The Power of Suicide: Muriel Rukeyser’s Poetic Responses to Sylvia Plath

When it comes to Sylvia Plath and her death, the creative response from fellow poets is so very different. Ted Hughes, her estranged husband, wrote an entire book of poems in regards to her (Birthday Letters). Meanwhile, her friend/rival, Anne Sexton, composed a two paged elegy in her honor (“Sylvia’s Death”).

Then there is Muriel Rukeyser, a female poet who does not make an appearance in Plath’s journals (though Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich, who associated with and praised Rukeyser, did make it in), who wrote six lines between two poems, in concerns to Plath. These poems, which shall be discussed, are “Not to Printed, Not to be Said, Not to be Thought,” “The Power of Suicide.” Notably, she also wrote a poem called “Suicide Blues,”  where Rukeyser’s speaker is reminiscent of Plath, though it was published about twenty-two years before Plath’s suicide. Due to this, the poem will also be discussed in this context.

Rukeyser was a matriarch of many things–a son, poetry, feminism, and the list continues. Yet, many do not know her name, let alone her work. When asked, “Who is the most influential feminist poet of the 20th century?,” you do not get a chorus of “Rukeyser, of course!” The answer is Plath, almost always Plath (with a bit of Sexton, and Rich thrown in for good measure). I feel that Rukeyser recognized that lack of recognition: that despite a career of almost forty-five years, with over ten volumes of poetry, a novel, and countless other pieces, she was going unnoticed.

Was it perhaps because she was not quite as willing to impart personal feelings and details in her writing, like Plath? That she instead wrote of social and political issues and spoke out against a woman’s lower position in society, and thus did not fit a mold, whereas Plath was a superwoman–mother, career-woman, good looking and tragic, right down to her sometimes blond, sometimes brown hair, curled just so? Or was it because Plath defected to suicide, and Rukeyser was still alive? The answer is most likely a combination of all of the above, the amounts differing and equaling, but I feel that of the above options, Rukeyser felt that it was mostly the last. Why else would she have written “Not to be Printed, Not to be Said, Not to be Thought”?

She was aware that the poem’s opinion was unpopular–the title reflects that the topic is “not” proper. Yet, as always, Rukeyser continues her thought: “I’d rather be Muriel/than be dead and be Ariel”(Rukeyser, 2005, p. 554). It’s a bold thought, and a thought that could be seen as blasphemous, especially by the feminist movement, who had crowned Plath as their literary martyr, with her fierce, feminine voice (Passin). (This was back in the days when Ted Hughes was violently disliked and misunderstood for his part in Plath’s demise, to the point of feminist fans desecrating their figurehead’s grave to remove “Hughes” from her name.)

Yet, this was Rukeyser quietly calling out the worship and mythologizing of Plath. By using the name of Plath’s last collection to reference the late poet, Rukeyser is, in effect, using synecdoche (substituting a part for the whole) to reflect exactly what happened to Plath– her dissolution as a person, now simply a past personality. Plath was no longer there to set any record straight. She wasn’t available to coax any interpretation of her work–and so it had outgrown the person, and thus, personified the poet (Passin). This is a sentiment that has been expressed by other writers analyzing the work, one of the more recent being Laura Passin in her essay, “The Power of Suicide and the Refusal of Mythology–Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyser,” published on this website.

The “Ariel sensation” would probably not have occurred if Plath had been alive to see the book’s publication. In a way, Rukeyser recognized this with her line “I’d rather be Muriel/than be dead…” (lines 1-2, “Not to be Printed…”). This line is a way to say that, because she is alive, Rukeyser can call the shots on how she is perceived. She can correct rumors, or coax perceptions, but all around she is responsible for how her work and her person is received and perceived. She is herself, and not what others have painted of her, based on a few facts and a collection of poems.

This is not to say that Rukeyser disdained Plath–rather, I think the lines were written with sympathy, and sadness, for both herself and Plath for their conundrum. This enigma is rooted in that Plath died young and did not see her massive success, whereas Rukeyser would experience only short bursts of massive success throughout her longer life.

Rukeyser, when it came to Plath, seemed to wish for a new way to remember her. She wrote a few poems- not anguished and apologetic (like Hughes) or wistful for the past (like Sexton)–but deeply mournful, like a grandmother who lost a grandbaby too soon to the world. Her poem, “The Power of Suicide” isn’t a rant, an extended “I’m sorry,” or a reminiscence. It reminds me most of a vision sparked by intuition–a mother senses something is amiss with a child before she disappears. It is that, as well as a vision of inspiration, an urging of muses to produce and write:

 

The potflower on the windowsill says to me

In words that are green-edged red leaves:

Flower             flower              flower              flower

Today for the sake of all the dead       Burst into flower.
(Rukeyser, 2005, p. 430)

 

If we read this poem as a memoriam to Plath, then we can also read it as Rukeyser taking on a crusade–it is as if Rukeyser declared that “Plath cannot write any more- but I will write to try to fill the void her words left.”

Rukeyser could have taken to writing after Plath’s death with the view of Plath as an enemy stealing the spotlight, but she did not because she could not. She recognized that they wrote on different topics–while Rukeyser wrote of love and work during the Spanish Civil War in her novel Savage Coast, Plath published an account of madness in an American Golden Girl via The Bell Jar. Their preferred pronouns even differed–Plath lived in a first-person singular world, Rukeyser in a first-person plural or a-third person world.

It is notable, however, to consider the poem, “Suicide Blues” (Rukeyser, 2005, p. 216). Based on the title alone, one may assume that Plath wrote it–but no, this is a Rukeyser work. However, she does seem to be speaking for Plath, echoing various sentiments and perhaps retelling the story of Plath’s death, despite the poem having appeared in 1941. She begins with the declaration “I want to speak in my voice!/I want to speak in my real voice!” (Lines One-Two, “Suicide Blues”).

This reminds me of Plath, both when she’s complaining about how her writing is only “lyrical sentimentality” (Plath, 2000, p. 38) and when she’s telling her mother that “these poems will make my name” (Plath, 1975, p. 468) because Plath’s main concern in both cases was her voice–the first was weak, and then it strengthened with Ariel. Then in lines four and five, Rukeyser seems to note Plath’s hesitation initially with adopting a harsh empowered voice: “I am not ready to go there./Not with my real voice.” (Lines four-five, “Suicide Blues”)

The “tall man” and “singing woman” in stanzas three and four could be read in two different ways. The man and woman could stand for other male and female poets with “his” and “her real voice” (line eight, and eleven, respectively). Or, specifically,  they could stand for Hughes (a tall man who had no problem being rugged with his words) and either Anne Sexton (whom Plath considered a literary rival and friend) or Assia Wevill, who wished to be recognized as a poet, but after Plath’s death became known as only Hughes’s mistress.

Then there is a shift in the fifth stanza, that could be the speaker, as Plath, simply speaking to the audience, or perhaps it is Rukeyser speaking to Plath: “Are you able to imagine truth?/Evil has conspired a world of death,/ An unreal voice.” If read as Rukeyser speaking to Plath, then this stanza is a warning that has arrived too late. It reads, to me, as a warning of what will happen to a real voice “in a world of death” (line thirteen)- it will be misread, and therefore, become “unreal” (line fourteen).

And thus, when this “death-world” again appears in stanza six, it is to help tell of the world’s perception of Plath’s death “in front of the little children” (line sixteen), taking notable details and pumping them up for effect. Because of this, we get Plath “burning” (line seventeen), with the remainder of the line, “out of the window” bringing to mind reports of Frieda and Nicholas’s cries being heard out on the street. There are enemies calling friends (line eighteen)–or in this case, the Hughes, who were the primary informers of Plath’s death to the rest of the family and friends, and often are perceived as the enemy after Plath died. And of course, “my legs went running around that building/ dancing to the suicide blues” (lines nineteen- twenty) recalls Plath’s downstairs neighbor’s memory of Plath pacing in the flat above him on the night she died.

As for the second to last stanza, the sea imagery reminds me of Plath’s works “Full Fathom Five” and “Lorelei,” as well as “The Earthenware Head” being conjured up via “and my severed head swam around that ship/ three times around and it wouldn’t go down” (Lines twenty- four and twenty-five). Notably, these are all poems from Plath’s first book, The Colossus, which only had a modest reception compared to Ariel, which is when Plath was spotlighted.

Now, the last stanza reflects Rukeyser’s other mentioned work, “The Power of Suicide,” with its quatrain  and the presence of flowers. However, in this instance, the flowers are not “for the sake of all the dead” (line four, “The Power of Suicide”). Now there is “too much life, my darling” (line twenty-six), evoking the grandmother image again at the use of pet-names; “too much life to kill” (line twenty-nine).

This line, I believe, sums up Rukeyser’s universal feeling among the poems. Yes, Plath was in part lost due to the Suicide Blonde myth. Yes, a great poet was lost before she could produce more, and another great poet is lost despite the production of more work. But, as Rukeyser asserts, there is “too much life to kill” in the voice of Sylvia Plath by the power vested to her by suicide, and Rukeyser seems more than proud to record memoriams and reminders of humanity for female poets, even for one who never met “Muriel, mother of everyone.”

Works Cited

Passin, Laura. “Laura Passin: The Power of Suicide and the Refusal of Mythology–Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyser.” Muriel Rukeyser. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

Plath, Sylvia, and Aurelia Schober Plath. Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. 468. Print.

_____. The Colossus. London: Faber and Faber, 1972. Print.

_____.  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. 216, 430, 554. Print.

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