Toothbrushes in a poem

I’ve linked before to James Wood’s review of Pushkin: A Biography by T.J. Binyon. I’m linking to it again for this observation:

Sylvia Plath once longed to write a poem that might be roomy enough to include a toothbrush. But Pushkin anticipated her: his marvellous picture of Onegin’s dandyish bedroom sees brushes ‘of thirty kinds –/ these for the nails, those for the teeth’. Everyone who reads Eugene Onegin delights in the novelistic density of its life, and immediately understands how carefully Tolstoy must have studied it.

Here’s how Plath put it in her interview with Peter Orr in 1962:

I feel that in a novel, for example, you can get in toothbrushes and all the paraphernalia that one finds in dally life, and I find this more difficult in poetry. Poetry, I feel, is a tyrannical discipline, you’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you’ve just got to turn away all the peripherals. And I miss them! […]

I would say everything should be able to come into a poem, but I can’t put toothbrushes into a poem, I really can’t!

She was probably thinking of the genres she was interested in as an author – lyrical poetry, above all. In satirical and discursive poetry, there’s plenty of room for toothbrushes, even for long lists of household trivia. The Lady’s Dressing Room, by Swift, would be a perfect example if it mentioned a toothbrush explicitly. To compensate for its absence, Swift’s repulsive list includes “[t]he scrapings of her teeth and gums,” and dirty handkerchiefs, and filthy towels.

D. H. Lawrence discussed The Lady’s Dressing Room in an afterword to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (Actually, as J. M. Coetzee pointed out in Lawrence’s Defense of ‘Lady Chatterley’, DHL might have referred to another “Celia” poem by Swift – Cassinus and Peter. Either way, Lawrence seems to have misinterpreted Swift badly.) Plath was living in England during the Chatterley obscenity trial in 1960 so she must have been familiar with the book and postscript. But satire, especially Swift’s maddening verse, was probably the last thing on Plath’s mind in 1962.

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