Suffering and violence are forces that, unfortunately, are able to transcend all genders, races and societal separations that exist within our world. To reflect upon or acknowledge suffering and violence- whether it is done to oneself, by oneself or to others- is a difficult task that many people actively avoid and struggle to fulfill. Struggle and pain have over the history of the human race, taken on many different faces and names, which result in a variation of responses from an ever- evolving humanity. The seemingly unending universality of terror is so vast that everyone comes to recognize and experience it- even a Caucasian woman, an African- American man, and a man of Syrian descent can find unity in poetic commiseration and commemoration.
The way in which American contemporary poets Sylvia Plath, Amiri Baraka and Lawrence Joseph intersect, although emerging from the eras of 1960s misogyny, 1960s racism, and early 2000s terrorism is the way in which they all choose to cope with the misfortune of their specific worlds: by composing poetry. Each poet discusses their respective personal plights: sexism, racism, and terrorism, as he or she understands it through their own personal lense, and also given the historical context in which each author was or is writing. Through their unique usage of language, imagery and subject matter, each of these poets craftily manages to express to readers a vision of agony and despair that does not necessarily have to culminate in continued grief.
Poetry as a means of expression lends itself to the discuss of all types of tragedy and misfortune in ways that both soften the blow of, yet confront the resulting pain. There is a certain type of beauty that is created out of the wretchedness of woe that only the creativity of poetry can express in ways that brings writers and readers to understanding, closure, and looking towards the future. As powerful a muse as joy is for the creative arts, so too is sadness. Even art derived from the depths of misery can offer up a glimmer of hope, in the belief that suffering for one might not mean suffering for always, or for all. Although the three could not be considered more biographically and stylistically different, their collective desire to both analyze and understand their pain and present it to others in a way that reflects the realities of it sans sugarcoating, yet foreshadows an unsure future that can be made positively clear, creates a powerful trifecta of poetry from a social justice standpoint
Sylvia Plath, known as a creative genius, but also as no stranger to internal emotional suffering, often used her poetry as a means through which she discussed the sex- based oppression she experienced in womanhood. Suspicion exists that perhaps Plath’s poetry, especially that found in most recently restored and re-released manuscript Ariel, exists as a precursor to her suicide in 1963. The burdens of gender roles and societal expectations for the female sex in conjunction with her personal struggles, provided that we read them in the voice of Sylvia Plath, are not necessarily the be all to her end all. The poem Purdah, from her originally 1965 Ariel, discusses what it is like to be a woman.
Sometimes women are like “Jade” or “small jeweled dolls”, adorned with all the dress(ings) of beauty and perfection, treasured and guarded by men(Plath 62, 64). This may seem like a positive thing to be so “precious and quiet” the eyes of society, but for women it is as an oppressive trap from which Plath predicts she “shall unloose” in such a tremendous fashion that it shall “shatter the chandelier of air”; for just as women are precious gemstones, they are also the “stone of the side”to men(Plath, 62- 64). The since biblical times “agonized side of green Adam” is a woman who comes from the just- made, green man and brings him suffering(Plath, 62). Sylvia Plath never explicitly says “I am a marginalized woman due to the constructs of society and this is my ‘suffering’”, but by given imagery and word choice we can piece together the allusions and arrive at this understanding. Plath’s feminist writing is universally resonant in that although many readers take it upon themselves to read Purdah in only the voice of Sylvia herself, the sentiments expressed in this piece could unfortunately be felt by any woman- whether it be in 1965 or today.
The “Bridesgroom is lord of” mirrors and of women: instead of a woman reflecting herself and her wants in a mirror, she reflects his desires and expectations when she looks back at herself(Plath, 62). She “is his, even in his absence”(Plath, 62, 63). This statement sounds like slavery, as a woman is never free from her chains of womanhood. If it is not her man keeping a watchful eye over her, it is another. She is ready to “unloose… like the peacock… the lioness” from her entrapment(Plath, 63, 64). She furthers the idea of being captured by placing women akin to two beautiful and majestic creatures that no person would want to see stuck in a cage. A peacock represents stunning sophistication, yet only exclusively in its male form. Why does Plath not say a peahen? She not only wants to break down gender barriers, but but able to spread her colorful wings and assume malehood as and if she chooses to. The lioness, female and fierce, shows the capability of women to be just as prominent as men in society. In her aim to unloose, she says “I shall”, indicating that she is currently still being subjugated but despite it, looks towards a powerful release of not only her woman, but her true human power. Purdah comes from the mind of Plath, yet stays in the hearts of all who know and have felt the suffrage of womanhood and look towards a day when resentment of the female status has no place in society.
Amiri Baraka, although a man himself, was not a man exempt from prejudice. Racism towards the black community is, just as sexism, an issue that still runs rampant in how people relate to one another today. As a part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, Baraka wrote poetry aimed at expressing the “self- determination” and desired “nationhood” of African- American society(Neal, 184). Poetry within the Black Arts both graphically depicted the suffering that black people had under the foot of a white society that hate(d) them, while also recognizing the beauty and resilience that only a culture who has suffered oppression for so many centuries in America can still have after all this time. His poem Ka ‘Ba brings to us marginalized, yet glorious black people.
“A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and black people
call across or scream or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will”(221).
Here a dismal living situation where primal guttural utterances are the main means of communication is also described as an environment that “defies physics”, or that is able to almost illogically superseded a miserable lifestyle in acts of strong will(Baraka, 221). Strength has always been a quality attributed to the black community by black writers. Experiencing oppression despite this strength is the black community’s unique form of suffering. They “Sprawl in grey chains in a place full of winters, when what we want is sun. We have been captured, brothers”(Baraka, 221). Amiri Baraka tries to reason with it and work through it as he says “tho we suffer, and kill each other… Our world is full of sound, Our world is more lovely than anyone’s”(Baraka, 221- 222). “African imaginations… african eyes… masks and dances and swelling chants” are what makes their world the loveliest and the most unique(Baraka, 222).
In understanding both the affliction and allure of being black in America, Baraka concludes Ka ‘Ba with
“We read magic
now we need the spells, to rise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?”(Baraka, 222).
The “spells” and “sacred words” that Baraka might be referencing to could be poetry itself(Baraka, 222). Baraka speaks for the entirety of his suffering brotherhood and uses his poetry to invoke a need for “correspondence with ourselves and our black family” instead of silence or choosing to ignore their pain(Baraka, 222). Now we need to do this, in acknowledging, like Plath, that such thing a simply has not happened yet and arguably still has not.
The last of our poets, Lawrence Joseph, happens to be the most contemporary of the three in terms of a chronological timeline. Once Again from Joseph’s post- September 11th collection of poems Into It, directly addresses how poetry creates an open and diverse dialogue in how we deal with tragedy as individuals. Although suffering differs amongst us, poetry brings it all together, as through reading poems written relating to experiences we personally have not had we can still sympathize. September 11th, 2001 is a prime example of how suffering is experienced differently from person to person. Everybody has their “I remember where I was when…” 9/11 story, and if they don’t, they are currently working through understanding a post- World Trade Center world. Joseph cannot speak on behalf or Plath or Baraka’s suffering, but he can describe his own suffering as a man living in the time of 9/11. Understanding global mass terrorism, even secondhand, is the sadness unique to witnessing generations and those thereafter.
Joseph’s poem commences with the imagery of “The esplanade. High summer” and a “Sea… beyond”(Joseph, 66). This hopeful scenery could be looking beyond the tragedy and grief of 9//11, perhaps mourning and learning to move on. In the midst of learning to cope, there is hope that pain will fade and be forgotten. The “current carrying us along” indicates that life continues on, even after crisis(Joseph, 66). The current is “heavy with that green and that black” as life is ever- moving to-and-fro and heavy with green new birth, but also black death(Joseph, 66). “Force’s writhing wheel revolving” reinforces the unstoppable momentum of the tides of life and the mercilessness with which life can be taken in this world(Joseph, 66). Positive imagery is coupled with negative wording to reflect the tumultuous nature of evil and how to come to terms with “the stealing, the killing”, “accomplished by new types of half- monsters” that are ourselves, in what should be a pleasant world(Joseph, 66).
Beauty in conjunction with horror continues towards the end of the poem as the “moon is low, its silent flame across the garden of roses”(Joseph, 67). The “silent flame” might be death and evil that wordlessly lurks amongst the living and sets ablaze the” beauty of roses” the is a good and happy life(Joseph, 67). “We place our hands on the silence”- the pain or action of terrorism and violence is something that we cannot see or always comprehend, but that we try to get our hands on, grasp and make sense of(Joseph, 67). A way that we can place our hands on this silence and start to make reconciliation with this pain is through poetry. This brings us to the revelation that “the poem is the dream, a dream technique; the primary soul- substance in which our attention is fixed… of mythical origins”(Joseph, 67). This precisely explains and expresses how poetry creates a platform or sacred place in which writers and readers are able to create an conceptual(and tangible, as it is visible through being printed and read) way through which to analyze and express understandings of sadness, yet also to cope and work through how to continue on despite marginalization, victimization or discord. “The primary soul- substance in which our attention is fixed” is some type of explanation, closure, or glimmer of hope that allows the human condition to sustain itself and flourish even amidst the problems it faces from everything to race to gender roles to terrorism(Joseph, 66).
A “supernal, metaphysical… representation of mythical origins” is poetry, in that it can be both concrete but also symbolic and abstract. Perhaps most means of coping are not enough for the human mind, maybe we need poems to create more hope for change. Terrorism and misery experienced in cities is unfortunately a continuing cycle, but not one that does not allude to the possibility of improvement as “we place our hands on the silence and once again, repeat the vow”(Joseph, 67). Perhaps it is a vow to not commit atrocities towards mankind, but one in vain in knowing that it will occur again as history tends to repeat itself. Repeating the vow could also be naive or “mythical”, in that we will never end up meaning or keeping the vow that we make. The language of the poetry reflects incertitude, in that misfortune foreshadows hope that pain is not in vain, but does not necessarily guarantee or promise a better future post- trauma.
Joseph Lawrence writes “It’s what I said”, “I” being Joseph or a mystery narrator(Joseph, 66). If it is him, this poem identifies his personal experience in how to understand relate to tragedy. Experiencing grief is a universal “I”, everybody knows it or experiences it in different ways, which is why it can be the subject of three varying poems. Each of the three poets seeks to create an open space not just for free discussion of not only their own feelings on tragedy, but also for brainstorming on how to avoid and eradicate suffering in the future. As Joseph said in a presentation to our contemporary poetry class, “poems mean all sorts of things” to everyone. For Plath it means freedom from the chains of femininity, for Baraka it means reaching a powerful end to racism, for Lawrence it means coming to terms with the destruction of our world in modern times, and as we experience our own types of suffering, it will mean something for us. All of this can only come from knowing pain and taking how it makes you feel and putting it into words. Painful poetry may not guarantee change, but it creates a place where the spirit of change can exist.
Baraka, Amiri, and William J. Harris. “The Black Nationalist Period.” The LeRoi Jones/Amiri
Baraka Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Thunder’s Mouth ;, 2000. Print.
Joseph, Lawrence. Into It. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. 66-67. Print.
Neal, Larry. The Black Arts Movement. New York: New York U. School of the Arts, 1968.
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.