Thursday, 12 July 2012

Insomniac – Sylvia Plath


“The night is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole --
A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.
Under the eyes of the stars and the moon's rictus
He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness
Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.

Over and over the old, granular movie
Exposes embarrassments--the mizzling days
Of childhood and adolescence, sticky with dreams,
Parental faces on tall stalks, alternately stern and tearful,
A garden of buggy rose that made him cry.
His forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks.
Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars.

He is immune to pills: red, purple, blue --
How they lit the tedium of the protracted evening!
Those sugary planets whose influence won for him
A life baptized in no-life for a while,
And the sweet, drugged waking of a forgetful baby.
Now the pills are worn-out and silly, like classical gods.
Their poppy-sleepy colors do him no good.

His head is a little interior of grey mirrors.
Each gesture flees immediately down an alley
Of diminishing perspectives, and its significance
Drains like water out the hole at the far end.
He lives without privacy in a lidless room,
The bald slots of his eyes stiffened wide-open
On the incessant heat-lightning flicker of situations.

Nightlong, in the granite yard, invisible cats
Have been howling like women, or damaged instruments.
Already he can feel daylight, his white disease,
Creeping up with her hatful of trivial repetitions.
The city is a map of cheerful twitters now,
And everywhere people, eyes mica-silver and blank,
Are riding to work in rows, as if recently brainwashed.”

- Sylvia Plath

Firstly, I find it important to note that this poem can be read into in many different ways, with certain interpretations lending themselves to individual stanzas within the piece. As with much of Plath’s poetry, we can note that there are many references which either concretely or metaphorically signpost us to the concept of death and mortality. Amongst the other themes to note within the piece, there is that of loneliness, depression, love and memory, each of which integrate on several different levels to give this poem a form of intriguing complexity, as well as leaving it open to many different interpretations. As with many of history’s greater writers, Plath has produced a piece which transcends whatever meaning she originally imbued it with, instead acting as a catalyst for the reader to take the poem however they wish.

So, if we start with the title, perhaps we shall learn best how Plath intended us to read this work. Insomniac. This word denotes an individual who is suffering from Insomnia, which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, is the “Inability to fall asleep or to maintain restful sleep”. The “irritating sand” of “his desert pillow” is used to show us how uncomfortable the persona feels. How he cannot relax. As someone who suffers from Insomnia, I can say that, from personal experience, it is an irritating thing to suffer from, and it can have a great impact on an individual’s life. Insomnia causes a person to be unable to rest properly, and hence they are often left exhausted and fatigued due to a lack of sleep. Not only that, but whilst forced to remain awake during the deep hours of the night, many people find themselves alone with their thoughts. We could take the lines “Over and over the old, granular movie” and  “Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars” to be evidence of this idea being presented within the poem. If we consider this solitude in which there is nothing to do but think in conjunction with the fact that Plath herself did suffer from a deep depression which eventually claimed her life through her suicide, we might be led to conclude that this poem is a reflection of her own experiences with the inability to sleep.

This interpretation is further supported by Plath’s novel, “The Bell Jar”, in which there is a section where she describes her own insomnia, and the fact that she used to take sleeping pills as a release from it. There are several points to note about this connection to her other work. In both the Bell Jar and Insomniac, Plath is using a persona, that is a narrative voice which is not entirely her own. In the Bell Jar, Plath uses the fictional avatar of herself, Esther, in order to convey her own personal experiences and emotions. In this poem, however, we are led to believe that the protagonist is male, for the male personal pronoun “He” features throughout. Within this poem, we have the line “He is immune to pills”, which is reflective of the fact that Sylvia herself was unable to find comfort in the medication, for it did not alleviate her insomnia. Hence, we are further led to believe that this poem is another of Plath’s attempts to convey her own emotions through the use of a persona.

What else is interesting about the link to the Bell Jar is that the sleeping pills are tied to Plath’s first attempt at suicide, when she attempts to overdose herself. Though this attempt was not successful, it was made possible through the fact that she stopped taking the sleeping pills when she realised that they were not working, and instead kept them behind, thus giving her the opportunity to make an attempt on her own life. Thus, as expected, we have found the connection to death, depression and to Plath’s underlying contemplations of suicide.

Depression is brought to the forefront with the concept of tedium, a general lack of satisfaction with life. From the start we have the night being described as “only a sort of carbon paper”. The use of the word “only” conveys the possible expectation or desire for something more, thus giving the reader the first hint of dissatisfaction. That we go on to have the colour being described as “Blueblack” reinforces the concept that it is monotonous and boring, using the image of dark colours to highlight this. We then have this contrasted with “A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things” which seems to hold the poet’s attention for a moment. We are asked to linger on this image for a moment, and on reflection we can note that Plath’s point of interest is concretely and unambiguously linked to death. Death being the opposite of life, and the fact that it is the first thing that Plath describes with any level of wonder or satisfaction reinforces the fact that she is bored with life, that she finds it unsatisfactory and is attempting to look beyond it for her satisfaction.

The lack of love for life is continuously reinforced through the second stanza, in which we have the concept of memory brought strictly to the foreground. She describes memory as “the old, granular movie” which from the outset adds are certain haziness to it. This description notes the fallibility of memory, though its main point seems to be more to highlight her displeasure with her memories. We should make note of the fact that her life is with her only in memory, for at the time of the poem, the speaker, who as we mentioned above is a representation of Plath herself, is alone with the night. The speaker’s memory is the sum of his existence, it is his life. Plath reminds us of her displeasure by showing how the memory is a darker concept for it “Exposes embarrassments” and reminds her of “Parental faces on tall stalks, alternately stern and tearful”. Basically, through showing enmity towards her faculty of memory, she is highlighting her dislike of life itself. Moving onto the third stanza, Plath reflects on the pills she would take to sleep, blissfully recalling “How they lit the tedium” and describing them as “sugary planets”. She fondly describes the pills, for they were her only way of escaping from life. What she desires is a time of nothingness, or “A life baptized in no-life for a while”, Plath wants to find an escape route and the drugs are the best way for her to achieve that. Once again, she expressed elation at something that is opposed to life and memory, which reminds us of her generally apathy and dislike towards life.

The hatred of life comes to a peak in the final stanza, during which Plath uses no uncertain terms to make it clear to the reader how much she dislikes life. The line “daylight, his white disease” conveys her dislike of the daytime, likening it to a malignant infection from which the persona constantly suffers. The daytime is closely associated with life beyond her own thoughts, in which she interacts with other people and spends time interacting with her environment rather than the demonic levels of self-reflection which are brought to our attention in the previous stanza with lines such as “His head is a little interior of grey mirrors” and “He lives without privacy in a lidless room”.

Monotony is reinforced again by the fact that the daytime is describes as “Creeping up with her hatful of trivial repetitions.” The line “The city is a map of cheerful twitters now” is used to highlight her dislike of other people, and to introduce the concept of isolation. The use of the word “twitters” to describe the voices of other people demeans what they are saying and reduces them to an irritant. However, we can contrast this with the “diminishing perspectives” in the previous stanza. As such perspectives follow directly from the lines concerning self-reflection, we could be led to think that Plath is trying to highlight how, though he finds the opinions of other irritating, he is unable to entirely disregard them, for he considers them whilst he thinks on himself.

Love is also referenced within the work, providing a sharp contrast to the gloom of Plath’s depression, though the two of them intermingle. Once more, we could assume that the love expressed in relation to the persona within the poem is a reflection of a real love felt by Plath during her life, however it is also possible that the expressions of love within the poem are simply explorations of the concept without pertaining to any specific affection within Plath’s own life. The fact that the persona is male, whereas Plath is female adds a gender barrier to the piece, and it is possible that the persona is a specific individual from Plath’s past. However, since we are not given any hint of a name, we would remain unable to identify this person, should it truly be a real individual. The line “childhood and adolescence” give the images of a young and foolish love, whereas the following phrase “sticky with dreams” provides a sexual undertone to the second stanza, which encourages the idea of the persona thinking of his lover. Love and sadness walk hand in hand, joined by the line “A garden of buggy rose that made him cry”. The image of the rose is one closely aligned with the concept of love, whereas the fact that it is the love that makes him cry shows a causal link. It is possible that his love is unrequited, for though we were led to believe that the two were lovers, it may have only been so within his “dreams”.

So there is the core of the poem: depression. Plath mainly uses this piece to express her dislike of the tedium of life and of other people, for she finds living repetitive and what other’s say as boring or meaningless. She does not attribute this directly to herself, instead using a male identity and pinning her views on him. We are also introduced to the concept of her depression arising from the tedium and from the fact that her faculty of memory is blamed for conjuring up negative experiences over and over again. Not only is the memory to blame, but the fact that Plath reflects overmuch on her memories and experiences, which is amplified with the use of the “grey mirrors” image. Love is used as a possible antithesis early in the poem, but eventually leads down the same road, to sadness and loneliness. In totality, the poem uses the concept of being unable to sleep and escape the world as a launch pad from which we can then highlight the monotony of the world in which we are forced to live.

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