Welcome to the Sylvia Plath Forum which began on 20th January 1998 following the surprise publication of Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters. The forum is moderated and maintained by Elaine Connell. Poem Analysis/Discussion

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    Just a little response to Stewart Clarke's reading of reading Plath's later poetry as based upon an opposition between self and life. I've been thinking lately about the self of Plath's writing as based upon a tension between certain things, rather than in terms of a strict dichotomy. Maybe it's more helpful to avoid "either/or" styles of thinking--either she lived or she was her self--and instead look at the tension, or push and pull, between things. As in the line, 'The blood jet is poetry,/ There is no stopping it': it is a movement both towards life (pumping the blood around the body) and away from it (as in slashed wrists, blood pumping out). In her work is quite a complex vision involving attractions to both life and death, so that reading it as life affirming or negating are both possibilities, yet are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive. Also, I'm unsure about reading the very last poems as a creative act affirming the self. Isn't she most passive and fatalistic here, accepting that her fate is in those 'fixed stars/ [that] Govern a life'? She has no control, but can only accept as 'The doom mark/ Crawls down the wall'. These are just some suggestions.

    Adelaide, Australia
    30th September 1998

    I think that those who read Plath's late poetry as "life-affirming" are simply misreading energy for an alleged joie de vivre. On the contrary, Plath's undeniable vitality, her genius and wit, is harnessed to a philosophic stance similar to that of Milton's Satan - absolute negation. I again must return to my favorite analogy for Plath's poetry: a photographic negative. In the eerie blue light of the Plathian universe, inversion is the rule, or, as Hughes puts it in "Birthday Letters," right is wrong, wrong right. Her verse testifies over and over again that life, to this poet, is a torment, a nightmarish death-in-life. Virtually the only positive, affirming act in her poetry (aside from the birth of her children, which she views throughout the poetry with a barely disguised ambivalence) is her relentless pursuit of her own death, her ideal "Birthday Present." For her, suicide is a creative act, an affirmation of self. I must stress: of Self, not Life. In Plath's work, the Self is set in opposition to Life.

    It is poignant to examine Plath's notations in the margins of her copy of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," found on the Links page. Here, our true American poet of Eros is summarily dismissed by our true American poet of Thanatos with a caustic "No doubter, he!" Whitman, with his expansive, messianic spirit, is completely alien to Plath. She clinically labels him "Optomist (sic)," rather like a lepidopterist pinning up an exotic species of butterfly. An abyss stretches between the two poets over which even language cannot serve as a bridge. It is tempting to look at Plath's poetry as a rebuttal to Whitman's, a negation point by point, an apologia to the poet who sees "the suicide sprawl(ed) on the bloody floor . . . " but who "doesn't understand."

    I know of no poets categorized as "life-affirming" whose name causes a perceptible shudder in the room. Plath thrills in a way similar to that of a exceedingly good ghost story. She causes a delectable freeze in the blood. And in many ways, Plath's story is a ghost story - a haunting. Suicide, blood, the blue light, bats and owls, hooks . . . this is the stuff her poetry is made of. If a brush with death makes one feel more alive, then perhaps it that dangerous glimpse into the black, experienced by her readers, which makes Plath's work legitimately life-affirming.

    Stewart Clarke
    September 29, 1998

    For Alex and other UK/European readers new to Plath, I recommend Janice Markey's "A Journey into the Red Eye: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath - a critique" (London: The Women's Press, 1993) -- in addition to Elaine's book, of course!

    And, as I've said often before, I side with Peter Steinberg in emphasizing the life-affirming aspect of much of Plath's later poetry -- the "Bee" poems, for example.

    Jack Folsom
    Sharon, Vermont, US
    September 24, 1998

    The page is great, I love all her work and wish I could get more visual stuff on her. If anyone has any ideas please email me.

    Denver, USA
    24th September 1998

    Every once and a while, you read something here or there that sets you off. I'm currently browsing a lot of the webpages out there on Plath. And, to my astonishment, there are several which consider Plath's poetry as the voice of death itself, not seeing the life and energy that flows throughout the Poems.

    Take the Colossus, and its' measured, careful (nearly dead) lines. They show promise, but then move to Crossing the Water, Ariel, Winter Trees, and you begin to hear hooves galloping, the typwriter typing... And if you read the Poems well'll hear that beat of her heart, the "I am. I am. I am."

    Let's celebrate her genius & wit and not be 'folded / As petals of a rose" in a locked world, where her poetry is the door to something dark and dangerous.

    Peter Walker of NZ, your poem flows so well, really a great, careful and tender meditation on Plath.

    Peter Steinberg
    Alexandria, Virginia, USA
    22nd September 1998

    Hi! I`m working my way through `the collected poems`, and i was wondering if theres a biography, or analysis of her life/work, which would give me some perspective on her poetry. I`m a big fan, but i still know very little about her (for example, how much of the bell jar is autobiographical). I`d appreciate it if anyone reading this could suggest any books they recommend. Feel free to email me. Thanks.

    London, UK
    22nd September 1998

    21st September:
    New contribution from Peter Walker
    to the Poems Inspired By Sylvia Page

    I am interested in reader response, mythic, and archetypal theory. Currently, I am tracing the reader response to Plath since her death. Who reads Plath and why? I am trying to locate the patterns of response to her poetry and fiction. I would appreciate any comments to this inquiry, especially from Elaine and Stuart, as I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts/ideas/comments throughout the summer. Oh yes, any responses to Plath with regard to myth would also be of interest to me. Thanks.

    Molly Brainard
    Edmond, Oklahoma, USA
    19th September 1998

    I would like a .jpg photo of SP. I can't find one. Can you help, Please?

    Peter Walker
    Christchurch, New Zealand
    19th September 1998

    It is an old dream of a friend of mine - a brazilian actress - to perform Plath's The Bell Jar on the theatre. I'd appreciate very much if anyone could tell me: 1. Was The Bell Jar ever performed in the theatre before? 2. To whom she should get in touch with in order to get the rights to put together the play?

    Thank you very much,

    Claudio Galperin
    Sao Paulo, Brazil
    19th September 1998

    I just finished the Bell Jar and while a senior in HIgh school enrolled in Psychology and sociology, I want to learn more about Slyvia, I want to know exactly everything. Unfortunately , our media center only carried The Bell Jar. And I want more. How exactly did she kill herself? What was she thinking about then? About her kids? what of them? In the first chapter of The Bell Jar, Esther tears off a green plastic bird from a case she was given as a gift by some coorporation in New York while modeling and writing there. She gives it to the baby to play with, Who's baby? Why did she use a pen name in Europe, but her real name in the states, when it was the states she wanted her name protected from? Someone please write me and let me in on all this knowledge you have of her. What is Sylvia Plath all about, I am definitely interested. I want to study her. I am experiementing myself with sleep deprivation. Esther went 21 days, I want to try. I want to record everything that happens to me pyschologically. Maybe I'm crazy... we'll see.

    Adrian, USA
    15th September 1998

    There is a young woman who has an eerie resemblance to Sylvia Plath. She is an alternative singer named Liz Phair. There was a picture of her in Time or Newsweek a few weeks ago...she was wearing a 'little black dress'...and she is 31 years old.

    I hope you don't mind I posted this...after all, who else am I gonna tell?

    Susan Rossbach
    12th September 1998

    Looking for obituary notices for Plath from British or international newspapers/magazine archives.

    Anything to go on? Thx

    Alex Went
    Shrewsbury, UK
    11th September1998

    I am looking, with little success, for any thoughts, insights, critical analysis of Medallion. Is this a comment on the MacCarthy Witchhunts or something more personal? Any contributions most welcome.

    Roz Trudgon
    Birmingham, England
    6th September 1998

    Does anyone have any thoeries on Plath's relationship with her father and how it affected her relationship with Hughes? I've noticed that in both Birthday Letters by Hughes and in Plath's Collected Poems, the two poets seek to make a connection between Hughes and Otto Plath (through bee-keeping imagery, and through references to specific events in their lives). Why? What purpose does it serve? How does it complicate their poetry and their relationship? Any thoughts?

    Santa Cruz, CA, USA
    5th September1998

    I recently came upon a cassette recording of old BBC interviews with Sylvia Plath, as well as commentary by her mother, Wilbury Crockett, Al Alverez, Clarissa Roche, Dido Merwin and one female critic whom I can't seem to identify. If anyone out there can tell me who this mystery voice belongs to,i would like to know. Of course the cassette arrived (via with no names or attributions at all.

    While i'm at it...there is a moment where Dido Merwin (while trumpeting Ted Hughes' devotion to Plath) either begins laughing, or begins coughing, i can't discern which.

    Seattle, USA
    29th August 1998

    Skeptics, go ahead and scoff! I'm with you, Suzanne. Daemonic Scorpio Sylvia Plath's birth chart is a treasure trove indeed, revealing a portrait much in keeping with that presented in Stevenson's "Bitter Fame" --- a seething mass of violent contradictions. Her chart presents a vision of Plath as a complex, gifted, volatile woman whose slave-driving, obsessive desire for personal acclaim was in tortured conflict with a deep wish to dissolve into an impersonal, mystical sea of imagination and "spiritual" transcendence; and whose desire to live a free and unconventional life (sexually and otherwise) was at war with an equally powerful need for marriage, children, domesticity, and conformity.

    At the time of her suicide, Plath was caught in an astrological pressure cooker. She was deep in the throes of the oft-traumatic Saturn Return, forcing her to reevaluate her life choices and activating her ego-crippling Sun/Saturn Square; liberating Uranus and infernal Pluto were both travelling through her house of marriage, bringing obsession, jealousy, separation and possible divorce; while lucky Jupiter was crossing her rising sign and making his way through her house of self-identity as she wrote "the poems of (her) life" and had her first novel set for publication. With 20/20 hindsight, one can see that this combination of forces might ultimately have led to a dazzling new life for Plath; however, finding herself hurled onto an emotional rollercoaster, Plath seems to have swerved off the tracks completely.

    I think it would be fascinating to read an in-depth astrological analysis of her life and work. Debbie Kempton-Smith, where are you when we need you?

    Stewart Clarke
    26th August 1998

    The wonderful excerpt from 'The Bed Book' made me think of this: Has anyone else come upon 'The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit,' another book Sylvia Plath wrote for children that was published in the late 1990s? I was astounded to come across a copy in a bookstore in Walt Disney World -- of all places -- a few years back. I've never seen it anywhere else. It seems to follow Plath's usual regimented style of writing prose but contains jewels here and there that could be of interest to other Plath fans and critics.

    Though her body of work in this area is small, does anyone out there have any opinions about Sylvia Plath as a writer for children? Much as I've argued for recognizing a lighter side of Plath, I don't think her personal demons would have allowed her much success in the field -- no more than they would allow her to write palatable women's fiction for popular magazines. But it occurs to me that she might have found a voice not unlike Maurice Sendak's in showcasing the jollities of darker subjects. Thoughts?

    Falls Church, Virginia, USA
    24th August 1998

    I am looking for any information on Sylvia Plath's "The Arrival of The Bee Box". Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    Sydney, Australia
    24th August 1998

    The critic Dave Smith wrote...'She can't be explained away. Maybe we feel if we can't explain her we can't explain ourselves.' On another plain, the poet Philip Larkin has said this about Plath's poems, "How valuable they are depends on how highly we rank the expression of experience with which we can in no sense identify, and from which we can only turn with shock and sorrow." I found recently these passages in a book, "Sylvia Plath: The Poetics of Beekeeping." It's a critical study on the bee in Plath. A very interesting page or so is given to the relationship between Plath and Dorothy Krook, he Cambridge Philospphy instructor and supervisor. They spent hours and days discussing Plato and his 'Ion' passage. This is where Plato compares the poet to the bee. This is critical as it gave Plath another link to her Daddy, another method of getting back to him/at him. The bee symbolizes 'writing, productivity and male authority over creative resources.' I think this explains a lot and at the same time, might allow one to identify more closely Plath and her bees.

    Peter Steinberg
    Alexandria, Virginia, USA
    24th August 1998

    I think Stewart Clarke is right about Plath's relationship to Hughes being the stuff of literary legend, so that it will never be totally forgotten. It is a pity her work--and his--will not be allowed to stand on its own merits, but I confess to enjoying a bit of literary gossip as much as the next person!

    Has anyone here ever done a birth chart for Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes? Plath and Hughes were both interested in astrology. I'm not a professional astrologer--I do not even have faith in astrology as more than a form of fanciful play--but I did some amateur birth charts based on birth information available in the biographies. I spent a fun couple of hours doing the charts and rereading Hughes' poem about the St. Botolph's party. Plath had some interesting things going on in her chart, particularly in the eighth and the tenth houses.

    Someone before mentioned the astrological event known as the Saturn Return in relation to Plath. A curious coincidence with re to poetry and the Saturn return is that Anne Sexton did not start writing until a month after her 28th birthday.

    As to Sexton's poem "My Friend, My Friend", I do not know why it was excluded from her Complete Poems. It was included in her Selected Poems, in a special section at the beginning, labelled "Early Poems." Perhaps it remained uncollected at the time of the Complete Poems? Or perhaps the editor only intended to publish the poems dating from To Bedlam And Partway Back and later?

    August 20, 1998

    Shortly after Birthday Letters came out, I heard someone saying that none of the poems had ever been published before. But that was untrue, as I distinctly recall seeing "You Hated Spain" in his Selected Poems 1957-1981. That book was published in 1982, and the positioning of "You Hated Spain" suggests it was written in the 1970s, between Crow and Cave Birds.

    August 20, 1998

    I am in the midst of collecting source material for my thesis on the relationship between Plath and Hughes' poetry, and I would be incredibly greatful if anyone could help my pick my way through the vast piles of criticism that has been amassed on these two poet/celebrities. I've noticed that there are other students in a similar position, and I would be glad to work cooperatively if that is of interest. For the most part, I'm looking for constructive guidance-- I'm still formulating my theories and doing catch-up reading to familiarize myself with the scene. Are there any willing tutors out there?

    Santa Cruz, CA, USA
    16th August 1998

    Melissa Dobson, forget Anne Sexton's "My Friend, My Friend." I think, examining your excerpt below from Plath's "The Bed Book," that this little nursery rhyme may be just as significant a key to "Daddy," dontchoo? Or is it all just gobbledygoo?

    Bouncing into the blue, ach, du. Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You ---

    Toodleoo! (Achoo!)

    Stewart Clarke
    14th August 1998

    Without getting into another Hughes/Plath debate, I would like to observe one of the most poignant elements of the Plath "legend" or "myth." In "Birthday Letters," Hughes, perhaps wryly, observes that the planets married them, and certainly they are fated to remain so forever in the imagination of their readers. I remember a moment in the heated NPR interview with Eavan Boland regarding "Ariel" (in honor of National Poetry Month) when the poet remarked (I paraphrase) that she believed a time would come when the particulars of Plath's biography would recede into the background and simply the text would remain. I, for one, doubt this will ever come to pass. Plath's marriage, separation, and suicide are the stuff of literary legend, like Byron's notorious affairs, Coleridge's person from Porlock, Yeats' membership in the Order of the Golden Dawn, Dylan Thomas' fateful beers at the White Horse Tavern. Even if, as the sublime Melissa Dobson suggests, Hughes' substantial body of work will be "consigned to the bog," his "Birthday Letters" will live on as a crucial satellite (like a pilot fish moored to a great white shark) in the Plathian "canon." Like a character out of Poe or Emily Bronte (or yes, even like the Ancient Mariner), the aging Hughes has indeed lived for thirty years married to a dead girl, under the dark cloud of a curse from beyond the grave. Their marriage will endure forever. Call it self-serving or not, Hughes the poet has ensured that his side of the story will not be forgotten.

    Stewart Clarke
    12th August 1998

    I simply cannot get myself to approach Birthday Letters in any other way than psychobiographically. Whether you see Hughes as a Romantic Ancient Mariner or a timid Prufrock who finally dared eat a peach but lived to regret it, Birthday Letters, at least to me, spells psychic regurgitation. And that is not a very deep place. On the other hand, I think Plath comes from a deeper place than where he seems to make her come from: Sylvia as damaged goods, a victim of Mummy-Daddy and, he, poor hubby, becomes a long-suffering victim in the process, instead of peacefully fishing off the coast of Australia. Undoubtedly, there are some intense moments (many of them, as a matter of fact) as in any tragic story. However, there is too much harking back to reductive interpretations which, ironically, he himself found to be so belittling in Plath criticism. If Birthday Letters is a tribute to Sylvia,as many reviewers claim, it can only lie in the fact that he recycles her metaphors. And that is an implicit tribute to her poetic genius.

    Sylvia Mikkelsen
    8270 Hoejbjerg (Aarhus), Denmark
    11th August 1998

    Dear Sylvia (shudders of delight as I type the name):

    Surely you are a disciple of Camille Paglia! Your thesis description sounds absolutely compelling, and both the Belle of Newport, Melissa Dobson, and I have certainly been thinking along similar lines.

    I urge you to take a second look at "Birthday Letters." I have gone on and on in earlier postings (no longer accessible, thankfully, to three continents. And more islands.) about the daemonic Romantic strain underneath the confessional surface of "Birthday Letters." (Hughes as passive Romantic heroine, a latter-day Ancient Mariner -- Plath as chthonic female nature, as daemonic oracle, etc.) I find "Birthday Letters" a flawed masterpiece with immensely powerful moments, particularly the poems dealing with the pre-"Ariel" period. Approached as confessional poetry, I would say your remarks about "Birthday Letters" apply, but I think Hughes is coming from a much deeper place.

    Stewart Clarke
    New York, USA
    6th August 1998

    I have written my master's thesis on "The Aesthetics of Masculinity in the Works of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath: A Comparative Study" (submitted last January, Department of English, Aarhus University) in which I argued that both Dickinson and Plath were, first and foremost, artists and, as such, they were uniquely endowed with a transsexual imagination that could operate freely across the genders. I account for the contradictions and ambiguities in their works in terms of a dialectic between their "masculine mind" (or Apollonian artist-self) and their female (earthy) nature. Now, Ted Hughes in his poem "Visit" (Birthday Letters" writes : "Nor did I know I was being auditioned/For the male lead in your drama" And so he was. She elected him as her "perfect male counterpart" and by doing so she thought she could release and redeem the female within her because Plath desperately needed to feel feminine. However, as I argued, her masculine artist-self was a crucial aspect of her self-image. It finally rebelled against its immersion in the messiness of ordinary life. Ultimately what she had hoped could become the perfect union between herself as Mother Earth and Hughes as the Apollonian poet, turned out to be a clash between two Apollonian forces.

    I am very interested in some feedback on Hughes's Birthday Letters. I wonder if some readers have felt a sense of unease at some of his poems which I would (at the cost of seeming reductive) paraphrase as follows: Plath was a despairingly depressed, pathetic American who, with African thick-lipped ghoulishness "blackly yawned him into its otherworld interior". I personally think (and I am not a feminist) that her unique mind-set and her genius scared him and still haunts him.

    Sylvia Mikkelsen
    8270 Hoejbjerg (Aarhus), Denmark
    6th August 1998

    Who's Barry Kyle? Barry Kyle wrote something called 'Sylvia Plath: A Dramatic Portrait.' It is conceived and adapted from her writing. It was first published by Faber & Faber in 1976 and reprinted once in 1977.

    It was presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in October 1973 at The Place (in Stratford-upon-Avon?). The production actually moved on to New York...dates are not given in my book here....

    Yes, I have the book. I paid 10 USD for it from a guy in NYC. There are internet book searches out there to find this, though this is the only copy I've ever seen or heard of...

    The note on the book says this....'The text of this 'dramatized setting' was compiled as a companion piece to Three Women, Sylvia Plath's play about childbirth.'

    This play has three voices, and it takes quotes from Plath's poems, journals, letters, novel and from, among others, The Savage God, by the delightful A Alvarez. It's interesting to say the least, but not very deep. It's clever as it strings these voices along by quoting poems and there progression...just as Plath wrote them...

    If I can offer any more help, please ask.

    Peter Steinberg
    Alexandria, Virginia, USA
    6th August 1998

    I actually thought that Mr. Kenneth C. Jones was just making fun, I didn't think he was serious. But as he hasn't been seen or heard again here, maybe he was??? Elaine, if you could find out about Three Women on BBC, I would be really really interested in obtaining a copy of that production. I also don't have the recordings Sylvia made around 1962, I haven't been able to locate them anywhere. Does anyone of you have this tape and can I talk you into copying it for me?? Cheers, Anja

    Anja Beckmann
    Leipzig, Germany
    5th August 1998

    I was interested to see Anja's comments and questions about "Three Women" on 24th July as I've often wondered myself about why it has received so little critical attention. Janice Markey in "A Journey Into The Red Eye" writes about it quite extensively as I do myself in my book on Plath. I think it's an important text as it explores Plath's feelings about motherhood and children more fully than elsewhere.

    I think the work is an attempt to generalise about motherhood as it is not autobiographical, although Plath may well have drawn upon her own experiences of temporary infertility, birth and miscarriage. The characters aren't named individuals, but rather representative of roles for women in society: Wife, Girl, Secretary. Thus their experiences can be considered as typical, rather than individual. The whole thrust of the play seems to provide a vivid, feministic illustration of the fact that there is no satisfactory fulfilment of motherhood in our culture. The Wife is fulfilled biologically at the expense of her ability to think. The Secretary thinks too much and can only "create corpses", while the Girl, in order to retain her intellect, must repudiate her child.

    I believe that it was recorded for BBC radio around 1962 but don't know if it was ever broadcast. I may well write to the BBC asking if they've tapes available of it. I don't know if it's been performed elsewhere.

    Elaine Connell
    Hebden Bridge, UK
    Tuesday, August 4, 1998

    Sivvy is now a bona fide Olympian! Later this year, Random House's Everyman Library will install Plath in its pantheon -- "The Bell Jar" will be released in its handsome hardback Contemporary Classics series (thus ranking Sivvy's prose alongside Bellow, Rushdie, Marquez, Heller, and other modern luminaries), and a selection of Plath's verse will be published in its Pocket Poets series (thus, she might be gratified to know, Sivvy will be included with her beloved Auden as one of the very very few modern poets to be deemed worthy by Random House to "pocketize" alongside Whitman, Dickinson, Blake, Colderidge, Byron, Keats, and the like.) 1998 is certainly the year of Sylvia! You go, girl!

    Stewart Clarke
    New York, USA
    Tuesday, August 4, 1998

    I am looking for any information on .S.P.'s poem, "STILLBORN". Any help would be highly appreciated.

    Boksburg, South Africa
    Tuesday, August 4, 1998

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    This forum is administered by Elaine Connell, author of Sylvia Plath: Killing The Angel In The House - second edition with new preface just out, December 1998. Elaine 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.