Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Nakedness and Sylvia Plath

Last we, the opening lines of "Howl" and the anecdote of Ginsberg walking naked across the room to confront his heckler got us talking and thinking about the poet as a naked figure, stripping his metaphorical clothing to present his bare soul to the readers.  It's a metaphor that goes through much of male poetry, including that of Whitman and others.  I'd like to suggest that we add another element to our thinking about this, though: that of gender.

I should mention here that I'm indebted to this article for getting me thinking about this:
Lant, Kathleen Margaret. 1993. "The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34: 620-69.

It's been a few years since I read Lant's essay, but it was so thought-provoking that many of its points have stuck with me.  (I highly recommend it if you're interested in Plath--along with Perloff's essay on the Two Ariels.)  Let me try to sum up one of the driving questions:

The basic premise of the article, as I recall, was that for male poets, nakedness is a sign of potency.  Bearing all is an act coded as brave, an act of freedom from social constraints.  By revealing the phallus, they're revealing their power and reminding everyone of their sexuality.  There's a performative element that reads as pride.  Female nakedness, on the other hand, tends to imply a vulnerability and need to be clothed and, thus, protected.

The question then becomes, what do we do with the metaphor of stripping as it arises in Plath's poetry?  Is it an act of power or one of vulnerability?  (Bear in mind, too, that the act of "confession" is also an act of nakedness or bearing all.)

Since we're reading "Ariel," I thought I'd bring this up.  What do you make of "White/ Godiva, I unpeel--" (19-20)?  Do we see this trope of nakedness arising in other confessional poets?  Where?  How do you read it in each instance?

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