Featured Poem: Morning Song by Sylvia Plath

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(Due to copyright issues, I won’t be posting the poem. But click here to view “Morning Song” in its entirety.)

Sylvia Plath is one of the finest poets the world has ever seen. There is this incredible, almost unnerving frankness and viciousness to her works. She had a way of squeezing every drop out of life at every instance and skillfully capturing passing notions and emotions. She’d weave them into beautiful and oftentimes jarring tapestries of poetry and stark reality. For many readers, myself included, her finely penned confessions/poems possess a magnetic pull. We are drawn into her world just as effectively as we are asked to examine ours.

In Morning Song, Plath captures the burgeoning love of a mother for her newborn. The poem, written shortly after her own child’s birth, speaks of how mother and child start off almost as if they were strangers before inevitably developing a connection that binds them for life.

Note how in the poem, she addresses her child as if she were speaking to another adult. There is no cooing, no profuse proclamations of a life-changing love—nothing to intimate the cosmic connection between them, at least at first.

In the first line, she even likens the child to a “fat gold watch.” Although the watch was set into motion by love, the ticking watch can also be seen as a reminder of a person’s mortality.  To be specific, if not the death of the person, the demise of the self. The third stanza reads:

“I am no more your mother

Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement at the wind’s hand.”

Interesting use of the word effacement, which in medical terms refer to the thinning of the cervix in preparation for the child’s delivery. But attach the word ‘self’ to effacement, and what you have is the deliberate act of taking the background, almost as if allowing the self to fade away, much like how condensation dissipates into thin air. Again, a ticking clock and effacement at the wind’s hand.

Take into consideration that from a purely evolutionary perspective—strictly gene’s eye level—the purpose of gene carriers is to ensure the continuation of their respective genetic lines, i.e. man must “go forth and multiply.”

And while, historically speaking, “securing heirs” was a weight carried by both men and women, there’s no arguing that women were left to shoulder the brunt of that weight. Go back less than a century to Plath’s own time and a large section of society still thought that a woman’s primary purpose was to bear children and rear them. Women were already working then, but the concept of ‘family first’ for women wasn’t so much a suggestion as it was an accepted rule.

Now, Sylvia Plath was a woman with grand literary ambitions and while motherhood was something she welcomed completely, when faced with the newness of the situation, it must have given her a bit of a pause. Motherhood was a jump into the uncertain, which carried with it great joy and tremendous challenges.

On the second stanza, she describes the parents’ reaction to the baby’s arrival—

“Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.

In a drafty museum your nakedness

Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.”

There it is, the pause. A sense of detachment. Strangers meeting for the first time. And yet, towards the end, the poem changes its tune quite drastically to show a mother’s devotion to her child. Plath speaks of waking to listen to her child’s breathing. She talks of how:

“One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral

In my Victorian nightgown.”

Those words transform the persona from a watchful observer to a dedicated and loving mother.

Now, in my humble opinion, what makes Morning Song timeless is how it challenges the traditional idea that all women react the same way to motherhood. While ideally, it would be love at first sight between mother and newborn—that their bond is present and sealed after the final push—it’s not an always case. Sometimes it takes a while for that bond to be established. And that’s okay. Sometimes going through that journey of getting to know and arriving to love their children is just a journey some of the best mothers have had to undertake.

Featured Poem: Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

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Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,

Or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,

In secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms,

But carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;

Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,

Risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.

I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;

Therefore, I love you because I know no other way

Than this: where I does not exist, nor you,

So close that your hand on my chest is my hand,

So close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

 

Junior year, high school. My creative writing teacher furnishes the entire class with a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII. As soon as each student has the paper in hand, our teacher launches into a sonorous reading of the poem. I read along with him, silently mouthing the words, thrilled and confused by the staggering and yet, straightforward imagery.

Somewhere in the stash of angst-ridden journals I keep in a drawer at home, the photocopied poem is pasted on an empty page. Crumpled and yellowing, I no longer need the copy. It is one of those few poems I know by heart. But I keep it handy to remind myself of the day I felt the promise of poetry strike, hot and impressive and terrifying. If Sylvia Plath’s Mirror had been the catalyst, the fever behind my writing aspirations, Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII was what ignited my passion for poetry.

This is a poem with a heartening twist. A poem naked in its honesty and teeming with relatability. I remember reading its first lines that first time and thinking, “How terrible to be at the receiving end of this poem!”

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose or topaz| or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.| I love you as certain dark things are to be loved| in secret between the shadow and the soul.

A salt-rose, a topaz, and even the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off—those were stunning images of something to value, of something easy to love because of their beauty. But instead, the persona described his/her lover as a dark thing to be loved in secret. The next lines had seemed equally unflattering, I thought.

I love you as the plant that never blooms| but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers.| Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance risen from the earth| lives darkly in my body.

A plant that never blooms. Never mind that it was the type of plant that held the promise of hidden flowers… And the way love was described almost felt as if it were something contagious, unexplainable, and almost unwanted.

But the rest of the lines made me realize, this was not the traditional love poem that exalted the lover’s virtues, it was one that explained the unfathomable depth—and maybe, the irrationality—of true and lasting love.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where| I love you straightforwardly without complexities or pride.| Therefore I love you because I know no other way

Than this: where I does not exist nor you| so close that your hand on my chest is my hand| so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

This wasn’t a poem that spoke of love at its first blush, with its rose-colored glasses and the consequent blindness to the lover’s flaws. This was a poem that spoke of what happens after the honeymoon hour. It’s a poem about commitment and a love so deeply forged that the lovers cease to be ‘each other,’ for they are as much the other as they could ever be. Oneness in the face of reality. As my theology professor would say, this is a difference between “falling in love” and actually “loving.” Love—with its becauses, and more importantly, with its despite ofs.

Also, that line break. That glorious, glorious line break from “Therefore I love you because I know no other way” to “than this.” I am always in awe with how clever this poem turned out. How unexpected and beautiful its message happens to be. Definitely one of the best and most honest love poems in history.

 

About the Poet

Pablo Neruda is one of the most well-known and best-loved poets of the 20th century. In 1971, the Chilean poet-diplomat was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He remains one of the most inspirational poets today—and rightfully so. While translated poetry often experiences a slight and unfortunate, though unintentional diminishment, an accidental dwarfing caused by the barriers of language, Neruda’s works retain their vivid imagery and vast, hard-hitting meanings. No doubt, we have his highly skilled translators to thank for this, but it is also very possible—if not, downright true—that the potency of the poet’s words cannot be contained by something as insignificant as a difference in language.

Featured Poem: Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

(The mess I call my journal) In the process of copying Phenomenal Woman
(The mess I call my journal) In the process of copying Phenomenal Woman

In terms of impact, Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou might just be one of the most empowering poems ever written for the fairer sex. This work was originally published (and copyrighted) in Dr. Angelou’s 1978 autobiography, “Still I Rise.” With its flowing rhymes and straightforward wording—this poem is a breeze to read and a joy to be heard when read out loud.

Now, I’m not particularly well-versed when it comes to copyright laws, so I’m linking you guys to the full poem instead of posting it on this blog. (Read Phenomenal Woman in full here.)

In this poem, the writer attempts to explain her ‘inexplicable’ allure. First, to the “pretty women” puzzled by her magnetic charms, then to the men who are drawn to her like a “hive of honey bees.”

Strangely enough, she starts out with a strong disclaimer: “I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.” It’s an admission that sums up the confusion felt by the men and women who are drawn to the writer. Then, as if to drive the point even further, she lists a number of purposely vague reasons behind her appeal. In the first verse, she says:

 “It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.”

The rest of her explanations are just as nebulous—“the fire in my eyes, the flash of my teeth, the swing in my waist, and the joy in my feet…” and so on and so forth. Now, read carefully, dear reader and you’ll find that these are all qualities possessed by the everywoman. There are no race-restrictive, size-specific, or socioeconomically exclusive terms to be found here. Just a general description of your everyday woman. And therein lies the beauty of this poem. Rather than alienating a large chunk of its readers, the poem seeks to be inclusive. It revels in its inclusivity.

Another striking feature of this poem is the repetitive nature of a particular phrase. The words:

“I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.”

Figure beautifully at the end of every stanza. Beyond bridging the persona’s thought process, this acts as a celebration of her womanhood. The secret of the Phenomenal Woman is that she is her own woman. Her magnetic nature doesn’t lie in anything outside of the ordinary. She is phenomenal because she is herself.

Now, as far as analysis goes, that’s just us scratching the surface. While Phenomenal Woman remains an empowering and relevant piece of literature, to truly understand its impact and gravity, we need to delve into historical context.

There’s no denying that Maya Angelou was a very beautiful woman—physically, mentally, and emotionally. She was the complete package. But for an African-American girl growing up in the 1930s—a time when racist ideals and actions ran rampant in the Land of the Free—the standards of beauty excluded anything outside the ‘white.’

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Angelou remembers a moment of insecurity when she was a child. She thought, “Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten?”

We’re not going to delve into how wrong, cruel, and painful it is for a child to have such thoughts—that’s for another discussion—but it’s important that we also look at the unconventional nature of Maya Angelou’s beauty. Unconventional for that period, at least. When she reached adulthood, Angelou’s brand of beauty continued to challenge the norms. Unlike the petite, fair-skinned lookers of the 1950s, Angelou grew to be a voluptuous, 6-foot-tall woman.

These days, we look up (for some, like myself, quite literally) to those modelesque proportions. But bear in mind that during that period, even Sylvia Plath who purportedly stood tall at 5’9”, felt some semblance of insecurity over her height.

Now, simply put, there was a period when Angelou struggled with accepting her looks and sexuality. And putting that struggle into perspective makes Phenomenal Woman even more poignant because it speaks of the writer’s acceptance and celebration of her unique and magnetic beauty. It’s speaks of her triumph in transcending the norms to embody what is truly beautiful in a woman.

All in all, this poem is a glorious, timeless, and inspirational work. It is poetry at its finest, folks.

 

On a Personal Note:

The first time I encountered the poem, Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou, it was through my mother’s copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul. (Or was it “Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul?”) Though only 16, and by no means a woman at that point, my teenage self was immensely moved by Dr. Angelou’s words. I immediately wrote down the poem in my high school journal, thinking, “Here is the type of woman I want to be.”

Now at 30, the poem remains an inspiration to me. It spans a page of every journal I’ve ever had. And every time I feel a pang of insecurity, I read the poem out loud and I tell myself—“Now, that’s the type of woman I ought to be.” Reading this poem never fails to put a smile on my face. Hopefully, it will have the same effect on you.

Featured Poem: Resumé by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker

RESUMÉ

BY: DOROTHY PARKER

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

ANALYSIS.

Unlike most poems that require extensive poring over and stringent analysis, Resumé, by the renowned critic, satirist, poet, and writer, Dorothy Parker, is written in a rather unflinching and straightforward manner. The work almost reads like a catchy anti-suicide ditty, detailing the cons of each potentially fatal method.

From the simplicity of its ABAB rhyming sequence, to its absolute brevity, Resumé is testament to Parker’s incomparable wit and mastery over words. The sparse nature of its lines, completely devoid of the shroud of metaphors, only adds to the impact of the poem.

You might as well live. Its abrupt conclusion speaks volumes of what the poem is about. While the message is positive in its attempt to dissuade the reader from offing himself/herself, it also has an undeniably sardonic edge to it. The actual message being “don’t bother committing suicide,” – as if staying alive was a sorry compensation for not succeeding in accomplishing the otherwise.

And then we have the title of the piece: Resumé—note the accent on the letter e. Remove the accent, and we have resume, which means to move on. That would make perfect sense. But resumé? A resumé, simply put, refers to a brief summary of a person’s qualifications, achievements, educational background, etc. It’s what you submit when you’re applying for a position in an organization—or when you want to reassure someone of your expertise on a particular topic or subject. So, why resumé?

I must admit, the first time I read this poem, which was back in college—eight or so, odd years ago—I had chosen to ignore the accent, thinking ‘resume’ made better sense. But upon closer study of Dorothy Parker’s life, it appeared that the title was just excellent wordplay from her end. Having survived four suicide attempts, Parker is more than qualified to discuss the merits and demerits of suicide and its various methods. The sense of disillusionment that cloaks the closing line also makes better sense upon discovering these details. In a way, this is a part of her resumé, giving us a brief glance of the chapters in her life that she’d had to live through.

Extras:

Tidbit#1: Dorothy Parker lived to the age of 73. She died of a fatal coronary on the 7th of June, 1967.

Tidbit#2: She suggested that her epitaph be, “Excuse my dust.” Another suggestion she had was, “This is on me.”

Tidbit#3: Throughout her life, Parker had been a strong believer in social justice. Having no heirs, she decided to leave her literary estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., who she had never met, but shared ideals with. When Dr. King was assassinated a year later, the estate was turned over to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Image from: Wikipedia