America’s renowned poet Sylvia Plath wrote an essay titled “Comparison” in 1962, a year before she committed suicide to draw, as the title suggests, a comparison between prose and verse as two distinct forms of writing. The mid-20th century was dominated by New Criticism, a literary movement that emphasized the notion of the text, especially a poem to be a self-contained piece and a close reading of the same to be sufficient for its analysis. While there is no evidence that suggests Plath’s endeavor to have a similar direction, it can certainly be read along those lines.
Comparison | Summary
The essay opens with Plath’s envy of the novelist. She imagines “her” rather than “him” to be an observant writer. A woman novelist is capable of employing not only emotions but objects too with complete relevance in her view. She can bring anything to life. Time is what shapes a novel and a novelist has all the time in the world to do it. But Plath, by undercutting her own opinion, claims to a poet’s need for a minute to compose his/her poetry and express sentiments. She justifies her stand by relying on the “smallish, unofficial garden-variety poem” and not the epic poems. To further affirm her argument, she employs the example of a Victorian snow globe that compels her to change her perception whenever it shakes and this gives rise to her poems. Since the vision is momentary, the poet has to fasten the pace of composition before he/she loses it. Interestingly, she interrogates the novelists’ skills to do that. By quoting Ezra Pound’s two-line poem “In a Station of the Metro” (1913), she successfully proves her stance:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.
Poetry always gives room for interpretation and need not be literal in an attempt of spoon feeding but a novel has to work around its vision to avoid ambiguities and unanswerable questions. However, to avoid the pride she begins to sense as a poet, she decides to weigh down the advantages of both forms to welcome any criticism. “If a poem is concentrated, a closed fist, then a novel is relaxed and expansive, an open hand.” A poem often has to exclude many details but a novel does not have that luxury. Elaborate descriptions and run-on passages are what truly form the essence of prose writing.
Further, Plath contemplates her own choice where she reveals her dislike of thinking “of all the things, familiar, useful and worthy things, [that she has]…never put into a poem.” Plath’s poetry as we all know is far from being conventional both in style and themes. So in a humorous recollection, she recounts an instance of commonality in her verse where she employs a yew tree in one of her compositions which rather than being a side character turns out to be the central one. An entire novel can particularly not be about a tree which she sarcastically remarks is too proud to be unnoticeable. Plath acknowledges a slight dig at poetry such as this might invite criticism and lectures from great poets who must believe in poetry’s capability of encapsulating details better “than those baggy, disheveled and undiscriminate creatures we call novels.” But Plath also believes the poems to be not “that chaste.” Apparitions are rare and they switch banality into something special that a regular poem cannot incorporate and a novel will definitely not. The essay ends on a similar note between a poem and a novel as there is an end to both but the former shuts sooner with “unanswerable finality.”
Comparison | Analysis
Comparison | is not only a critical essay that centralizes the debate between poetry and novel as two distinct yet successful forms of writing but also a work that sandwiches Plath as a writer who is known for her exceptional verses but at the same time must be experimenting with the other genre while working on the essay through her novel The Bell Jar (1963). The essay predates the publication of her novel which opens room for the possible limitations Plath must have experienced while compiling her novel. Her argument is straightforward and simple- the brevity of the poems does not put any limitations on the form but rather provides a luxury of “unanswerable finality” that the novel cannot afford. She weighs the advantages of poetry as less time-consuming in its composition and visionary, contrasting the novels which can take months and years to reach their final draft. Another point of difference she intends to highlight is the aspect of commonality. Novels devote pages and even chapters to describing a single moment or an object which often is common and routine in human lives. But a poem tries to avoid commonality and if it does employ it, the object or the moment is not common anymore. It enters the realm of imagination and fantasy of the composer who transcends it to another realm, rendering it a special status.
A point of contention we can observe in the essay is Plath’s reliance on “garden-variety” poems to support her argument when her own verses keep a good distance from conventionality and commonality. She admits her distaste for common things such as a “toothbrush” to be a part of her writing. This also leads to her near separation from other female writers she alludes to at the beginning of her essay who are capable enough to render relevance and life to anything they come across. Plath has her own way of writing and she is proud to be a poet because that allows her to often leave things unsaid and unexplained, unlike a novelist who is expected to close the novel orderly with all the solutions.
Comparison | Literary Devices
“This sort of paperweight is a dear globe, self-complete, very pure, with a forest or village or family group within it.”
“The poet becomes an expert packer of suitcases”
“In a page? Mixing it, perhaps, like paint, with a little water, thinning it, spreading it out.”
“That yew tree was just too proud to be a passing black mark in a novel.”
“Those baggy, disheveled and undiscriminate creatures we call novels.”