Wednesday, 29 February 2012

How do we read Sylvia Plath?

Well my resolution to blog every two weeks has well and truly gone out the window! February has been a busy month for me. I’ve started teaching undergrads and begun the task of “really writing” my Ph.D. dissertation. On top of that I’ve been settling into a new life in Belfast which has been lonely at times, but also fun. I’ve attended lots of arts-related events including poetry readings, workshops in the BBC etc, and it really is great to feel like I’m a participating member in the arts community – takes the feelings of isolation away a little!

I would like to write more on my teaching experiences in an upcoming post but thought that this particular update should discuss something many readers and researchers find problematic when working with Sylvia Plath: the biography.

In her blog post, ‘Sylvia Plath: put poetry before biography’, Alex Pryce candidly discusses the problems that come when trying to interpret Plath. Pryce suggests ways readers might try to re-interpret Plath’s work:

“Yet, what has come to define Sylvia Plath in the public imagination, what prompted the 2003 film and countless studies of her poetry and fiction, was her life long struggle with depression and eventual suicide in 1963. Many readers come to Plath thinking of her apparent unhappiness, but to indulge this tendency is to miss out on the rewards of Plath’s literary work. Plath is both great and greatly misunderstood, and now there are attempts being made to salvage her poetry from her biography.”

I think Pryce is quite right here; and anyone how has dipped their toe into the murky waters of Plath biographies will surely agree that “Plath is... greatly misunderstood.” Unlike other major poetic greats, Plath’s work is not afforded distance from her biography. For example, in general terms, ‘Daddy’ is viewed as a poem primarily about Plath’s father and yes, we can throw in Ted Hughes there too. The end. Analysing Plath’s poems in this way is, in my opinion, so small. By rooting poetic interpretation solely in biography, we do Plath and ourselves a disservice.

In reply to Pryce's blog-post, Carl Rollyson (whose eagerly anticipated biography of Plath is due out in 2013 – I for one very much look forward to reading it!) responds that, “the problem is not biography, but how her biography is presented in relation to her poetry.” To this statement, I would tentatively agree – in part! The problems of biography and biographers working with a particular agenda are a serious concern within Plath scholarship. Coupled with the often frustrating attitudes of the Hughes Estate, a certain ‘Plath mystique’ has emerged since her death and have certainly impacted the way the work has been understood.

Perhaps Rollyson is correct and his biography will depict a more rounded version of Plath. But it will be a version nonetheless. And the past biographies and treatment of Plath’s work cannot be undone. Plath’s suicide attempt and death cannot be undone, either. The strange fascination humanity has with suicide diverts attention from the work of writers. We see it with today with David Foster Wallace and the English playwright Sarah Kane. Further back, Anne Sexton interests many because of her demise - even Van Gogh's self-loathing is seen as interesting and attractive. In music, it is much the same - Kurt Cobain's suicide was arguably a chasm of grief that rippled through the 1990s. The fact I am categorising suicides in this manner is symptomatic of how the suicide of the artist can sometimes speak louder than their work. This is the problem with Plath - and the separation of life, death and work is not easy.

In her 1994 Ph.D. thesis, Anna Tripp argues that the ‘Real Plath’ is perhaps an unnecessary “guarantor of meaning” and using biography as a means to analyse artistic output is simplistic and often limiting. Tripp’s argument echoes what Barthes asserts in his critical essay, 'The Death of the Author':

“To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing. This conception perfectly suits criticism, which can then take as its major task the discovery of the Author beneath the work: once the Author is discovered, the text is ‘explained’, the critic has conquered.” (Reference)

With this in mind then, to give Plath's authorship precedence in analysing her work allows us to neatly ‘discover’ a text, ‘explain’ it and move on. Case closed. This isn't enough though, as Tripp and Barthes suggest - biography cannot be the sole method of analysis. I feel that the ‘Death of the Author’ phase is necessary and important to criticism. I think for Sylvia Plath especially, leaving biography in the back seat is a necessary step in opening up her poems, short stories and fiction to greater understanding.

However, Rollyson’s argument that the wrong kinds of biographies have been dictating criticism sticks with me. While I do agree that a measure of distance between Plath as person and Plath as poet is required, to neglect Plath’s biography leaves many questions unanswered. Overlooking clear biographic connections between the self and the work would surely result in gross misinterpretation. That is not to say however, the ‘true meaning’ of Plath’s artistic output rests entirely on her biography. Rather, her work reflects a mixture of personal reflections which are then expanded on and made fictional through creative imagination. Achieving the nuanced balance of understanding the difference between Plath as person and as poet is far from simplistic and requires employment of a variety of different critical perspectives and literary interpretations

In his review of new book, Representing Sylvia Plath, Peter Steinberg comments that:

“With some exceptions, Representing Sylvia Plath seems to consciously avoid an explicit consideration of Plath's biographical representations - of how Plath directly represents her self/life in her creative works- and this omission is a disservice to a writer who was, according to a close contemporary - Ted Hughes - her own best subject” (Reference).

I agree wholeheartedly with Steinberg’s stance here – how can we be good critics and avoid the biography, when Plath used herself (often purposefully, knowing that confessional-styled poetry was en vogue and making money in her contemporary era) repeatedly as a primary subject? I can offer no real solution to this problem, bar explaining how I have come to find my seat within Plath scholarship.

I try to emulate the measured sensibleness of Tracy Brain, whose excellent essay ‘The Problems of Reading Sylvia Plath Biographically’ unpicks many of the interpretive problems readers encounter with Plath’s life story. I also appreciate the belief Pryce, and to a greater extent Tripp have: that of moving away from biography. But at the same time Rollyson’s claim that biography is important and perhaps the wrong kind of biographies have been skewing analysis is a very important one to take on board (I wait in hope for the mythical 100% accurate Plath bio, by the way!).

As a result, in general, my approach is informed by all three arguments. I try to keep a sensible brain, distance myself from biography but at the same time, I cannot disregard it. I recently read a Ph.D. thesis on Lorine Niedecker. It was a wonderfully written piece, with fascinating insights into her poetry. Niedecker’s personal life was thoroughly entwined with the poetry analysis. So, too for writers like W.B. Yeats – the biography informs the work and is relevant in understanding the poetic motivations Yeats had. For instance: aside from the difference in world events and politics, ‘September 1913’ and ‘Easter 1916’ is motivated by the personal response Yeats had to the actions of the members of the Easter Rising. Personally disparaging to them in the former, the latter poem demonstrates his changed personal opinion on the Risers he encountered.

While of course, this change in opinion is not the full picture of the poem, it is an important aspect of it – and the same goes for Plath. Back to ‘Daddy’ – yes, certainly the poem is to do with her father and Ted Hughes – but these are just aspects of what makes up the entire piece. Surely it is arguable that the hangover from WW2 permeates the entire poem, and Plath taps into the sense of displacement perhaps felt by many Germans / people of German ancestry at that time: denial of background, shame, sickening incomprehension (brought on all the more strongly by the nursery-rhyme format of the poem). Such interpretation is miles away from Daddy and Husband issues: but both analyses are valid, and neither give the full picture of the poem.

In her essay, ‘Reading Plath’s Photographs’, Anita Helle quotes an introductory talk by Jacqueline Rose at a Plath reading in New York Public Library:


"Refusing the easy gesture of homage, Rose suggested that the audience... consider what is not pictured in the poems - and the histories, the memories, the silences these create”.

Rose’s insightful suggestion that the audience consider what is said beyond words in Plath’s poems is possibly the most important point of reference for my own study. We can read biographies all day long and squabble over their relevance, accuracy and place within the poems. What interests me the most is the interplay between what Plath says and does not say, why she chooses certain words repeatedly, and why none at all. Visiting Smith and Plath’s archives, I was stunned to see the sheer amount of words and verses removed completely: why? Yes, the words on the page are the most important piece of the puzzle, but in my attempt to discover more about Plath's writings, I will not avoid the often clear biographical connections between Plath as person and Plath as poet.

Perhaps Plath criticism is best summed up by the old saying “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face”, but, I do think that the work being done today is definitely the most experimental, progressive and open-minded phase of Plath study. We are edging ever closer to giving Sylvia Plath the respect she and her writings deserve.