Contributions from 26th March-9th April 1998
Books and Links Poems Poem Analysis/Discussion
It's awfully late in the century to be discussing whether art must be pretty to be life-affirming. Do we lay such a criterion at the feet of Picasso? One way to judge the life-affirmation (if we define this as the extent to which our humanity is nourished) of Plath's artistry is by the number of interpretations, or readings, the poems can viably hold. We have seen how welcoming she is to our prolific grim reaper, as well as to the ministrations of we who would be redeemed by her. She -- art -- admits to no "end"; the life may be fixed but the words are indefatigable. Wallace Stevens gives this voice to poetry: "I am the necessary angel of earth, /since, in my sight, you see the earth again." Your view of it depends on your view of it, no?
Newport RI, USA
9th April 1998
A response to Stewart Clarke's argument: We should first acknowledge that Sylvia's own choices and arrangement of poems for her Ariel collection were life-affirming, ending not upon death but upon the renewal of spring. If we read the poems chronologically into January of 1963, we see Sylvia's speakers pulling and pushing in the old Eros-Thanatos struggle. During January the balance begins to tip toward the death angel, but as late as Friday, 1st February 1963, she ends "Mystic" with "The heart has not stopped."
On the same day, in "Kindness," Sylvia's speaker expounds upon her antagonist, who reminds her (threatens her even), the woman artist, of the claims of motherhood. In the climax of the poem, the speaker exclaims, "The blood jet is poetry,/ There is no stopping it./ You hand me two children, two roses." Both alternatives, motherhood and artistry, have an equal emotional pull upon the speaker.
On the following Monday, however (4th February), "Contusion" announces the surrender: "The heart shuts,/ The sea slides back,/ The Mirrors are sheeted." (CP 271)
Maybe the most accurate view of Sylvia's "death spiral," therefore, is to note first her struggle to keep on living as the woman artist/mother in spite of her depression, but then, in the last week of her life, her yielding at last to the darkness which so many times before had threatened to claim her, with no return. Yes, there is a kind of perfection in such finality -- makes me glad I'm not a perfectionist!
Sharon, Vermont, US
9th April 1998
I would say that, rather than sacrificing on two different altars at once, SP is just using different cuts of meat: the fat smokes and hisses all the same. Believe me, I get no pleasure out of my role as incessant grim reaper, but I cannot see which poem you've listed could possibly be called happy and life-affirming. "Kindness?" Oozes with sarcasm and contempt. "Gigolo?" A vicious and half-envious revenge poem to Hughes. "Child?" A moving elegy by an intensely depressed woman who sees herself a failure as a mother. I see the child subtly under threat.
"Balloons?" When a poet who has spent the last few months depicting herself as a Nazi lampshade suddenly hands us a bunch of cute balloons and babies, we have to ask ourselves, in the words of Dorothy Parker, "What fresh hell is this?" These babies are special. In Plath's poetry, they only show up together in the same room exactly three times: In "Death and Co.," they are wearing "Ionian death gowns," while Death admiringly gives them the once-over, licking his lips in anticipation. In "Edge," one assumes they're wearing their Ionian death gowns once again, since this time they are actually dead (murdered) by "Greek necessity." Perhaps they are wearing their death gowns in "Balloons" as well, but one can't be sure. Regardless, this extremely ironic poem, full of "cute" imagery which it deftly pricks and shatters as easily as one of its balloons, does not deliver good news. It depicts the loss of innocence, the futility of art and fantasy in the face of reality, and foreshadows the writer's suicide -- the balloons, remember, are souls ("soul-ovals"), and from our research we know that red is SP's totem color, representing the life force staving off the death force. Here, the child takes a bite out of SP's soul, and is left with a "red shred." Not only does this conjure up a subtle image of bloodshed, but the poet brilliantly manages, without a single word about it, to vividly evoke the NEXT MOMENT of the poem, an astounding achievement, in which the child, in tears of anguish over the loss of his "funny pink world," clutches that limp red remnant of his mother in a diabolical reversal of the Pieta. That this poem was written concurrently with "Edge" simply confirms, to my mind, this reading. Ending the Collected Poems with "Balloons" rather than "Edge" would perhaps be an even more macabre and unthinkable conclusion to an already harrowing journey.
New York, USA
8th April 1998
Beautful words... Beautiful words... Like her poems, her journals and letters are beautiful words. She wrote the poems which we so love and analyse, and she wrote those journals and letters as well. It's all so beautiful. I think you can't really take any credit away from either her journals or her letters, or her short stories and essays and children's stories. You can't can't can't. Why? It may be fodder to you, but it's the same pen that wrote Sheep in Fog, the same voice that explained Daddy, the same life that today sparks more and more debate as the days run on. it is the same gift horse you look into every time you open Ariel & the same horse you have replied to time and again.
--The writer labors on words to make them perfect, to create sense out of a disorganized, ugly life.-- hence the journals, the letters. Don't you recognise how much of the poems is found in these journals and letters?
5th April 1998
Let me get back to whether Sylvia's last poems predict her suicide or not once more. I looked at the Collected Poems and seemed to notice that for almost every 'suicidal' poem she also wrote one that was happy and affirming life and its beauty. On the same day that Edge was written, she wrote another poem, 'Balloons'. And a few days before she wrote 'Kindness', on the same day as 'Words'. And before that there was 'Gigolo' on the same day as 'Paralytic' and the day before the beautiful 'Child' together with 'Totem'.
She seemed to be sacrificing on two altars at the same time. Ted Hughes wrote in his introduction to CP that he was not sure in which order the poems were written when they had the same date. By deliberately placing 'Edge' as the last poem in her chronologically ordered CP, her poetry for us ends like her life. If he had put 'Balloons' there, the image might have been quite a different one. What do you think?
7th April 1998
Jamie (and, to some extent, the incomprable Melissa, re: your April 5th posting), in separating Plath's writing from her life, I think one misunderstands Plath. As the frightening "Edge" tells us, her writing WAS her life (and vice versa).
As Hughes has stated elsewhere, and I must horribly paraphrase, SP's "true matter" is her own process: her inner mechanism, where her poetry comes from, what the messages are that she receives from her unconscious, why she is haunted by her obsession with death, what she is feeling, who is she, who can she become, should she live, should she die, why, why not? Plath as a poet is interested in Plath, her identity, her inner truth, the hidden meanings, the blueprint of her own labyrinth ("I am a miner"). A Plath poem, in a way few poems equal except the Dickinson's (who also inspires the same kind of biographical analysis of her work), is "true." Distorted, but crackling with a naked voltage of subjective Truth. The poet IS her subject. In a way that very few poets' work does, Plath's poetry (perhaps because it is so cryptically coded, another Dickinsonian trait) positively begs for a cipher. The cipher lies in the "fodder" of her life. The deepest problem with Jacqueline Rose's book, mentioned in other postings, is the fact that she attempts to disengage herself from any attempt to understand Plath's work through biographic means -- what results is an arid wasteland of textual jargon that means nothing when juxtaposed to the ferocious identity of the poet leaping off every page in quotations from letters, journals, stories, poems. Take the Plath out of Plath and you haven't anything left --- or worse, perhaps one is left with a black hole in which to pour oneself! On some level, perhaps one seeks to "know her" in order to contain her, to keep her at bay, the lion tamer wielding his little whip of "fact." Her work, her life, has fangs.
New York, USA
6th April 1998
Does this matter, Pete? Her journals, her letters are all fodder. To be honest they are more a distraction to her work than any kind of illuminating grail. Though she was a 'confessional poet' she wasn't putting her life on paper, she was escaping from it. Anytime you write something down it is a kind of lie. We re-write our lives to make them understandable or escapable. Listen to her interviews. She says before a reading of Daddy this is a poem about a jewish girl who must accept her nazi father. She doesn't say I have a psychological fixation with my father who died when I was young and so I re-married a man just like him to replace him. Why doesn't she just admit it? Because she wasn't writing about him, but her life bleeds through the narrative. That's not to say she didn't know what she was doing or that she didn''t know what she had said afterwards, but that's not what she set out to. Why did she hide her identity with the Bell Jar? She was trying to distance her work from her life. I can't understand all of this-- this digging up bones looking for a scrap of her shirt simply so we can name a color. It's silly. It's not true to what Plath, as poet, wanted. The writer labors on words to make them perfect, to create sense out of a disorganized, ugly life. What would Plath the person say if she was suddenly confronted with the slime her mythic poetry evolved from? This is the reason why she uses so many symbols, mythic elements, like Sexton did with Transformations. They begin on stories already created and find themselves in the lines. But they were always private people. Look at Hughes-- a near recluse. Why not let them have their privacy and graciously take what they've given us-- beautiful words. All of this speculation and fantasy reads like ingracious people looking a gift horse in the mouth.
6th April 1998
If you've read the Ted Hughes poem that starts or has the line "this house has been out at sea all night" I feel you should consider (at least) thinking him one GREAT poet - what other kind of person could write that text ?) Sylvia Plath was a GREAT poet. Does it have to be "either /or " (a lot of us in the west are stymied by this san andres fault line in our thinking). It is debatable whether great artists are also required to be great human beings (in the sense of being virtuous). eg, does it make any difference to Lennon's achievement that he was an "awkward" person?
We should consider ( at least ) disentangling behaviour from the art ( weak word ) they've made .
6th April 1998
Peter, see Plath's journal entry of 27 December 1958 for SP's thoughts on her mother and her writing, interestingly connected here. She attributes her suicidal tendencies to "a transferred murderous impulse from my mother onto myself" (after Freud), and blames this rage on fear of her mother's appropriation of her writing. She devises the solution: "How can I get rid of this depression: by refusing to believe she has any power over me, like the old witches for whom one sets out plates of milk and honey." I think this passage illuminates the relationship between speaker and moon/mother in "The Moon and the Yew Tree."
Newport RI, USA
6th April 1998
I have been doing some thinking on Plath as feminist/feminine. And I come back time and again, to Plath's relationship to her mother. In her Letters and in her Journals, we get a fairly clean cut of how Sylvia felt. In her poems too, who can forget for one moment, Medusa? Is it possible that Sylvia Plath could owe her direction and sense of achievement from her mother? Mrs Plath perservered through much after Otto died, and never remarried. Can't we consider Mrs Plath as a role model for Plath's own strength?
5th April 1998
I think it is Plath's life more than her poems that reveals a "trajectory toward suicide." Suicide was her obsession and alternative throughout her adult life, the quiet crawl space always at the back of her mind, in the basement of her consciousness. In some sense then, her last months and final ending were less a dissolution than a perverse culmination! The poetry shows a contradictory impulse, Eros staring down Thanatos; the language of the Ariel poems, their rhythm, their resonance, their unstoppable blood jet, stands in absolute defiance of dissolution.
Newport RI, USA
5th April 1998
Anja, thank you for your posting. In SP's last work, I see two levels operating at once. The higher level, the conscious, striving toward the rebirth, the rejuvenation, etc., as the "conscious motive" for the poems. This conscious level is an aspect of what I have referred to elsewhere as SP's apotropaion-a Gorgon persona, an attacking persona, with very bold, sharp, clear imagery, or "lines" as an artist might term it, a strong Self, operating as a means to ward off and protect herself from the unconscious force, the death force, at work just as strongly in her poetry, which I see as a dissolving, disintegrating influence on that Self and its defenses. So we have a "conscious" level striving for rebirth, and an "unconscious" level striving for suicide. In charting the creative surge of the Ariel poems from late summer of 1962 to her death in February 1963, I find that soon after her 30th birthday, perhaps even on that birthday (note the neon sign "Suicidal" appearing in "Ariel" --- whereas so many read that poem as a hymn to rebirth, I think in this case rebirth is synonymous with release/death), SP began to allow that "unconscious" level to take control. Her imagery becomes increasingly defeated, morbid, and hallucinatory --- she was writing astounding work, don't get me wrong, and I think this excited her - but my opinion is that as her edges, her sense of Self, dissolved, so, too, did the poet. I believe many of the poems she wrote in the latter period of the Ariel "wave" were cries for help - at least, editors who received them in the post found them so, and were extremely alarmed, as Alvarez relates in "The Savage God." The last handful of pieces she wrote are shockingly naked premonitions of what was to come. Again, as I have stated elsewhere, I see no reason why this should delegitimize her work, her achievement, in the eyes of readers and critics. She is a poet of the unconscious, daimonic, chthonian realm --- she was only doing, as Hughes states in "Birthday Letters" ( I paraphrase), "what poetry told us to do."
New York, USA
4th April 1998
Stewart, thank you for finding something interesting in Rose's book and sharing it with us. I have not had the patience to read more than the introductory chapter of 'The Haunting of Sylvia Plath'.I agree that this concept of 'momism' probably influenced 'Medusa' and Sylvia's thoughts about her mum. The connection between the Yggdrassill myth and 'The Moon and the Yew Tree' is an interesting one, too.
However, I do not agree with your ideas about all art being 'a story of dominance and submission', with dominance seen as male and submission as female, a concept that probably derives from traditional ideas about the relationship between men and women. I don't see myself as a feminist but have to say that I regard such an assertion as sexist, too. The act of lifting a pen to write something down is an act of creativity, which in my eyes is rather something female as women are the ultimate creators through their ability to give birth (as Camille Paglia nicely explains). I am not saying that men can't be creative. obviously they can and have created both beautiful and terrible things. But I strongly disagree with this division into female and male aspects because it reinforces stereotypes and prejudices. There are two opposing forces in almost everything, Marx used this idea in his concept of dialectics and at school (in East Germany years ago) almost everything was explained using this principle, including even chemical reactions. If there is a need to give these two forces names, it doesn't have to be male and female, call it red and green if you wish. (I had to say that even though I am not a big fan of political correctness - something that hasn't really caught on in Europe.) I also want to express my strong disagreement with an earlier post of yours (25th March) stating that Sylvia's Ariel poems reveal her 'clear trajectory towards suicide'. I was surprised no-one (not even Jack) commented on this. For a different perspective on Sylvia's poetry I recommend Janice Markey's book 'Journey into the Red Eye'. Sylvia did not write about death only but those are her most famous poems. Markey brings other aspects of Sylvia's poetry to light and I am very thankful to her for having done that.
love & empathy,
3rd April 1998
Plathologists, the one worthwhile chapter in Janet Rose's book, "The Haunting of Sylvia Plath" focuses on Sylvia's fiction writing and her literary influences, which are very cross-cultural, "high" and "low." Rose's sleuthing uncovers something very interesting: the only work ever cited by name in SP's poetry is Philip Wylie's "Generation of Vipers." Published in 1942, this was a very influential book, a diatribe against the decay of American culture. The most famous apsect of this book was it' introduction of the concept of "Momism:" as Rose puts it, "the image of a deadly middle-class American female who is ultimately responsible for the collapse of the culture, for sapping the manhood of America from within." Rose goes on to offer an example of "Momism" from Wylie's book:
"I give you mom. I give you the destroying mother. I give you her justice --- from which we have never removed the eye bandage. I give you the angel --- and point to the sword in her hand. I give you death --- the hundred million deaths that are muttered under Yggdrasill's ash. I give you Medusa and Stheno and Euryale. I give you the harpies and the witches and the Fates. I give yo the woman in pants, and the new religion: she-popery. I give you Pandora. I give you Proserpine, the Queen of Hell. The five-and-ten-cent-store Lilith, the mother of Cain, the black widow who is poisonous and eats her mate, and I designate at the bottom of your program the grand finale of all the soap operas: the mother of America's Cinderella."
This was obviously a very important text for Plath, and perhaps one source of her "misogynistic" imagery, at least in terms of Aurelia. Here we have the Medusa, the Destroying Mother, and all the daimonic mythic offshoots that Plath, I believe, found to synch nicely with Graves' White Goddess and contributed to her poetic "mythos." Moreover, the poem in which this book is cited by name, "Babysitting" was written only days after "The Moon and the Yew Tree," in which we have, I believe, the first appearance of the Moon, "my mother." See Wylie's line about Yggdrassill, the Norse myth: "the hundred million deaths that are muttered under Yggdrassill's ash." Yggdrassill was a cosmic ash tree upon which Odin, the Father God, was crucified, and whose roots descended into the Underworld. Is it a coincidence that, at the foot of the yew tree in that poem, the grasses are "unloading their griefs?" Or that this ash tree involved a dead Father God?
New York, USA
2nd April 1998
In response to the requests for individual poem analysis/discussion, we are starting a new thread for this purpose. We have posted The Moon and the Yew Tree - Peter Steinberg sent a comment on that poem so it seemed opportune to begin with that one.
31st March 98
the length of the entries to this guestbook borders on insanity. anyway, i'm a plath newcomer, a virgin waiting to be initiated, so to speak. i got a copy of '...selected poems, edited by ted hughes' a few weeks ago and immediately fell in love with plath and everything to do with her. read an article in a sunday magazine and cried my eyes out. anyone wishing to share their thoughts on sp is very welcome to email me. my other favourites are allen ginsberg, jim morrison, maynard james keenan, oscar wilde. put finger to keyboard now!!!
love & empathy,
31st March 1998
Thank you, Elaine, for your lucid posting, and especially for your insistence on defining the term "feminist." I should clarify that my outrage against feminist literary criticism, in general, is certainly not based on any disagreement with "the political, social, and economic equality of women." My hostility is directed against the effort I see in feminist crit (and, for that matter, gay crit or African-American crit and all other crits that approach art from a position of historical victimization) to discredit, discount, and disempower the artistic achievements of Western civilization on the basis of "patriarchy" and, in essence, to deny basic realities of existence. I see all nature, all history, all art, as a story of dominance and submission. The artist who takes brush in hand or the writer who lifts up a pen is embodying a "masculine" principal of dominance over the "feminine"intuitive forces of his/her imagination (we can use yin and yang, Apollonian and Dionysian; I believe these principles are archetypal and accurate). As I understand it, feminist theory seeks to raze such assertions as sexist and "oppressive." Moreover, they would throw out traditional hierarchies, "canons," as "patriarchal," the dubious achievements of dead, white European males. Harold Bloom calls this movement "The School of Resentment."
Following the symbolic constructs of Camille Paglia, I believe I have identified another apotropaion, or gorgoneion: the dense, oxygen-sucking rhetoric of postmodernist feminist lit crit, a style exemplified by Jacqueline Rose in her book "The Haunting of Sylvia Plath." This sterile, soul-killing book, with its serpentine death grip of sexual denial squeezing the lifeblood out of Plath, Hughes, the reader, and the fundamental nature of poetry and art, is Rose's own Medusa-head, worn to ward off, to protect her from, the explosive, daimonic, rapacious blaze of Plath's achievement. One turns each page of Rose's book gasping for air, choking on ash. Like the suffocating, Puritanical stringencies of political correctness and sexual behavior codes, I believe this arid style of postmodern/feminist criticism is intended to ward off the vital sexual undercurrent in art, the forces of dominance/submission, the forces of the chthonian natural world.
I follow Bloom, in his insistence upon tradition, its indebtedness to "the anxiety of influence," his elevation of the great artist's supreme individuality, in his insistence upon the "Sublime" (not the "moral"). I also follow Paglia: art, as I see it, is a battleground where nature (the savage, uncontrollable, fluid realm of sex, instinct, chaos, death and creation, which Paglia idenftifies as "female," much to the chagrin of the majority of American feminists) and the "male" desire for transcendence through order and form intersect in an effort to reach an "orgasmic" sublime. Art is an arena of struggle and psychic violence, and of intercourse between masculine and feminine -- it makes no difference whether the artist is a man or a woman. Art reflects life, nature, even as it attempts to correct it. "Greatness" for an artist means he/she has emerged victorious over another artist -- oppressive, perhaps, but the truth. Western culture is about individuation, self identity. This was Plath's burning concern. She wanted to be "great," not on any other terms but the most exacting.
I have heard many women remark about the "forces" that come between the female artist and her work -- inner limitations based on sex stereotypes, social pressures, family pressures, etc. Obstacles that assert themselves in the female psyche before she can even put pen to paper, attempting to crush her bid for "selfhood." These oppressive psychic forces are attributed by many feminists to "patriarchy." However, I would submit that every artist encounters such forces. The words the oppressive voice uses to cripple the artist may vary between gender; for instance, in an American man's psyche, this inner voice may very well whisper, "That stuff's for girls," or "That's faggot stuff." Overcoming that voice requires a powerful act of will, to enter the arena requires great heroism. One finds this urge to will seething throughout the pages of Plath's journals. The current victim-crit seeks to disempower this arena, to make the arts "safe for women, for gays, for blacks" as if they suffered from some unfair disadvantage. I would submit that the disadvantage is shared by every one, and that the forces against us come from within, in a multiplicity of supremely efficient guises. It is this struggle of will against matter that has brought about Western civilization, with all its glories and discontents.
It is fascinating how all discussion of Plath seems to descend into these familiar trenches. Elaine, I think Christy has hit upon an interesting idea and I would like to second it -- let's sink our teeth into one of the poems. However, I think since this is a Plath Forum, not a Hughes forum, that it might be more appropriate to focus on SP rather than "Birthday Letters." At the risk of providing ready-made essays for these incredibly lazy and ill-bred students from around the world who keep posting their pathetic pleas for help with their schoolwork rather than set foot in a library or read a poem, (pause for breath) how about it? Shall we? What would you think, Elaine, of assigning a poem for analysis and discussion on the Forum?
New York, USA
30th March 1998
Where can I get tapes of Sylvia Plath's readings?
Thank you for your work on this forum, Elaine. I am most appreciative.
Sedalia, MO, USA
30th March 1998
I certainly agree with you, Elaine, that the term 'feminism' has been tossed about in a Humpty-Dumptyish fashion -- in fact, that's why I asserted that whether or not Plath was 'feminist' is a matter of semantics.
One thing that always has always fascinated me about large-scale political/economic change is the extent to which peoples' own material state influences how 'radical' a politcal/economic movement becomes. On the one hand, it's hard to worry about idealogy when one doesn't have enough food on the table. However, it's much easier to mobilize a hungry populance. The tendency, then, in large-scale political/economic changes, then, is a small, relatively well-educated elite, galvanizing a larger, less radical populance.
I'd say that idealogical radicalism is a real luxury not all can afford -- but the daily business of politcal (and economic) change is carried out by those who stand to benefit the most, in a small, day-by-day fashion. I'm not saying one type of 'revolutionary' is better than the other -- any movement needs both. Movements need the dreamers, the people who have their eyes on the big picture; but no less the people who change the world by simply living out their lives and by fighting one small battle at a time.
I've noticed a similar phenomenon in the feminist movement. Those suffering the most dire economic and social hardships are much more pragmatic, than, say, Catherine McKinnon (a US feminist lawyer). Someone like McKinnon can afford to be idealistic -- she's a talented, tenured, powerful lawyer (And somehow she was able to afford law school). I would say that 'hardships' in this context extend to the lack of opportunities for women. When opportunities are abundant, it's much easier to be generous to those with whom you are competing for such chances -- when opportunity is rare, it's only natural to feel some measure of antipathy toward one's competition. Further, it's much easier to be focused on the ideology of the movement when there are opportunities, than when such opportunities don't exist.
Plath, in this context, was understandably somewhat ambivalent (and often outright hostile) to women -- both others and her own femininity. I certainly don't think she's a great feminist prophet, but in a way, her insightful comments about the limits set on her as a female are even more remarkable, as she didn't have the feminist role models that my generation has had. So was she feminist in the sense that my generation usually uses the word? No, absolutely not. So one might say that feminist ideaology was missing in Plath. Yet, there she was, day by day, pragmatically defying stereotypes and working toward a career with precious little encouragement.
Ann Arbor, MI, USA
30th March 1998
When I first became interested in Plath it was because I was directed to her as a "feminist" poet. I actually think the semantics of this debate are quite important Christy, as people freely use the term feminist in a Humpty Dumptyish fashion to mean whatever they want it to mean. So first here's what I mean when I use the word. In addition to advocating the political, social and economic equality of women, a feminist is a woman who locates the source of women's oppression in the patriarchal system for which men are held responsible. A feminist feels anger and defiance against this system and realises the necessity of joining with other women in sisterhood to overcome it. Feminists do not necessarily reject either men or child bearing but wish to abolish the restrictions on self-development which attachment to men and the rearing of children have traditionally entailed.
By selective quotation from Plath one can construct a case for applying the word feminist to Plath's work ("The Bell Jar", "Lady Lazarus" "Fever 102", "Three Women") but one can build an equally valid argument in claiming her for traditional femininity too. I am quite disturbed by the depth of hostility towards other women which I find in her work. ("Lesbos", "Spinster" "Two Sisters of Persephone", "Winter Trees") There's precious little sympathy much less sisterhood for other women which I believe disqualifies her for my definition of a feminist.
She said of herself: "It is my tragedy to have been born a woman." (Letter to Ed. Cohen 1951) I think she might have qualified the statement with, "who came to adulthood in 1950's America." As you so perceptively comment Christy, even the brightest women of that time were channelled towards menial roles because their futures were seen as satellites to powerful men. This social pressure was quite pernicious and Sylvia was very much the social conformist. I think that we can trace this debate between the achieving, non-domestic woman (feminist if you want to call it that) and the traditional feminine female throughout her work. (Indeed, I've devoted a whole book to the subject! Plug, plug!)
The major contemporary feminist dictum that the "personal is political" and therefore worthy of analysis is foreshadowed in Plath and it's hardly surprising that so many women have wanted to claim her for feminism. I think we have to understand the historical context. In the 60's and 70's most of the work literature students studied was by male writers. The discovery of any good woman writer was so rare that she immediately became a female "hero". There was a great temptation to overreact to at last finding a writer with whom one could identify.
These female "heroes" can give validations of our own anxieties and the sense that we are not alone in our feelings. This point is perhaps the crucial factor in understanding the function of women writers for women themselves. Quite often the literary value of a book or its philosophical agenda, becomes secondary in comparison to the value of discovering a writer from whom we are not alienated on the grounds of our sex and what that means for our experience of the world.
Plath's work needs to be interpreted in its historical context and not as if it had been written during the growth of the Women's Movement in the late 60's and 70's. I feel she was an artist working towards defining herself as a woman and developing an authentic, female, poetic voice in a culture which placed the creative woman in a contradictory position. She is trying in a desperately lonely and individualistic manner to transcend all those forces trying to reclaim her for traditional femininity which possibly held as many attractions for her as the "sweet God" of artistic creation did. However, that "box" unfortunately proved to be far from "temporary". As Joyce Carol Oates writes: "Between the archetypes of jealous, ruthless power, represented by the Father/Son of religious and social tradition, and the archetypes of moronic fleshly beauty.... there is very small space for the creative intellect, for the employment and expansion of a consciousness that tries to transcend such limits."
30th March 98
I've seen people bash Hughes. I've seen people bemoaning the bashing of Hughes. I've seen a lot of posts that assert that certain strains of discussion are off limits; that others are the appropriate focus of a group such as this. BUT, I've seen very precious little about BL or Plath's work.
I'm interested in what you all have to say about the poetry! I know there are people out there with interesting insights and I know that there are interesting discussions and debates just waiting to happen. Does anyone have anything to say about "Daffodils"? "Robbing Myself"? Jack? Elaine? Stewart? Other silent readers?
I'm happy to just babble about the poetry to myself, but there are some really knowledgeable people out there (and I don't include myself in that group). Does anyone want to tackle one of the poems from BL?
Now I'm going to give my opinion on Plath and feminism. Plath was clearly pre-feminist. However, we do know for sure that she greatly admired Woolf, and whole parts of _The Bell Jar_ are devoted to the discussion of female roles. My mother was at Smith at around the same time Plath was there -- and was sent to secretarial school upon graduation so that if anything should happen to her husband, she'd have a way to support herself! The worst part is that this waste of female talent was pretty common practice back then -- even the brightest women in the country weren't spared. Plath certainly was not willing to let her intellect fall to the way- side -- and in that sense she was a precursor to later feminist thinking. However, her misogyny oozes through many of her poems (I don't think this is just defensible, it seems self- evident to me -- cf. "Lesbos", among others).
In other words:
1) One does not have to be a touchy-feely, women-loving, earth-mother to be feminist in the sense that one calls a a spade a spade and an injustice an injustice. And *many* women, even self-proclaimed feminists, feel a measure of ambivalence with regard to other women. I can speculate on why I believe this to be the case on request, but for the sake of brevity, I'm going to just assert it here.
2) The word "feminist" means a lot of different things. But for someone who lived before the feminist movement took hold, Plath was surprisingly in tune with issues that were later an important part of the feminist movement.
3) Plath was familiar with (and an admirer of) work that can really only be called feminist (e.g. Woolf's work).
It's pretty easy to see why some people call Plath a 'feminist' and others not. In my opinion, whether Plath was a feminist or not is really a matter of semantics.
Ann Arbor, MI, USA
30th March 1998
Hello All. Many of the books and articles about Plath/Hughes mention that Plath's headstone has been repeatedly defaced (Hughes' name has been chipped off) and that "women" have interrupted Hughes' poetry readings and shouted him down. I am looking for whatever concrete information I can find about these women. Does anyone know anything about them/her? For example, when is the first time this happened? Around what year would you say the "Plath Cult" arose? Are they an organized group? Different young women who are replaced by others over time? A single obsessed person?
My apologies if this had been discussed previously in the forum. I would greatly appreciate any answers or clues you might have. If possible, could you send them to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org? Thanks so much.
Austin, TX, USA
29th March 1998
I am reminded of last week's Academy Awards, when Samuel L. Jackson walked out to present an Oscar, and the audience camera zoomed in on . . . Spike Lee and Denzel Washington, obviously the only two people, being black and being men and being actors themselves, who could appreciate the moment. The lines we continue to draw around race and gender are sometimes (and I emphasize "sometimes") indicative of nothing but cultural inanition. It is ironic that some of the best published commentary on Plath (and in this Forum) has come from men. Stewart Clarke, in addition to many penetrating insights, recently gave us the notion of Plath's misogyny -- an interesting and defensible idea, even though it's one that I do not personally hold (I would say it's a misreading of Plath's obsession with the corruptibility of the flesh -- that explicitly cross-gender thing). Of course we bring our genders with us as readers, but literature, if it's worth anything at all, makes us mindful of larger constructs. There is an essay on The Bell Jar by Robert Scholes, who says that Plath makes "sexual differentiation . . . a metaphor for human incompletion." This is the crux of Plath, I think, and it's dissolved in, subsumed by, her larger, all-inclusive theme of transcendence.
Newport RI, USA
29th March 1998
Can I offer this poem as a contribution to the Forum?
27th March 1998
In Rough Magic, by Paul Alexander, in the last chapter, A Posthumous Life, it is revealed something that has been neglected to mentioned here about the US publication of The Bell Jar. TH and Mrs Plath (AP, from here on out) struck a deal. This was how it went... Hughes wanted to publish The Bell Jar, as did Knopf and Harper & Row. H&R gave Hughes an incredible offer, something like 15% royalties on the hardback, and 100% on the paperback, plus a $750 advance, equal to what he received for Ariel. He couldn't pass this up, but AP stood in the way, thinking it would hurt her, Dick Norton and 'Joan Gilling,' amongst others.
AP had mentioned to TH previously about publishing SP's Letters Home, and then a deal was made. TH could sell The Bell Jar to H&R and AP could publish her LH. Three years later, after the Bell Jar had been published, LH, severely edited by TH & Olwyn Hughes came out. The deal complete.
In the chapter, by the way, there is NO mention of Hughes wanting the money for Court Green, the house in Devon, though it is, I think, basic commone knowledge that he did buy the house around that period, as mentioned before.
How ya like them apples?
28th March 1998
Notice to Ted-bashers: you been there, done that. Enough already! As Melissa says, let the anger subside and our intellectual celebration continue on the high level that we have so often seen on these Forum pages.
Sharon, Vermont, US
27th March 1998
Brava, Melissa Dobson. You've hit the nail on the head regarding the pointless debate over the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. In my attempt to understand the nature of this intense phenomenon, I come up with perhaps one or two contributing factors. The deep response Plath's work arouses in many of her readers (especially her younger readers) creates a strange (I think disproportionate) sense of "connection" or self-identification between poet and audience. I can think of few writers who have inspired similarly intense reaction. J. D. Salinger, perhaps (who's self-imposed exile can certainly be seen on some level as a tragic "death"), certainly the Romantics in their day. Such intense devotion occurs more frequently at the feet of some great and tragic Hollywood star. I have jokingly called Plath the Judy Garland of Literature, referring to the gay cult which surrounded Garland in the fifties and sixties and which our Amazon CP compares with ancient ! worship of the Mother Goddess, with its transvestism and orgiastic rites. The Goddess' transvestite/eunuch priests attempted to "become" Her in a form of shamanism. The chtonian forces Plath unleashes in her admirers inspire, I think, a similar form of worship (many is the time I have heard, for example, someone claim they believed themselves to be the reincarnation of Sylvia Plath! By last report, SP seems to be living in New Jersey and thanks us all for our attention). Surely, Plath's adoption as an icon of feminist rage, at its peak during the beginning of the movement in the early 1970s and continuing unabated, could be compared with ancient pagan worship as well - I think of a mob of frenzied Maenads ripping Ted Hughes to bits in an orgy of sparagmos. Plath's unlikely role as feminist saint, given her obvious misogyny and fierce competition for primacy over female peers and forebearers (as Bloom says of Dickinson, she is not interested in joining her sisters in t! he construction of a literary "quilt," the current dubious goal of our politically correct caregivers), can be explained partly by this primal connection ("she speaks for all women" a sentiment which should leave any self-respecting male readers feeling intolerably left out) as well as by the naive and willful interpretation of her suicide as the blood sacrifice of an innocent virgin, a sort of pagan Pieta, at the hands of bloodthirsty patriarchy and its diabolical high priest, Ted Hughes. Couple this powderkeg with the profitable Plath industry helmed by unscrupulous biographers fanning the flames of anti-Hughes hysteria and the disintegration of academic study of the arts into politically correct gender studies, gay studies, etc, (an environment wherein a Maya Angelou can achieve the status of a Homer) and Plath the artist is sadly forgotten. Surely she would have shrieked at her marginalization as a "feminist poet." She aspired to so much more.
New York, USA
27th March 1998
Though I am certainly not surprised to come across it here, the anger toward Ted Hughes (and the patent dismissal of Birthday Letters as a "self-justification") expressed by several Forum contributors is puzzling to me, as it has been whenever I've encountered this sentiment in my fifteen years or so as a Plath reader. The reaction is, on the surface perhaps, a feminist response; but surface realities must be challenged. Are we, in seeing Hughes as the "cause" of SP's psychic (mythic) distress and suicide -- and accusing him of refusing to be "accountable" now -- not allocating to him her essential power, her will, her "art"? Are we not attributing the genesis (the genius) of Ariel to Hughes? Hughes's influence on Plath, both as a woman and as a poet, was certainly profound, but did she not, as an individual and an artist, amount to more than the sum of her influences -- Otto, Aurelia, Warren, Ted, Nick, Frieda, Assia, Yeats, the moon, the yew tree? What is an artist but a meaning maker? An articulator of universal truths? Isn't this the only basis on which we should judge Plath (on which she would have us judge her), and for that matter, Hughes? Can we really, as readers, as beneficiaries of art, of literature, condemn the situations, the context, out of which an artist created art? Is it a meaningful pursuit? Are we really that shocked that an artist (poor vulnerable creature that she was NOT) was "mistreated" by men/women/children/nature/life/God? Isn't this the very fact that draws us to her work? I, as a reader of Plath, as a beneficiary of her artistic vision, choose not to ascribe her subject, her passion, her rage, her language, her will, her art, to anyone but herself.
Newport RI, USA
27th March 1998
Sometime in 1962, Anne Sexton went on a radio show and said this...'You don't write for an *audience*, you write for some *one* who'll understand.'
This is taken from Diane Middlebrook's biography, recommended to me by Jack Folsom. Sexton and Plath found their voices at nearly the same time, though living in different countries. These two sisters, I'll call them, were really onto something when Plath died. Sexton had the advantage to live another decade plus a year. She was able to feel where the Feminist Movement was going and able to react to it, whereas, Plath's only response was through TH and the publication of Winter Trees, Crossing the Water, etc....
In another sense, maybe related, Hughes has had the advantage now of living through three more decades, able to follow every shiver of poetry, through wars and cries and threats and peace talks, the rise of Eastern European Poetry, and the decline, maybe, of British Poetry (though NOT IRISH). This I think is crucial to we, the contibuters to the Forum.
Plath's poems, as stated and not stated by many of us on this Forum, touch us. In every way they fill our daily lives, dreams, and our own poems. We've sent this link to friends and our friends have responded and we have made friends. I know I go back and forth between hating Hughes and maybe praising him, and this is because I am still learning to read him and I am always reading the Ariel poems for new thoughts and inspirations. So this Forum has been the jump start that I needed into my own re-discovery of Poetry, of a Muse, and of a life.
26th March 1998
In response to Nancy's question re: Paul Alexander's book... (Hi yourself, Nancy! ). I remember reading the abortion story, and just find it completely unbelievable. Not because I think it's impossible that she ever got pregnant accidentally, but, for the reason Nancy brought up -- why on earth wouldn't she just make up an excuse for the trans-Atlantic crossing and drop in on some friends and family? In fact, being away from the States for a year would have been excuse enough. She probably could even have gotten money from her mother for the trip under those circumstances. Has anyone out there ever read the original joural entries from that period? Doesn't seem likely that she'd keep the trip (even if she kept the abortion itself) from its pages. As for her 'mysterious' friend... it just seems so implausible. Given stories like that, I can see why Plath family and friends hate it every time a new biographer starts writing a book.
26th March 1998
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This forum is administered by Elaine Connell, author of Sylvia Plath: Killing The Angel In The House who lives in Hebden Bridge, near where Sylvia Plath is buried and where Ted Hughes was born. Web Design by Pennine Pens. This forum is moderated - contributions which are inappropriate, anonymous or likely to offend may be edited or omitted.