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Indiana University Northwest

Plath Profiles

Responses to Volume 1

I am pleased my article provoked someone to write about their Plath experiences and perceptions.

Glenn Sheldon
Posted 19 March 2009 red line

All those who are reading the Hindi translation of "Mirror" -- I invite suggestions, words or phrases that you feel would better express the original.

Prof. Smita Agarwal
Posted 15 November 2008 red line

Sal and Sylvia? A Response to Hilary Holladay

C.D. Atkins, San Francisco

After buying books at the City Lights Bookstore in my hometown, I admit right off I love the Beat writers, although I admit I love Raymond Carver and D. H. Lawrence even more. In my American Lit class my teacher told me that the Beat poets were “confessional,” and she also said that Plath was too. So I Googled Plath and found Plath Profiles. I read Hilary Holladay’s “Parallel Destinies in The Bell Jar and On The Road.” I had read Kerouac’s On The Road when I was 18. I decided to read The Bell Jar too. Mostly because my girl friend kept telling me to read her. She said Plath was better than the Beats, although I don’t know what “better” means when you read great writers. Plath’s better than Ginsberg seems to me apples and oranges. Hardy better than Dickens? Walt Whitman vs Rumi? Ridiculous. As if there is a CEO in the creative world, or in any other areas of the mind: DaVinci/Michelangelo; Einstein/Plank. Darwin/Lyell. Marx/Smith.

Hands down, genius is singular. Bright stars are alone and independent of critics, living fire above our Professional Heads in academia. Miles Davis’ music underneath the creaky logic and order of Washington D.C. With death at our heels, “and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels shove off and flew in the holy void of uncreated emptiness,” as Kerouac says in On The Road (173), to which Plath dove off too, in her great poems. “Look at that ugly dead mask here and do not forget it,” Plath says in her Journals (155), “like the death angel. It’s what I was this fall, and what I never want to be again.” Looking for peace of mind in England, Plath, I think, remembers “Dolphins breaking the glassy water under the blue sky,” (Ginsberg, Reality Sandwich, 67) remembering the Atlantic Sea she loved.

Hillary Holladay is right. Plath and Kerouac could have discussed “Joyce, Lawrence, and Dostoyevsky. . . growing up in Massachusetts . . . compared the ways their ethnic origins shaped their identities and ambitions (Plath Profiles, 61). But they did not. “We are defined by the webs/of ten thousand lines of force.” (K. Rexroth, Selected Poems, 113).

Ted Hughes had a copy of On The Road in his library, but we don’t know if Plath read it.

Holladay says that Plath’s poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song” parallels Kerouac’s openness to madness “as a precondition for revelation.” (63). She cites Plath’s description of a “student party in Cambridge, England.” But if you read Holladay’s footnote on page 63, it’s not clear whether Plath is “beat” or if she’s making fun of it. And after reading a bit about her life, I can’t see her as a “beatnik,” with her love of fashion, glamour and Marilyn Monroe—not that there’s anything wrong with that! In Plath’s Journals, we don’t find any references to Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, or any other Beat writer. But we do find references to Lowell, Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Austen and other writers hardly Beat.

Holladay says: “Although the twenty-year-old Plath, who would try to kill herself not long after her summer job at Mademoiselle ended, may not have given much credence to the “Beat Generation” label, the thirty-year-old who published The Bell Jar in England just a few weeks before ending her life had helped document its existence. It is not much of a stretch, after all, to include Plath among the brilliant minds Ginsberg commemorates in Howl.” (Profiles, 64).

I don’t think so. Genius burns alone. Besides, Ginsberg and Kerouac show us men, not women, “Old Junkies . . . gone/invisible . . .legendary” (“Back on Times Square Dreaming of Times Square”) [Ginsberg, Reality Sandwiches, 70], which prefigures Ginsberg’s “My Sad Self” (RS), hardly Plath’s view of herself. Hardly Kerouac’s “Western Kinsman of the sun, Dean (On The Road, 8). Come on! Queer as the Beats were, in closets or otherwise! This hardly was Sylvia Plath.

I am a painter, hoping on my canvas to find my own vision, with the whole weight of history living, muddying and nudging my damn brush in its own stroke that hopes to be free from history. The “holy Goof” of my Self in its work hopes for “vision.”

I don’t see Kerouac’s “holy Goof” in Sylvia’s poems, I see a deliberate, serious Yankee heart, [as was Kerouac] burning alone. In my queer body, I see Plath as Marilyn Monroe, who read Joyce’s Ulysses during her film breaks, reading out loud passages from the Molly Bloom chapter for its sound and beauty as Plath sought her own sound and beauty apart from any of her contemporaries.

Holladay has written a brilliant, warm, and beautiful essay. Yet I believe it is a stretch to compare Plath with Kerouac, with the Beats, with Anne Waldman. Sylvia Plath is anything but a reflection of Kerouac, because genius burns alone.

If any comparison could be made, it is perhaps, not with her favorite poet Anne Sexton’s “Wanting to Die,” (“Twice I have so simply declared myself,/have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy”[as Plath said she ate men “like air”], but with Dorothy Parker’s poem:

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying—
Lady, make note of this:
One of you is lying.

My girl friend disagrees with me. She’s trying to argue that my queer self should come around and see Plath as a partner in the Beat movement. Not likely. Not after Neal Cassidy, not after Ginsberg’s quips on women in Howl. Not after Plath’s pursuit of men, and her famous biting of Ted Hughes’ cheek in that British pub when they first met. Perhaps sex-choice is determined by who draws blood first.

Come on, you Plathites! —and Ted Heads—. Try and disagree with me that genius burns alone. Just look at Akhenaton’s “Hymn to the Sun,” architect Nefertiti, Socrates, Aristophanes, Cicero, Basho, Rumi, Marlowe, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Mary Shelley, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Freud, Darwin, Whitman, Melville, Emily D., Sherwood Anderson, Einstein, Plank, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Céline, Ginsberg, Plath, and Raymond Carver.

For I believe with Céline , in his novel Journey to the End of the Night, that “maybe that’s what we look for all our lives, the worst possible grief, to make us truly ourselves before we die.”

Posted 25 October 2008