Thursday, 31 March 2011

Book Review: The Other Sylvia Plath

There are so many books out there on Sylvia Plath, each with their own story to tell and their own agenda to put forward. It's fair to say that for even a hardened Sylvia Plath fan, the quest to read a factual, interesting and informative book on her life and work is a veritable minefield!

If you have followed this blog for a while, you'll know that I have very strong opinions regarding Plath and the critical work surrounding her. For my PhD, I aim to draw focus away from the famous life-story and concentrate on the literature: what the words on the page are actually saying. So much interpretation of Plath's poetry is rooted in her biography, I believe a lot of texts are deeply reductive and rather insulting not only to Plath's intelligence, but to readers also! Main offenders for me would be David Holbrook (who uses his book, "Poetry and Existence" as a thinly veiled attempt at diagnosing Plath. His findings? She was a schizoid. End of story.) and Anne Stevenson, author of "Bitter Fame", the notoriously bitchy Plath biography. My view on Plath's criticism would go so far as to tell any reader wanting to embark on secondary reading about Plath - ignore ALL biographies!!! They only cause harm and leave the spectre of Plath's life hanging over the work.

"There is much unkindness, not to mention little value and reliability, in using poetry and fiction as evidence for Plath’s supposed anger towards her husband or parents… or, at the opposite extreme, as proof of her presumed victimhood. To treat Plath’s writing in this way is to belittle her work, for the implication of such an exercise is that Sylvia Plath was too unimaginative to make anything up, or too self-obsessed to consider anything of larger historical or cultural importance".

The previous quote is taken from Dr Tracy Brain's excellent "The Other Sylvia Plath". Published in 2001, I believe that this book and Tim Kendall's "Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study" (also published in 2001) were the main instigators in setting a new trend for Plath analysis. I have chosen to review "The Other Sylvia Plath" because I believe, firstly, it appeals to a mass-market of readers. The style of language used throughout is friendly and explanatory, without being patronising. Brain speaks in plain terms, and is both serious and happily animated - illustrating her genuine love and interest for the work of Plath.

The main chapters of the book look at a variety of different issues which are in no way pre-determined by biographical fact. Brain analyses the power of book covers in 'Packaging Sylvia Plath' and discusses whether we as readers are influenced by Plath's image appearing on her book covers. If you think about it, Brain makes a very interesting point. How many W.B. Yeats volumes of poetry show his face on the cover? Are scenes of nature, fairies, Byzantine artwork not more common? What does the image of the pretty girl (as on the cover of "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams") say to the reader?

Brain comments here not on Plath as person, but Plath as a woman. The photo on the cover of JP&TBOD was taken during Plath's 'platinum summer' where she swam, sunbathed, dated and larked around. The image on the cover of the book re-inforces this. Even without the background biographical knowledge, the image on the cover forces a certain type of analysis. The point Dr Brain makes here is fresh, new and interesting. Raising questions about the place of women in literature in the world today. Are women still so connected to being just that - women - that their writing cannot be read without their photograph attached? And once determined as "women's writing", how does this change the perspective of us, as readers? Also, why aren't men subjected to the same kind of treatment? These issues raised are very important to note!

The trend of uncovering new themes of discussion continues throughout the whole book. Brain devotes time to looking at Plath's American and English lives in a chapter entitled 'Straddling the Atlantic', as well as analysing an entirely new mode of thought regarding Plath's poetry - her environmentalism. Complete with rare images of girlhood collages archived in the Lily Library; a brand new insight to Plath's motivation is evident. Time is given to "The Bell Jar" also: with Brain employing original theories Gilbert and Gubar stated in their "Madwoman in the Attic" collection of essays: the links between Plath and the Bronte sisters. Brain looks at Sylvia's personal copy of "Villette" and suggests elements of the story that interested Plath (as Plath herself had highlighted passages and annotated her book).

Perhaps most interesting is the final chapter where Dr Brain looks to the future. She analyses the closeness of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes's writing - noting that many poems held at Smith College written by Plath were, in fact, etched on the flip-side of paper Hughes wrote his poems on. Brain terms this as "bleeding through the page", and by doing so, opens up a new method of thought regarding Hughes and Plath. Not as lovers, married couple, enemies. But as two writers, inherently linked with each other; so much so that the ink between their poems intertwine through thin paper pages. It is an inspiring statement and one very important to hold onto when trying to establish serious Plath criticism.

In her conclusion, Brain hopes for the future and her Plath-fan emerges when she excitedly speculates that Plath's final diaries, the mythical maroon-backed ledgers that Hughes confessed to burning, may in fact be stored in his locked trunk at Emory University. As speculatative as this is, Brain instills an optimism in her reader and reminds us that the literature of Sylvia Plath is very much alive and only now are more accurate and less biography-driven interpretations of the work beginning to emerge.

"The Other Sylvia Plath" is a fascinating read. Prior to starting my PhD I devoured it as a fan and now, as a scholar, it has become more useful to me than I could ever have imagined. I would recommend it to even the casual fan.

Click the link to purchase "The Other Sylvia Plath".

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Jamaica Plain perfection!

Sylvia Plath's poetry is littered with references to the sea and the ocean. She begins the short story "Ocean 1212-W" (from Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams) with the following: "My childhood landscape was not land but the end of the land - the cold, salt, running hills of the Atlantic. I sometimes think my vision of the sea is the clearest thing I own". It was a source of constant fascination for her. A lot of these imageries of the sea tie in with Plath's deceased father and her recollections of him. Plath finishes that same short story stating "And this is how it stiffens, my vision of that seaside childhood. My father died, we moved inland. Whereupon those nine first years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle - beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth".

Plath used her poetry as a mechanism to try and resolve feelings about her dead father a great deal. The famous 'Daddy' being the landmark piece. I am currently looking at her 'Daddy Issues' for a presentation I'm giving this coming Thursday. I am a member of a Psychoanalytical Research Group at University, so am giving my presentation in accordance with a psychoanalytical analysis of Plath's work. Personally I am not a huge fan of psychoanalysis - particularly when it comes to looking at poetry and literature. And especially in the case of Plath. All too often critics take the 'easy way out' attributing Plath's work as Freudian and no more. They take a 2D approach to 'Daddy' and simply put the entire poem down to father / daughter issues, with some Ted Hughes angst thrown in for good measure. They look at 'Daddy' and adopt a Ronseal Wood ("it does what it says on the tin") attitude. In my opinion, 'Daddy' is a complex poem which of course, deals with father issues but also the place of the literature, people and the world in the aftermath of post-WW2 events, as well as many other themes. Psychoanalysis to me, is mere speculation and I would definitely not base any literary analysis on it alone. Although I do admit, it's important to take into consideration. So - as the resident cynic of my research group, I hope to give two sides in my presentation: the benefits and dangers of psychoanalysis.

While looking at texts relating to Plath and her father, I realised how much "Ocean 1212-W" struck me. The image of Plath's childhood like a ship in a bottle - something that she could merely look back on, but never again feel or relate to. It made me think of Jamaica Plain, where Sylvia grew up. I became curious to see what it looked like and found a wonderful flickr image pool of the area in Massachusetts. Here are some of my favourite images of the area Sylvia Plath lived and spent the first years of her life.

View from a bedroom window.
Perhaps Sylvia herself sat at such a window, looking out at sunset, thinking and dreaming.

A typical house lining the streets of Jamaica Plain.

Personally, I think that Jamaica Plain looks absolutely beautiful. I have always been fascinated with New England landscapes. From the Robert Frost descriptions of lonely wintry woods, to Sylvia's childhood idyll. I think that whole area of the US must be a joy to live in - especially in "leaf season".

Things in the world of my PhD have been very hectic. I've been re-drafting a chapter, preparing for my presentation and writing an article I hope to submit to an online Plath journal. Better to be busy than not though! I turned 26 yesterday and spent the day working on my presentation which was a bit of a downer.. However, once I fulfil my academic deadlines I have a few fun things lined up. My best friend bought me tickets to see my favourite musician in the world, Ryan Adams. The space in my heart that Sylvia does not occupy is filled by Ryan! The concert is in June and I am literally counting the days!! It's great to have such things to look forward to: they make the quiet and lonely times a lot more bearable:)

I'll update later in the week reporting on the success of failure of my presentation!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The "substanceless blue" time of day

It's safe to say I have definitely entered another level of commitment to my PhD. It's becoming an obsession. I find myself getting up early, not exactly the very early "substanceless blue" pre-dawn in which Plath wrote many of her 'Ariel' poems, but around 7 / 8am I will pour my first cup of tea and settle down to my humming laptop in the early morning silence. Sometimes I find I can get more productive work done between 8 - 11am than an entire evening. The mornings are the freshest time for the brain, I'm sure of it.

I'm currently re-drafting my first chapter. The initial draft took a large hit of criticism which I think was linked to my "blue"-ness of a different and more depressing kind last week! It's difficult not to take criticism personally, for comments to swirl around the brain echoing sentiments of "you're not good enough". Thankfully I've broken through that barrier and the words have started to flow again.

What I've found about PhD study is that it's a very personal process where 'barriers' are constantly shifting and self-belief is hard to maintain. I hope my endeavours this time around will be much better received.

Procrastination, however, is still a vital part of study. While on Google Maps, I realised that Street View had come to North Tawton and I was able to virtually walk up and down the street of the small town and stop outside Court Green! I'm currently applying to lots of funding bodies to try and get over to Smith College to look at the Plath archives this summer but if things don't work out, a trip to North Tawton is definitely something I would love to do. It would be so wonderful to actually visit (rather than virtually view) the place that inspired Plath so much.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Poem of the Day: The Thin People

They are always with us, the thin people
Meager of dimension as the gray people

On a movie-screen. They
Are unreal, we say:

It was only in a movie, it was only
In a war making evil headlines when we

Were small that they famished and
Grew so lean and would not round

Out their stalky limbs again though peace
Plumped the bellies of the mice

Under the meanest table.
It was during the long hunger-battle

They found their talent to persevere
In thinness, to come, later,

Into our bad dreams, their menace
Not guns, not abuses,

But a thin silence.
Wrapped in flea-ridded donkey skins,

Empty of complaint, forever
Drinking vinegar from tin cups: they wore

The insufferable nimbus of the lot-drawn
Scapegoat. But so thin,

So weedy a race could not remain in dreams,
Could not remain outlandish victims

In the contracted country of the head
Any more than the old woman in her mud hut could

Keep from cutting fat meat
Out of the side of the generous moon when it

Set foot nightly in her yard
Until her knife had pared

The moon to a rind of little light.
Now the thin people do not obliterate

Themselves as the dawn
Grayness blues, reddens, and the outline

Of the world comes clear and fills with color.
They persist in the sunlit room: the wallpaper

Frieze of cabbage-roses and cornflowers pales
Under their thin-lipped smiles,

Their withering kingship.
How they prop each other up!

We own no wilderness rich and deep enough
For stronghold against their stiff

Battalions. See, how the tree boles flatten
And lose their good browns

If the thin people simply stand in the forest,
Making the world go thin as a wasp's nest

And grayer; not even moving their bones.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Sylvia Plath: The Spoken Word

Ellie Russell from the British Library sent me a CD copy of Sylvia Plath: The Spoken Word a few weeks ago. I put it in my ipod and have been taking long beach walks listening to the poetry and interviews on the CD.

Although in previous entries I talked about my dislike for Sylvia Plath's reading voice, in actuality, this CD really gives a better feel for her voice. The reading of 'Parliament Hill Fields' and 'The Stones' particularly sound so luscious.

The collection of poems included on the CD range from work published in 'The Colossus' to 'Ariel', so it really covers a lot, and it definitely gives food for thought regarding the evolution of themes Plath focused on with her work. If we listen to 'Introduction to Stones', Plath talks about the speaker in the poem being re-born and becoming complete - topics that the 'Ariel' poems deal with repeatedly. I'm very interested in looking at themes and subjects that Plath held onto and revisited throughout her poetic lifetime, the ideas that "hooked" onto her, to use the Plathian phrase!

This CD is very much "of it's time" as well, with the following quote illustrating how few women actually imprinted on the literary circles of 1950s US/UK - so much so that this realisation didn't even impact upon the organiser until Plath was put on the bill!

"It's a pleasure to present a woman poet; we have such a predominantly masculine week here, a fact that really didnt strike me until the programming was complete. What that shows about my taste I don't know, but I'm very glad we have at any rate one very fine woman poet this evening, Miss Sylvia Plath".

A further sign of the times is apparent when Plath discusses poetic movements of the time - with reference particularly to Robert Lowell (recorded on 10th January, 1963). Lowell taught creative writing in Boston and Sylvia Plath (along with Anne Sexton) attended his courses. Lowell's poetry is considered to be one of the major examples of 'Confessional' style poetry, something which was very much en-vogue in Plath's time. He really was a brilliant poet (and a huge influence on Sylvia), one of my favourites; so I feel I must suggest my favourite poem of his, 'For the Union Dead'.

The Spoken Word CD is really great to listen to because of the 'placing' of Plath in her era and with her contemporaries (be they Lowell or indeed Hughes who joins Plath in an interview and records/introduces 'Pike'); and also by allowing us to listen to Sylvia read her work, the poems and Plath herself become alive.

To hear which words Plath accentuates, how fast she reads certain lines and the way her accent pronounces the vocabulary give additional layers of enjoyment and understanding to the work. The Spoken Word CD really is such a treat to listen to.

As well as that the inlay of CD features an Introduction by Peter Steinberg from Sylvia Plath Info so you know that there's an expert at the helm!;) If you do feel like purchasing this CD, Peter reminded me that there are some special discount codes - you can receive 10% off if you quote:

PLATH: Order through University of Chicago Press.
BLPLATHBLOG: Order through British Library.

The Spoken Word CD really is a great collection of some of Plath's best poems, as well as an insight into her life and even her humour. A casual Plath-fan would enjoy listening to this selection, so I would definitely recommend it:)

Wednesday, 9 March 2011


Apologies for my bloggy-absence, I suppose it's fair to say I've been having a few down days in relation to the PhD. These feelings are, of course, the nature of the beast. If you google "PhD and loneliness", hundreds of news articles, blogs and the like appear. I'm not lonely for company persay, but I think this quote sums up my problem quite well:

"Postgraduate study can be very isolating, says Dr Janet Metcalfe, the director of the UK Grad programme, an association dedicated to giving graduates help and support throughout their degree. "By its definition a PhD is supposed to be an original piece of research; yours and yours alone," she says. "So if you are writing about medical practices described in 14th-century English literature, you could easily go all day in the library archives without seeing anyone at all" (The Independent).

Having submitted a chapter draft last week, I am now correcting, re-structuring and trying to shape my vocabulary into something more sophisticated. I find my problem is on a base level: trying to figure out the structure of the thesis, what the first chapter should outline, for example.

I am a perfectionist. I started this PhD with the aim to be the best I could be, allowing myself to embrace that inner obsessive:) But it isn't possible that I'll hand in my first draft and have it magically approved with a pat on the back. It's just my personality to focus on the negative rather than positive. This mood will change soon I am sure! :)

In terms of Plath news, just one of interest recently. The Guardian had a good article "Can fiction give life to childbirth?" which features an analysis of 'Morning Song' which I don't really agree with, but it's an interesting read nonetheless.