Sylvia Plath #LitLove | "Lady Lazarus" and "Witch Burning"

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Welcome to the fifth round of #LitLove, a bimonthly series here on the blog!

So what is #LitLove?

It's a collaborative post series that happens every two months. It debuted in December 2014, featuring myself and four other lovely writer/bloggers, dubbed ATTAC:

Alyssa / Topaz / Taylor / AnQi / Christina (that's me!)

Officially(ish) speaking:
#LitLove is our chance to spout our love for the written word in all its forms, and it happens once every two months. It was born from a feverish Twitter fangirling session (as so many good things are) and then put into action. We've got a veritable army of ideas cooking, and we plan to spotlight everything from authors to tropes in the future.
Previously, we've featured brilliant writers Kate DiCamilloRoald Dahl, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allan Poe. Today we're taking the series in yet another direction by featuring one of America's most intriguing female writers, Sylvia Plath.

Haven't heard the name?

No worries! I'm here to fill the gap in your reading life labeled 'Sylvia Plath.' Here's an excerpt from her Poetry Foundation bio:
Sylvia Plath was one of the most dynamic and admired poets of the twentieth century. By the time she took her life at the age of thirty, Plath already had a following in the literary community. In the ensuing years her work attracted the attention of a multitude of readers, who saw in her singular verse an attempt to catalogue despair, violent emotion, and obsession with death. [...] Intensely autobiographical, Plath's poems explore her own mental anguish, her troubled marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, her unresolved conflicts with her parents, and her own vision of herself. [...] [Joyce Carol Oates] wrote that Plath's best-known poems, "many of them written during the final, turbulent weeks of her life, read as if they've been chiseled, with a fine surgical instrument, out of arctic ice."
I was first introduced to Sylvia Plath's work when I read her first and only novel, The Bell Jar, for a literature honors project at school during freshman year. (You might have read my rave review of that particular book.) When I learned that she was primarily a poet, I immediately set out to read some of her poetry. This new interest came at a particularly opportune time, since I was growing more and more interested in writing poetry myself. I think reading Sylvia Plath has really influenced the way I look at and approach poetry, and I know it will continue to do so in the future.

Today, I'll be discussing two of my favorite Plath poems. Ordinarily, I'd just pick one, but with Plath it's just too difficult! So here's "Lady Lazarus" and "Witch Burning" for you all.

(Note: I've been stretched a bit thin lately writing/commitment-wise, so this might not be my best analysis + discussion, but DO NOT BE FOOLED. Plath is pretty much my poetic sun and stars.)

About the poems

"lady lazarus"

"Lady Lazarus" is, I believe, one of Plath's best-known poems. It is at once a confessional and a persona poem, meaning that it draws on Plath's personal experiences / emotions and takes on the voice of a character at the same time. It reimagines the biblical Lazarus (who was brought back from the dead) as a woman in a more updated context. The poem is sourced from Plath's Collected Poems and was written from October 23–29, 1962. You can read it here.

"witch burning"

"Witch Burning" is somewhat lesser-known. It's also a confessional / persona poem; Plath's works tend to be confessional, as she was one of the pioneers of that type of poetry. The title explains a lot of it, really—it centers on the experience of a witch before being burned at the stake, although the poem's tone feels, to me, less mournful and more pure or empowered. The work from her posthumous collection Ariel (1966). You can read it here.

What these poems mean to me

I'm incapable of pinpointing exactly what it is that I love so much about Sylvia Plath's writing. Its unashamed honesty? Its fiercely vivid, unsettling descriptions? Its juxtaposition of dark, evocative imagery with lighter poetic forms? These are all certainly part of it. 

But what truly makes Plath's style so enthralling? I don't think it can quite be summed up in words by anyone, and I certainly couldn't do it justice. Instead, I'll talk about some of my favorite lines from each poem (although honestly, any Plath line is more or less a favorite for me). 

(These are just my own interpretations, and if you want to discuss further in the comments, please do! I'm always up for poetry talk.)

"lady lazarus"

I have done it again. / One year in every ten / I manage it——
While the biblical Lazarus is brought to life by Jesus, Lady Lazarus resurrects herself without any outside help ("I have done it again"). It's a power that she has used before and one that gives her a sort of authority over everyone around her. I personally can kind of feel that here, in these lines that feel at once weary and triumphant.
O my enemy. / Do I terrify?——
The boldly feminine yet undeniably threatening persona of "Lady Lazarus" has a certain deadly magnetism to her. She's secure in her ability to rise from the dead, which gives her a fearsome kind of confidence. But she's also very aware of the scrutiny she gets because of that ability. She regards those who scrutinize her as 'enemies,' and she wants to know: are you afraid of me?
Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.
These last three lines make up one of the most iconic poem endings you'll ever read, period. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite part of this poem. The rhyme is incredibly powerful without being tacky in the least, and it's undoubtedly chilling. Also, GIRL POWER.

"witch burning"

I inhabit / The wax image of myself, a doll's body.
There's so much wonderful subtext here. This line pretty much speaks for itself—it has so many dimensions, and I really think it opens up new areas for interpretation every single time one reads it.
What large eyes the dead have!
This line in and of itself is wonderfully arresting in its simultaneous playfulness and morbidity. I love it. To me, it feels like a play off what the heroine tells the wolf disguised as her grandmother in the Red Riding Hood fairytale: "What large teeth you have!" That innocent fascination, combined with the darkness of bringing up the dead, is a beautifully clever contrast.
We grow. / It hurts at first. The red tongues will teach the truth.
"The red tongues" in this case is taken to mean fire, which I think implies a sort of healing and reaching upwards that the narrator achieves through a lot of sacrifice and hardship. I love this notion a lot, and I keep it very close to my heart.
I am lost, I am lost, in the robes of all this light.
I think this is a gorgeously cathartic ending for the poem, and it's one that really rings true to me. The narrator has had a hard time coming into her own throughout the piece, and so this kind of light-filled 'ascension' feels like a wonderful release for her.

That's all from me, but don't go just yet! There's more #LitLove to be had:

* Unfortunately, Taylor won't be participating in this round.

Do you love Sylvia Plath as much as I do? What about confessional poetry? Let's nerd out in the comments!

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