May 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


Plathophilia: Rereading Sylvia

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
- Lady Lazarus, 1962

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
- Daddy, 1962

I am still raw.
I say I may be back.
You know what lies are for.

Even in your Zen heaven we shan’t meet.
- Lesbos, 1962

There were two kinds of ancient Celtic poets: bards, who learned songs and stories and recited them, minstrel-style, and filid. The fili were visionary poet-magicians. Like bards, they memorized ancient stories and lore, and wrote eulogies and satires. A bard’s satire was just a poem, but a filis satire was both poetry and magic. It was a curse, and if a poet sang a satire about you, it would hurt you or sicken you. It was no small thing to anger, betray or disrespect a poet.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was the premier satirist of postwar American girlhood, but that isn’t the only reason her work is so great. She was a lyric poet, unafraid of verse and the beauty, power and menace it can convey. We’re unlucky enough to live in an era when “no rhyming poetry” is a submission guideline for any number of bloodless literary journals, as if Plath and Eliot and Brodsky never existed. There’s a link between rhythm and power in poetry, and Sylvia Plath’s creepy nursery rhyme rhythms and refrains stay with you, viscerally, emotionally, like a comfortless lullaby in a frightening childhood.

There are stereotypes about Sylvia Plath fangirls -- that we’re mired in middle-class existential woe. That we wear black and chain smoke Gitanes and have eating disorders and skulk around in dark corners, nursing our Electra complexes for our suburban dads. Mostly, that we are teenagers, and that we write unforgivably bad teenage poetry.

My Sylvia Plath obsession started because, as a ten-year-old rummaging around the public library in search of “grown-up” books, I read some of her poems and got a strange rush of vertigo, and I wanted to feel that again. I spent the next decade religiously exploring the intrigues and biography wars that bubbled around in the wake of her thirty-year life. Everyone knows about Sylvia Plath’s suicide, and how her husband, Ted Hughes, cheated on her with their friend Assia and then abandoned her. Many people now know, too, that Hughes burned some of Plath’s journals, that he had a daughter with Assia, and that Assia, too, committed suicide, killing herself and their four-year-old daughter, Shura. When I was sixteen, I lived near the Fitzroy Road apartment where Yeats once lived, and where Plath had gassed herself. By the time I first read The Bell Jar at eighteen, I was already beginning to burn out on Plath-lore -- the whole thing seemed sour and depressing. I barely skimmed Ted Hughes’s volume of poetry about his relationship with Plath (Birthday Letters), or his tribute to Assia and Shura (Crow). I didn’t watch the movie Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and her mom, Blythe Danner, when it came out in 2003.

But Sylvia Plath has subtly, secretly, even, stayed a big part of my life. Sometimes when I walk down the street, her poems run through my head like rock songs. (Especially sections from “The Arrival of the Bee Box” or “Lesbos” -- Viciousness in the kitchen/ the potatoes hiss/ it is all Hollywood, windowless …I should sit on a rock off Cornwall and comb my hair./ I should wear tiger pants, I should have an affair./ We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,/ Me and you.) On my birthdays for the past couple of years, I’ve looked in the mirror and thought about how I’ve outlived her. Like so many girl poets, I thought I would be famous, and I thought I would be dead, and here I am, none of those things. Plath, at twenty-one, once referred to herself as a “minor poetess,” but she was being coy. She knew she would be famous, especially if she could displace her main rival, Adrienne Rich. And she knew she would be dead. She was sour, depressing, grasping, ambitious, demanding, hungry, and so, so angry. She understood what poetry can mean in the world, but that didn’t stop her from imploding.

Even as a teenage Plathophile, I knew I was a cliché. Yes, I wore black and (briefly) chain-smoked. I thought I was a gifted poet. (Not thought. Knew.) I was angry and disdainful and (in turns) theatrical and withdrawn. I was painfully girly, with a pile of hand-drawn paper dolls in storage and boxes of diaries under the bed. May 2, 1991 includes notes on Turgenev’s Bazarov, the lyrics to Sweet Jane, a rant about America (spelled with a K), and comments on my life: “Lunch. I choose to sit alone by myself in a corner. Don’t know why. Other people come up and attempt to transport me.” “Weird party. Went to someone’s house after school and did exceedingly strange things. Carnaby Street first, tried on black vinyl lingerie.” “He didn’t speak to me again!!! He hasn’t spoken to me all week. I need him. AAAAH. I feel like I have a chance with ANYONE but him, anyone at all, but I want HIM.”    

One theory of poltergeists -- a theory that Plath surely would’ve liked -- has it that some teenage girls are overflowing with so much repressed fury and unexpressed sexual energy that they cause supernatural phenomena -- chairs flying across the room, strange spontaneous bleeding. Plath, like the fili, was a hardcore, full-body poet. She was kabbalistic, a golem-maker, and she created any number of monsters that still haunt readers. Her work exposes all of the worst humiliations of growing up female. It’s only natural, when she opened that basement door a crack, that her extensive biographies should reveal page after page of new embarrassments -- her confessions of sexual frustration, her sugar-coated letters to her mother, her lost, private battles, her trying too hard and caring too much, her insatiable pride, her obvious desperation.

Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual, a new collection of essays by top Plath scholars, holds a certain fascination. It unearths yet another layer of Sylvia’s girlie Americana -- the pages of sweet, stiff drawings she did, of Disney princesses and paper dolls and colored illustrations of effusive, bubble-scripted diary entries about wearing bathing suits and meeting boys. [“David is taller, better looking and Oh! So much improved (I mean nice!)”] Later, she went on to write about art, inspired by painters like Giorgio de Chirico, and she did the college-girl art pieces typical of her era -- brooding pastel self-portraits, Matisse-esque temperas. She believed she had promise as both a poet and an artist from the time she was a child, and entered contests in both media, but her performance in college art classes convinced her to make a go of poetry full time. Although some of her artwork takes on themes of social critique -- a 1960 mixed medium collage, for example, features Robert McNamera juxtaposed with ads for Tums and model racing and a bikini model captioned “Every man wants his woman on a pedestal” -- most never reaches the level of her poetry. Her visual work is an expression of her girlish pain and despair, rather than a satire of it.

Eye Rhymes purports to be the first book to examine Plath’s visual art and to “gauge that art in relation to her heralded literary career,” and it does feature artworks of hers that have never been published before. But mostly, it’s another look at Sylvia Plath’s development as a poet. Kathleen Connors’s long monograph “Living Color: The Interactive Arts of Sylvia Plath,” a tireless study of Plath’s output in the visual arts from birth to death, talks about Plath’s claim that she believed in mermaids, not Santa Claus or God, her debt to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and her return to a childhood wonderland in her adult themes. Diane Middlebrook’s “Plath, Hughes and Three Caryatids” reveals that Ted Hughes actually encountered a few of Plath’s poems before their infamous meeting at a Cambridge party, when he kissed her, hard, and she bit him on the cheek and drew blood. (In his poem, "Chequer," which Middlebrook describes as a “revisionary misreading” of Plath’s work, he writes: “It was the only poem you ever wrote/ That I disliked through the eyes of a stranger.”) Langdon Hammer’s “Plath at War” questions the relationship between Plath’s “earnest, rational pacifism” and her eroticized urge to experience war within herself.

Of the six essays included, some retread familiar Plath-scholar ground, and others nudge at intriguing new information. Overall, as academic papers go, they’re not too jargon-y, and overall, they pale in comparison to Sylvia Plath’s poems, and interestingly complement the strange, glossy documents of her visual work. It is easy, flipping through Eye Rhymes, to imagine my own childhood drawings -- any American girl’s childhood drawings or paper dolls or bubble-scripted diary entries -- on these slick pages, with black typed words beside them: “Mastering Vision and Voice,” “Compositional Design and Thematic Fusion Across Media,” “Perspectival Deepening.” It is hard, reading this book, to imagine the childhood scribblings of Seamus Heaney or Robert Lowell collected in this way.

Every few years, Plath is exhumed, and piles of new material are exposed -- yet her grave is somehow bottomless. Every last bit of her is excavated, autopsied and put on display (The Peanut-crunching crowd /Shoves in to see / Them unwrap me hand in foot --/The big strip tease./ Gentleman , ladies / These are my hands /My knees), yet the crowd can’t get to the bottom of it. And the reason is that the poems themselves are poisonous. Holding them up to the bright light of day, or trotting them out in academic papers, or reading them in the context of new biographical information twenty or thirty or forty years after the poet gassed herself doesn’t take away their sting. They are still alive, and they are still curses.

Plath was a confessional person, but not a confessional poet. Of course her famous mental illness and her famous husband and his famous affair and her famous suicide are part of why she’s claimed so much obsessive attention over the years. But imagine this. Imagine that all of the elements of Plath’s life were the same -- not only the cloying mother, the black periods, the jealousy, the early death, but also the letters, the diaries, the paperdolls, the childhood drawings, the essays and even her “potboiler” (as she herself characterized The Bell Jar). Imagine that all of these elements were the same, but she’d left us the work of Amy Clampitt. My point is that no matter what storms around in the worlds of Plath scholarship and biography, it really is all about the poems. Isn’t that what groupies are always saying? That it’s about the music. Rock stars are rock stars because they make music like that and for a moment or two, it doesn’t kill them, like a firewalker who refuses to get burnt. A great poet, a great rock star, a great artist is a psychopomp, an intermediary between worlds. Whoever they are, as mortals, is of great fascination to their fans and detractors. They are capable of producing bad, hack work, just like mediocre poets, rock stars and artists. The difference is that sometimes they break through, and let us see the underworld or the otherworld without dying ourselves.

Sylvia Plath was a strange, brilliant case -- a good, not spectacular poet, with great devotion to her craft, whose life and vision caught on something jagged in 1962, and suddenly she became a genius. You only have to reread “The Applicant” or “Daddy” or “Lesbos” or “Lady Lazarus” or “Fever 103” or “Cut” to see it. Eye Rhymes raises the question, maybe, of what might have happened had Sylvia Plath devoted herself to her painting the way she did to her poetry. But mostly it’s an excuse to dig her up again, which never gets old. Because... those poems.

According to Kathleen Connors’s essay, Plath had mixed feelings about literary scholarship. In 1957, as an English instructor at Smith, she wrote to her brother, “I am simply not a careerwoman, and the sacrifice of energy and lifeblood I’m making for this job is out of all proportion to the good I’m doing in it… I wanted to write first, and being kept apart from writing, from giving myself a chance to really devote myself to developing this ‘spectacular promise’ that the literary editors write me about when they reject my stories, is really very hard. Also, I don’t like meeting only students and teachers… this life is not the life of a writer… I am needing to apprentice myself to my real trade… how I long to write again! When I’m describing Henry James’s use of metaphor to make emotional states vivid and concrete, I’m dying to be making up my own metaphors. When I hear a professor saying, ‘Yes, the wood is shady, but it’s a green shade -- connotations of sickness, death, etc,’ I feel like throwing up my books and writing my own bad poems and bad stories and living outside the neat, gray secondary air of the university. I don’t like talking about D.H. Lawrence and about critics’ views of him. I like reading him selfishly for an influence on my own life and my own writing.”

Now, at 33, not famous and not dead, I find myself writing a review of a collection of academic papers about Sylvia Plath. In Eye Rhymes, all of the familiar elements are there -- the connections between symbolism and biography, the childhood archives, the ruminations on Plath as a woman versus Plath as a poet, the sudden lines of poetry to triumphantly underscore each pithy scholarly point. Today on the subway I sat next to a (pre?-) teen poet, a big girl with cornrows and a skullcap, and she had her little diary out and she was writing, “I’ve betrayed myself.” I went home and I reread Sylvia Plath’s collected poems.

It’s all still there. That strange rush of vertigo. That haunting rhythm. Those hisses. Those scars. Those flaps of severed skin. Those unhappy endings. I can’t write about it in any way that will do it justice. Sylvia Plath took her own life, but her poems are still working. (Dying /Is an art, like everything else. /I do it exceptionally well. /I do it so it feels like hell. /I do it so it feels real. /I guess you could say I've a call. /It's easy enough to do it in a cell. /It's easy enough to do it and stay put. /It's the theatrical /Comeback in broad day /To the same place, the same face, the same brute /Amused shout: /'A miracle!' /That knocks me out./ There is a charge /For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge /For the hearing of my heart--- /It really goes.)

These aren’t teenage poems, and they aren’t “women’s poems” either, in the derogatory sense, any more than the poems of Czeslaw Milosz or Dan Pagis are “men’s poems.” These are the unforgettable masterworks of a full-grown poet at the height of her powers. That she happened to be a fair-haired Smith girl raised in Cold War America shapes her subject matter, the way being the Jewish son of a Navy man during the siege of Leningrad shapes Brodsky’s or coming from an equestrian family and getting a fine Roman education shapes Ovid’s. The difference between being a woman poet and a great poet of some other stripe is probably that more of our work goes unread and unpublished and uncanonized than poetry written by men. In Plath’s case, the poems defend themselves, and punish their critics. They should be read selfishly, by grown ups, as we make up our own metaphors.

Sylvia Plath satirized girlhood, and womanhood, and her era, and, however painfully, herself. But the Phoenix-like miracle of her work is that she manages to satirize her own legacy, again and again, every time we try to define it.