Messages from October 2005
I haven't posted on the forum in a long, long, long time but I do continue to read it on a semi-regular basis and just wanted to answer Stephanie Murg's question about Plath's sketches. As far as I'm aware, there are other sketches as well as paintings, besides the one of Hughes, that do exist and I have, in the past, seen them for sale (one in particular was a painting by Plath of what she looked like as a child).
I guess it just goes to show that Plath certainly was not one dimensional in terms of her talent and expressed herself not just through poetry but also art.
Stephanie Grandy (formerly Tonge)
Part of the review of the Hughes-Plath Exhibition, by Melissa Maday, published in the current issue of The Rare Book Review can be read online From the same address you can order the RBR issue.
Like many of you, I have been somewhat curious about Nicholas Hughes since his sister began taking on a more public role (as a poet, consenting to interviews, publishing the original ARIEL). There is a good photo of him here:
I am amazed that Rebecca of Cincinnati can state so definitely that Susan O'Neill-Roe worked in a facility for the mentally ill. I am her brother and I have just rung her to confirm that Susan has never worked in a facility for the mentally ill. Would Rebecca please reveal her source of information, and if it should prove to be false, she should publish a retraction of her statement. (This refers to a posting in the Poetry Analysis section on the poem "Cut" EC)
A recent posting states that "The Poets' Market did not exist as of a few years ago...." Just to clarify that the serial (an annual publication) The Poet's Market (Writer's Digest Books) began publication in 1986, according to library records. I remember having a copy in my hand in 1990. Unless, of course, there is a different publication of similar name which I don't know about it.
It's interesting to see the magazines who still mention something to the effect: "We published Sylvia Plath [and other luminaries] way back when."
Am just reading the Unabridged Journals now. My gosh, I had thought "I can't face those journals again." I am so glad I did.
"I realised Sylvia knew about Assia's pregnancy - it might have offered a further explanation of her suicide."
In a heart-breaking new twist in the story of the lives and deaths of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Sigmund recalls a moment of terrible realisation.
Friday April 23, 1999
In 1963, the poet Sylvia Plath, distraught at the break-up of her marriage to Ted Hughes, committed suicide. Six years later, Hughes faced more tragedy when his mistress Assia Wevill - who had lured him away from Plath - killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura. Elizabeth Sigmund, a close friend of Sylvia Plath, prompted by the Guardian's account of Wevill's death (Saturday Review, 10/4/99) recalls the aftermath of Plath's suicide and the terrible events surrounding the death of Assia and Shura.
In March 1963, I went with my young daughter, Meg, to visit Sylvia Plath's small children in the flat in Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, where their mother had killed herself weeks earlier. I had been told that Ted Hughes's aunt, Hilda, was looking after the children, four-year-old Frieda and one-year-old Nicholas. Before gassing herself, Sylvia had left food and drink for her children and made sure they were safe in their bedroom.
When Meg and I arrived we found that Frieda and Nicholas were being cared for by a young nanny, who told me that Assia Wevill had ordered Hilda out of the flat, and had moved in herself. I learnt that Assia and Ted were out, and when I asked where they were the nanny said, "She's having an operation and will be back soon."
The "operation" was an abortion, and when they returned to the flat Ted came into the kitchen and handed me a copy of The Bell Jar, which had been recently published and was dedicated to me. He looked distraught and said "At night I hear the wolves howling in Regent's Park, it seems appropriate."
I realised that Sylvia would have known of Assia's pregnancy, and that the thought of Assia giving birth to Ted's child might have offered a further explanation of Sylvia's final ability to face the future. To add to this, the Third Programme - as it was then - had broadcast Ted's play, The Difficulties of a Bridegroom, a few days before Sylvia's death. This play, which bears no relation to his book of short stories under that title, published in 1995, was based on a dream which Ted told to friends, in which a young man, driving to London, ran over and killed a hare; he took the hare to a butcher, who gave him money which he spent on red roses to give to his mistress.
The second part of the play details the obsession, mixed with fear, that the man feels for his mistress's body. It must have been agonising for Sylvia to hear this, and to realise that their circle of literary friends would have been listening, as anything new by Ted was an important event. The public humiliation and loss of dignity must have been unbearable for Sylvia.
Her last letter to me, written only days before her death, was full of plans for the future, looking forward to taking part in The Critics on the radio and hosting a poetry session in a London theatre, and of her longing to return to Court Green, their country house in Devon which she had left when Ted's affair with Assia had become unbearable, "in time for my daffodils, thank God you will be there". She said, "Ted comes to visit, and I can't help longing for lost Edens." The last few days turned all that hope into despair.
Immediately after Sylvia's death, I and my husband and three children were asked by Ted to live at Court Green, as he couldn't face going back there, and wanted to sell the house. Later he changed his mind, and moved back to bring up the children there, with the help of his sister, Olwyn. We moved into a cottage in the village, and were in daily contact with Ted and his family. I heard no further mention of Assia until 1967, when she came to live at Court Green with Shura, the child she had subsequently had with Ted, who was then two years old.
I saw Assia walking about the village looking lost and miserable. She had aged and put on weight, and Ted told everyone she was dyeing her hair, as she was going quite grey by then. Hughes's children with Plath, Frieda and Nick, used to bring Shura to see us, and she would climb on my knee. She was a silent and sad child, and we never saw Ted give any indication that she was his daughter. He was so proud of Frieda and Nick, and the contrast must have been acutely painful to Assia.
On Christmas Eve, 1967, Ted came to invite us to Court Green for sherry. He said that Assia was very depressed, as she had made a special Russian Christmas cake, and no one was coming to eat it with them. We reluctantly went with Ted, and found Assia standing in the kitchen, in the shadows, looking profoundly unhappy. We felt very sorry for her, and anxious about her state of mind, despite the fact that she had always regarded us as "enemies", as we loved Sylvia and were appalled at her death. We stayed for a very short time, and several weeks later I met Olwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes' sister, in the village; she told me Assia had gone back to London, and that she had been making Ted's life a misery.
In March 1969, Assia dragged a bed into the kitchen of her Clapham flat, dissolved sleeping tablets in a glass of water and gave the drink to her daughter before draining the rest herself. Then she turned on the gas stove and got into bed with the child.
I didn't hear of Assia and Shura's death until many months later, and I still feel acute grief at the thought of that child's life. Fay Weldon, who worked with Assia at an advertising agency, has told me of the suffering that she saw Assia going through after she returned to London, as people blamed her for Sylvia's suicide, and turned their backs on her, and how Ted, although already preparing to marry Carol Orchard, was making vague promises of setting up house with Assia and Shura.
The dedication to Assia and Shura of Ted's Crow poems demonstrates the anguish he was suffering after their death. He talked to me, a year before their publication in 1970, of an image he had, of a man sitting in the desert, holding a loaded gun with only one bullet. There is a black bird sitting in a nearby tree, and the man cannot decide whether to shoot the bird or himself.
There are many biographies of Ted and Sylvia, but barely a mention of the life and death of Shura. She was a child who was conceived in a doom-laden relationship, lived a life of confusion, with a deeply depressed mother, and died what must have been a terrible death. The more one learns of these events, the more the whole thing assumes the proportions of a Greek tragedy.
The life that Sylvia and Ted had decided upon at Court Green, of working poets, not to be seduced by the lure of literary London, bringing up their children, growing vegetables and keeping bees, was only a dream for Sylvia, as it turned out. She had shown me round the house and garden when we first met, and told me of their plans to have five children, to write, to cook, to be part of a rural community, and to shun publicity.
She believed that Ted was committed to this plan, and the discovery that he was having an affair with a woman who was married to another poet (David Wevill), was not the least bit interested in living a rural idyll, and was the exact opposite of Sylvia in personality, appearance and ambitions, felt like a complete betrayal of everything that her marriage had meant. She felt that she had been thrown out of Eden, and could find no resting place.
Her decision to go back to London in the autumn of 1962 was an attempt to recapture her earlier ambition to be a brilliant literary figure, with "a salon". With the reality of two small children, a fearsomely bitter winter, frozen water pipes, the onset of 'flu and the increasing knowledge that Ted was not coming back to her, came despair and a return of the depression which she dreaded. She was presented with the impossibility of going on. The fact that she left a legacy of brilliant poetry, which came out of that despair, is an extraordinary irony, as the fame and recognition she craved in those last months only came after her death. After Assia's death, Ted resumed the life he had planned with Sylvia, but with his second wife, Carol.
Nick and Frieda have had to bear the weight of their mother's death, the subsequent miseries of jealous women fighting for Ted's affection, and their half-sister's death, balanced by their very real love and pride in their father, and gratitude for the kindness of Carol, their step-mother. I saw the suffering endured by Sylvia, her mother and children, and Ted's mother. Now, learning in the Guardian of that of Assia's relations, who cannot bear to see her and Shura's death dismissed as a footnote to the Plath/Hughes tragedy, I feel as if there is no end to the heart-breaking echoes, as Sylvia wrote in her poem, "Words":
After whose stroke the wood rings,
And the echoes!
Off from the centre like horses.
In all of the press coverage of the recently sold sketch by Plath of Ted Hughes, it is referred to as "the only known surviving picture of Ted Hughes by Sylvia Plath." Have other drawings of Plath's survived? I know that Plath references her sketching in letters home to her mother, but I am unaware as to whether any sketches, save this one of Hughes, exist. Does anyone know? Any information would be most appreciated!
Sylvia, Sylvia, Where Are You Buried? An exhibition of photos about Sylvia Plath. The Project Space, Patrick Studios, St. Mary's Lane, Leeds. Mon - Fri 11-5, Sat 12-2. Admission free. 0113 248 0040
Oops...I stand corrected. I've just been informed the Wevill biography won't be out for at least another year.
If you are using traditional poetry journals or publishing houses to decry the diminishing number of poets and poetry readers....you are ignoring the vast opportunity of the Web. The enormous of the Internet, the ubiquiity of blogs and podcasts, is creating a whole new audience for poetry that simply did not exist before. Any discussion about the dearth of poetry that ignores the Internet is incomplete. This discussion board is one great example of why I refuse to moan the loss of poetry or readership in America, or anywhere else. The audience is there all right, you are just not seeing around corners to find it.
Re: the Assia biography, it was my understanding that it was due to be published late in 2005. As we're only two and a half months from the end of the year, I'd expect that its publication is imminent. If it is, though, this forum will undoubtedly be one the first places to announce it. I can't remember the last time I've looked so impatiently forward to a literary release.
I've been uselessly trying to remember where I read sizeable chunks from the interview Plath and Hughes gave in January 1961 for the BBC programme "Two of a Kind". Unless part of it was played in the History Channel programme on Plath, which was broadcast here in Italy a few months ago? Thanks in advance for helping my failing memory.
Hello Suzanne Burns, I want to give you a big thank you for deciding to get up on that soapbox!! Your recent post on the questionability of "studies" and of your opinion that "poetry" is being consumed now more than ever before was just wonderful. I agree with all that you have said in your recent post. It's nice to get an opinion like yours, from someone who is qualified to make firm statements in this regard, with actual experience in the genre etc.
The truth is that The Poets Market did not exist as of a few years ago, and as I have a 2004 copy of it and have actually spoken with people about its existence as such, I can firmly state that is so. Thank you for bringing this up.
As to "Americans" not reading poetry, or reading at all, well, frankly I find that suggestion comical and completely false. I don't agree and I have no qualms about defending my stance at all! There are more poetry readings in the evenings at various cafes here in Portland than there have been at any other time. We have a newspaper where homeless people can publish their poetry, and while it tends to be less clean grammatically or stylistically, as composition goes, it is still indicative of the fact that even our native homeless and less educated people read poetry, and attempt to become involved in it as a whole. Poetry has a universal attraction, is balm for the soul, irrespective of one's credentials with regard to eduation and/or academia.
When I go to the Blue Room, (the literature-poetry room) at Powells, (Portland Oregon has the largest book store in the world) Literally! (Portlands City of Books-Powells) there is always a steady throng of customers. And it it true, there are more people appying for graduate school to earn MFA's in poetry than at any other time in history. At least here in America. I myself am going to be applying for graduate school, taking a GRE prep course and much like many others will be earning an MFA in poetry and with a teaching license. Most of our PSU poetry instructors are also published. There is certainly nothing wrong with teaching poetry while also attempting to get published. People need to be realistic when it comes to an art form they love. Teaching is simply part of the package for any person with his or her druthers.
I will say that I do not rush to believe all these depressing statistics on illiteracy in America or elsewhere when I can be presented with other stats that argue the opposite, and argue their stance well and with impressive stats as well, claiming that literacy is on the rise etc. When Ted Hughes's Collected Poems came out at Powells, it was $50 a copy, more than a year ago, you couldn't keep copies on the shelf. I waited a year, until the price was reduced to $24.95 and then snapped up my copy. It has the limited editions of Howls and Whispers and Cappricio with the poems about Assia Wevill and is superb, and I am still digesting its wonderful poems, full of sensuous beauty and starkness. So, thank you so much Suzanne for your wonderfully coherent, logical and informed posts. Its nice to know people like you, individuals who are truly 'in the know' are out there, willing to share what they know as facts with people like us, who many times need to have things clarified. Thank you again.
The Rothermere American Institute, University Of Oxford is pleased to announce Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath Poetry as Footprints Frieda Hughes talks about her life through her poetry. Monday 24 October, 5pm, Rothermere American Institute, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3TG. The event is free and open to the public.
For further information, contact Cheryl Hudson on 01865 282711 or email
Does anyone know how the "Assia" biography is coming along? Is it due for publication soon?
Kate: I read the study and agree with you that the statistics are startling. I am a graduate student in English and I find the stats particularly disturbing. I'm familiar with the NEA and I agree that it isn't some "bunk enterprise." I'd also like to mention that I've worked as a tutor and in writing centres at universities, and generally speaking the majority of students are coming to university less and less prepared to meet the demands of an ordinary, first-year university English class. Grammar and spelling are atrocious and far too many seem to have problems understanding even basic texts. Since beginning graduate studies I've met many people from Europe and the contrast between their high school education and a typical Canadian one is disgusting. Of course I'm not able to comment on the reading abilities of the general American public, but I have no problem believing their study if I apply the stats to my own country.
This has nothing to do with Plath, so I'll end my comments here. But, Kate, you brought up some good points and I think it would be rash to dismiss the many legitimate studies that have been trying to bring this important issue to the public's attention. And, Therresa, while I agree with you that there is a study for everything (as in, it's always possible to find someone who agrees with you, whether it be about aliens, crop circles, literacy, etc.) that doesn't negate the fact that there are some legitimate stats and some reputable organizations distributing them.I came to this discussion a bit late, so likely you all want to move on. But that's my two cents. I thought it was an interesting topic.
Claire, I tried to send an email to your address and it was returned to me. I hope this gets to you in time.
I wanted to say that you are correct, that quotation is from the journals. It's a strong statement of Sylvia's, one which I remember underlining the first time I read the journals. It says a lot about how driven she was, and how masochistic she was in certain respects.
Anyway, best wishes on your report and good luck with your MA program!
I will try not to be so long winded this time:
One of the problems in talking about the place poetry (or for that matter "literary" fiction) has in the publishing world is that the publishing business (and I worked in it for years as an editor, so I know) is not a very idealistic place. It's a business and it is very much about making money, competing, and staying in business- even more so today because book publishing has to compete now with other media, and the people who are making the decisions are (you guessed it) looking at the cash flow. It is rare for an editor to stay with one publishing house for very long- they hop from one to the other, and the houses themselves get bought and sold again. Every big change leads to a catastrophe for some poor writer out there. If you editor leaves before your book gets published, you could end up "orphaned" and not published at all. That can be extremely disheartening for any writer, not just the sensitive young literary novelist. Somehow though, in spite of all of this, idealistic people do end up in publishing, and changes in technology are making it a lot easier for small presses and other alternative means of publishing to thrive and make an impact. I would still maintain that if you want to write and be heard, there are more ways to do that now than ever before.
Poetry has always published under the radar. It sells differently than fiction, or anything else for that matter, which is why I feel so bitter about the tax laws that effectively punish presses for having unsold books in their warehouses at the end of the year. Poetry books sell best over a long period of time - a truly great book might not have its real impact until easily ten years later. It's just the way it works, and probably has always worked. Poets scrape by however they can and if they love their art enough, find a way to write and reach their readers. There is probably more money and more of a sustaining community for poetry now than ever before (thanks largely to big philanthropies and the bosom of academia), but I have never met a poet for whom money was a motivating factor. Or any writer for that matter - even in the more popular genres competition is fierce, and the level of work required to to get even that first reading is monumental. It exists in a different economy. If you don't love it, you are not going to do it. I would also add that if a lot of people (including the much beleaguered editors) did not love it, it wouldn't exist at all.
A great book to read about this is Lewis Hyde's brilliant The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. It examines the place of the gift in culture-- the flow and movement of gift, poetry and art as gift, and the impact that the modern market place has had on the circle of gift. (It is happily still in print and and enough people are hungry for this sort of thing to keep it selling briskly by literary book standards. I hope it won't come across as snarky if I also point out that this book got Hyde a MacArthur grant-- it was well-earned, trust me).
For anyone like me in the UK with not a cat in hell's chance of getting to the Grolier exhibition in NY you may be interested to know that the catalogues of the exhibition have finally arrived with the UK supplier www.forestbooks.co.uk . Mine arrived in this morning's post and I am delighted with it. Plenty of previously unseen (to me)manuscripts and a very informative text in a slim, beautifully bound hardback book with a very apt crimson cover.
Kate: There are more valuable grants and fellowships available to poets now than have ever existed in history. A MacArthur, if I am not mistaken, is worth about 100K a year, a Lannan 50K, and NEA 35K-- and these are just the big grants. The smaller grants would fill pages.
Granted you do not get these without a certain level of acclaim, and nobody is going to stake their mortgage on them, but there was a time when these things simply did not exist at all for poets, no matter how acclaimed they were. I have a copy of a book at home detailing fellowships and grants available to writers. Its a rather thick book, and this year's edition is at least twice as thick as the edition I had ten years ago, and a striking number of these fellowships and grants are specifically earmarked for poets. So there is money out there-- again more than there ever has been, and if Plath were a young writer to day, she would be hard at work scooping these laurels up. A friend of mine who has published two books and who is making a rather big splash at the moment managed to string together fellowships, grants and residencies which enabled her to not only write poetry full-time for two years, but to travel to Rome, Provence, Russia, and China. All on someone else's nickel, and all for the sake of her poetry. My point is that this level of support is increasing rather than decreasing over time-- and I think that says something.
As for teaching in MFA programs: Yes, it is teaching, and yes, teaching is work. But this is an academic niche that exists specifically for writers, and in which poets are hired and rewarded entirely on the basis of their accomplishments as poets. I know of a fair number of professors in MFA programs who do not even have advanced degrees - they are there because of their prestige as writers, and are paid rather well. It's a niche that did not exist before, and relieves a significant number of poets of the messy business of really having to train for and find a different kind of job (such as working in insurance ala Wallace Stevens, or medicine ala WCW, or advertising ala Hart Crane), or actually having to live off what they earn directly from their writing. The number of writing programs has grown dramatically over the past few decades--and by extension the number of teaching positions and administrative positions for people who organize readings, poetry competitions, etc. I am not arguing that these jobs are Fortune 500 quality, but it is a resource that did not previously exist at all. Somebody out there is ponying up the cash to make this possible, and I don't know why they would bother if they did not perceive some level of demand.
Now let's talk about the market for poetry: If the readership for poetry is vanishing as everyone is wailing to the skies, why are there so many more poetry magazines and books being published? and why do so many more bookstores stock poetry? When I was a teenager, the Poet's Market didn't exist at all except as about thirty or so pages in Writer's Market. Now it is its own book, and last time I flipped through its pages, it was much more sophisticated and developed - and about three inches thick. All this for poetry! I am not saying that this is a defining indicator, but once again if the interest in poetry is so dramtically and shamefully low, one would think that all these craven profit-minded publishers would be publishing less rather than more. Please bear in mind that all of this unexplained growth has taken place after the Reagan administration revamped tax laws so as to make it more difficult and more costly for publishers to publish books that don't sell quickly. How does one explain this? Am I to believe that publishers just like how all those unsold books look on the shelves? Is this an elaborate attempt at social engineering? Or could it be that tehre are still editors and readers out ther who are rather devoted to the subject matter?
It all comes down to indicators: If you are going to come out and say "People don't read poetry!" or "Americans don't read!", well, I'd like to know what these revelations are based upon. Where's the data? How are you coming to this stunning conclusion? Anedotes such as "Well my neighbors don't have books in their homes" doesn't really cut it in my opinion because it begs the question as to who are your neighbors, how many homes have you really investigated their shelves, and are you really sure your neighbors do not read any books, etc. And is this data really consistent? If American don't read poetry, why was Robert Pinskey deluged with letters when he started the Favorite Poems project? Also do we really have any data as to how many people bought and read books/poetry in the past? Did the average family in 1920, 1950 etc. really have a shelf filled with books which they read regularly? How about the 19th century? The 18th century? I think if you really look at the history of the book trade you are likely to discover that books have more typically been considered luxury items owned by the leisure class-- the big shift in this reality, interestingly, is happening now in our own time, the very time when so many people are insisting that reading is at an all-time low. Sorry, I see all kinds of class issues lurking in the corners here.
One thing that frustrates me when I read "studies" that make great claims without backing them up with actual research is that after their claims are repeated a few times in the media, people begin to take it as gospel and cite the "study" a source of authority without looking at it closely. The subject of reading and who's doing how much of and of what is a very emotional subject for a lot of people, and people are very likely I think to argue from their assumptions and their emotions. It's good to be a little skeptical.
I'm off my soapbox for now. Sorry for this long ramble!
Hello Everyone. I need your help. I am doing something in fact that I swore never to do, but honestly is due to circumstance rather than laziness. Some of you might remember me from a while ago, when I lived in France. I am now doing an MA Creative Writing course, and I want to quote some Sylvia Plath in a piece of writing, due in tonight. However, I am at work and my (fairly extensive) SP collection is at home.The (slightly misremembered I think) quote is: "left to myself, what a poet I will flay myself into." I think this is from the full Journals. Can anyone correct me and confirm the source, I am desperate!! Thanks.
Claire Cozler (Mobbs)
Suzanne, What poet do you know that makes a living off their poetry alone? Every poet I've ever met or read about whose created poetry in the past 30 years - and nearly every fiction writer, the past 20 - has to teach or work some awful day job to make money as a writer. I've been told this by every writer I've ever met. Even writers like Susan Straight who has five books out or Aimee Bender who has three (both authors very critically acclaimed) have to teach to make ends meet.
I agree with you that poetry has always been somewhat fringe. And I do think there are more small presses now than ever before. I think that has to do with the fact that a) we have greater communication possibilities than ever before and b)poetry only thrives in small presses and in the academic community. As far as fiction is concerned, this used to be a more embraced past time, and many more writers could make a living off it. They could also get published much more easily. Now people read something like less than 1 book a year, on average, and writers struggle to find someone who will publish them, especially if their first books flops. It used to be that publishing houses took a chance on a new writer, developing them through several books before they expected a success. Now this is almost unthinkable. The publishing houses are losing money.
Ask any publishing house in the world where there money comes from. Selp-help books, coffee table books, and anything else they publish that isn't a book. As I just said, publishing houses are losing money. I've had people in publishing tell me this, and I can see why. People aren't reading because they have too many other forms of entertainment that are more easily accessible to them, like television, internet, radio, etc. Not to mention the fact that book prices have gone up in recent years to curb the sales which are going down.
Another peculiar thing you will notice about most poets and fiction writers is that they are also almost all teaching in a MFA program. MFA programs used to not exist, but now they are one of the main ways writers make their livelihood (see the world is changing!) This has taken writing out of the public sphere and into the academic sphere for the most part. Many writers bemoan this. I'm not sure what all the implications of this are, but it definetly seems that writing is more embraced in academia than by the every day public.
I'm curious as to whether anyone actually read the NEA study I posted? The National Endowment for the Arts isn't some bunk enterprise, as Therresa implied. I find the suggestion that their statistics are dismissable to be laughable.
I am 23 and I had no idea that reading was declining so rapidly. All I knew is that my friends don't read, the kids I babysit barely read unless they have to, and my grandmother and people of an older generation read much more than anyone my age ever does.
I guess we'll see over the next few decades what's really going on. I sorely hope I am wrong, to tell you the truth. I hope everyone is reading, somehow. I really do.
Hi Suzanne - you make some very good points re: the role the internet has played in promoting literacy and encouraging written expression, in general. Even chat rooms dedicated to Britney Spears at least require that people voice themselves in writing, which is a beneficial exercise in itself; even if there's not much to the content (or context.) And over time, yes,one would hope that the practice of writing would become something less mechanical and more heartfelt...just as swimming twenty laps a day might not yield results immediately, but is certain to do so eventually.
Another thing the internet offers (as you pointed out) is a massive integration, which (like this board) can transcend cultural truths that might otherwise have proved limiting. Regarding the appreciation of literature and poetry in the US in particular, however, I do have to maintain that I think the situation is pretty dismal.Yes, there are many independent presses out there, many grants, many coalitions of writers. But as you also stated, poets have always been a minority. And while this is reason for us to celebrate and rejoice in our individuality, it's also symbolic of a society that (on a whole) doesn't take many pains - beyond the required ones - to emphasize the importance of literature. This may have less to do with the educational system that it does with how people, as individuals, are choosing to raise their children. I was lucky in that an appreciation of poetry and literature was instilled in me from an early age (it sounds as if the same is true of you) but of course that can't be the case with everyone. I don't want to sound like an elitist, nor do I like to think of myself as such; but perhaps (very much against my will!) I am one. Perhaps I need to look harder, though. I would love to believe things aren't as dismal as all that.
Lisa A. Flowers
Kim! just a quickie post to say thank you so much for the lovely little compliment. I'm sorry I haven't had time to respond to your many references to me in the past, I am usually so busy with school, but I do enjoy the fun repartee on this forum and the debate, and yes, I do consider myself both "brilliant" and "hysterical". Thank you so much for taking the time to notice, I thought I was the only one who knew, it's so good to have support in that manner.
I just bought Ted Hughes's (Collected Poems) and this include Howls and Whispers, which was published along with Birthday Letters, at least in the same year. It is wonderful to finally have most if not all of his poetical compositions. And the poetry is sublime, it is really good. He had a wonderfully versatile talent for composition.
His poems on Assia Wevill are probably the best out there, no one knew her as well as he did, definitely not poor, gentle David Wevill. And to read them, many times over, is to gain a rather intimate understanding of what she must have been like. They are so revealing if you do a close reading and really delve.
The comments on the forum recently have been quite interesting on the subject of suicide. Thank you David Hall for the recent post, it seems we share many of the same ideas with regard to suicide, and I for one applaud you for your honesty. It's a difficult topic, and one with which I too have strong opinions. For now I will keep my thoughts on that subject to myself, lest I upset more forum members with my outspokenness. In any event, thank you for all the wonderful posts.
Ella, I think the poem you're looking for is "Tulips." Hope this helps.(Thanks also to Kathleen Connors and Alessandra who also provided this information.)
Lisa A. Flowers
I am looking for a Plath poem that a friend told me about. In it she refers to a family photograph where everyone is smiling and perfect, but she refers to it like a hook, scraping. I'm interested in this idea of discomfort in the sacharine. Can anyone please identify the poem I'm refering to? I appreciate your help!
Kate, I think you make too many excuses for suicide. It's the one decision each of us can make that no one can question. When we've had enough of this life, for whatever reason, we can decide to end it. How we do it is, of course, a question for endless debate but is, in the end, up to each of us. Sylvia ended her life -- way too soon -- because she was troubled beyond endurance by mental conditions compounded by the stresses of her husband's infidelity. She just couldn't take it any more. I think many of us will face that moment someday, and if we choose to make an end of it, no one should judge us badly.
I would hope that we make provisions for those who come after us and who we know will need help/guidance/reassurance/money, but, in the end, it is really up to any of us to pick out the day of our death. I don't think it's sexy or romantic, but I also don't think it's dirty and disgraceful. It's inevitable; it happens to all of us. I would just like to be able to choose the hour of my passing, if it comes to that. Yes, Sylvia chose too soon, but I suspect her head was bursting to the point that she could no longer stand the pressure. She must have felt like she was about to explode. Or else implode: sink back into herself until she was nothing but a dead zygote. I blame no one for his or her suicide. I respect the choice and hope that we all continue to have that right.
Hi Kate, I agree in general with your assessment re: suicide and Plath. It seems death/tragedy in general draws people to the work of certain artists. James Dean made 3 films and was only 24 when he died in a car accident - and he's an icon. Marilyn Monroe and her suicide at 36, ditto. Princess Diana, 36, car crash (a public figure, not an artist, but same phenomenon). Maybe it's the unfufilled promise of their lives and work that make people like Dean, Monroe and others into icons, but it seems that if they lived long lives, filled with brilliant and creative work, and died old in their beds, they wouldn't be as iconic as they are. Maybe it's that these particular people, like Plath, have a certain something - you might call it a charisma that transends celluloid or the written page or the canvas - that makes them of all the many tragic artists the most compelling. Too bad it can't be bottled -
Therresa, you are brilliantly hilarious. Thanks for the laughs.
Trish, Thank you so much. I appreciate your thoughts, and I am glad you liked my post-- I was nervous about it. I requested that Elaine remove my post, though, because I was concerned about the unpleasant direction I felt things could take if someone didn't properly understand the context of what I was talking about. No big deal, problem solved, and I hope this doesn't come across as self-censorship. I consider it prudent.
Regarding all the generalizations about who reads and who doesn't and the "horrifying" trend of the masses reading less and less... Oh God, I get so tired of hearing it. People have been singing that song since time immemorial. The younger generation is always a step down, and the beautiful days are always over, etc. etc. If people really are reading less and less, if literacy is experiencing such a crisis, I would love to know why our time is seeing a veritable explosion of media in every conceivable form? Let's play statistics: how many books are being published? Why are there so many more small presses and little magazines now than there ever were before? If fewer people are reading, why are writing programs flourishing, and why are there so many more valuable grants and literary prizes now than there were a generation ago? Where does media literacy work into all of this? How many people keep blogs or particpate in webforums, listservs or other discussion forums? Does the level and sophistication of online communication (email, web posts, blogs) compare or compete with the supposedly lost art of letter-writing?
Look at this forum. I don't know about you, but when I was a teenager reading Plath for the first time, I had to dig far and wide for any information about her, and only my English teacher had any notion of who she was. I hungered for literary discussion and would travel for an hour to go to the only bookstore I knew of in my hometown that even sold poetry books. Now I can log on anywhere on this planet and particpate in discussions on any literary subject imaginable, and in my home town there are now several large bookstores that offer substantial selections of poetry, to say nothing of literary readings, slams, poetry workshops, etc. etc.
I think one problem that comes up when people fret about the decline of reading is the tendency of some to completely disregard how much reading takes place in other forms of media, such as the web, and how much media literacy is a part of lieracy overall. I am familiar with a nunber of online literary communities, and I think there impact is both significant and (so far as I know) not yet studied.
As for poetry reading-- as far as I have ever been able to tell, reading poetry has always been an obscure, fringy activity indulged in by the few. I mean come on, was Pound ever a bestseller? Who has ever taken up writing poetry with the idea that they are going to make a lot of money by selling millions of copies? If you wanted to go just by numbers though, I think a fair argument can be made that poetry has more readers now than ever before in history. There is more of it out there now, and more that is supported by generous endowments and grants. There are people actually making their living as poets. When has that ever been the case?
Just my two cents.
Suzanne-I think your post has addressed this issue in the most significant...and relevant...way yet. Excellent points. I was wondering: who is now living in Sylvia's childhood home? Was the house kept in the family, or was it sold? I know you can't divulge any personal information, but I was just curious, in general....it occurs to me that I've never stopped to wonder what happened to the property after Aurelia Plath's death.
Lisa A. Flowers
OK. I have to clarify my thoughts. I'm afraid I wasn't clear when I expressed that I believe all people, not just me, find suicide sexy.
Suicide, in and of itself, is decidedly not sexy. When I used the word sexy, I meant that we find suicide fascinating, and we take seriously the writings of those who've committed suicide-often more seriously than we would take those same writings had the writer lived a long, healthy life. So let's forget the word sexy for a moment. Instead, replace it with 'alluring'. I was going to use the word 'sensational' but I actually don't think that suicide's pull is entirely sensational, I think it has to do with something deeper than that. Remember, we are talking about two pulls toward suicide here. Plath's pull to suicide, and our pull to Plath because of her suicide.
Plath toiled in obscurity until she killed herself. Then there was a dramatic increase in interest in her work. Do you think that everyone simply woke up one day and wanted to read Plath? No. She was suddenly interesting, because she had killed herself. If you don't think this is true, why is her work marketed with her suicide mentioned on the back cover of the book? Plath's life and work has always been marketed this way, understandably so as her work is about her life, but still-let's not pretend her suicide had nothing to do with it when it had quite a lot to do with it.
Now, why is suicide appealing to so many of us, or at least fascinating to us even as we find it ugly? I don't know, why do we read about gruesome murders? Why can't we turn the channel when news of hurricanes and tsunamis are on the screen? Even though many of us recognize suicide for what it truly is-ugly and empty-we still find it fascinating, and we want to know why people killed themselves, and we want to know about the people who would do such a terrible thing. This is a question I can't answer, but I think to deny that the pull exists, that the fascination we all feel at some level (and maybe some of us are more 'reasonable' and pyschologically healthy than others and can see suicide for what it is) in fact exists. I'll be the first to admit it in myself. I think to deny this fascination and pull doesn't help suicidal people at all, it only makes them feel more estranged from everyone else, more like a freak.
As for Plath's relationship to suicide-I think it's apparent in her writings that she found it very appealing. And frankly, if anyone is drawn to her writings, I would question them sincerely when they claim that they don't understand the pull toward death that Plath felt. Her writing is filled with this terrible pull, and we all seem to connect with that writing in a profound and almost frightening way. How could we connect if we don't, even on a subconscious level, feel the pull within us?
We must remember that regardless of what suicide truly is--a terrible, empty, loss-Plath was drawn to it, obsessed with it even, and so on some level she had to find it alluring and desireable. Otherwise, why would she have chosen it? That doesn't mean that it is alluring and desireable. That doesnt' mean she didn't have moments of clarity where she was able to see it for what it is. But if she saw it for what it was when she put her head in the oven--why did she put her head in the oven? The truth is that in that moment, she saw suicide as relief from pain, which is not a terrible and empty thing at all. The terrible and empty thing to her at that moment was real life.
The sad fact is, our perception of a thing and what the thing actually is can be tragically different.
Well, let's just all agree to disagree. Makes life more interetsing don't you think? I'm certainly not going to be losing any sleep over this one.
However, having taken a class in social science, (quite an illuminating topic, if not downright boring) I know that there are just as many "studies" out there that can disprove the notion that Americans "read" as there are that claim that literacy is rapidly improving due to books like the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the manner in which, that in and of itself, increases a desire for the young to improve their reading skills, or to learn to read at all.
I myself just read a recent "study" that claimed that the Harry Potter books has had an impact on literacy world wide, not just in America but in the UK as well. "Studies" abound my friends, and the information is always contradictory. When an individual learns about the actual mechanics of social science and the gathering of data, well then, it truly impresses upon one, how difficult this area of science really is. I must say, I'm still not convinced that MY pespective is any less correct even now, after having been pleasantly chatised by two or three posters from the SP forum.
Making sloppy generalizations is bound to offend, it's just that simple. I don't believe my last post was inappropriate in any manner, if it were, would not Elaine Connell have made the judgement call of deleting it? The SP forum recieves thousands of posts daily, most are not included. There is a selection process. But that's what this forum is all about, free speech and voicing opinions, articulately expressed. Lives won't be lost if we don't all agree, and I for one am woman enough to handle a little disagreement. Makes life all the more stimulating.
But I will note that for the record, I have received nearly ten private emails applauding my last post. This is not sour grapes people, it's just celebrating one aspect of my life that has proven interesting, interesting in an extremely (miniscule) manner, one aspect in a million aspects that constitutes my life. The poster of whom I write, wrote in her email to me that the post in question, my post, was "brilliant". She doesn't care to identify herself, for fear of being torn to shreds by other passionate forum members but I appreciated her kind words and for having taken the time to send me an email. Perhaps in time, she may attempt a more direct post firmly voicing her opinion, but until then, I enjoy knowing such a bright girl has an affinity with my way of thinking. Call it social identification or whatever, we all need it, want it, enjoy it.So, like I've said before, and lets all try to remember this, we can agree to disagree and we'll all be as fine as silk in the end. I won't apologize for my last post, I said what I meant, and meant what I said, end of story. Take care people!
Therresa Kennedy Rea
Re: suicide being "sexy," I think we're mistaking the actuality of the act with the romantic vision of it....a romantic vision that is dependent entirely on one's life being comfortable and their sanity being reliable. We watch horror films because fear can be a luxury at a distance; but real fear is unspeakable. We can enjoy a steak at a restaurant, but we don't work in slaughterhouses. Of course, nobody who has ever seriously contemplated suicide or who has truly known fear will indulge such distinctions. Being poor is romantic only to someone who isn't; vice versa with the rich (or so F Scott Fitzgerald tells us.) "Poverty revered is poverty outlived," the poet Les Murray said.... outlived; or (in this context) never experienced at all. The origin of suicide as a romantic vision is, in itself, a very interesting topic: how did it come to be so? I honestly wonder.
Does it speak to the fact that people have been spared details, or does it mean they, like Blanche DuBois, want magic, not realism? (don't mean to be pretentious with the literary allusions; it's just that 'the masters' said it better than I can.)
In Sexton's case, her therapist has claimed that she did have a notion of ending her career on a morbidly "epic" note; but I believe this was only incidental. She had lived through so many years of dragging mental illness, that whatever posthumous "fringe benefits" her suicide might have encompassed hardly mattered.
Re: the question of Ted or Sylvia being the better poet, I honestly believe they are equal. It's not a question of quality, it's a question of what world you want to live in, at the moment....the realm of his work or the realm of hers. We needn't make a final decision to dwell permanently in one or the other. What they had in common more than anything, I think, was a Clockwork-Orangeish-kind -of pried- open -eyelidedness (Jesus, what an awkward phrase:-)....except that they forced themselves to look at their subject. One sees no cowardice in their work, no cowardice whatsoever...not even, so much, a delving into alternate fantasy worlds. There's a blend of the reporter's matter of factness and the artist's eye...a really fine example of this is Hughes's early poem, "Hawk Roosting."
Just my coins-on-the-eyelidsish two cents-
Lisa A. Flowers
Thank you for the lovely post, Suzanne. Don't "hesitate to post" again; that leaped out like a breath of fresh air! I am finding this arguing about whether Americans do or don't read poetry to be more than a bit tedious and oversimplified on both sides of the argument. I'm sure one could find studies to back up either point of view, and I suspect this arguing is a pretext to carry on other, older feuds between regular posters. Once again, some of these posts seem to edge very close to downright nastiness, and I don't see how this has a lot of relevance to the board.
It is very difficult to argue whether Sylvia or Ted was the better poet. In my opinion, I think Sylvia was a far better poet than Ted. I have recently been reading Ted's Collected Poems and I must say that some poems seem to me rather pointless (maybe that's just due to a lack of critical anotation to the text or my total ignorance of the poetic bite but being a published poet myself I feel I ought to know). On the other hand Sylvia's poetry is so powerful as to incite one to action and far more ritualistic and mythically convincing than Ted's. I think his later work is far more superior than the early stuff.
I was in NY early this year and I found people to be manifoldly receptive to poetry there than they are here in the UK! They did not, for one, scoff at the very mention of the worod poetry/poet, in fact they were quite pleased that people did poetry! In England, if one reads poetry on the underground people tend to move away (although that hasn't really deterred me at all from doing so). And the undergound/railway is for me the most inspiring of places. Like Betjeman a lot of what I write has been composed in the trains.
Good news - the sketch of Hughes by Plath has been purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in London and will therefore be able to be seen by the public.
London Gallery Acquires Hughes Portrait
The National Portrait Gallery in London has bought the only surviving portrait of late poet laureate Ted Hughes by his wife and fellow poet, Sylvia Plath. Plath sketched the drawing of Hughes in pen and ink in 1957, a year into their marriage. Hughes destroyed many papers relating to their life together after Plath committed suicide in 1963. But he preserved the sketch and the museum bought it at an auction at Bonhams in London on Monday for $49,000.
"The gallery lacked, and had been very keen to acquire, a really compelling likeness of Hughes made from life," Paul Moorhouse, curator of the gallery's 20th-century collection, said Tuesday. "This intimate portrait is a marvelous evocation of a major poet and of a fascinating literary relationship."
The gallery will exhibit the portrait alongside portraits of other leading 20th-century British poets including T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin.
Plath's portrait, which shows Hughes lost in his writing, is believed to have been sketched on a page from one of the books that Plath sometimes used for her journal. The portrait was drawn in the year Hughes began to gain critical recognition for his first collection of poems, "Hawk in the Rain." Hughes recalled that it was drawn in Cambridge where he and Plath lived from October 1956 to May 1957.
The marriage was famously troubled and in February 1963 Plath killed herself at her London home, shortly after publication of her novel, The Bell Jar.
I've just read the excellent news that the National Portrait Gallery has purchased that exceptional sketch of Ted Hughes done by Sylvia, circa 1957(according to Hughes' annotation at the bottom of the page). The final price was £27,600. Almost $50,000!
Thank goodness that one piece of irreplaceable literary history will now be forever available to the public, either on display or in the Gallery's archives. The full report is on today's (Oct. 4 2005) BBC news web page(in the "Entertainment" section).
They also reproduce the image itself in full along with the story; looking at it again I reiterate that as a professional artist myself, and considering how little time Plath was able to devote completely to drawing along with the lack of formal art training, I think she was an above-average artist who could have been really exceptional with more study. What I think may look to modern eyes like awkwardness in her execution is rather an adoption of some of the then-current styles of drawing, which were far from slick, but owed a lot to the look of the German post WW1 impressionists. She had an excellent grasp of perspective, and most importantly, could capture an attitude, something many people never achieve. Her portrait of Hughes is a great example. I am surprised it was (apparently) her only attempt at drawing him. I'd be shocked to find she hadn't done the same with her children. But with recent revelations about certain supposedly "lost" or "destroyed" papers of Hughes' being in fact very much around, who knows what may yet turn up?
Re: Americans don't read. Therresa, I think David was making a generalization in order to make a point, based on what he has observed personally around him, just as you are making a generalization based on what you have observed personally around you. To make an assumption about someone's socio-economic status based on that is irresponsible and condescending. Just because some denizens of Colorado don't read, and some denizens of Oregon do, well, that really doesn't say much. There have been studies that show that reading is "down" in the States,despite the proliferation and popularity of Harry Potter books, The Da Vinci Code, etc. Birthday Letters was a best seller in the UK - it certainly wasn't in the US, nor do I recall a recent book of poetry that has been a "bestseller" in the States. That doesn't mean that no Americans read poetry - it simply means that this is a large country and that perhaps poetry is not of interest to the majority of Americans, for one reason or another. Unfortunate, yes, but certainly not a personal affront.
I very much would like to respond to the various comments on how we as a culture view suicide in general as well as how Plath's suicide is/has been percieved but it will have to wait as I've just begun graduate school and I'm very busy(getting my MFA in creative writing, very exciting!). However, I do think that Therresa might be interested in reading the following link. It will take you to an article in the National Endowment for the Arts News Room which explains the alarming results of a recent study on literary reading in America. The basic gist is that fewer than half of Americans currently read and the number is declining rapidly. America is the fastest declining nation, although other nations are declining as well. I would not have known this except that I recently heard Dana Gioia, poet and chair of the NEA, speak on this distressing topic. Frankly, it depressed me greatly.
I don't know, Therresa. I'm gonna have to side with David on this one. I think satirists like Robert Crumb have given us the most accurate representations of contemporary American society. Case in point: I went to the gym with a co worker of mine recently; while browsing magazines to leaf through while treading the elliptical machine, she passed over "The New Yorker" for "In Touch" with an indignant toss of her hair and the comment, "I'm sorry, but I just don't care what's happening in New York." This is an unfair representation, maybe...misantrophy, or even the tendency towards it is, in itself, a kind of racism, and thus deplorable...but I think David's argument has a sound basis (of course, he never, so far as I was able to discern, sought to undermine the intelligence of the American people.) I am not unpatriotic, only truthful...to awkwardly paraphrase Sylvia Plath:-) And I have to say that if you've found, in your daily life, a community of such unabashed intelligence, I truly envy you. I'm not quite there, yet...particularly when Clinton and Amber Frey bios (all so ghostwritten they fairly exude ectoplasm) are flying off shelves all over the nation. No doubt I'm exposing some of my own socio/economic status, unconscious fears, and insecurites in saying this, but isn't that what poetry is all about? Woe be the day when poets are pulled over and ordered to walk a straight line through the day without making a Freuduan slip:-)
Lisa A. Flowers
Suicide=sexy? An interesting point of view! For me also, I'd say "No"...but it's undeniable that for the young in particular, suicide is "romantic". There's evidence aplenty to support that. Of course, it isn't.
No death is in itself beautiful, poetic, attractive, any more than defecation is. It's a matter of opinion perhaps, but in my view Sylvia's suicide-death was for her (not trying to be presumptuous, mind you-just understanding) a quintessentially ugly, foul, hopeless and even disgusting, personally punishing act. That's how deeply felt her despair was. She poeticised it, of course, beforehand, and thinking of her past, but even there in her poems, with lines about maggots plucked from her just-barely-alive face as "sticky pearls", she's still talking about maggots-and she's quite aware of the revulsion they incite in the mind, I think.
There's one place I can never understand anyone going in discussions of Plath's suicide, and that's when people talk of it a if it were as rational an act as, say, a brutal fight or argument is, or even as "rational" as murdering another person frankly is. I guess I can understand why this seems plausible for some people if I also assume they are at bottom unable to grasp mental illness-and that, too, is understandable. A cousin of mine was diagnosed as schizophrenic at 19. She'd always been a exceptionally intelligent, sensitive girl, and so my mother took her into our home, stupidly threw away the medication she was taking as "bad" for her, and took her in hand(this was circa 1972). My mother was a university professor, but clearly, while the then-crude medications weren't without serious flaws, my poor cousin couldn't be psychoanalyzed out of a severe mental illness without pharmaceutical help-and neither could Plath, out of her clinical depression.
I'm bringing that all up again because it's crucial to an understanding of the human being, I think, to just not try and blame her, or make "sense" of, give meaning, to an act of virtually primal pain, all meant only for herself, not her husband and not her children, certainly.The rash, very different suicide of children and adolescents (and those grownups with an immature personality) is often an act of revenge, of "getting back", or perhaps to present oneself as a romantic hero.
Back to sexy: suicide, to a person like Plath, seems to me to equal all that is not sexy or "sexual"; it's more the antithesis of sexual--it's barren, dried-up(think Papa Hemingway)-at the ultimate end of usefulness in the suicide's mind. Fecundity and dynamic, fertile sexual allure and stimulation were, as we can see from both her own and others' writings, very very important to Sylvia Plath on a personal level. She seemed (to me) to know full well what the opposite was, and that was Death-in her case, her own death. Perhaps she felt she should match her existence in the material/external world to her feelings about her life in her mind: zero hour, not there anymore.
I agree with you, Kate. Although the comparisons you cited...Sexton and Woolf...did achieve fame in their lifetimes, their own struggles with mental illness were well documented, which undoubtedly created an inadvertent "nest egg/trust fund" for their posthumous lives. Too, Sexton managed to take some of the mystery out of her death, in that she publicly revealed so much of herself while she was still living; whereas Plath went to such great lengths to present herself as the perfect wife, mother, etc.
Plath's reluctance to align herself with feminism rather reminds me of Jack Kerouac's reluctance to align himself with the Beat movement, which he almost inadvertently begot; ie, Plath embraced the traditional role of homemaker, and was scornful of those who, like Olwyn Hughes, seemed to embody a more liberated consciousness in that respect. A scorn for women who chose to deviate from the norms of the time runs through many of Plath's work...especially in poems like "Barren Woman"...but there again, simultaneously, is the fierce independence of "Purdah," "Lady Lazarus," etc ("do I contradict myself? I contain multitudes," said Whitman.)It makes one wonder if the line between hypocrisy and projection even matters...and certainly in creativity it never does; for, as has been pointed out, disclaimers have no place in art.
In the end, Kerouac was appalled by the political and social movements his work helped to give rise to. Jillian Becker seems to think that Plath, too, would have been "surprised and a little annoyed" by her contribution to contemporary feminism. Is this true, I wonder? No way of telling.
I also think that you are absolutely correct in pointing out that we like our women best as objects, as a society; regardless of how politically incorrect it may be. Maybe this points to a primitive kind of innocence, but whatever the case may be, it is a very astute observation.
Lisa A. Flowers