Messages from August 2005
Whew...it's good to know I can say the word "masturbation" on this forum without fear of disapproving fallout. Perhaps my own notions of purity need flouting:-)
Thanks to Lynda Bundtzen and Jack Folsom for some fascinating behind-the-scenes-looks at "Fever." I have seen very little of the Ariel drafts, and am constantly amazed at what they reveal...the key to the poem's meanings, if there is one, would certainly have to be turned through the lock of the versions in progress. ...then the door is swings open on an entirely different world. Many of Plath's work is like this... a "Wizard Of Oz" kind of thing....stark black and white images of despair gradually opening the door to a color paradise. A work of easels on words ....."as if depicted in verbal paint," to quote Anne Stevenson.
In Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, Ezra Pound wrote, of his poem "In A Station Of The Metro:"
Plath's work seems often to have come to her this way...in little splotches of color, as Impressionist painting whose images gradually came together to make a whole....in "Little Fugue," for example, she announces, suddenly : "I like black statements...the featureless of that cloud, now!"....which carries the images on up to "His fingers had the noses of weasels" (a line that could have fallen out of a Magritte painting) to "Lopping the sausages!" which could have fallen out of Brueghel. Such speculation, in fact, makes me wish Salvador Dali were here to paint poems like "The Courage Of Shutting Up" ("Berck Plage" would be even better.) Still, if anyone on earth could visually depict "an obstinate independency, insolvent among the mountains" it would be the Spanish madman.
I agree that "Fever" is mostly a jubilant, and even playful, poem....I do think it begins in a sluggish despair, though, and gradually rises above itself. Then again, I admit I am frankly stumped by stanzas 6-8. Interesting insight, Brianna, that they might have been referencing Assia.....that had never occured to me. I do think it is quite possible that many of Plath's post-adultery poems could have contained veiled and surrealistic references to Assia....especially the line from "Burning The Letters" that you mentioned. Coming back to "Berck Plage," I found Jack Folsom's insights quite riveting. I found it particularly interesting that the first line of "The Other" had, in fact, originally been born of a line in a draft of "Berck Plage:" "the green came in late, wiping its lips."
Brianna, you also must have been the night nurse I remember from my own stint in the psych ward (did you ever work out of upstate New York??) I remember trying to tell her that taking deep breaths was about as much use to distraught patients as grasping at thin air would be to someone being dropped from "a terrible altitude" :-)
Lisa A. Flowers
"When Plath allegedly burned her novel about Hughes...a novel that apparently celebrated the gift of their love...she made a remark to the extent that the character of its hero was dead to her; that the book's premise turned out to have been built on "false trust." Perhaps Hughes had something similar in mind when he took it upon himself to rearrange his wife's literary legacy."
I think you are right, Lisa, that this was at least partially what Hughes was doing. I think it was almost inevitable that he would change the order, considering the fact that he was arranging his dead wife's manuscripts not too long after her death. Since Plath was so intertwined with her work, the identity of a survivor that her original book's order gave her must of struck Hughes as a particularly bitter, betraying lie. Even if he did not arrange the poems in the new way consciously, I think subconsciously he was enacting some sort of vengeance, or perhaps even simply thought he was 'putting things right.' I do want to say that I do not blame him for feeling betrayed, as suicide is a form of betrayal--one could even say a higher form of betrayal than adultery.
I also want to note that Hughes himself gave his reasoning for the re-arrangment of the manuscript, that being that no one would publish Ariel in its original form. I think this is probably true, however, there was more going on than that, whether Hughes was aware of it or not.
"Why bother arguing it? Answer: Because that Ěs what the forum is, mate. Agitating for something else seems to me like a tribute to Plath, not a lapse." -Melissa Dobson
Thanks for putting this so well. And thanks to Elaine, the moderator of the forum, who must agree with those sentiments in the main as she permits such a broad range of opinion and types of expression here. It is much appreciated.
I'm all for a discussion of the poems. That is why Plath is so fascinating...if she were a wife of a poet with ambitions, a few stories and a poem here or there--all the drama, the tragic and dare I say cinematic death and all the rest of wouldn't have spawned the legend or the industry OR the scholarship, both critical and biographical. It's more relevant, these things about SP, to her work than it would be for almost any other poet I can think of(although there are others). And of course, as the poet is long dead--and was, when most of the world discovered her talent--it's frankly all the easier to discuss her life, husbands and offspring notwithstanding. If she'd lived, she'd certainly have spent years fielding questions about the origins of her work.
Oh, my. When I worked as a nurse on the psych ward I would direct overly distraught patients to take in a deep, cleansing breath (In! In! In!) hold it for a few moments, and then release all the bad air and negativity upon exhalation (Out! Out! Out!) Let's all do that, shall we?
Now, doesn't that feel better?
It appears that one must be crude and blunt at times and I, being refind and sharp, will forgoe any further attempts at swift episolaries. I will leave that to the capable professionals.
Lisa, interesting insight about "Fever, 103." I must admit that I'd never read it as a poem about masterbation, but upon re-reading it I see what you are getting at. The lines, "The ghastly orchid/Hanging its hanging garden in the air,/Devilish leopard!/Radiation turned it white/And killed it in an hour" are perhaps referring to Plaths' nemesis (and our favorite whipping girl) Assia. It reminds me of the lines in "Burning the Letters"- "Sinuous orchis/In a nest of root-hairs & boredom-/Pale eyes, patent-leather gutturals!" If Assia is an orchid in Plath's mind, I wonder what flower she would choose to represent herself? I love the words, the hidden mean- ings, the intense messages. Language is so much fun.
PS--I liked David's post.
Brianna St. Clair
Lisa, of course you are right about "Fever 103." The poem even begins with the image of Cerberus, the 3-headed dog, licking his "aguey tendon" as male dogs are wont to do. I don't think the poem is at all sad, though. I find it an absolutely wonderful flouting of our notions of purity.
The poem begins, in fact, with this as a question: "Pure? What does it mean?" Plath will completely alter our conventional ideas about feminine purity in what follows. The icon of purity in Western culture is the Madonna and her immaculate conception. Her "assumption" into heaven is usually depicted in medieval, but especially Renaissance and Baroque paintings, as a rewarding levitation, surrounded with putti (little baby angels) and roses. She always looks slightly dazed, with her palms stretched heavenward, and her body suspended slightly above ground.
At the end of this poem, the speaker is also a "Virgin/Attended by roses,//By kisses, by cherubim,/ By whatever these pink things mean." I'm sorry--but this is hilarious, especially the "pink things"! But this Virgin's purity is derived from her bodily heat, the result, yes, of "Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush" in multiple orgasmic pleasure--"All by myself." And she doesn't need a man to do this for herself. In fact, she is too hot for any man to handle--"Not you, nor him//Not him, nor him." Like Mary, she, too, undergoes an "assumption" to Paradise, but it is entirely by virtue of her own bodily powers and pleasures. It's a fun poem. I talk about it in my first book.
The topic of Plath's Ariel vs Hughes's is an interesting one. The general consensus seems to be that, in reordering the manuscript, Hughes's intention was either to a) deflect attention away from the collapse of his marriage as the book's central theme or; b) remain true to the chronology of Plath's life by rearranging the poems in a way that would describe what had happened, rather than what Plath had envisioned happening. Either claim is paradoxical, I think; particularly the latter; for if Hughes's intention was to remain true to biography, he could not have omitted the more "personally aggressive" poems about himself without compromising the same. I think his decision was probably a mix of both factors...not to mention a simple desire to protect the living.
Most significantly, Plath's Ariel is the story of a survivor...and Hughes's is not. In essence we are dealing with two possible outcomes of one story, two separate Plaths: the one who survived her depression and the one who didn't..... a lady for the cover of the poet's version, and a tiger for the cover of her husband's.
When Plath allegedly burned her novel about Hughes...a novel that apparently celebrated the gift of their love...she made a remark to the extent that the character of its hero was dead to her; that the book's premise turned out to have been built on "false trust." Perhaps Hughes had something similar in mind when he took it upon himself to rearrange his wife's literary legacy. In any case, Peter Steinberg, thank you for broaching an interesting subject, and trying to usher us away from the flames and towards the exits.
Melissa, enjoyed your post. It's not, I think, that we have collectively misinterpreted Plath's suicide as romantic, only that we think some of her poems are neat:-)
Lisa A. Flowers
Since Lisa Flowers has started discussion of "Fever 103", I can point out a few things. TH's note for the poem quotes Plath's introduction to the poem for the BBC reading:
"[It] is about two kinds of fire--the fires of hell, which merely agonize, and the fires of heaven, which purify. During the poem, the first sort of fire suffers itself into the second" (CP 231).
Sylvia's BBC reading of the poem contains three lines (in italics) later omitted from the CP text as we see it. She read the third and fourth stanzas on the BBC as follows:
The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
All of which reinforces the "fires of hell" theme.
Lynda Bundtzen's comment on the poem plays up the sexual theme:
"...a body sick with frustrated sexual desire is purged by these same fires of lust, rising at the end of the poem as a lethal 'acetylene virgin,' a paradox in that she is both too pure and too hot for any man to touch" (Plath's Incarnations, 1983, p.35).
In the draft of the poem, the last stanza ends in a slightly different way:
Not him nor him how lonely, those who rise
There's a lot of interesting imagery in the poem--worth discussing!
Has anyone ever heard a recording of or seen a transcript of the Hughes short story Difficulties of a Bridegroom that was read on BBC radio on January 21, 1963?
Everything I have read indicates that hearing this story was very unsettling to Sylvia. I know Hughes collected some short stories under the title Difficulties of a Bridegroom but my understanding is that the radio version was different from the eventual published version. Any helpful comments appreciated.
This forum snake ever eating its tail; all the carrion carrying-on (love this play on words, David). Go back and review the forum from its inception and you will see a remarkably circular progression. An Ariel jet-propulsion that moves from ?stasis in darkness? to ?cauldron of morning? and back again.
This shouldn?t come as any surprise, even if it causes the perennial tumult evidenced here. Plath is a poet demanding self-definition of a rather radical variety. In this she was a product of her times; her death was another brick in the threshold-firmament of the women?s movement, which was, as it turned out, a larger social movement having little to do with gender. Woody Allen?s Alvy Singer in Annie Hall defines her, definitively it turns out, for the late-twentieth-century popular conception, as ?an interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality. I love Woody Allen; I love Annie Hall; I love Alvy Singer, I love his definitiveness, his use of ?misinterpreted.? It?s so fabulously ironic here; given Allen?s persona/art. I would argue that every Plath Forum repeat offender is here for ?romantic? reasons that are absolutely legitimate ? because Plath is a point of reference for us; none of us read her ?objectively? or we?d be spending our time engaged in a different sort of forum. Allen and Plath are counterparts; in that oft-imagined perfect-dinner-party scenario, I?d like to see the two of them seated opposite one another. I can?t say I?d know what would transpire; silence, food fight, footsie, tango.
My point is that we are here self-referentially ? the self, being where the heat comes from, the ?fever 103 degrees.? We who read Plath passionately probably know of John Ashbery but wouldn?t think of visiting johnashberyforum.com. First, because there is no such site; second, because . . . because, we haven?t got a clue, from his poetry, about who the hell John Ashbery is, as that relates to us, with the exception of the fact that we are interested in poetry, of a particular kind. We accuse one another of prurience, I guess that?s the accusation; of being interested, in an often non-scholarly way, in SP?s life (and please, who among us, whatever our motives, hasn?t been guilty of this charge?). Is the accusation elitist? Probably.
In this Forum, I would think so. This is a catholic space, a democratic one. Scholarly or otherwise expert analysts might take a stand on Plath and then go away. Those scholars among us who stay here, are, I imagine, here not primarily, if at all, for the literary insight (no offense to the amateurs, like myself, among us). We are all here on a routine basis, even if it?s once yearly; why? Not because we?re scholars, but because we?re a community of people drawn together by a poet who speaks to us as individuals. Plath speaks to us, and, I would argue, for us. Thus we all claim a bit of ?authorship? here; my Plath, your Plath. She is alive in her words and thus fair game; as Lowell said, ?though lines get repeated, and sometimes the plot is lost, language never dies in her mouth.? By extension, Plath never dies in ours. So the snake consumes its tail. This forum will be as it was from the beginning, is now, and ever after. Question: Why bother arguing it? Answer: Because that?s what the forum is, mate. Agitating for something else seems to me like a tribute to Plath, not a lapse.
Yes, Kate I believe that The Bell Jar did receive reviews when it was first published. In at least two of the biographies (Bitter Fame & The Death & Life of Sylvia Plath) there are references to Plath showing Trevor Thomas, the tenant of the flat below hers at Fitzroy Road, a review of the novel in The Observer. But it did not receive the sort of critical acclaim she craved and that Hughes had already received for his poetry which must have been galling for her.
Sebastian, I was under the impression that The Bell Jar did receive reviews, though so few reviews that you could say it was mostly ignored. I wish I could remember what biographies in which I read about the reviews, perhaps it was only one. From what I remember the reviews were mediocre and this depressed Plath quite tremendously, though apparantly not enough for her to stop work on her new novel. I still have my fingers crossed that this second novel will show up one day, though they're crossed tighter for the lost journals.
On another note: For the record, I do not think Ted Hughes is a beast and from what I can tell, neither does Ms. Flowers. Just because you recognize and do not excuse a flaw in someone's character by blaming it on fame or fate does not mean you are condemning a person, nor do you fail to see the other good traits in them. He was a good poet, a good father, and a good friend. In some ways, he was a good husband. In other ways--ways I believe to be crucial to the vitality of a marriage--I believe he was a very bad husband. Yes, other men have cheated on their wives for centuries. I consider this to be just as wrong no matter who is committing the crime, and I neither condemn nor excuse a person for this wrongful act simply because he or she is a famous poet. If I ever were to meet Mr. Hughes, I would treat him with consideration and respect as he is a flawed human being just like the rest of us. We all make mistakes, but unfortunately if we never own up to them, then we are in a sense stuck with them forever. That is what I saw as Hughes' tragedy.
The Other Ariel by Lynda K. Bundtzen has been issued recently in England by Sutton Publishing Ltd (?9.99, ISBN - 0750941235). It is a remarkable book; originally published in 2001 three years prior to the release of Plath's Restored Ariel. Ms. Bundtzen's book presents much topic for discussion that was largely ignored by Plath scholarship.
History I - The controvery that surrounded Plath and Ariel in the 1980s came after Hughes published a tiny blurb in the notes section of Plath's Collected Poems listing that Plath intended Ariel to have a different table of contents. Very little was written on the subject until Ms. Bundtzen's timely book. What were the affects on Plath and her poetic reputation due to this re-arranging? What difference does it make in reading Ariel? Now that Ariel has been published the way Plath intended should both books remain in print? Why did the Restored Ariel receive so little media and critical review? In light of so little attention, have we come to better appreciate (or recognize/empathize with)Plath because of the other Ariel?
History II - Hughes withdrew thirteen poems ("The Rabbit Catcher," "Thalidomide," "Barren Woman," "A Secret," "The Jailor," "The Detective," "Magi," "Lesbos," "The Other," "Stopped Dead," "The Courage of Shutting-Up," "Purdah," and "Amnesiac")and inserted twelve poems ("Sheep in Fog," "A Birthday Present," "Mary's Song," "The Hanging Man," "Little Fugue," "Years," "The Munich Mannequins," "Totem," "Paralytic," "Balloons," "Poppies in July," "Kindess," "Contusion," "Edge," and "Words").
Controversy grew over the placement/re-placement of the final nine poems ("The Hanging Man" through "Words") over the sequence of five Bee poems that Plath originally intended to conclude Ariel. It has been said that the nine "death" poems paved the way for Plath's dark reputation whereas her original ending was more uplifting. Is there resistence to accept this revised/restored edition of Ariel? Is Plath more or more interesting a poet because of the other Ariel?
The separation of Plath's biography from her poetry must be handled with the precision of a surgeon. In many respects Plath's poetry is connected completely to her life that to separate it would lead to a flatline. Ms. Bundtzen considers Plath's use of allegory in the Bee poems. The creation of allegory and myth by Plath is a crucial link to discovering the poet behind the poems.
Peter K Steinberg
Gee, David....I feel you've allowed your true nature to rear its head in your last post...like an alien baby suddenly burst out of a very respectable academic stomach, scampering away "many snaked, with a long hiss of distress."
But, seriously....on the subject of Plath's poetry, there is something I noticed recently that I found interesting. In Her Husband, Diane Middlebrook talks about Plath and Hughes playing "an obsessive game of tag with each other's images" in their poetry. Hughes describes a prophetic dream he had, in which he saw "an angel who wore on her head a square of satin." According to him, this later turned out to be the actual piece of " funerary furnishing" that supported Plath's head as she lay in her coffin. I think it's interesting that, in "Stings," Plath makes a similar reference to " the square of white linen he wore instead of a hat." There are dozens of examples of this...this largely subconscious game of ping pong the two poets played with one another..... long before the deliberate retorts of Birthday Letters.
Because I'm not as familiar with the numerous interpretations of the poems as I am with the poems themselves, I have been hesitant to hold forth on many of my own theories; so, forgive me if any of this has been done before. But I did have some ideas about "Fever 103 Degrees" I wanted to present for feedback. This is one of Plath's most accessible poems, and its imagery is a great deal less obscure than that of many of its successors and predecessors. I don't want to sound crude, but this seems to me, frankly, to be a very anguished, moving poem about .....er.....well.....I'm trying to put this as delicately as possible...pleasuring oneself...alone and wretched, in an empty marriage bed. Taken in this context, it is one of the saddest, most eloquent commentaries on wasted sexuality that I have ever read. The last five stanzas, in particular, seem to confirm this theory (all by myself I am a huge camellia/ glowing and coming and going/flush on flush" ) right onto the end ("my selves dissolving ...old whore petticoats....to paradise." )The action the poem describes starts out agonizing, laborious, tormented by memory; and ends at the pinnacle of the fleeting euphoria produced triumphantly by the same. What makes the poem really devastating, of course, is the thought of the appalling loneliness that is going to descend when the triumph wears off. This is one of the few real love poems in Ariel; and perhaps the one that is most both directly and indirectly "about" Hughes. Again...don't mean to be crude or inappropriate....just putting the idea out there.
Lisa A. Flowers
I've begun to study Ancient Greece and recently read Classical Athens And The Delphic Oracle by Hugh Bowden. I discovered that Sylvia Plath got the title of her poem "On The Decline Of Oracles" from an essay by Plutarch. Unfortunately I cannot find that essay online to see if Sylvia made any references to it in her poem.
Well, David, as the learned Richard once told me, looks like you have recently been "raked over the coals" by other forum members. Been there man, I feel for ya buddie. Can't say I didn't see it coming, nor that you don't deserve it though. When you encourage the censorship and/or seeming mind control of the literally thousands of visitors to this site, by informing them what they ought to post about, well then, you will get a taste of what you were apparently, asking for. Looks like you got your expected results. Congratulations bud.
I am glad you have found your interesting experiment amusing and fun, (though personally I think that is merely a clever cover on your part) saving face and all that? Ya, I thought you'd understand. As to not posting or reading the forum for awhile, well, as you said, "good riddance" wouldn't be too hard a concept to understand.
I welcome all manner of odd and interesting posts, and I would be really interested in learning what you actually think about her poems, (you know you can post in the appropriate links, there are several of her poems to choose from) Have you explored the entire site? It's actually quite big.
I would also love to learn if you have read any of the bios that so many of us find interesting and what your take on them is. Seems to me you have been volunteering a great deal of steam to the stew and very little meat. Will you take a stand on anything, other than what we ought to post about or not? What do you think about Assia and the new bio coming out? What do you think about the enormously talented Ted Hughes and his luminous poetry? I am truly very intrigued to learn what you are about and what lies beneath all the bravado. Instead of telling us what we should think, tell us what YOU think.
Thanks and keep coming back.
I'm glad to see that my admittedly snide and condescending "lecture" about the tendency of recent Forum writers to dwell almost exclusively on the melodrama of Plath's life has drawn some heated reaction. While it is true, as various respondents pointed out, that the Forum has yielded some good scholarship and some worthwhile biographical facts, there has also been, especially lately, quite a lot of corpse-sniffing. Balance is all, folks. I think I will take a break from reading the Forum for a while (yes, I know: good riddance) and come back later to see what's being posted and by whom. In the meantime, carrion -- oops, I mean carry on!
Therresa, I could not agree with you more regarding the inappropriateness of "snobby elitist discourse" on this forum.
Passion becomes a casualty of excess; that is inevitable. And I can understand this, particularly in regard to poetry. I know what poetry means to me....my own and other's...and, specific to this context, I know what the poetry of Sylvia Plath means to me. As Suzanne Burns very accurately pointed out, though, the assumption that an interest in an artist's life should, necessarily, be secondary to...or cancel out!...an interest in their work is inexplicable. I would not go so far as to suggest that the two are the same; only that they are inextricably bound. A rocket, for example, is not the "same" as space; but thinking of one without thinking of the other is almost impossible. One makes the other possible; or, more significantly, one exists to validate and explore the other. The triumph of Sylvia Plath's art over her life was that it did just that...as well as the opposite...but I'm getting redundant now, and need to get off the merry go round.
You suggested, David, that we concentrate on Plath's biography primarily as it relates back to her work; is that not what we've been doing, this whole time? Even if you'd answer "no," this board exists for the purpose of exploring Plath's work and life. Nobody has the right to throw a tantrum and demand that a choice be made between the two.
I would love to see more discussion of Plath's poetry on the forum, and I'll be the first to participate in it...when I feel I have something new to bring to the discussion. The fact is that Plath's work has been analyzed exhaustively...you'll find at least as much "old, been there done that" material there as you will in any discussion of her life. That shouldn't be taken to mean, of course, that the subject isn't endlessly worthy or fascinating, or that most contributions to it aren't valuable.
For the record, I know most of Plath's poetry (excluding her early work) literally as well as I know my own reflection, and I think that's true for most of the people here. Being deliberately condescending and insulting does not encourage constructive discussion. All it does is alienate people and fan the embers for a flame war, which causes more deviance from the case in point than anything.
Lisa A. Flowers
Francis, I think you'll find all the available reviews on Plath including the ones on The Bell Jar are collected in Sylvia Plath - The Critical Heritage edited by Linda Wagner-Martin (Routledge, 1997).
I'm currently delving into Hughes' Shakespeare & The Goddess of Complete Being. Having read The White Goddess and attempting the unabridged The Golden Bough and other similar works (The Road to Xanadu and Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy which seem to me to be essential works in understanding the nature of poetic inspiration/composition). This, I believe is an updated version of The White Goddess and is written by one person who has not only just experienced her but who was married to her and lived with her! If one co-operates with the unpopular theory of Graves which so greatly influenced both Hughes and Plath in their life and work. Hughes devotes about 2 pages of the Introduction to a discussion of Plath's Ariel in this context. It is one of the most fascinating books and I'm rather dismayed and angered that it was a flop (except in Hughes personal academic circles). Of course Hughes confines his argument to the works of Shakespeare. This book is virtually impossible to get hold of and hideously expensive. I had to pay a lot of money to get the 1993 updated version.
There is also one essay (previously unpublished) which Hughes wrote along the same lines which has appeared in Winter Pollen (the selection of his prose writings).
Dear David: Well it sounds like you are tired of discussion relating to Plath's life and would like to discuss her poetry more. Nothing wrong with that, and I think you will find if you explore this community more deeply (and especially check out the forums devoted to in-epth analysis of specific poems) that the people who post here know her work quite well and are rather eloquent in discussing it.
In fact, quite a number of us are accomplished scholars and have written books and papers about Plath's work, teach her work on a university level, or at the very least have studied her work passionately-- in many cases, for years. Speaking for myself, I am a poet, and have been reading Plath and Hughes for about twenty-five years. I am continually astonished and humbled by the depth and complexity of knowledge, feeling, and experience that I find in this forum. So when you ask questions like "Did you read that far in Ariel?" I have to conclude that you can't have spent very much time actually reading this forum. It's an insulting question, and I have to wonder what you are trying to accomplish?
As for your game of "name that line" please be careful who you play that one with! I have a good deal of Plath's poetry committed to memory, my dear, my pages of Ariel are more well-thumbed than yours, and I am willing to bet that I can whip your butt without spilling a drop my gin and tonic. :-)
I think there are a lot of cliches to be found in any Plath-related discussion, however. Like you, I too feel frustrated by the "Oh Hughes is such a beast!" way of looking at everything, which I think most of us would agree is overdone. Another cliche though, and equally tiresome, is the assumption that any interest in Plath's biography has to preclude an interest in or knowledge of her poetry. It just isn't true, and it does come across as just a wee bit self-justifying.
On with the show.
Trish - I know what you mean about the Becker memoir; although I personally found it one of the most fascinating accounts of Plath I'd ever read, in spite of its inaccuracies. I think Jillian Becker's resentment towards Plath probably had more to do with Sylvia's fame than with anything else; ditto for Dido Merwin and her far more vituperative account. Had Sylvia remained, in death, the respected but little known poet she was during her lifetime, I doubt anyone would have gone to such lengths to articulate their personal grievances against her.
More than anything, I found Giving Up to be an interesting study of the impact of fame on its survivors (so to speak). Taken in this context, it becomes a riveting psychological study of the fallout of fame rather than a necessarily accurate memoir of a living person; even though there is enough there that is true, of course, to make it worth reading in a biographical context. Regarding its bitter tone, I think we cannot rule out the possibility of good old fashioned jealousy on Becker's part, though she had enough strength of character to recognize this in herself, and was an elegant enough writer to exercise some restraint. Dido Merwin's memoir, on the other hand, was so saturated with catty jealousy that it fairly radiated green eyes in the dark:-)
Lisa A. Flowers
Hi Honeybee, Thanks for your last wonderul post. Yes, it is very true what you said. I agree completely. I will always feel that Ted Hughes's vilification was unfair, was far too vicious, far too concentrated,and went on far too long. "Let he who is without sin.." we all know the rest. Was this man the only man who strayed from his wife and committed adultery? No.
Was he a man who could enjoy the privacy that mediocrity affords? No. Was he a man who (deserved) the rage, agendas and vitriolic emotion of many women and men who used him as a universal whipping boy because he, like all of us, displayed his imperfection and youth by making errors of judgement in his personal life? No.
We are all at various and different stages of development with regard to our intellectual and artistic awareness, education, and perception, hence I find if exceedingly difficult to suggest, demand, and/or beseech others into what they should or should not become interested in, question, talk about, post about etc.
I am not here to censor, insult, or advise, as to the higly personal nature of what one should post about. Once again, at the risk of sounding redundant, I must say, that to do this is unwise. Sylvia Plath's poetry, and her biography are intertwined. Who is anyone to inform us as to what is proper or what is improper with regard to what we should be posting/or talking about?
It is not within my ability to assign to any of the thousands of human beings to visit this site what they ought to discuss, post about, think etc. I am not an oracle, (neither is anyone else!)
I think that as we are all diverse and completely different individuals operating on completely unique frequencies, that is what makes life interesting.
I love imperfection, I love oddness, and eccentricities, I genuinely do, it is what makes life a hoot.
I would be a very small human being if I reprimanded others for their choice of topics when posting on this forum. How about a little advice from me? Let's all refrain from that kind of tedious thing shall we? How about displaying a little tolerance, interest and willingness to embrace difference? I am becoming extremely bored with all the "you shouldn't do this, do that!" manner of scolding advise. Boring! Let's discuss Plath's poetry, her life as well and those of the others who were also part of this story. Let nothing be lost on us, let no one control our freedom of expression. This is a forum that is committed to [sharing] not snobby elitist discourse designed to exclude and/or intimidate others. If any one person finds this forum unacceptable for whatever reason, then go elsewhere. Simple, end of story.
Thanks, David Hall, for trying yet once more to get us back to the poems. You mention "Berck-Plage," one of the lesser known Ariel poems. As it happens, I've done a lot of work on that poem and have published the results. For those who are interested, my article can be read online via Anja Beckmann's website (currently inactive, second on Elaine's list of links). When you get there, look under "local resources" and click on "online essays." Then scroll down to moi, Jack Folsom, "Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath's 'Berck-Plage'." Among other things at Smith College, I discovered in draft form a section, later deleted, that adds an interesting dimension to the poem.
I spent a few days in Saratoga Springs recently, and visited Yaddo for the first time while I was there. The working area, with its residences, is closed to the public, but the gardens, which take up a good part of the grounds, are open to anyone. The total grounds are squeezed in between a highway and the Saratoga Racetrack. However, once inside the gates it's another world. Very little appears to have changed since Plath spent 11 weeks there in 1959. Apparently all of Yaddo's endowment money goes to the artists program, and the gardens are maintained by volunteers. The goldfish ponds and the garden fountain with its white marble statues are still there as Plath described them.
Judging from Plath's journal entries, she lived the prescribed secluded life style there (she was pregnant with Frieda), rarely venturing outside the grounds. Saratoga certainly has its distractions, and this is not always the typical situation. Ted Hughes was the more accomplished poet, and no doubt the main reason for their invitation to go there. Obviously, Plath knew this, and judging from her journals, she was either depressed or recovering from depression while there. Yet despite everything she produced poems that still amaze me with the power of their imagery. The Ariel poems have a greater power to shock, but many of the poems she wrote at Yaddo were just as perfect.
My visit to Yaddo got me to thinking about Plath again. Still, I don't think I'll ever figue her out--to understand what was 'bothering her' to put it in Ted Hughes's terms. But returning to the poems again, they're as powerful as ever. The Grotier Club, here in New York, is having a Plath/Hughes exhibition sometime in September. A friend of mine is a member of the club and has invited me to the opening reception. He says there'll be material that Hughes donated to Emory University. I've never found Hughes a very sympathetic character. Him and his dependence on astrology to make decisions, and his belief in so-called "spirits." The world is a crazy enough place without it. I can't find any "spirits" lurking in any of the Plath photos, and don't believe there are any. I also can't build up much interest in Assia. I've had my own fair share of neurotic women over the years. That's enough for me. If Assia had written poetry as well as Plath that might make a difference.
Francis, I would think that finding any initial review of The Bell Jar from Britain would be unlikely, considering what the biographies tell us. I don't think there's a single Plath biography that fails to mention that while The Colossus got a few reviews, The Bell Jar got none. I think your best bet at reviews is to search somewhere along the lines of A. Alvarez, Plath's friend and literary critic, if you want to find any kind of plausible review for what was once a minute, obscured, and ignored book. If you want specific initial reactions to The Bell Jar, I know that one of the biographies (or more) makes references to the content of the rejection letters from publishers when Plath tried to get the book published. If that interests you at all I would flip through Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson, Rough Magic by Paul Alexander, Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook, and The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath by Ronald Hayman.
David - thank you for your condescending post. Your points are well taken. Now that books like The Silent Woman Her Husband and Giving Up have been dismissed as irrelevant, albeit inadvertent, studies of how Plath's life may have impacted her work, we can start devoting our time to the perusal of legitimate source materials. Perhaps an online study group is in order; we could bring our heavily underlined copies of Ariel, alongside our Cliff notes and an educational toy, perhaps similar to "The Farmer Says;" which emits, at the pull of a string, short ejaculatory explanations: "This is a doppelganger!" "This is the id !"
Lisa A. Flowers
It seems to me that, after a brief diversion into discussion of Plath's poems, we're back to a he-did, she-did re-hash of the biography. How unfaithful was Ted -- very -- and how did Assia react to this or that, and how did Sylvia react in response.
Can't we all come back, finally, to the poems? Isn't that why we all tapped into Sylvia in the first place? And shouldn't we try to relate all those biographical details back to the source: Sylvia struggling to write those poems?
I challenge recent writers to the forum: What do you make of Sylvia's poem, "Death & Co."? She was obviously thinking about death and her own demise -- so where do you plug in Ted and Assia? The poem seems to me a very private look at the "faces" of death, with no one else involved? Am I mistaken?
And how about "Medusa", a strange poem that says "Ghastly Vatican./I am sick to death of hot salt./Green as eunuchs, your wishes/Hiss at my sins./Off, off, eely tentacle!//There is nothing between us." Didn't you ever wonder what in the world that meant? Did you read that far in Ariel?
There is more to Sylvia Plath's poetry than has been explored, and I hate to see the prime space here devoted to endless discussion of how nasty Ted was (or how saintly) and how evil Assia was (or how put-upon) . . . ad nauseam.
How about this? Identify these opening lines: "This is the sea, then, this great abeyance./How the sun's poultice draws on my inflammation." Give up? It's from "Berck-Plage" in Ariel. And this one? "Somebody is shooting at something in our town" --from "The Swarm" also from Ariel. Get the point? We don't know the poems, but we keep re-hashing the biography.
I suggest that we all go back and read the poems -- and then the biographies -- and come at Plath with a more holistic, balanced view. She accomplished so much, poetically, in her brief time on this earth that I think we do her a dis-service by focusing so much on her unhappy personal life. Let's find a way to blend them, to bring the poems to bear on her life, to explain her life through the poems, but let's not short-change the extraordinary poems by our pre-occupation with her life.
Okay, enough said. Back to what Assia said about Sylvia, and what Ted did or didn't do with Assian and countless other women. Melodrama rules. It's the soaps all over again, literary-style.
Morney, after reading your interesting post, I went looking for Jillian Becker's memoir of the last days in Sylvia's life. Thanks for the tip about buying used. I was lucky to find Giving Up at a used bookstore for under five bucks. It was almost worth the money. You're right about the size; it's such a short little book that it should almost be called a pamphlet. It was also very slender on substance, and so filled with spite it made me wonder exactly why Becker published the book.
One can certainly sympathize with the tedium and frustration of sitting up night after night with a desperately unhappy woman. I'm sure the strain Sylvia placed on Becker's own household was severe. And certainly the criticism Becker faced afterward (I wasn't aware that she had!) seems uncalled for. But...it was equally puzzling to me how Becker could be filled with so much rage at Sylvia, all these decades after her death! Certainly Sylvia has paid (dearly) for all the sufferings she caused Becker.
I think I have finally read enough of Plath and Hughes, until somebody has something new to bring to the discussion, I'm going to save my cash...and wait for Negev's book.
Help! Could anyone possibly inform me as to where i could find any reviews of The Bell Jar at the time of its initial publication in Britain,in 1963?
I wonder how Ted Hughes could ever have arrived at a state of personal forgiveness and healing when the villification he received was so public and so constant throughout his life? It's well known that he rarely gave public readings of his poetry for example because he was frequently heckled and worse.How sad is that?
I can't imagine what this unjustifed public punishment must have been like or the immense psychological effect it would have on even the strongest person so avoidance,ducking and diving must have become part of his way of life. I often wonder about his final years which of course we didn't know were that, but he must have done (what a closely guarded secret that was, medical confidentiality is alive and well in rural, gossipy Devon!)and how carefully he planned for his papers to be archived by himself in the end, Birthday Letters to be published, Howls and Whispers to be his final statement. I think he was man of integrity, and living in the area that he did I know that this is exactly how he was seen locally regardless of his foibles.Countless people have told me that.
Lisa, you hit the nail right on the head regarding Hughes' use of 'evasion tactics.' I also think you are absolutely right that Hughes had moments of clarity where he felt overwhelmed by grief and particularly guilt, and that he used those evasive tactics as well as destructive life style habits (the continual affairs and physically and emotionally withdrawing from people) to escape the guilt he felt. It is a tragedy that he couldn't find a healthier way and come to a point of forgiveness and healing (also recognizing of course that it was not entirely his fault, he did not make Sylvia kill herself nor did his 'darkness' poison others, though his actions certainly damaged them). No one is beyond redemption and he seemed to see himself as exactly that.
It seems another problem I see with Ted and Sylvia (as well as Assia), and well, most people in this world including myself is a problem of healthy boundaries. Ted and Sylvia were extremely co-dependent, which means they did not know where one left off and the other ended. They looked to each other to meet needs that were not the true responsibility of the others' to meet. Which is probably why Ted blamed himself so much for Plath's death...and why Plath felt she literally could not live without him.
Kate, I pretty much agree with you re: Ted Hughes's sophisticated use of evasion tactics. While every writer is probably guilty, to some extent, of appropriating their lives and the lives of their loved ones to serve their art, Hughes is an extreme example. In his defense, much of this may have been a coping mechanism that enabled him to live with the constant psychological horror of what had happened to him. He did say, in a letter to Aurelia Plath, that if there were an eternity he would be "damned in it;" and after Assia's death he observed that the women in his life seemed to fall prey to some kind of darkness within him (paraphrasing). Inevitably, he must have suffered terrible moments of clarity in the wake of both deaths, though I don't think he can be held responsible for either. Nevertheless, the rationale of fate is behind most of his comments on the subject, and certainly, as you said, his poetry is dominated by it.
So yes, Hughes may be guiltier of blaming actual "demons", fate, what have you, for the tragedies in his life than anyone. I was dismayed that in Her Husband Diane Middlebrook often seemed to skim almost blithely over these aspects of Hughes's character....her failure to address those issues was the one notable flaw in her otherwise superb biography.
Lisa A. Flowers
I've just re-read The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm on Richard's recommendation (thanks Richard!) and am reminded what a thoroughly readable and grounded book it is. Malcolm looks quite intently at some fascinating and well-known characters in the Plath-Hughes plot and examines all the various axes some had to grind, from people that knew them personally and loved or hated them to biographers who have fallen foul of the estate etc. I would imagine we all have people who'd grind axes about us after we're gone and it seems so unfortunate that so often in the story that has become Plath and Hughes their word has become fact.This is a great book to just get a reality check on the whole thing and I can recommend it highly to anyone who hasn't read it.
Hi Lisa, thanks for your post. I loved Don't Look Now, both the short story/novella and the film. I don't know the Rilke poem you spoke of, but I will look it up. I've often wondered, if Plath had lived longer, if she might have become a novelist or short story writer with a bent towards the ghostly and the gothic, ala M.R. James perhaps. As for Assia, I'm sure as soon as the biography comes out there will be something to discuss perhaps, but I think we can give it a bit of a rest, as she has been an ever present topic for the last few years (yes, years). Jack, thanks for your additions to the analysis of "Lesbos". Definitely another angle to consider, and yet another topic that makes you wonder if we are talking metaphor, biography, or a combination of the two. Beware - now that you've reared your "Jacqueline Rose" head there might be some people coming to lop it off.......:-)
David, Kim....interesting points regarding the relevance of the occult to Plath's work. I would agree that belief, and the power of individual conviction, is, finally, the ultimate decisive factor in perception...whether something has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to "exist" or not; and here we get into complex allegorical questions and analogies. One could argue that if perception is reality, reality is therefore basically incontestable...but we know that this is definitely not true (thank God!); for if it were there would be no standards against which to compare and contrast sanity or the harmonious functioning of the world we live in. I agree with both of you, inother words, that the symbolism of the occult is, finally, equal to the actuality of it. Daphne De Maurier articulated this, and the devastating power grief and loss can wreak, very well in the story "Don't Look Now" which was later made into a brilliant film by the same name, which I would recommend to anyone who has not seen it. The spectre that is truly a spectre and the hallucination of the spectre are one in the same: "rational existence" scarcely matters to the troubled mind..... and this, of course, is more frightening than anything.
This brings me into another topic: the elements of Gothic and contemporary horror in Plath's work. I have always thought "Contusion" to be one of the most terrifying poems ever written. In her essay about Plath, Elizabeth Hardwick talks about Plath's preoccupation with "the sensations of the corpse" but her examples are more along the cool, beautiful lines of Rilke's "Tombs Of The Courtesans" (which, incidentally, the poem "Edge" evokes.) "Contusion" is nothing like this . One gets the sense from Sylvia Plath that, had she had the option of reincarnation, she would have willingly lingered awhile in her dead body. There is an eerie and clinical exactness in her descriptions: "the heart shuts/the sea slides back/the mirrors are sheeted" What a masterpiece.
There are lines almost as brilliantly appalling in poems like "The Detectives: "there is the sunlight, playing its blades/bored hoodlum in a red room/where the wireless talks to itself like an elderly relative." There is a horror story there, alone, in those few lines. In some of her work I see the gleefulness of a killer...of herself or of someone else, I do not know. But there is a " Poesque aspect to her work that echoes in a particularly awful way through the chamber of her suicide. Talent like hers had no business substantiating itself in death; the work was powerful enough to have piggybacked her mortal life across the graveyards of its landscape.
Lisa A. Flowers
Also, Kim, I agree with you regarding the use of "rights" as a disclaimer. This, in fact, is fast becoming something of an epidemic in the media in general. It is not the fact that we have freedom that defines our integrity, it is what we do with it. While the former may be a given, the latter is a responsibility.
For the record, I also agree that discussion of the Assia Wevill issue has gone too far. Not to sound like a hypocrite; I've recently added sizeable chunks to that stew myself (to paraphrase Trish) but I don't believe I've ever done so unobjectively or unfairly. Assia is an important symbolic and actual figure in the Plath/Hughes story,and a fascinating study in her own right; but I think that, now, it's perhaps best to hold off speculating about her until more information becomes available. Perhaps we can reopen discussion on this matter after the publication of the Negev biography.
Your post on the occult issue was interesting, and I'm glad you concur that it's a pertinent topic. For those who disagree, I can only say that that's as it is; not every subject introduced into a discussion is going to catch fire. In a forum, reaction is what counts: debate is rather like a pool game in that respect. If you can't provide your opponent with a good leave, there's no game.
Lisa A. Flowers
I have a couple brief thoughts on the current 'occult' discussion.
For one thing, I think it's pretty apparent from Plath's journals and especially from Diane Middlebrook's Her Husband that Hughes was very superstitious, and 'involved' in occult practices such as Oujia boards and especially horoscopes. He influenced Sylvia in this way, as we can see in some of her Letters Home after she met Ted.
While I personally do believe in occult influences (not a very popular belief amongst Western academics), I think that the root of Plath and Hughes problem had less to do with their occult practices and more with Ted Hughes blaming his infidelities as a human being in a superstitious manner on some other occult-like'force' such as fate. This is evident in his poetry (I should look some of them up for examples and can if you would like. I'm at work right now so it's not possible), as well as in some of the conversations he had with people after her death. It's especially apparent related to the Assia situation. I think this is a really destructive blaming tactic which he used to avoid owning up to his own problems and mistakes, and it certainly was a blind spot of his.
I wish we had the use of smilies (emoti-cons) for this Forum as I would use the "hand smacking head" one, as in "D'OH!" I fear Ms. Kennedy did not read my post quite correctly. Read it more along the lines of Jonathan Swift encouraging the Irish to eat their infants and you'll come to the real meaning of my post. With heavy heart...
Brianna St. Clair
Hello Richard, thank you so much for your last post. That is so interesting, learning of the little bits of information one could otherwise never know, at least the average visitor to this forum. Its neat when people who were so close to the people involved can offer up bits of information like you are able to do.
It is sad that that memoir was forced off the shelves because of rumors of a raucous party, which, from what I know, would not surprise me at all if indeed it happened.
The one book I have not read is The Silent Woman, but it is on my list of things to do before the year is out.
Anyway, thanks for posting, it's so nice to read posts of genuine interest and not just the tedious school marmish scolding that is becoming so boringly common of late. As you mentioned to me in a previous email some time ago, it is funny to see how nasty things can sometimes become on the forum and that upon occasion we all "take a beating", something to that effect as I recall. I have taken mine and always with a smile on my face. I mean after all, a well rounded life incorporates so much more than just computer time.
I can't help but wonder, (and do forgive me for repeating myself,and/or being tedious by focusing on the Assia Wevill biography) but does anyone know anything different about its publication time? It seems that us devoted Assia-Philes are still impatiently waiting for the book to come out. Any news or dates to share maybe? Otherwise cheers to you all and don't forget to smell the flowers, life is too short to sweat the small stuff.
I would like to think that no one here advocates censorship of ideas, or wishes to be disrespectful of the diversity of opinions, but there is such a thing as self-control and self 'censorship'. In my opinion, commonsense, courtesy and respect for the opinions of others have often been waived around like a banner, and of course, in a free and civilized society, who could argue against these things or would want to? Unfortunately, it seems like these fine ideals get manipulated and are being used as a disclaimer in order to then dismiss other's opinions, adamantly refuse to consider other viewpoints (including those of some respected scholars, not to mention those of us 'amateurs' who have studied Plath/Hughes for many years), continually write extremely lengthy posts, harp over and over on one topic only, diagnose various character traits and psychological issues using dubious pop psychology and disparage the dead with subjective opinions based solely on one's personal experiences.
All of this is not only discourteous to the Forum posters, but it takes especial advantage of Elaine, who in the interest of fairness, maintains neutrality, and 'publishes' just about everything she is sent, whether she likes or agrees with it or not. Which essentially means that just because something is posted does not mean that it is necessarily "worthwhile" or "relevant". There are also a number of younger readers or readers new to Plath, who have not had the advantages of time and/or education and/or access to read everything out there on Plath, who are often influenced by what they read on this Forum.
As someone who has had 20+ years to immerse myself in Plath, and to a lesser extent Hughes, I feel responsible for what I throw out there in the way of theories and interpretations. We are all drawn to certain artists, no doubt because something in their works or their lives resonates with us. But we have to be responsible and fair about our personal demons, obsessions and subjective opinions. I personally find ?love triangles? interesting, and have my personal reasons for doing so, but the Forum is not solely about interpersonal relationships and infidelity. There is more to Sylvia Plath than Assia Wevill?s impact on her life and work. For that matter, there is more to Assia?s life besides Sylvia and Ted.
I'd like to end this lengthy post (hey, I've earned it!) with a bit of Plath, who is, after all, why were are all "here."
The courage of the shut mouth, in spite of artillery!
The line pink and quiet, a worm, basking.
There are black disks behind it, the disks of outrage...
The disks revolve, they ask to be heard --
Loaded, as they are, with accounts of bastardies.
Bastardies, usages, desertions and doubleness...
....A great surgeon, now a tattooist...
Tattooing over and over the same blue grievances...
....Then there is that antique billhook, the tongue,
David, I can see where you are coming from, but as someone who does believe "there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy," I do believe the subject has some merit in a discussion of Plath and Hughes because of their own interests in the occult. There is a very good book on the subject of writing, alchemy and the occult, discussing in particular the works of Plath, Hughes, H.D., Merrill and Yeats. The book is Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult by Timothy Materer. From the blurb on Amazon.com:
"Modernist Alchemy takes a close look at the work of twentieth-century poets whose use of the occult constitutes a recovery of discarded beliefs and modes of thought: Yeats and Plath try to dismiss conventional religion, Hughes captures a sense of adventure, H.D. seeks to liberate repressed concepts, while Duncan and Merrill hunt for a lost understanding of sexual identity which will allow for androgyny and homosexuality."
You can find used copies via Amazon and other on line booksellers. I think it's important to mention in this context that Merrill in particular (besides Hughes and Plath) supposedly used Ouija board communications in writing "The Changing Light at Sandover." Whether you wish to interpret those as actual spirit communications or simply the poets subconscious is a result of your personal beliefs, and there is room for both interpretations, and others.
As I am an agnostic and an (former Catholic) apostate, I would say that the theory of "demons" holds little interest for me. I do believe that people can draw certain energies to themselves as well as emit different types of energies, but I wouldn't call this demonic. There may be more strange things "out there" that we are not consciously aware of, but I have found that most issues in life are much more mundane than supernatural. Good old-fashioned brain chemistry, coupled with environmental factors (family issues, money woes, relationship stress, etc.) drive more people to suicide than any entities, demonic or otherwise. I also haven't noticed anything in the photos of Plath that would lead me to believe that she was surrounded by "entities," but I think it is interesting that in a Birthday Letters poem Hughes alluded to something similar. In "Portraits", Hughes writes of the portrait of Plath done by the artist Howard Rogovin, while the three were at Yaddo. In the portrait, Hughes sees a shadowy smudge emerging from behind Sylvia, which filled him with a horrible premonition, he says. Is this a literal interpretation or a metaphor? I think it can be both.
Another good website which I have pointed out before is Ann Skea's. She is a friend of Hughes and a scholar who has written extensively on the influence of the Cabala on Hughes' Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers. A very interesting interpretation of these poems,whatever your personal beliefs might be.
Seeing that discussion has begun in the individual poem analysis section on "Lesbos," I found and briefly discussed two additional interpretations, one by Janice Markey and another by Lynda Bundtzen. Rather than side with any one interpretation, I would say that each seems to expose a dimension of Sylvia's complex emotional and intellectual mind-set at the time she wrote the poem. Maybe you could finally say the poem is a rant, somehow intended to clear her decks of a lot of wreckage.
Hello Brianna and thank you for your kind words. Yes, it is important to feel welcome to freely express opinions and perceptions, including life experiences while posting on this forum. It certainly makes our reading experience more interesting.
Peter, your points were well taken, always the best at being the devil's advocate, and fairly presenting the other side of things. Thank you.
David, no offence taken, and your views are also accepted as very much your own. Thanks also. It's good to see that some of the sharing about books and such is continuing, I have also read Giving Up and probably should read it again. It is such a wonderful and intimate portrait of Sylvia and her last days. Well, gotta go, there simply aren't enough hours in the day! Cheers all!
To Lisa and Julie and Theressa: I stand corrected. Obviously, Sylvia and Ted were into the occult. I'm afraid I encountered Sylvia first through her poetry and haven't kept up with all the biographies.
However, I don't think that the fact that they may have embraced the supernatural lends any credence to that belief. I would love to believe that there are spirits and other-worldly influences, but I just don't see the evidence. If Sylvia and Ted believed it, I think it's because they were young and creative and wanted to believe it. To me, Sylvia Plath was an extraordinarily talented poet (who used to go through the Thesaurus, circling words she liked) who made the same mistake many young women make: marrying an equally talented man, who ended up cheating on her. It was a huge blow to her ego, and she never recovered. It's all pretty explainable on a very human level; no need to bring in "spirits" and such.
I believe it was Jean Paul Sartre who said, more or less, that "Hell is other people." We don't need spirits to lead us to doom: our unfaithful lovers/husbands/wives/friends will suffice. I do love the idea of something beyond our understanding and have told my own children that my religion is that "something weird is going on, but I don't know what it is -- and neither do you", but I pull up short of attributing to Sylvia a belief in the occult that lends anything to our understanding of her genius or the poems.
And please realize, Lisa and Julie and Theressa, that I take all your admonitions to heart and am thrilled to hear such knowledgeable and certain female voices. I am put in my place, and I like it here. Carry on, by all means!
Because of unsubstantiated allegations about a raucous bongo-drum party held in the Fitzroy Road flat following Plath's death, Trevor Thomas was forced to withdraw unsold copies of his memoir. After Ronald Hayman wrote a piece about the purported incident in The Independent, he too was chastised by the British Press Association.
As I recollect, Thomas produced about 200 "numbered" copies and gave me 2 of them (one inscribed to Warren Plath, which Aurelia told me would only upset him); so I'd guess that fewer than 100 were sold before being withdrawn. Thomas originally sent Aurelia Plath copies of the poems he'd purportedly written under Sylvia's supernatural influence (as the kids in Southern California are wont to say: "PUL-lease"!). The substance of the memoir derives from interview tapes my friend and neighbor Beth Hinchliffe made in the mid-'70s. Janet Malcolm does a great job of capturing Thomas (whom I also met) in The Silent Woman.
Hi again Julie, You're welcome for the medication info. It's certainly something I find very interesting - I had been on Prozac myself for about 4 weeks when I tried to kill myself. I don't know for sure whether how much, if anything, that had to do with it - but I am aware that some people believe that Prozac can have that result, particularly after about 4 weeks.
As well as the two books you mention, I would really recommend Jillian Becker's book Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath to you, especially since you express interest in Sylvia's final days. Jillian and Gerry Becker were the friends that Sylvia stayed with for the final weekend of her life.
In fact, it was arranged that she not be on her own at all for those days. Her doctor had arranged for a live-in home help to come on the Monday morning. In the meantime, she arranged to stay with her friends Jillian and Gerry Becker over the weekend. She was not due to return home from their house until the Monday morning, when the home help would be there. This was in fact such an 'arrangement' that Jillian Becker had a conversation with Sylvia's doctor beforehand, in which he gave her advice generally on how to 'be' with Sylvia and they discussed her medication and when she should be taking it, etc.
Giving Up:The Last Days of Sylvia Plath was published not that many years ago - it is very short, which is slightly frustrating as it is so fascinating (in my opinion anyway) - I have read it several times since I got it, though - I find that I seem to 'get something' new from it every time I read it. Despite the wealth of books available about Sylvia, this is one book that is, I feel, quite unique in that it gives such an 'intimate' account of her last weekend. It also goes into quite a lot of detail about that last Sunday night, Sylvia's insistence on going home early and the Beckers' unease about it.
I would say that there are several aspects of the book that I find irritating - it is certainly true that it is quite defensive in tone (although I think this is understandable when one considers that at the time, the Beckers were actually blamed in some circles for 'letting Sylvia go home' and pretty much blamed for her suicide because of that); I do find her anger towards Sylvia a little too much at times (although again I think this is also understandable); she goes off on quite a tangent at the end about Ted Hughes and a particular poem he wrote about Assia Wevill - most of all, I find her 'slating' of Eliat Negev very offensive, especially when it becomes clear that she (Jillian Becker) appears to think that Eilat Negev is a man (when in fact she is not!). I do feel that if one is going to go to the length of being so critical of someone in a book that is going to be published, it would at least surely be polite to find out what sex they are at least.
Having said all that, though, it is an extremely interesting and moving book. All I would say is that given that it is so short, I would probably get a second-hand copy of it (there are several on amazon and eBay) - although I recently bought a more expensive new copy of it just because it was a signed copy!
Therresa, thank you for your two cents; it is a shame the value of the dollar is so low.
The Sylvia Plath Forum is one of the most well respected web sites on Plath on the Internet. Past contributors include many well-published and well-recognized Plath scholars. We all appreciate Elaine and Chris' efforts to keep the Forum going through the periods of abundance and the dryer times.
Before a contributor attempts to match wits with or insult another Forum contributor, which they obviously have every right to do, the contributor should take into consideration the person whom they are going after. Sylvia Plath scholarship and the Sylvia Plath Forum owe much to Jack Folsom (and a handful of others). It is not what one says, but how one says it. I share Jack's thoughts exactly. The point of contributing is to contribute.
To respond to some of Therresa's comments: poetry is neither fiction nor non-fiction. It is up to the poet which factual details to include in a poem and which details to embellish.
Ted Hughes' poem "Ouija" in Birthday Letters is a poetic response to two of Plath's poems: "Dialogue over a Ouija Board" and "Ouija". The former is a verse dialogue; the latter is a poem. Both poems pre-date many of the poems in Plath's first collection The Colossus and other poems. In Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes keeps the "dialogue" going by responding to particular poems of Plath's. To interpret these poems, or any poem, as factually accurate is imprudent. When discussing certain principles that Hughes and Plath shared, the idea or concept of Fate plays a significant role. Is Fate a supernatural thing?
Plath and Hughes toyed with the Ouija board between 1956 and 1957 in Cambridge. I cannot think of many references to the use of the Ouija board after their extended stay in America from 1957 to 1959 and return to Britain in 1959.
Peter K Steinberg
I think we would all do well to take a page from Miss Therresa Kennedy and display a little tolerance towards one another. Miss Kennedy certainly is a shining example of this virtue. Never does she bully, snark or condescend to anyone and least of all those who do not share her particularly learned opinions. Miss Kennedy is a scholar, people, and should be deferred to! I was thrilled to see her write, in her latest post, that she would never dream of censoring anyone. This is a free and open Forum and all ideas, no matter if they come from "lesser" individuals (her word), should be considered. I think a few people owe an apology. Tolerance, people! Especially for a deluded few. Cheers!
Brianna St. Clair
Jack, Cressida, David, et al: I agree with you. This speculation about Plath, Wevill, Hughes has gone on long enough, and while I have added a few spices to that soup myself, I agree it's time to stop. Especially since we seem to be speculating now about possible sexual abuse and other unknowables, and bearing in mind that all of these individuals have relatives still living...we seem to have crossed a line.
I agree that it's time to stop. This is fascinating stuff, but...enough.
Does anyone know what happened to Sylvia's car? I have read that she went to stay with friends for a few days just prior to her death. While there she went out in her car but returned in a cab. Once she decided to go back to her appartment she was driven there by the friend and I have never heard rather or not her car was found and if so... where?
In reply to David Hall. Sylvia was very into the occult and were she here I am sure she would suggest we consult the Ouija board. If you want to understand her poetry from perhaps a different angle than you are used to, read about her beliefs regarding such matters. In addition to many occult beliefs Sylvia drew on mythology, Biblical stories and African folk lore for much of her work. I saw the poem "Ariel" in a different light after I understood it to mean "lioness of God" as well as being a reference to the city of Jerusalem.
I think it is within all visitors' rights to this forum to express freely whatever strikes them as interesting as it pertains to the life, biography and poetry of Sylvia Plath, and/or Ted Hughes; this includes the Assia Wevill connection as well. She is an integral part of the story. I certainly would not attempt to suppress or censor any individual's ability to engage in free and open discussion regarding various aspects of these talented artists lives, that prove interesting or otherwise intriguing. Furthermore, I would hesitate to use condescension or a manner of obvious paternal mocking to shame or further manipulate the atmosphere of free sharing within this internet community.
It is true that as a highly rational and logical person, (I certainly choose to believe that I am) I myself require a certain measure of evidence that supernatural aspects present in our limited perception of this life exist. Since I have reached an understanding, sufficient to myself (that I gained from an intellectual avenue of research into the unexplained and the mysterious, as it pertains to the occult and "spirits") and this understanding was reached while in complete possession of all my mental, emotional and spiritual faculties, I have no hesitation in saying that, from my own research into Plath's life, and Ted Hughes's life, I can presume with some authority, that they both had an interest and belief in the world of "spirits" and the unexplained and/or occult. I don't believe they would pooh, pooh anything presented on this forum thus far with regard to the occult.
I also believe that there has been presented, historically, enough "evidence" to satisfy me that unexplained events, and phenomena do occur and that the "spirit world" is as relevant, concrete and valid a realm as the real world in which we perceive our own idea of what reality is. Just because we can't see this realm with our naked eye, does not mean it does not exist. I cannot see microscopic germs or other life forms, visible only through a microspcope and yet I do know that these various life forms actually exist. The spirit world is just as alive as our real world, and humans as such, have been affected quite often by this "otherworld". The number of odd happenings and instances in which the living have been aided or harmed by unseen forces present in this world is simply too many in number to just be coincidental or meaningless. I would be hugely ignorant to presume that (I) can perceive all aspects of life present in my current worldly surroundings and that what I cannot see and/or perceive is not in existence, relevant, or real.
This interest in the occult by Hughes and Plath has essentially been proven. All one has to do is read "Ouija" by Ted Hughes,from his book of poems Birthday Letters and one is presented quite clearly with the recounting of an actual experience they both had with a ouija board. The experience was shared with others as well, and was not some bit of fiction whipped up by Hughes.
There is obviously nothing whatever wrong or incorrect if an individual decides (they) do not want to believe that anything supernatural could ever possibly transpire in this universe, just as there is nothing inherently wrong, naive or incorrect if an individual decides, based on their particular life experiences, that they do believe in the occult and its various forms of expression, through beings which we cannot currently perceive through human ocular vision.
The point is that we are all entitled to express our opinions freely and without hesitation on this forum. It is the individual who attempts to alter or otherwise censor the opinions of others that ought to be viewed with seasoned human suspicion. I personally could not care less if someone thinks I am a "kook" because I believe in the world of the unseen and that many lost wandering creatures reside there, just as I could not care less if anyone presumes to assert that to be "logical" or "rational" also necessitates adopting the role of the cynic or pessimist. Tedious, very tedious. Being cynical, being a non-believer does not mean being superior in the mentality department to those who do believe. It is simply a preference, there is no right or wrong, end of story. To some who have never had a supernatural experience, I would presume it would be utterly logical for them to never believe in the supernatural. And to those of us who have had an experience or two with the supernatural, it also makes perfect sense for us to belive in the supernatural and/or occult.
I am in complete possession of my mental and intellecual faculties and I perfectly enjoy the pleasure of investigating and researching subjects which may inspire "fear" in lesser individuals. That is my right and ought to be the right of all individuals who visit this forum. My two cents.
Oh, dear, I fear I have been "long winded". I shall have to slap my hand quite punitively! Cheers everyone!
David - I must emphatically and respectfully diagree with your ideas about Plath and the occult. I'm also quite surprised that discussion of the supernatural, which played such an integral symbolic part in the poet's lives and in Hughes's poetry in particular, has met with such resistance on this forum in general.
In fact, both Ted and Sylvia were very strong believers in the supernatural. The couple's convictions about astrology and their experiments with the ouija board are well documented, as are both Plath and Hughes's belief in omens, from Plath's "Yeatsian" acquisition of the 23 Fitzroy Road property to her discovery of Hughes's infidelity. Any and all biographies of Plath and Hughes deal as a given with these aspects of their lives, perhaps most notably Diane Middlebrook's Her Husband, which supports, primarily, an astrologically fated view of the poet's marriage. In a nutshell, whatever yours, mine, or anyone else's personal beliefs in the existence of spirits may be, it is simply factually incorrect to say, or even insinuate, that Plath herself was not a believer. Whether all this is "nonsense" or not is beside the point: the fact is that the subject is deeply relevant to the poet whose life and work this forum celebrates.
Moving away from Plath and onto the subject of psychic interference in general, I also fail to see why it should be so unbelievable that destructive forces should be drawn to disturbed people. Keep in mind that I'm not talking here about seances, hearing voices, seeing visions, and other typical crap ...but the possibility that, after all these centuries of existence, something else is out there. It has been my experience, for example, that coincidence is a self contradicting phenomenon; what at first appears to be incidental will almost certainly be proven by time not to be.
I have a friend, a person who has and still mostly does dismiss such subjects as ridiculous, who was forced to acknowledge the "possibility of such possibilities" when something inexplicable happened to him. He was at a baseball game when he was suddenly struck dumb by a sense of deja vu."I suddenly knew that in another second the woman next to me was going to take a particular book out of her bag, bookmarked with a picture of her young daughter, and she did," he said. As he looked incredulously out at the field, he realized he knew exactly what was going to happen; the players, he said, seemed to be acting out a script he had written while dreaming. This, of course, only lasted for about 30 seconds, but for those 30 seconds, time was suspended. As I've said, the experience didn't really convince him of anything, but at the same time it was nothing he could have explained, and he was "humble" enough (not to mention rational enough) to acknowledge that, at least. All of us know what it's like to "feel" someone's eyes on our back, but if we have no reason in the world to suspect somebody else is in the room, how do we justify it when we turn around and find someone there? I use these common, petty, everyday examples only to illustrate that, by "interference" I don't mean anything in the epic sense.
Just to make myself clear, I believe...malovolent entites aside...that Sylvia Plath's suicide was inevitable, because she was clinically depressed. If, at any point, I implied that she was driven to suicide by demons, it's news to me; certainly that was not my intention. I was merely suggesting that her mind was an unfortunately hospitable environment for negative forces, and that negative forces cannot always be explained scientifically.
Lisa A. Flowers
Thanks for that response Elaine. I should perhaps clarify that I skimmed Crow Steered whilst relaxing in our Dales holiday cottage just to get the general slant and will give it a very thorough read soon. I was pleased to see that the reviews here matched my generally positive first impression so can recommend the book to anyone wanting a fresher look at events. I read so much on the subject that a new point of view is like a breath of fresh air.
I have your book and that one has been read thoroughly (!) which is how I know I will always get a sympathetic response to my rare postings on here when I mention Hughes. I guessed you would be a regular at Plath's grave as you are based up there, I would do the same and it was clear that flowers are often left there. It's all quite overgrown and seems that the church don't want to draw attention to one of their more famous churchyard occupants as we had a job to find it, no clues anywhere.We have the route to Ted Hughes memorial stone on Dartmoor which we will get to one day, it was all kept highly secret though that's not possible for long and BBC TV South West eventually gave the game away.
The Trevor Thomas memoir was a lucky find on ebay a few years ago but I have never seen another one up for sale anywhere.It's the genuine article as it's the original xeroxing with the orange cover. A treasure.
I apologize, Therresa. I went back to your last posting and re-read it carefully. I realized I had misunderstood it. But this is because I dont know the English language very well... again sorry.
I haven't posted on the forum for a long time because, in Cressida's term, "so much rubbish" seems to have dominated discussions in the last year or so. As I have remarked before, many of the people I have been reading on the forum might have had good intentions, but they have too often seemed to me more in love with their own words and assertiveness than with getting at some of the tricky underlying truths that we would all like to find.
Not to discourage those of you who are long winded, but please try to remember that many of your readers would prefer the old maxim, "brevity is the soul of wit," together with your recognition that endless speculation flies in ever decresing concentric circles until... well, never mind.