Thursday, 22 November 2012

Sylvia Plath Symposium, 2012.

This time last month, I was en route to Bloomington, Indiana to attend the Sylvia Plath Symposium 2012. It was a fantastic three days of all things Plath. I stayed in the US to sightsee in Chicago and since returning home have been swamped with work, so apologies for taking so long to post about the conference! It truly was a great experience, and so wonderful to meet revered Plath critics, poets and internet-friends who have now become real life-friends! This post will briefly detail my paper presentation and experience of Sylvia Plath 2012. Next week I aim to post a little more on the various panels I attended and talks listened to, which include:
  • Linda Gates and her memories of Al Alvarez, Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill,
  • Janet Badia on Ms. Magazine's contribution to Plath fame,
  • Peter Steinberg on Plath and The New Yorker,
  • Tracy Brain on medicine and the medical world in the October poems,
  • Karen V. Kukil on the Plath archives at Smith and Plath's archival references to 'Fever 103',
  • Heather Clark and Anita Helle on Otto Plath's FBI files.
It really was a wonderful experience to go to a Plath conference and I was so privileged to receive funding to participate in the event. Being among such inspirational individuals has really served to inspire my own work and highlights the importance of attending conferences - to feel part of a community of sorts. Coming away from the Plath Symposium, I really feel that Sylvia Plath studies is one of the most vibrant fields in English Literature, and also that there is much scope for further study in this area.

I presented my paper on 'Berck-Plage' on the final morning of the Symposium. It was very nerve-wracking to present in front of Plath experts because the paper was based on my Ph.D. methodology, and I knew that if comments were poor, it did not bode well for my thesis! I proposed that by using silence (more specifically, what Plath reveals and does not reveal) as a lens to interpret 'Berck-Plage', a new interpretation can be uncovered - one which sees the poem as more concerned with attempting to understand trauma and reconciling different kinds of death, than Plath's overarching fears of mental hospital imagery and medicalization. 

I hope to publish this paper in the next issue of Plath Profiles, but I basically argue that standing on Berck beach, less than two decades after WW2 (where Berck was a key position in Rommel's Atlantikwall), Sylvia Plath must have been concerned about the legacy of war, and the mass death experienced on French beaches. The noises, descriptions, "long hiss of distress" and dehumanization of the poem points to something greater than what Ted Hughes defines as Plath's "nightmares stepped into the real world" (i.e. the presence of a mental hospital on the periphery). My slideshow provides images of German and Allied warfare on Berck beach and shows some of the theories I engage with in order to justify reading between the lines of the piece. I then go on to argue that by witnessing the individual death of Court Green neighbour, Percy Key, Plath is able to begin to reconcile mass death in context with individual death - and a death that she is part of (member of the funeral cortège, etc). Finally, citing Tim Kendall, I argue that Plath resembles poets like Seamus Heaney because she uses alternate routes to deal with trauma.

Very grateful to Peter Steinberg of Sylvia Plath Info for taking this picture of me presenting at the Symposium!
My talk was followed by a wonderful poetry reading by Christine Walde, whose collection, The Black Car explores Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath's cross-country trip through America, specifically their stay in Canada. Christine's poetry was fascinating, as she interwines un-remembered memories of Plath and Hughes with bigger questions of self, mythologies and histories. I think it's fascinating that Christine has focused on Plath and Hughes's trip - something which is very much overlooked in biographies, critical writing (except the "bear" incident of course!!) - and when you think of the beautiful poems Plath wrote in response to her travels ('Two Campers in Cloud Country', 'Sleep in the Mojave Desert'), as well as Hughes's 'Grand Canyon' and 'Karlsbad Caverns' from Birthday Letters; this time period seems to have very much inspired both poets.

Christine was kind enough to give me a limited edition copy of her collection, and I have been really moved by her work. She has a beautiful speaking voice and creates a magical atmosphere when reading her work. I would urge everyone with an interest in Plath to check her out!

Bloomington itself was a beautiful town. Very different to Northampton (where Smith is located), but it has a relaxed "collegey" feel to it which was very enjoyable. We had a delicious conference dinner at The Runcible Spoon and a few glasses of lovely wine to celebrate the finish of the Plath event. Sometimes I had to pinch myself, enjoying the company of such wonderfully intelligent people, discussing the fascinating work of Sylvia Plath, art, politics and life in general. I am so grateful to have had the experience of attending the Symposium and enjoying the wonderful hospitality of Indiana University at Bloomington.

Looking forward to updating about the other brilliant talks very soon, but for now I'm signing off. This coming weekend I am presenting a paper on Sylvia Plath and Edna O'Brien at University College Cork. Information about the Sibéal Annual conference can be found here - including a brief timetable and description of my talk. This paper is my first comparative study between Plath and a female Irish writer, but I do feel that there is much to explore between Plath and Ireland, in general. Hoping the paper will be received positively and that this will encourage me to keep the Plath / Ireland interest alive in my mind!


Zoë said...

You're an inspiration to me Maeve! I wish I could see you speak in Cork, but alas, money issues :( Your methodology fascinates me.

The Plath Diaries said...

That's a shame Zoe, but I totally understand. Doing the whole thing on a serious shoe-string and hoping there won't be too much drunken debauchery in a Cork hostel in November!!

Thanks for the vote of intrigue re: my methodology. Sometimes I feel it's such a slippery concept, it's difficult to phrase properly. But as we've discussed, from critics like Elaine Showalter and Betty Friedan right up to theorists like Susan Sontag, Maurice Blanchot and even Jacques Derrida - silence is an important and fluid part of text. Kristeva writes about how unspeakability finds representation - and then of course, there's the argument that suicide, "the ultimate silence" can be viewed as an artistic response. I don't believe that and will argue against Plath's suicide being artistic or symptomatic of "going too far and not being able to get back", but the theory is there.

Just a matter of syncing it all together as coherently as I can! Much easier to write about this as a comment than in thesis-mode!

Peter K Steinberg said...

A wonderful post, Maeve! I was so happy to see you tackle this poem which has received much less critical attention than it deserves. The lens through which you look at "Berck-Plage" completely opened the poem to me in news ways. Very excellent work!

For a detailed look at Plath and Hughes' cross country trip in summer 1959, please see David Trinidad's inspiring "On the Road with Sylvia and Ted: Plath and Hughes's 1959 Trip" from Plath Profiles 4. Quite a different approach to the journey than Christine Walde's poetry, admittedly! But I see reading Walde and Trinidad in tandem as being a benefit. The biographies do tend to ignore this trip, and I think what Trinidad has done is exposed a flaw in biography: space. Narrative, also, suffers in biography, but I think the timeline structure in David's essay works brilliantly to draw out many previously ignored details.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thank you for this, Maeve. I somehow missed your presentation (I think I was giving mine then) but in viewing your slides I see that we are definitely on the same track with the war imagery. I get so frustrated that people only want to view Plath as autobiography, when she has clearly built so many layers in. The details are screaming out in obviousness if we just learn a bit of history, right?

I love that "Remembering the Unremembered" part. It feels to me like Jung's Collective Unconscious.

Good luck in Cork! Wish I could be there!

Rehan said...

I am always dismayed at some Plathians when they do not know the work of Hughes at all. They are both so intricately linked that anyone who is serious about either of them should really spend time with the other. So I'm really glad you mention Birthday Letters here at just the moment I began thinking of those poems! I look forward to your next report on some of the talks/papers which I rely on. Really wish I could go to this one day but I'd really be an alien in 'These hot-house groves of Academe and talk':

the Life-in-Death, an antevasin
'When the tongues of flame are in-folded'
The fire and the rose are in symbiosis as one

Anonymous said...

You met Linda G, then? I spent some time with her when I was masquerading as a Plathite at the Rothermere in the summer. She is fabulous!