Laura Passin: The Power of Suicide and the Refusal of Mythology–Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyser

This essay is, in itself, evidence of a slight derangement in my scholarly life: I am obsessed with two lines by Muriel Rukeyser. I will explore the connections suggested by those lines and the complex ways Rukeyser grapples with gender, history, and mythology in her poetry. Those two lines are, in fact, a whole poem. Here it is:

Not to Be Printed, Not to Be Said, Not to Be Thought
I’d rather be Muriel
than be dead and be Ariel.
(Collected Poems 554)

Ariel, of course, is the title of the posthumous book that made Sylvia Plath’s name as a poet. Rukeyser takes advantage of the slant rhyme Muriel/Ariel to pack a huge commentary on publishing, fame, and gender in ten words. I’m going to return to this poem, so for now I present it as a moment of crisis in Rukeyser’s late poetry, evidence of an ongoing trouble around what women poets were allowed to print, to say, and to think.

Rukeyser and Plath overlapped in several ways: chronologically and thematically, their paths through 20th-century literature often intersect. What is particularly striking about this intersection is that Rukeyser’s life and career, in every way, bracket Plath’s: she was a generation older but lived decades longer; her earliest writing was contemporaneous with Plath’s idol Auden; her later writing negotiated with the literature and politics of the second wave feminism for which Plath became an icon of feminine power and domestic oppression. Rukeyser lived to see Plath become not just the most celebrated woman poet of her time but also a new American myth: scorned woman, mad genius, suicide blonde, goddess trapped in a housewife’s body. Since mythology and gender are key interests of Rukeyser’s, I propose to look at how we might fit those two provocative lines about Ariel into her larger body of work.

In her poems, Rukeyser frequently revisits classic myths to find the women who seem to have disappeared from them. I’ll touch on a representative example, “Waiting for Icarus.” This poem imagines a female lover for Icarus, a girl who waits endlessly for him to return from his disastrous flight. The speaker describes the young lovers trying to break free from their parents, as young lovers are wont to do:

He said we were on the edge of a new relation
He said he would never again cringe before his father

[…]

I remember the girls laughing
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying : Inventors are like poets, a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added : Women who love such are the worst of all    (Collected Poems 476)

Here, Rukeyser unearths not just the presence of (anonymous) women in the well-known story, but also the personal costs of artistic creation. “Inventors are like poets,” and perhaps poets are like inventors: at the mercy of their creations. The lovers’ attempt to reunite fails, leading to the death of Icarus and the devastation of his lover:

I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.
(477)

The young woman’s cautiously phrased wish is, in fact, subversive: she would rather be the dead artist than the living woman denied access to knowledge and power.

There are many other examples of Rukeyser reimagining the gendered dynamics of our oldest stories: Oedipus and the Sphinx in “Myth,” a turn-of-the-century Niobe, an emasculated Minotaur “brutalized / By loneliness” (Collected Poems 224). We might even read the female characters of the documentary epic “The Book of the Dead” as mythic truth-tellers, particularly the fierce mother in “Absalom.” The myth Rukeyser seems to return to most often is that of Orpheus, the Greek singer/poet who was torn apart by Maenads and then reborn as a god of lyric poetry. This trope of the dismembered singer—the poet who must be torn apart and reassembled in order to create immortal art—haunts Rukeyser’s work.

Before his grisly death, though, Orpheus has another poetic quest: to save his wife Eurydice from Hades. Devastated by grief, Orpheus uses his music to charm his way into the underworld, where he is allowed to rescue Eurydice under one condition: as he leaves, he must not look back. In the way of all myths, of course, this is the one rule he can’t follow: he turns around just before reaching the exit, and Eurydice is lost forever. Rukeyser depicts this disturbing sacrifice as the backdrop to Orpheus’s own ritualized death in her 1949 long poem “Orpheus”:

I almost remember another body,
I almost, another face.

[…]

They will say I turned to a face.
That was forbidden. There was a moment of turning,
but not to a face. This leg did turn,
there was a turn, and then there was a journey,
and after many dances and wanderings
Yes; but there was a face.
(291)

In order for the poet to be transformed, a woman has to disappear. Orpheus almost takes responsibility for the loss, but falls back on an image that recalls his own dismemberment and victimhood: “This leg did turn, there was a turn.”

Rukeyser’s best-known engagement with mythology and gender returns to and revises this very poem. In her 1968 poem “The Poem as Mask (Orpheus),” she disavows her previous use of mythology to allegorize her own life:

when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone down with song
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from myself.
(413)

This poem strips away the technique of modernizing mythology in order to liberate the “real” woman previously “unable to speak” without it. Rukeyser is speaking about her own poetry: “when I wrote of” these things, I was alienated from my own lived experience. The myth here is not just Orpheus but “Orpheus,” the character who appears throughout her earlier body of work. This poetic unveiling leads to a powerful declaration: “No more masks! No more mythologies!” This is an iconic moment in feminist poetry; in fact, a second wave anthology was named after it—“No More Masks!”—exclamation point and all (Howe and Bass).

Let me recap the patterns I’ve been tracing in Rukeyser’s poetry. The women in Rukeyser’s myths have been disappeared from their own stories: written out altogether, or half-forgotten, or sacrificed to enable the artistic creation of another. In her most explicit revision of a myth, she is the forgotten woman—a revision of her own poetics of revision. We’ve gone meta! And we’re about to go further, by returning to Sylvia Plath, American myth.

Plath’s poetic success is inextricable from myth-making. The first US edition of Ariel is introduced by Robert Lowell, who quite literally presents Plath as a mythic heroine:

In these poems […] Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created—hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another “poetess,” but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines.
(Plath, Ariel vii)

Lowell’s characterization of Plath as a goddess figure both elevates and dehumanizes her; oddly, it de-genders her as well—she is, he says, “feminine, rather than female,” more like Medea than like, say, a contemporary woman writer. The question of what relation “Sylvia Plath” bears to the historical woman named Sylvia Plath remains a crux of Plath Studies now, 50 years after her death.

Plath understood that her writing would inevitably be compared to that of other women. In 1957, she journals candidly about the circumscribed world in which she is published:

Jealous one I am, green-eyed, spite-seething. Read the six women poets in the “new poets of england and america.” Dull, turgid. Except for May Swenson & Adrienne Rich, not one better or more-published than me. I have the quiet righteous malice of one with better poems than other women’s reputations have been made by.
(Plath, Journals 315)

These, of course, are the words of a living writer, who knows that the “woman” part of the phrase “woman poet” affects her reputation more than her actual work does. By 1976, when Rukeyser publishes “Not to Be Printed,” Plath’s reputation has been invested with a new currency: her death. Rukeyser, who faced vicious sexist criticism during her career, knew that, despite what the New Critics claimed, poems are judged at least in part by how they seem to reflect on their authors. And now Sylvia Plath, a brilliant woman whose poetry is regarded as the desperate suicide note of a goddess rather than the artistic labor of a living woman, is the most talked-about woman poet in a century.

So let’s look again that tiny poem, whose title is belied by its own existence:

Not to Be Printed, Not to Be Said, Not to Be Thought
I’d rather be Muriel
than be dead and be Ariel.

We might regard this as another instance of refusing to mythologize the artist, in the vein of “The Poem as Mask.” But what troubles me about that interpretation is that it ignores something both obvious and complex: the use of “Ariel” to refer to Plath. Now, there is clearly one really great reason to use that name: the slant rhyme Muriel/Ariel. When life hands you a rhyme that delicious, it’s hard to resist. Yet by referring to Plath as “Ariel” here, isn’t Rukeyser perpetuating the very mythologizing that this poem decries? In order to be “Ariel,” one has to be dead; just as in the other myths, the sacrifice of a woman is required to make art timeless. Rukeyser recognizes that the choice to “be Muriel” is subversive: to “be dead and be Ariel” is a guarantee of poetic legacy, whereas to live is to risk sexism and cultural amnesia.

In fact, she has written of this choice before, though much more allusively, in a poem called “The Power of Suicide.” This poem is dated 1963, the year of Plath’s suicide—and since dating specific poems in books was a rare practice for Rukeyser, I think the implied reference is to Plath. The poem, just four lines long, describes a “potflower” urging the poet to live:

Flower     flower     flower     flower
Today for the sake of all the dead     Burst into flower
(Collected Poems 430)

Rukeyser is haunted by the “power of suicide,” but that obliges her to flower, not to die. One of the most crucial roles of a poet, here and elsewhere in Rukeyser’s work, is to speak “for the sake of all the dead.” Suicide is sacrificing one’s body and song to a false idol, to those gods who were only masks for the creative self.

In the end, I find Rukeyser’s poem to be disturbingly ambivalent. At first, it seems to be a straightforward declaration: I choose to live. But by describing her other option as “being”—and not, say, writing—Ariel, she suggests that her own access to Plath’s poetry is inextricably entwined with the iconic nature of Ariel. She knows that the women in myths are repeatedly erased, masked, or sacrificed, and that this has also happened to Sylvia Plath. Despite her misgivings, she, too, writes Plath’s name out of her own history, creating another figure to be reconstructed from the fragments of a profoundly misogynistic cultural landscape—another woman behind a mask, in exile from herself.

Works Cited

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. London: Harper & Row, 1966.

_____. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Karen V. Kukil. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. Print.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Ed. Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog. Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. Print.

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