Confessional Poetry and ‘Lady Lazarus’

The debate suggests why confessional poetry’s blurring of distinctions between public and private worlds was freighted with social meaning that extended beyond matters of aesthetic value. Postwar social transformations – like the growth of corporations and the expansion of suburbs – seemed to corrupt Americans’ desire for autonomy and freedom. Often linked, these trends created two of the most familiar targets of 1950s social censure: the ‘organisation man’, who relinquished his individuality to the corporation, and the suburban homeowner, who sought perfect conformity with the neighbours.

In the reception of confessional poetry, Paul Breslin shows that the inwardness and emotional volatility of the poetry represented to its readers a revolt against this invasive, overly rational society. Madness and rage were reactions in the internalisation of external social codes, that is, the colonisation of the private self by society and the state. The willingness to violate these codes liberated the authentic self, which would necessarily be wounded since the organised society demanded the renunciation of individuality. Feminist critics, too, regarded Plath’s rage and madness as a protest against inauthenticity, in this case the masks of femininity that stifled female creativity and self-expression. With the central insight of second-wave feminism – the personal is the political – Plath seemed to take on a more active, critical role, producing a damning critique of patriarchal institutions. In both these readings we can recognise a pattern of viewing authentic selfhood as something hidden from and damaged by an intrusive, oppressive society. The authentic and free self remains associated with privacy, but achieves its liberation only by forsaking that privacy.

This heroic reading of Plath’s confession should be balanced against her own complication of the familiar notions of privacy and confession. If we return to the image of the private home in Ariel, we see that Plath works in various poems to unsettle the idea of the home as a place in which to withdraw from scrutiny. […]

As she does in ‘Lesbos’, Plath riffs on states of exposure everywhere in the poetry. The most famous example is ‘Lady Lazarus’, where we see multiple images of exposure, but we find it as well in the bee sequence, where the speaker encounters the danger of the sting with bare, unprotected skin. A great many of the poems written for Ariel (but not included in the version edited and published by Ted Hughes) feature surveillance, eavesdropping, spying and voyeurism. Not only is the space of the home devoid of privacy, but the body is frequently displayed, like the striptease in ‘Lady Lazarus’, or exposed, as in ‘A Secret’, like the watermark stamped on the body – ‘wavery, indelible, true’. […]

This pressure to reveal and expose oneself casts ‘confession’ in a very different light from how we have ordinarily imagined it. Confession becomes an effect of coercion. Plath seems highly aware that conditions of self-revelation militate against free and authentic self-expression. The performance has an audience with its own agenda. Think of the last sections of ‘Lady Lazarus’, after the peanut-crunching crowds, when the speaker addresses ‘Herr Doktor’. This figure of the psychoanalyst is waiting for the intimate details to be proffered by the analysand. While Plath was certainly a subject of analysis herself, the whole enterprise of psychoanalysis was very important in 1950s American culture, particularly for white middle-class women. Adjusting to the ambivalence of the role of woman, housewife and mother was aided by the (usually) male doctor. Plath need not be speaking just of her own experience, but  more generally of an institution that demands secrets and hands them back in a new form, one which the patient has not given them. When the speaker tells ‘Herr Doktor’ that ‘I am your opus, / I am your valuable’, we can now understand the subsequent sneering line, ‘do not think I underestimate your great concern’. The doctor has his own prestige and authority tied up in the patient, who has been turned into his opus, that is, his work of art. The shriek at the end of the poem resists confession by frustrating his appropriation of her words. The result is ambiguous. A howl of rage is not a triumph of self-expression, but neither is it a submission to coerced self-revelation.

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