves -- she mistrusted this falseness instinctively. In her life, she did/could not. In real life, Hughes, after her repressed upbringing that she refused to go back to, seemed like her only option.

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