Craft Annotation: Voice and Point of View in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

by Frances Donovan

One usually hears about point of view as a craft technique in the context of prose. Students of poetry tend to focus on the speaker – “the eye of the poem,” as Frances Mayes puts it. But the two are linked. The mode of narration (first person, second person, third person limited or third person omniscient) informs the kind of “I” from which the poem unfurls. All poems have a speaker; it may be a strong presence that affects the whole tone of the poem, or it may be unobtrusive, a hidden narrator presenting facts without editorializing.

Different modes of narration naturally lend themselves to different kinds of speakers. Narration in the third person can create a sense of remoteness, a remove between the reader and the subject of the poem. Narration in the second person—where the speaker of the poem directly addresses someone or something using “you”—can give a poem the intimate tone of an overheard conversation, or it can give the disorienting feeling of someone speaking to the person behind you. Narration in the first person has the potential to create the strongest persona – an “I” to whose inner thoughts we are privy.

Both point of view and speaker are tightly tied to voice, a craft element as difficult to quantify as the voice of a singer. Voice is that unique combination of speaker, diction, tone, individual writing style, and world view that sets one poet’s work apart from all others. Poets often spend years and decades finding their voice. This evolution is particularly evident in the work of Sylvia Plath, one of the most famous confessional poets.

A survey of Sylvia Plath’s work illustrates the way point of view informs the development of her voice. Point of view in her earliest “mature” poems varies a great deal more than in Ariel. And when there is an “I” in her earlier poems, it’s much more likely to be an unobtrusive observer. She already demonstrates mastery with these poems’ music but has yet to develop the systematic, powerful voice of her later poems. Compare “Alicante Lullaby” (1956)…

In Alicante they bowl the barrels
Bumblingly over the nubs of the cobbles
Past the yellow-paella eateries,
Below the ramshackle back-alley balconies

…to “The Bee Meeting” (1962):

I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice.
They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.

The first poem uses the third person to focus outward, depicting real-world events. But the speaker’s presence in “The Bee Meeting” is much more powerful. She clearly communicates the bewilderment, horror, and violation she feels when meeting “the rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.” These events that occupy an internal landscape—one which Ted Hughes calls “a supercharged system of inner symbols and images” in his introduction to the Collected Poems.

According to the Academy of American Poets, one of the defining characteristics of confessional poetry is it use of the first person singular to evoke the experience of the poet herself. But not all poems in the first-person singular are confessional. And confessional poets are not always the “I” in their poems. In Plath’s book Ariel, the vast majority of the poems speak from the first person. Given what we know of her life and of the confessional movement, we can read the “I” in most of Ariel as the poet herself – or at least the version of herself she constructs within the text.

There are a few exceptions. “Elm” is a persona poem. It begins in the third person (“I know the bottom, she says”) but continues in second person for the bulk of the poem. The tree appears to be addressing Plath herself (“It is the sea you hear in me […] Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?”) and as the lines unfold its voice converges with that of the other poems in the book. Consider, for instance, this stanza from “Elm”:

I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?

Is the speaker here still the elm itself? Possibly, but the mention of the “this face […] in its strangle of branches” suggests that Plath’s “I” may be overlapping the “I” of the elm tree.

It’s not point of view or the type of speaker that makes Ariel a masterpiece. It’s the consistent voice sustained across all the poems in the book. This voice is intensely emotional, hallucinatory, and preoccupied with death. These lines from “A Birthday Present” illustrate it well:

Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains,
The diaphanous satins of a January window
White as babies’ bedding and glittering with death breath.

This voice is so strong it doesn’t need to rely on the first-person speaker to sustain itself. “The Swarm” uses a mix of second-person and third-person narration and pulls focus to a more global perspective (“The bees have got so far. Seventy feet high! / Russia, Poland, and Germany!”), but the same sense of surreal horror prevails (“The bees argue, in their black ball […] The man with gray hands stands under their honeycomb.”). I can use Plath’s Ariel as a model for how to maintain consistent voice across my own poetry – with the understanding, of course, that it might take me decades to accomplish.

Works Cited:

  • Mayes, Frances. The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems. New York: Harcourt, 2001.
  • “A Brief Guide to Confessional Poetry.” Academy of American Poets, Feb 21, 2015. Web. July 12, 2016. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/brief-guide-confessional-poetry
  • Plath, Sylvia. Collected Poems. New York: HarperPerennial, 2008.

Photo credit: Jordan Schwartz via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

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