112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

“Words dry and riderless”: Plath and the Articulation of Loss

Addison Palacios, University of California, Riverside

This paper focuses on the trajectory of Sylvia Plath’s poetry as she attempts to articulate the feeling of loss, to name that which has been lost, and melancholia’s effects on language. I also argue that poetry, particularly the confessional mode of poetry popularized in the 1950’s, can enable successful mourning while also identifying factors which can inhibit it.


          This paper focuses on the trajectory of Sylvia Plath’s poetry as she attempts to articulate the feeling of loss, to name that which has been lost, and melancholia’s effects on language. While much scholarship uses Freud’s understanding of melancholia to discuss the confessional poetry of the 1950’s, this research often results in debates over what specific loss the poets are struggling with. Instead, this paper seeks to reorient this focus from what was specifically lost to the expression of that loss.  By doing so, melancholia’s relationship to language allows for poetry to be viewed as a potential means of therapy. Furthermore, I identify the complications which can inhibit confessional poetry, as seen through Plath’s inability to fully acknowledge herself as a poet as well as her reliance on external validation.

         This paper uses Julia Kristeva’s theories which allow for a focus on language while positioning poetry in a liminal space between symbolic language and asymbolia. For Kristeva, poetry is possibly the “sole container” for the “Thing”, that is, that which resists signification. This paper centers on Plath’s attempts to create a “sole container” for the unnamable, lost object as well as show how poetry serves as a potential means of therapy that can combat the asymbolia inherent in melancholia.  Because of poetry’s ability to occupy the pre-linguistic realm of affect as well as the paternal realm of the signifier, it can allow the melancholic subject to voice their sense of loss in an adequate, communicable way. By doing so, the melancholic figure re-enters the symbolic order of language, thereby moving from a state of abjection to subjecthood. This then facilitates the transference of affection which enables successful mourning, thereby allowing confessional poetry to be viewed as a means of therapy.          

            Within Plath’s poems we see the struggle to communicate the emotions resulting from loss as well as her attempts to describe the unnamable “Thing”. Her earlier poetry reveals the difficulties with doing this, as seen through poems like “A Birthday Present” and “Elm” which depict an internal threat that is desperate for escape yet lacks the means to do so. Yet despite these struggles, her journals reveal the constant solace found in the medium, thereby allowing it to be read as a form of therapy. However, Plath’s later poetry reveals the linguistic effects of melancholia after attempts to enter the lost object into the symbolic order prove insufficient, thereby resulting in a lack of faith in the symbolic order. This is readily presented in poems like “Edge” where silence becomes as pervasive as text and a “crackle and drag” holds as much meaning as words.

            In conclusion, this paper uses Kristeva’s understanding of melancholia within the context of Plath’s poetry, both early and late. I argue that through Plath we gain an understanding of the linguistic effects of melancholia as well as the curative potentials of confessional poetry. In this way, studies in depression not only help us understand Plath, but Plath allows us to better understand the afflicted and gestures towards potential modes of therapy and recovery.

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