Sylvia Plath: Touch and Go
10 January, 2018 ~ ElDynamite ~ Poetry
Touch-And-Go by Sylvia Plath
Sing praise for statuary:
For those anchored attitudes
And staunch stone eyes that stare
Through lichen-lid and passing bird-foot
At some steadfast mark
Beyond the inconstant green
Gallop and flick of light
In this precarious park
Where vivid children twirl
Like colored tops through time
Nor stop to understand
How all their play is touch-and-go:
But, Go! they cry, and the swing
Arcs up to the tall tree tip;
Go! and the merry-go-round
Hauls them round with it.
And I, like the children, caught
In the mortal active verb,
Let my transient eye break a tear
For each quick, flaring game
Of child, leaf and cloud,
While on this same fugue, unmoved,
Those stonier eyes look,
Safe-socketed in rock.
"Touch-And-Go" reveals a contrast between two perspectives on the dynamicism of life: one of naive childlike acceptance, and another that rejects it in favor of the static and unchanging nature of statues. While the narrator holds the latter position, the poem pushes us to embrace the risky former.
The poem presents a view of human dynamicism as an inevitable consequence of our living. It is not that we choose to accept change, it is that we are forced to accept change. This idea is presented through the diction used to describe the children and the narrator. The children are as "tops", that is, forced to spin at the will of a greater power. They do not ride the swing, rather, it actively "arcs up" of its own accord, and the merry-go-round actively "hauls them round". The narrator acknowledges being "caught in the mortal active verb", as an object rather than a subject. They all ultimately have no significant agency, and they all, one way or another, are caught in something else's verb.
This idea is further reinforced by the conception of life as a "fugue". A fugue is a musical piece composed of multiple voices which replicate the same musical pattern at different times. The narrator supposes that the "child, leaf, and cloud" make up these voices, and thus all express the same pattern of life, which is dynamicity and change. Just as the seasons will not stop turning, the "colored tops" will not pause their relentless spinning, and the fugue will continue, with or without the narrator's awareness. Once again, the narrator is "caught", and thus no amount of introspection will change his role. However, we now must explain what role the "unmoved" statues play in the fugue, since by virtue of being static, they cannot be a musical voice.
EYES OF THE PAST
The most notable aspect of the statues in the poem is their eyes. The eyes are "anchored attitudes", and they "stare"-- that is, they make use of a verb that is not "mortal [and] active", as those of the narrator and the children. They are also "staunch" and "safe-socketed", further pushing the concept of immutability. In essence, the statues represent a cross-section of the lives of past people, whose thoughts are ossified and rendered immutable. However, we still feel the presence of their gaze through the societal structures set up to honor them and follow in their paths. Thus, in the fugual comparison, the "unmoved" statues correspond to the clef, or the measure lines, or the beat; ie, they are something against which we compare ourselves as we move through the ordained cycles of life.
From the start, the narrator makes clear that he prefers the static nature of the statues to the "inconstant green" of the park in which life runs its course. This preference is not trivial: the narrator feels endangered by the dynamicism of life. The park is not just dynamic, it is "precarious", implying risk. The active verb is not alive, it is "mortal", implying death. The statues are not only static, they are "safe-socketed", implying safety. It is because the statues are safe and unchanging that the narrator wishes to "sing praise" to them, rather than out of respect for the ideals they represent.
The narrator's desire to seek refuge in the structures of the past can thus be regarded as one of cowardice or fear. However, as is the nature of being spun like a top or being caught as the object of a verb, it is impossible for him to escape the cycles of life, no matter how much he longs for the safety of the statues. The poem proposes that instead of crippling ourselves with such fear, we live naively and freely, like the children in the poem. The children make games of the life they are forced to live; they are "vivid" and "colored", filled with mirth. The fugue is a pattern of symphony and discordance, gain and loss, touch and go; the best we can do in our forced position is to, like the children, accept our position in the progressing melody as it gradually escapes from the security of the statues of the past.