Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Caolan Madden reads “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices” by Sylvia Plath.
Caolan, this is a really interesting, unique, and powerful poem you’ve read for us today. I’m sure Sylvia Plath needs no introduction, but what about this poem? Who are the three women?
Caolan: Three Women is a verse play that Plath wrote in 1962, not long after the birth of her second child. I had always kind of assumed it was a closet drama–a play that wasn’t meant to be performed–but it was apparently commissioned by the BBC and produced as a radio play in August of 1962, with three different actors voicing the three women. So the “three voices” were really three different voices, not three voices that you imagine inside your head, or three aspects of one voice like they are in my recording.
At the beginning of the poem, each of the three women is pregnant. (The setting for the play–the only stage direction–is “A Maternity Ward and round about.”) They go on to have three different experiences of hospital birth or miscarriage. The First Voice’s story is maybe the most familiar–it’s the kind of birth narrative that our culture, and even more so Plath’s 1960s Anglo-American culture, tends to celebrate: she gives birth to a baby boy and brings him home to the nursery she decorated for him. The Second Voice, a married woman who has been trying to conceive, has a miscarriage. The Third Voice, an unmarried college student, has a baby girl and gives her up for adoption. In the excerpt I read, which is from the very end of the poem, the women have all left the hospital and are starting their lives back up again, with or without children.
Chris: What made you decide to read this Plath piece above all her other poetry? What’s in this poem that makes it essential to you and your writing?
Caolan: Plath was the first poet I really loved–I first read her poems when I was thirteen, and for that reason she might be the only poet whose work I will ever love in this fundamental, visceral way. Obviously falling in love with Sylvia Plath at the age of thirteen is not an uncommon experience! But I wish more people were aware of the tenderness and humor and wonder in her work, as well as its fascinating, ambivalent relationship towards women’s popular culture. When people talk about, for example, Plath’s Mademoiselle internship or her desire to be the perfect housewife, they talk about these things as oppressive structures Plath had to strip away in order to become her true self, the avenging spirit of the Ariel poems. In reality that relationship is much more complicated and was, I think, much more generative than these narratives allow.
So that’s one reason I didn’t pick a really famous Plath poem like “Daddy” or “Lady Lazarus”–I love those poems, but I love to introduce readers to less familiar aspects of her writing. I’ve always been especially drawn to Plath’s accounts of domestic interiors, to the clear, focused attention she brings to the details of home décor, children’s toys, clothes, accessories, stuff, and the processes of maintaining and preserving that stuff–painting, sewing, polishing, gardening. I think Plath uses this stuff to write about love–not necessarily as metaphors for love, although that’s probably true, too, but more as a way to enact or perform love within the poem and in the real world.
“Three Women”–particularly the section I’ve read–is really a goldmine for that stuff. The First Voice painting the nursery and the Second Voice sewing her material are both doing creative, domestic work that is also protective or reparative. There’s darkness there–traces or more than traces of acquisitiveness, selfishness, compulsion, codependence, delusion, denial, complacency–but there’s also so much tenderness, determination, courage, generosity, creativity, resourcefulness, patience, attention, labor, care. All those things are part of how I understand my own writing process, as well as my own relationship to the people I love, and the spaces and things I love, too. And I tend to express love, too, by making things and places and poems for people, and I think that’s one thing that draws me to good-student-Plath and happy-housewife-Plath, the Plath who a lot of people dismiss or deride.
Chris: What do you make of Plath’s juxtaposition of these three experiences? Why this sort of format as opposed to having three separate poems, or more than three voices?
Caolan: Well, we can read Three Women biographically, as describing Plath’s own experiences: she gave birth to both a son and a daughter, she had at least one miscarriage, she worried about unwanted pregnancies when she was a student at Cambridge. I hesitate to even say that, because readers’ fascination with Plath’s biography can get in the way of reading her actual poems. But in this case, I think biographical detail helps us understand that the poem is working both to represent a range of experiences with pregnancy and birth and to suggest how all of these experiences might be part of a single person’s life. There’s a productive tension in the poem between universality and particularlity, which is reinforced by the tension between the poem’s performance history as a radio play performed by three different actors and the experience you have reading the poem on the page, or listening to my recording here, where you realize Plath didn’t do much to differentiate the voices from one another in terms of diction or rhythm. One powerful effect of that tension is that it becomes almost impossible to make moral judgments about these women. For example, if these three voices actually belong to the same woman, we can’t think of the First Voice, who keeps her child, as a better person than the Third Voice, who doesn’t. Another effect is that the poem discourages us from psychologizing the woman or women as character(s), and instead focuses our attention on its concrete descriptions of what are often considered taboo bodily experiences. Earlier in the poem, describing her contractions, the First Voice says “I am used. I am drummed into use”–an incredibly evocative and brutal description of labor that I, personally, don’t think I fully understood before the birth of my daughter, but that probably helped shape my expectations for what childbirth might be like.
So we can think of the poem as describing three aspects of one intense, complicated experience–kind of like Robert Graves’s idea of the Triple Goddess, whose three aspects are the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Plath was really into Graves, and really into three as a magic number, especially when you’re talking about groups of women: there are three Fates, three Graces. So that’s one reason there are three voices, not four or five or six.
Chris: You spoke earlier of how you enjoy introducing readers to the less familiar aspects of Plath’s writing. Is this poem one you came to know early in your reading of Plath? Also, what Plath poems in addition to “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices” showcase the things you love about her poetry?
Caolan: I remember reading this poem in eighth grade, when I was reading almost anything by Plath that I could get my hands on. But before I opened my copy of Plath’s Collected Poems to make this recording, I’d forgotten what an involved history I had with “Three Women.” There are notes in the margins from papers I wrote when I was in college and grad school; there are also notes that suggest I must have performed some of the Second Voice’s sections as a monologue in my high-school drama class. And in college I took the title of my senior thesis, which was about Plath’s depiction of domestic space, from one of the First Voice’s lines: “I Have Painted Little Hearts on Everything.”
If you’re looking for it, you’ll actually find a lot of the things I love about “Three Women”–the attention to material domestic detail; the interconnectedness of creative work and love and protection; the TMI physicality–all over Plath’s writing, including her most famous poems, her prose writing, and her journals. But some great poems to revisit are “Letter in November,” “Last Words,” “Nick and the Candlestick,” “Morning Song,” “By Candlelight,” and “Kindness.”
Caolan Madden holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins and is currently a PhD candidate in English literature at Rutgers. Recent poems have appeared in Bone Bouquet, Cartridge Lit, glitterMOB, Split Lip, and Black Warrior Review; some of her essays on literature and popular culture can be found online at weird-sister.com. Girl Talk Triptych, a collaborative chapbook she co-wrote with the feminist poetry collective (G)IRL, was published this spring by dancing girl press; her chapbook VAST NECROHOL is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
Chris Petruccelli is snackin’ on some cornbread and debating what kind of gravy he should have for breakfast–sausage, or red eye? His poetry has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere. Check out his chapbook Action at a Distance from Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.