Though one can surely speculate that “Tulips” may well have been a recollection of one or all of three hospitalizations that followed Plath’s suicide attempt in August 1953, the figuration of “Tulips” is too loaded to be merely biographical transcription. To the extent that it is “about the appendectomy,” Plath’s letters and journals dispute that characterization. Instead, Plath appears to be working from a Freudian script for neurasthenics, particularly the kind of condition that was popularly known as a “nervous breakdown” at a time before drug therapies and sexual liberation offered real answers to the psychological problems many women faced as a result of a sexually repressive culture.
Given her Swiftian bent in “Cut,” Plath fantastically extrapolates Freud’s castration complex and imagines the female anatomy in ludicrous male personas, each with its own abject place in history, while the poem serves, at once, as a celebration, social satire and lament about female gender.
“The Road Not Taken,” while admittedly the most popular of Frost’s work, is not his most misunderstood poem. That honor belongs to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which appears to be a Janus-faced coin: on one side is a charming poem about a man caught up in the wonder of an evening snowfall in the woods; on the other is a momento mori poem with, perhaps, a suicide subtext. How do we reconcile the two?
The common mistake that readers and critics have made with Frost’s work is to read metaphor and symbol out of the poetry and attempt to render it as stark realism. It is Frost’s ulteriority, often revealed through the unconventional use of familiar poetic figurations, that compels us to explore the agons inherent in his work, otherwise we’d have very few reasons to return to the poems as often as we do.
Ann Marie Mikkelsen’s extensive research has yielded a very informative book on the use of pastoral themes in twentieth century poetry. Her prime exhibits are select poems by Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, but she also briefly covers works by Gertrude Stein, Lyn Hejinian and Lisa Robertson.
Notwithstanding the naive premises of the popular form of pastoral, however stretched and strained, the genre remains remarkably durable, even if it is increasingly used as a touchstone more than a framework. In modern and contemporary poems we witness the popular pastoral portrait with its cracked varnish juxtaposed to modernism’s industrial high tech, conflicted morality and garish breaches of decorum; when they are combined, we have a distinctive form of irony.