Sylvia Plath Forum

Contributions: July 1998

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 administered by Elaine Connell. Poem Analysis/Discussion

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    Hello, I am presently doing a comparitive study on Birthday Letters and Plath's Collected Poems. If anyone has any ideas or information to share, then I would be very grateful. Please send any thoughts to me. Thank you all for your time.

    Merseyside, England
    28th July 1998

    Stewart Clarke, I think I prefer the bog to this cloud of existential angst that has settled over the Forum. Mr. Jones, I find your last statements to be both disingenuous and fatuous -- you are obviously a reader, and this is an electronic forum -- we are not here on an honorarium from Harvard or Yale -- we are here as readers, and to the extent that all readers are critics, as critics. This site is a tribute to Plath and to literature, not to ourselves and to our words. Give us your "ignorance," if that is what it is, and we will give you ours. Perhaps our shared ignorance will enlighten us. If we have, alas, lost you to the indifferent cosmos, I send you on your way with these lines from Plath's children's story "The Bed Book" (Faber, 1976):

    Melissa Dobson
    Newport RI, USA
    26th July 1998

    Dear Kenneth Jones, I'm sorry you'll be leaving the Forum. There is a unique quality to your postings that reminds me at times of the 19th century aesthetic critic Walter Pater, whose famous prose description of the Mona Lisa was pinpointed by Yeats as the first modern poem. Your friend (inexplicably, I picture him as the vampire Lestat) seems unduly concerned with pedigrees and credentials. Surely your obvious depth and breadth as an avid reader of poetry qualifies you to express your opinions on the subject? Oh well. I hope you'll reconsider, and drop in from time to time.

    Stewart Clarke
    New York, USA
    24th July, 1998

    Dear Mr. Clarke;

    Unfortunately for your request, after my last posting, I had the following colloquy with a friend; I told him about the forum, and showed it him, and asked his opinion; he read with due gravity; then thought a minute. "Very interesting. Tell me; did you ever know Plath?" No. "Hughes?" No. "Are you a poet?" Obviously not; I draw; but next to a real poet, I am just a wordmonger; you know that. "And I take it you are not a critic." Oh, obviously not. "Then--if you don't mind my asking--what is it, exactly, that you find so appealing, about preening your admitted ignorance in front of three continents? And more islands?" No answer immediately presented itself. "Were I you, given the handicaps you describe--were I you, and felt, despite all that, an ungovernable desire to leave *something* of value in this forum--I would limit my leavings to quotations from other writers--real ones--that seem apropos. Doesn't that seem a bit wiser than what you are doing now? I mean, if you really think criticism is folly, why are you indulging in it?" Again, no answer surfaced. "Limit yourself to drawing; you'll feel much better; and happiness is, after all, a virtue of a sort. Oh, and by the way; stay out of Hell; I don't think you're quite ready for the climate--believe me." Well, he does seem--and is--much wiser than I; so I must follow his advice. After all, he reads Plato for pleasure, and I don't--can't, rather; so; ave atque vale; gnothi cayton; hail and farewell.

    Kenneth C. Jones
    San Francisco, USA
    24th July 1998

    Hello everyone, I hope you are enjoying the summer, it's been rather quiet on the forum lately.

    I received an email from someone here in Germany who wants to produce Three Women on stage, possibly together with other poems by Plath and Sexton. He asked me whether I was aware of any other theatre productions of Plath's work but I could only list the ones that are mentioned in Janice Markey's book. Do you know of any recent productions?

    I think Three Women is a piece of work that has been neglected both by critics and readers. What do you think are the reasons for this?

    Regards, Anja

    Anja Beckmann
    Leipzig, Germany
    24th July 1998

    Of course I did not mean that all commentary on poetry is folly; merely my own; well, enkomion moriae. --My own (admittedly little) idea is that any art is a mirror of its creator; including all writing, poetry, commentary, etc....merely that anything that is art is a fused lump of myriads, indissoluble, and that any critic, no matter how wise, will name only the facets that glare most sharply in his own eye--and so relate only a graph of his own mind; what is there may be larger than what he sees, or smaller, but never the same.--and have you ever read a worthy prose description of a masterpiece? Merely that the hallmark of art is precisely that it is a tangle of multiplications, never single-syllabled answers--something that cannot be reduced to its components; that is a reduction, and a lie; always; because art is quicksilver, and catches the fire of the sun as it travels; art does not even mean what it means; it is always somewhere else. --Of course, my own view is that poetry keeps itself alive; commentary on poetry is to poetry what an encyclopedia description is to sunlight. Well, enough obviousness. All of which, you now inform me, was disposed of in a one-sentence epigram, before I was born--Possibly Plath is valuable precisely because she is, as you say, a dangerous and misleading Muse; just like Ikaros, going too near the sun; a fatal example to follow, but while the flight lasted...

    Kenneth C. Jones
    San Francisco, USA
    24th July 1998

    Kenneth Jones, you should know that you are causing quite a stir among the regulars and we all hope you will not make your trips to Hell without sending us regular postings . . . in other words, we hope you stick around! We all rant and rave at each other, but don't let that stop you . ..

    I want to make clear that I'm not attempting to "rebuke" Plath . . . as you say, her poetry will abide (although not if Professor Bloom can help it). My basic position on the forum has always been to continuously argue against both the politicised vision of a feminist Plath and the romanticised vision of Plath that so many of her readers seem to cherish (typified, as Elizabeth Wurtzel points out in her latest tome, "Bitch", by that saccharine, tremulous rose on the cover of "The Bell Jar."). Instead, I argue for the vision of a daemonic Plath, sucking lustily on that hellish taproot, booked for passage on the river Styx. I think that Plath is a dangerous and misleading muse and should be approached with cautious respect, like a sleeping cobra or a bottle of absinthe . . .

    I can't agree with your implication that commentary upon a poet's amoral attributes makes one a moralist . . . not to bring these elements into discussion, in my opinion, is tantamount to a whitewash. Professor Quentin Bell, of course, is attempting an apologia for Pound, whose anti-Semitism and fascist infatuations (among other things) prove so troublesome . . . Plath, fortunately, has no such barbed obstacles to present to the reader, but certainly does pose dilemmas of her own that I don't think are above discussion, debate, and even disapproval -- albeit from the very roomy ash heap, which perhaps is located somewhere adjacent to the vivacious Melissa Dobson's famous bog, where floats the author of "The Hawk in the Rain."

    Kenneth, surely you don't really believe that commentary or discussion of poetry is folly --- it is precisely that which keeps poetry alive, in print, in the classroom, and on the shelves. Of course, one must always keep in mind the words of "the divine Oscar", who, in "The Critic as Artist," gleefully describes Criticism as the noblest form of autobiography.

    Please keep your postings coming!

    Stewart Clarke
    New York, USA
    22nd July, 1998

    Dear Mr. Clarke; thank you for the candor of your reply.

    I must say, any commentary on poetry is folly--I can say this, having committed the folly myself; if it is poetry, it will abide. The commentary will be ash.

    Commenting on Plath is especially foolish, because one is always aware that one is editorializing on a human soul; who has that right? Possibly none. Suffering is eternal; who would rebuke the sufferer? Does rebuke cure suffering? I rather doubt it.

    I was reading Wilfrid Sheed's "The Good Word," and his words in an essay on Pound also might apply here;

    Also, the Irish poet Nuala ni Dhomnaill has some very appropriate comments on the dangers of muse poetry, including Plath, in her interview in the Polygon book "Sleeping With Monsters." Do read that; there are, after all, living female poets, who deserve support, while they do live--one of them has set up this website--and their interviews are there collected.

    Loreena McKennitt has a beautiful setting of a poem by the REAL St. John of the Cross; which is worth more than any words I personally shall ever write...

    Hoping these comments survive editing, I remain, sir.

    Kenneth C. Jones
    San Francisco, USA
    15th July 1998

    Hackers begone!

    Thank you, Kenneth Jones, for your posting of June 23rd --- you burst unexpectedly upon the forum like a latter day St. John of the Cross with your eloquent thoughts upon the dark night of the soul. Plath and Emily Dickinson both wander in that darkness. Dickinson, with transcendental Emerson's help, manages like Persephone to rise from the underworld on occasion to "taste the Spring." Plath, a creature of the existential post-war era of Satre, Camus, and Beckett, has no such faith in "Immortality" at her disposal. While the "good girl" Plath desperately tried to cling to her own humanistic ideals as a means of creating some central meaning for herself, the daemonic Plath, the death-ridden Plath, believed wholly that the universe is godless, fatherless, and in some sense "evil." (Note the instances Hughes cites Plath's use of this word in "Birthday Letters").

    I can think of no other poet who inhabits, so relentlessly, this psychic place as does Plath. She resolutely roams an underworld, a photographic negative, in which Nature itself is blighted and from which there is no exit possible, only surrender. Plath's universe is that of a spiritual black hole, a vast maw into which all light is absorbed. Her only mode of defense is the savage, atropoaic persona of the "Ariel" poems, which ultimately cannot sustain her. In "Words," Plath declares her art, her life's work, to be meaningless, "dry and riderless" horses, while she herself is a pebble ("a white skull") slowly sinking to the bottom of a stagnant pool from which "fixed stars govern a life."

    From this bleak and brutal vision, endorsed with the "seal of approval" of Plath's suicide, what can one do but recoil or surrender? Your image of the Lorelei is appropriate. In Richard Shattuck's recent book "Forbidden Knowledge," he seizes upon Homer's tale of the insatiably curious Ulysses, who, in order to experience the hypnotic beauty of the deadly Sirens' song without the consequences, has himself lashed to the mast of his ship in order to avoid deliriously dashing himself upon the jagged rocks. With images of surreal, sickly beauty and a seductive arm around our shoulders, Plath leads us to a high precipice over a rocky sea and coaxes us to jump. Your remark about Oates' lack of "complete sympathy" with Plath strikes me as rather innocent. Plath asks for complete sympathy, no doubt; should we grant it to her? The reader, I believe, must approach Plath's mature work armed, if not lashed to the mast.

    While I disagree with Oates' central premise (Plath's victimization by patriarchal ideals), I find I agree almost wholeheartedly with her assessment of the poetry itself: Brilliant, but. . . One remark in Oates' essay particularly strikes me: her identification of Plath's "Ariel" persona as a raging "child's voice" that "stir(s) in us memories of our own infantile pasts." I find this to be a haunting insight - Plath was barely thirty years old when she wrote her great poems. The ages of (roughly) 28 to 30 signify the famously difficult astrological transit known as the Saturn Return, classically a period of "transition" from youth to maturity. Challenged during this transit with the typically Saturnian responsibilities (self-chosen) of marriage, motherhood, and making a livelihood, the self-absorbed Plath was not up to the test. I have long theorized that the majority of Plath's devotees come to her in their youth, in high school and college, those years when one is busily and often desperately fashioning an "I." This battle to establishing an identity, a Self, under the threat of chaos and subsumation is Plath's great theme - no wonder so many young readers find a "deep personal connection" with Plath, feel that Plath, in her murderous "child's voice," speaks for them. Or that the women's movement should have rallied misguidedly around Plath as icon. I have found that, now well into my thirties, Plath, while losing none of her artistry or genius, leaves me rather impatient and her nihilistic vision leaves me coldly unfulfilled. I find I turn to other poets who seem to have more to offer in the way of nourishment --- poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, who, though wrestling with her own demons, elected to survive, and was able to notice, in her filthy, oily "Filling Station" that:

    Stewart Clarke
    New York, USA
    14th July, 1998

    Does anyone know how many printings there were of SP's "Bell Jar" under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, besides the first printing and the Contemporary Book Club edition? The reason I ask is because I recently purchased a copy (expensive!) of the first British edition under her pseudonym, and was surprised to see that the dust jacket had a picture of a woman under a bell jar. Does this sound right? Could this be a later printing? It still says published by Heinemann in 1963, but I'm just curious. Please post or email me if you know! Thanks!

    Steve G.
    Urbana, IL, USA
    14th July 1998

    Hello to Ruth in CAmbridge, I am writing my MA dissertation on Birthday Letters. It is due in this September. So I have plenty to talk about if you want to get in touch. I also want to concentrate on Hughes's poetry but I have many other ideas as well.

    Katie Holland
    York, England
    11th July 1998

    I know little about Adrienne Rich, but I was able at the local flea market to get a copy of a 1990 Polygon paperback called "Sleeping With Monsters; Conversations with Scottish and Irish Women Poets," which has this epigraph;

    Kenneth C. Jones
    San Francisco, USA
    11th July 1998

    I am visiting Cambridge, Mass. in about one week and I was wondering what "Plath sights" I could take in. Where is Plath buried? Any information would be appreciated. Thank you very much.

    Julie Meadows
    Tallahassee, USA
    11th July 1998

    Re reviews of "Birthday Letters"; The most useful to-date I've seen are Calvin Bedient's "Minotaur Baby" in "The Nation," 20 Ap. 98, and David Yezzi's "Confessional Poetry and the Artifice of Honesty," "The New Criterion" June 98, which also has William Logan's "Soiled Desires"--but the most apposite is rather slant; Nicholas Shakespeare's memoir of Martha Gellhorn in Granta 62 (Summer 98), where Shakespeare quotes at length the former Mrs. Hemingway's aria on "mythomania"--a useful cadenza to recall when reading, not just Hughes or Plath, but any poet, any writer; anyone, take it to 231, if you're interested.

    Kenneth C. Jones
    San Francisco, USA
    10th July 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.