Sunday, 14 October 2012

Channelling Sylvia Plath?

As any fan will know, being an avid reader of Sylvia Plath does not come without a certain social stigma. Janet Badia's excellent book, Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers brilliantly explores how Plath readers are perceived in society and how this translates into a larger question: how women readers in general are considered. Be it moody Julia Stiles in "Ten Things I Hate About You", brandishing The Bell Jar as a symbol of defiance against the dominant girlie trends of High School, or Rory Gilmore bookishly engrossed in The Unabridged Journals, Plath readers are often categorised as - generally female - isolated teens, angry women, and those interested in the "darker" side of life.

This dark perception of Plath and the credibility of women readers in general, adds problems to interpretation of the actual work (something which is inherently riddled with biographic troubles as it is). It is kind of a two-pronged sword because the cultural interest that obscures Plath's work is the same force that arguably keeps her to the fore of our consciousness (Woody Allen references, popping up in Jeopardy, etc). Although they are popular in their own rights, contemporaries like Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich just do not occupy the same important place in the current cultural landscape. Why is this? Why has Plath become such a universal literary symbol? Perhaps there is just something magnetic about her life and legacy that piques interest.

While I do feel very frustrated by Plath's cultural position (since I've started my Ph.D. at least ten people have told me that they have thought about "dressing up" as Plath for Hallowee'n, for example) - I do have to confess that before starting to consider Sylvia Plath in a seriously academic way, I would squeal with excitement when she gained reference on television, radio or in magazines. Lady Gaga singing, "Marilyn, Judy, S-s-s-Sylvia - tell them how you feel girls" at the very commercially popular Brit Awards a few years ago was such a thrill! Other musicians like my beloved Ryan Adams, the Manic Street Preachers etc have all incorporated Plath in their work. Whether it's the case that Plath's work or Plath the person has become a muse for other artists, I do not know. But here in 2012, she is still a hugely significant artistic figure.

With all this in mind, I thought I'd share some pictures of Lana Del Rey from a recent Vogue photoshoot inspired by Sylvia Plath. Entitled "Melancholy Sexuality", Del Rey's style is defined as: "melancholy and wistful, but she apparently appreciated the comparison to Plath. “Thank you to the wonderful women at Vogue,” she tweeted after seeing the cover."

Personally, I think the photographs look great. I can of course see the obvious flaws- the title "melancholy sexuality" has so many problems in relation to Plath. For someone encountering Plath's work for the first time through this shoot, they've already come to the writing with a whole series of preconceived notions of what Plath is all about. On the plus side, what Del Rey, Lady Gaga, the Manic Street Preachers etc do in their Plath-inspired artwork is glorify the individual, applaud those who do their own thing and express themselves to the fullest. There are so many mixed signals - and that's before we even get to the poetry!

I allow myself to enjoy Plath's presence in contemporary culture as long as I view her work in the same kind of way. I try to interpret her poetry, stories and novel in conjunction with modern critical theories and in the freer, more progressive way that women now exist in the 21st Century. Keep a rational mind for the work, but enjoy Plath's popularity with a large pinch of salt!

And I suppose, regardless of the way she is interpreted by others, the fact Plath is being emulated by some of the most popular working artists at the moment is a testament to how brilliant and life-changing her writings are. I think Sylvia Plath would eat ladies like Lana Del Rey and Gaga for breakfast, so it's good that they are paying homage! ;)

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Sylvia Plath Symposium, 2012

This October 24 - 27th will see a major Sylvia Plath Symposium taking place in Indiana University at Bloomington. An official website with comprehensive information on this symposium is located at The event will include talks from Plath experts like Karen V. Kukil, Lynda K. Bundtzen, Janet Badia, Tracy Brain, Heather Clark, Amanda Golden, Peter K. Steinberg, Langdon Hammer, and many other Plath luminaries.

I am beyond excited to have been given funding to attend this Symposium. The range of papers and excellence of speakers makes this event a dream come true for early career Plath researchers like myself. I am also thrilled to be giving a paper at Bloomington as well. If any readers of this blog are coming along to the Symposium, take a look at my abstract and perhaps come and see my paper / or say hello!

I will be tweeting from the conference and taking lots of photographs for future blog posts, but I would urge everyone to follow the Sylvia Plath Info twitter as I'm sure Peter Steinberg will have his finger on the Plath pulse much better than I! :)

The abstract for the paper I will present: SATURDAY OCT 27 WOODBURN HALL Panel 1: 8:30-9:20 am.

“Something in me said, now, you must see this”: reconciling death and “the empty benches of memory” in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Berck-Plage’.

Written in early summer 1962, Sylvia Plath’s longest poem, ‘Berck-Plage’ has mystified critics and admirers alike. The vivid and grotesque descriptions of Berck beach juxtaposed with the sickly slow death of Court Green neighbour Percy Key, has led commentators to define this poem as a confusing confessional piece; entrenched in “funereal doom and gloom,” indicative of Plath’s supposed death/re-birth fascination and rooted in personal fears. This paper aims to challenge such critical perception, and suggest that when a wider frame of textual, historical and philosophical analysis is applied to the poem, ‘Berck-Plage’ reveals Plath’s fascination with larger concepts such as the meaning of death and life after the Second World War.

By primarily considering the relationship between what Plath chooses to say and leave unsaid in ‘Berck-Plage’; my paper will argue that the focal concern of this poem is expression of inexpressible trauma. The pervading memories of mass slaughter that penetrate Berck beach, combined with the individual suffering and death of Percy Key give Plath the opportunity to explore two distinctly different types of death. One in which the speaker is a bystander, unable to process past memories; and another where the speaker is an active, seeing, present participant in a funeral party. My paper will ultimately suggest that it is the recognition and infusion of these two types of death that allow Plath to begin to reconcile the unspeakable events of WW2 and come to a new understanding of personal death in her work.

Taking into consideration different critical opinions, historical documents, philosophies of memory and death: this paper will conclude that ‘Berck-Plage’ does not simply detail Plath’s “morbid nightmares” and obsessions, rather - it is a poem that represents her pioneering, fearless and postmodern engagement with mortality, traumatic world events and her unique understanding of them.