A colleague recently gave me the April 2011 copy of O, or The Oprah Magazine. The reason she passed it on is because the issue was dedicated to poetry, complete with “The O Poetry Primer,” which listed twenty books “no reader’s library should be without,” including poets such as Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, and Seamus Heaney. What interested me the most, though, was the interview of Mary Oliver by Maria Shriver, who served as guest editor. I value and admire Mary Oliver’s poetry. Her ability to “try to keep the emphasis [of her poems] on the good and hopeful” is one of talent. Oliver’s imagery offers beauty and strength, and I often find her poems prayer-like. I, too, share her love of nature and the metaphorical and spiritual realm it lends itself to. But one thing that stood out to me and left me thinking was Oliver’s comment on Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton’s work. Oliver states that these two poets “got therapy mixed up with the work they were doing, and that’s a shame.” Oliver goes onto state that it seemed as if “they felt they could heal themselves through writing, and it didn’t work.” While unfortunately writing did not ultimately save these two (and many other) writers, my opinion differs from Oliver’s. I found writing as a form of survival for myself, a means of homegrown therapy that got me through some profoundly bleak places. Furthermore, fashionable or not, I value confessional poetry and believe it is potent and powerful, regardless of the end result of the poet. The vicarious experience of reading the thoughts and not-so-pleasant moments in someone else’s life should not be undervalued. For me, it lets me know I am surrounded by others who feel like I do, and that’s a blessing.
Ironically, Plath’s The Bell Jar turned 40 this week; you may find more detail here. I mention this because Esther Greenwood was a kindred spirit. She articulated the darkness I felt when I was a teen. She let me know that I was not alone, that someone out there had felt as horrible and as lonely as I was feeling. As an adolescent, I could breathe a little better and easier. I knew that if Esther could make it, so could I. While inevitably writing did not save Plath herself, I believe that her character, Esther, stood-in for many of us in ways we didn’t even understand. Later in life, after purchasing and reading Plath’s unabridged journals, I returned to The Bell Jar, noted its highly autobiographical nature, and its often sloppy structure. However, the one thing that had not changed with my contemporary reader response was the power of Esther to be as present and as helpful now as she was when I was younger.
As a wife and full-time working mother of two and a woman who must write to live, I turn to Sexton, who, like Plath, battled with the same balancing act in a society where she had much less wiggle room than I do. Her poetry, especially, “Her Kind” speaks to me just as Plath’s prose and poetry do. And, Oliver admits that she herself had a “very dysfunctional family, and a very hard childhood.” She finishes this thought with, “So I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.” This salvation was what I found when I turned to words, and I believe that it was the same salvation that Sexton and Plath sought. For all, I see the process of writing poems a means of catharsis, a means of working through the pain. Each stance, whether sharing the pain (and in turn alleviating the profound loneliness of another) or turning the pain into a way of seeing the world as a “good and hopeful” place, is incredibly valuable.