The Role of Compulsory Heterosexuality and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich
On the surface, Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich seem like the most dissimilar of contemporary poets: Rich identified as Jewish, lesbian, and a feminist, while Plath considered herself religiously apathetic and although some scholars interpret the writing of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar as an admission of queerness, she publicly commented on neither her sexuality nor her status as a feminist, although this may be because she died prior to the second-wave feminist movement. However, as Rich wrote in her essay cc “women are all, in different ways and to different degrees [compulsory heterosexuality’s] victims,” and the fact that these women lived and wrote during the same era surrounded by the constant threat of male power is enough to consider them comparable in experience (645). Rich’s essay explores the darkest parts of patriarchal influence, including the characteristics of male power and various methods and patterns in the reinforcement of heterosexuality on women, and each of these poets addresses and rejects them in their work. Although male power and compulsory heterosexuality impacted them differently in their lives and they incorporate these types of experiences into their poetry differently, it is the barest, rawest parts of female existence that connect these women to one another. In this essay, I intend to identify and explore the different ways that Rich and Plath interact with compulsory heterosexuality and the enforcement of male power in their poetry.
Early in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Rich lists the characteristics of male power, which she takes from feminist anthropologist Kathleen Gough’s essay “The Origin of the Family.” The first two characteristics listed, which have various means of enforcement seem to be the most prevalent in both Rich and Plath’s poetry. The first characteristic is: to deny women [our own] sexuality… [by means of clitoridectomy and infibulation; chastity belts; punishment, including death, for female adultery; punishment, including death, for lesbian sexuality; psychoanalytic denial of the clitoris; strictures against masturbation; denial of maternal and postmenopausal sensuality; unnecessary hysterectomy; pseudo-lesbian images in media and literature; closing of archives and destruction of documents relating to lesbian existence]; (638). This characteristic is addressed more frequently in Rich’s poems, such as “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered” in “Twenty-One Love Poems,” with blatant rejection. The essay focuses primarily on the sexual orientation aspect of sexuality and seems to display a moral preference towards non-heterosexual couples, but it also notes that the problems with and limitations of heterosexuality are due to its close connection to male power, especially the assertion of sexual dominance (636). This tends to be observed more frequently in conjunction with the methods listed under the second characteristic of male power, which is highlighted and criticized more so in Plath’s poems, such as “The Jailer,” than in Rich’s poems. The second characteristic is: or to force it [male sexuality] upon them… [by means of rape (including marital rape) and wife beating; father-daughter, brother-sister incest; the socialization of women to feel that male sexual “drive” amounts to a right; idealization of heterosexual romance in art, literature, media, ads, etc.; child marriage; arranged marriage; prostitution; the psychoanalytic doctrines of frigidity and vaginal orgasm, pornographic depictions of women responding pleasurably violence and humiliation (a subliminal message being that heterosexuality is more “normal” than sensuality between women)]; (638-639).These are the characteristics that come up most frequently in Plath and Rich’s writing and they will be the ones I focus on in the context of each poem, but there are several other characteristic that appear and are rejected on similar grounds.
While observations on lesbian existence fall by the wayside in Plath’s poetry, they are a focal point in Rich’s work. In particular, Rich makes a point of rejecting “punishment… for lesbian sexuality; psychoanalytic denial of the clitoris… strictures against masturbation; denial of maternal and postmenopausal sensuality… closing of archives and destruction of documents relating to lesbian existence,” and she most notably does this “Twenty-One Love Poems.” In “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered” the most sexually explicit of “Twenty-One Love Poems,” she writes: Whatever happens with us, your bodywill haunt mine—tender, delicateyour lovemaking, like the half-curled frondof the fiddlehead fern in forestsjust washed by sun. Your traveled, generous thighsbetween which my whole face has come and come—the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue has found there—the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth—your touch on me, firm, protective, searchingme out, your strong tongue and slender fingersreaching where I had been waiting years for youin my rose-wet cave—whatever happens, this is.Here, the speaker begins by promising her body to an ungendered lover, and although she never explicitly names the gender identity of her lover, the discussion of “generous thighs / between which [her] whole face has come” and the “dance of…nipples” suggests that she is speaking about a woman. By describing the lovemaking between the speaker and another woman, Rich is completely rejecting the ideals of heterosexual intercourse and male sexuality that were considered superior in the 1980s. Likewise, by directly addressing the sexual relationship between the two women, the Rich is clarifying that women do not need men for sexual pleasure or sexual purposes despite the observations she makes in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” The contradiction between innocence and wisdom in the eighth line suggests both interest and confusion with the unfamiliarity of having sex with a woman as well as freedom from male sexual oppression. Regardless of a woman’s sexual orientation, her experience can be located along the “lesbian continuum” as a victim of male enforcement of heterosexuality. Although the substance of the poem blatantly challenges compulsory heterosexuality and male power, its greatest significance may be the fact that it brings lesbianism and issues of male power to the forefront of poetic discourse by offering a detailed account of lesbian physical and emotional intimacy (O’Mahoney). However, as Plath demonstrates, this is not the only way for a female poet to challenge the patriarchy.
The poem of Plath’s that is most straightforward in the wait it addresses the second characteristic of male sexuality is “The Jailer” from her collection Ariel, which was published posthumously. She begins the poem by subtly addressing institutional sexism within the home with the lines “My night sweats grease his breakfast plate. / The same placard of blue fog is wheeled into position / With the same trees and headstones.” In the first, she while she notes that the man who she speaks about does not care about her and considers her extremely replaceable. After this, the speaker then rhetorically asks, “Is that all he can come up with, / The rattler of keys?” These lines may reference another characteristic of male power, “to confine [women] physically and prevent their movement,” which would also be a characteristic of a literal jailer (639). The main purpose of this stanza seems to be the confirmation that the jailer the speaker is wary of is the man she cooks breakfast for, who is probably her husband. The next stanza, which most blatantly addresses the force of male power on women, reads:I have been drugged and raped.Seven hours knocked out of my right mindInto a black sackWhere I relax, foetus or cat,Lever of his wet dreams.The first line may reference literal sexual force and coercion as Rich lists as methods of forcing male sexuality on women, but it is also possible that Plath is actually toying with the concept of a forced, coerced, and violent marriage: the rape the speaker mentions is likely marital rape at the hands of the man she describes. In her essay, Rich quotes:As one accused rapist put it, he hadn’t used “any more force than is usual for males during the preliminaries”… [MacKinnon] criticizes Susan Brownmiller for separating rape from the mainstream of daily life and for her unexamined premise that “rape is violence, intercourse is sexuality,” removing rape from the sexual sphere altogether. Most crucially she argues that “taking rape from the realm of ‘the sexual,’ placing it in the realm of ‘the violent,’ allows one to be against it without raising any questions about the extent to which the institution of heterosexuality has defined force as a normal part of ‘the preliminaries.’ Never is it asked whether, under conditions of male supremacy, the notion of ‘consent’ has any meaning.” (642) In relation to “The Jailer,” this suggests that Plath is blurring the lines between love and violence by blurring the lines between sex and rape.
For centuries, women were forced to view the what is now known to be violence as a part of heterosexual intercourse and relationships, and Plath writers her speaker as someone who is now beginning to realize that “the violent” is not “the sexual.” Likewise, in the language of contemporary social work, the jailer is a partner or ex-partner who attempts to restrict the victim in some way, whether that is sexually, which is addressed in the first two characteristics, physically, which is addressed with the characteristic “to confine them physically and prevent their movement,” or mentally, which is addressed in the final characteristic of male power, “to withhold from them large areas of the society’s knowledge and cultural attainments.” The seven hours she spent “knocked out of [her] right mind” also might be the seven hours of sleep she is forced to have next to him after being forced to have sex with him. She may also be criticizing herself for consciously choosing him as a partner and in doing so not being in her “right mind.” Another example of forcing male sexuality on women that Rich lists is “the socialization of women to feel that male sexual ‘drive’ is a right,” which may be why the man in the poem is able to have and keep the speaker even in his sleep as the “Lever of his wet dreams” (639). By criticizing this characteristic of male power throughout the rest of the poem, which she does by making comments like “He has been burning me with cigarettes” and “What have I eaten? / Lies and smiles,” and in the last stanza by daring the reader to wonder: That being free. What would the darkDo without fevers to eat?What would the lightDo without eyes to knife, what would heDo, do, do without me? Here, although Plath is separating her poetry from Rich’s by failing to depict scenarios that blatantly oppose the enforcement of male power with force and deprival, she is taking her opposition a step further by encouraging the reader to imagine a world in which male power is not prioritized and heterosexuality is not compulsory while Rich just creates an image of that world.
Despite the fact that their tactics are different in these initial poems, Plath and Rich have the common goal of challenging compulsory heterosexuality and the enforcement of male power, and they use similar techniques to achieve this goal in Plath’s “Lesbos” and Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” At first read, Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” and Plath’s “Lesbos” have little more in common than the fact that they are both poems written in English. For starters, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is nearly an eighth of the length of “Lesbos,” and it is broken into three neat, even stanzas while Plath’s stanzas start long and get shorter and shorter as “Lesbos” goes on. However, these poems both directly address the issues with compulsory heterosexuality and the enforcement of male power, with Rich doing so in simpler terms while Plath is more detailed and grandiose in her language. Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” reads:Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.They do not fear the men beneath the tree;They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.Aunt Jennifer’s finger fluttering through her woolFind even the ivory needle hard to pull.The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding bandSits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lieStill ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.The tigers in the panel that she madeWill go on prancing, proud and unafraid.This poem does not criticize male power by taking examples of characteristics of it and displaying the polar opposite as “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered” does––instead, it presents the reader a victim of compulsory heterosexuality who is weighed down in life and is free only in her creativity. Plath uses a similar technique in “Lesbos” when she writes lines like “You say your husband is just no good to you. / His Jew-Mama guards his sweet sex like a pearl” and “A dog picked up your doggy husband. He went on.” These lines make note of the ways in which people prioritize male sexuality and therefore succumb to male power, as Aunt Jennifer is obviously tired from many years of doing. Additionally, both of these poets mark tigers as symbols of freedom with the “proud and unafraid” tigers in Aunt Jennifer’s tapestry and Plath’s lone “I should wear tiger pants, I should have an affair,” which indicates that there is an animalistic freedom these women and perhaps many others associated with freedom from the patriarchy’s trap, and in including this symbol they are making evident to the reader the fact that they are unwilling to comfortably settle with compulsory heterosexuality and male power in the world.
One notable difference between these poems, despite their many similarities, is the fact that Plath is also using the speaker’s daughter as a vessel for criticism in “Lesbos” while Rich keeps her criticism limited to Aunt Jennifer’s husband. In the first stanza, Plath writes:And my child look at her, face down on the floor,Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappearWhy she is schizophrenic,Her face is red and white, a panic… Rather than displaying outward attacks from a man like her husband, the speaker is writing about a friend who harbors the ideals of compulsory heterosexuality and male power (Trinidad). In the lines above, the fourth characteristic of male power is being referenced: “to control or rob [women] of their children” (639). Literary critics believe, however, that the anger Plath was gearing towards others in her writing was displaced anger towards Ted Hughes, which strengthens the argument that this anger is a criticism of male power, like the despair in “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” but here it is being expressed pre-mortem rather than post-mortem (Trinidad). As Rich quotes in her essay:female sexual slavery is present in ALL situations where women or girls cannot change the conditions of their existence; where regardless of how they got into those conditions, e.g., social pressure, economic hardship, misplaced trust or the longing for affection, they cannot get out; and where they are subject to sexual violence and exploitation.Despite the fact that the scenarios presented in “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered,” “The Jailer,” “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” and “Lesbos” are different in various ways, they all reject in presenting (or, in not presenting) women who are stuck in a situation dictated by male power. In addressing female sexual slavery in their work, they are taking advantage of the concept of combining literature with politics, and although the archetype of the weighed-down wife is certainly not a new one, Rich and Plath refresh it with their criticisms of male power (Pratt,).
Although there are countless methods of forcing women to be the slaves of the patriarchy, there are also countless ways to combat this: so long as people are working against compulsory heterosexuality and male power, their place in literature and in the greater world will shrink. As Rich wrote in her 1975 speech “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her” (23). In writing separate expressions of the ways in which male power and compulsory heterosexuality are forced upon women, Plath and Rich paved the way for more women poets to express discontent with the sexual status quo and to change it. Although neither of them explicitly expressed this as a goal, it is likely that they would both be content with this outcome of their poetry.
O’Mahoney, John. “The Profile: Adrienne Rich.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 14 June 2002. Web.Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Edited by Ted Hughes, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008. Print.Pratt, Annis. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers: Notes Toward a Preliterary History of Women’s Archetypes.” Feminist Studies 4.1 (1978): 163. ProQuest. Web. Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs Vol. 5, No. 4, Women: Sex and Sexuality (Summer, 1980), p. 631-660. Rich, Adrienne. “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.” Heresies 1.1 (1977): 23. Print.Trinidad, David. “‘Viciousness in the Kitchen’: The Backstory of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lesbos’” by David Trinidad. Blackbird Archives (2). 20 Nov. 2015. ACI Scholarly Blog Index. Web.
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