For reasons I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my favorite poem — The Applicant by Sylvia Plath from her collection Ariel. This poem really blew me away the first time I read it — it was honestly the first time that I really felt viscerally impacted by a poem.
Before The Applicant, I had just never really … gotten poetry. I’d read lots of poems in school, and I had learned about the rhyme schemes for Sonnets but I had never appreciated a poem the way I appreciated other forms of fiction or art. When an assignment called for dissecting a poem, I’d always grimace a bit — I’d dutifully read the poem, look up any foreign words, and write an essay commenting on the imagery and assonance without ever really understanding the appeal. I figured I just wasn’t a poetry person, and that was that.
The first time I read The Applicant, it was a shock to my system. I read it once, then I read it again, and again, and again. I couldn’t get enough of it. I downloaded it onto my phone so that I could read it on the subway on the way to work. I spent hours with the poem and I learned something that will come as no-surprise-at-all to people who learned to appreciate poetry before the age of 30: the more you read a poem, the more you can appreciate the layers. Just as you can’t really appreciate a painting while flipping through a coffee-table book, poems must be read over and over and over again (ideally aloud) to be appreciated.
After a while I decided to bite the bullet and just learn the thing by heart so that I wouldn’t have to keep pulling up the text every time I wanted to enjoy it. So for the last two years I’ve kept the poem with me — I recite it to myself when I’m stressed out or need to take my mind off some unpleasant task, like my own modernist lords prayer.
The poem is plainly a treatment of the strictures of traditional domestic life, especially for women. The subject of discussion in the poem is marriage, though of course the wife-to-be never speaks — she is referred to consistently as “it” (“will you marry it?”) and is treated as a domestic good to be given away, or sold, like a vacuum cleaner on a payment plan. The narrator of the poem, one imagines, is interviewing the (presumably male) titular applicant who is looking for … something. That something may be a wife “willing / to bring teacups and roll away headaches / and do whatever you tell it” or it may simply be admission to the club of normalcy that comes with a wife, and a job, and house with kids and the aspiration that if only you can do what everyone else is doing you’ll be liked, respected, and happy.
And this is the aspect of the poem that really speaks to me — this club of normalcy is tightly binding for everyone involved. The suit is black and stiff — it chafes — and once you put it on, it can be very hard to take off. And here my favorite line in the poem, “believe me they’ll bury you in it” is doing triple duty: it’s the suit salesman’s pitch, claiming such quality and endurance of material that it’ll last you your whole life; it’s that haunting prospect of assuming that persona of normalcy and living it without deviation for the rest of your life; and most profoundly, it’s saying that you, the person you were before, will be buried in it — your individuality itself will be subsumed by the suit and what it symbolizes.
I don’t think it’s hard to imagine why I in particular might find this compelling — I’ve always taken pride in defying people’s expectations (not infrequently in a way that I’m embarrassed about now) and explicitly rejecting the idea that what might make other people happy (or what other people tell other people might make them happy) will work for me. I love The Applicant for expressing those feelings so powerfully, and I hope that, if you hadn’t encountered this poem before, you too might have a new favorite.
I’ll leave you with this recording of Sylvia Plath reading this poem which always leaves me with her voice rattling around in my head for a few hours after listening.