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Indiana University Northwest

Plath Profiles

Responses to Volume 2

J.L.: First, I want to emphasize that, in my earlier response to your paper, I was addressing myself solely to the question of how to introduce first-time readers to Plath at the high school level in a way that will engage their interest in the writing. I suggested that the facts of her life provide ample material that can engage young people on their own level. The popularity of The Bell Jar in high school literature classes testifies to this. I was in no way suggesting that the meaning and importance of her work is or should be limited to the biographical or confessional.

Having said that, I have to add that, frankly, no, I don’t think Plath or her work is dangerous to the social and political status quo, and certainly not as dangerous as Blake, who was a true revolutionary in both poetry and politics. In fact, it is still my opinion, after all I’ve studied of Sylvia Plath and her work, that her personal values were actually deeply conservative from early on. Even Robin Peel, whose book Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics encourages us to revisit the writing with an awareness of the extent to which Plath’s political concerns are reflected in the writing, mentions the "concerned but undeveloped nature of her response to world events" in her early life.

Now, to qualify that: certainly it is clear that her political awareness and concerns developed over time, especially after she had left home for England. Most of us know of her statements on the threat posed by the marriage of big business and the military – what Eisenhower referred to as the "military-industrial complex" when he warned the country against it before he left office in 1961. We’re familiar with the poems on the thalidomide issue, on the Holocaust victims ("The Thin people"), on the horror of Hiroshima, and so on. But, even as she invokes these issues, she is using them as metaphors for her own perceptions and fears – "this is a heart, this holocaust I walk in" ("Mary’s Song"). In this poem, the "cicatrix of Poland, burnt-out Germany" become metaphors for her own persecution -- "O golden child the world will kill and eat." You can argue that the "golden child" is Christ, since it is supposedly Mary who is speaking, but it seems clear to me that she identifies with the victim, the "Sunday lamb". Now, you might argue that the poem "Thalidomide" is exempt from this claim, but, on the other hand, it can be said that the poem is a reflection of her own fears of pregnancy, of what "dark amputations" might be growing inside of her – "What leatheriness / has protected / me from that shadow?" When, at the beginning of The Bell Jar, she invokes the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, it is to set up an analogy with her own electroshock trauma later in the book. Indeed, few other poets have so completely ignored the usual boundaries, conflating the private and the public, the personal and the political. In this sense, and given her growing awareness and radicalization, she was perhaps a precursor of the counterculture activists of the later 1960s and '70s. But she can hardly be called an activist herself, much less a revolutionary. When she attended a mass protest in England with Hughes and W.S. Merwin, she attended to watch from the sidelines, not to participate in the march.

In her work, she addressed herself to her contemporary culture . . . not to "our current war-culture" or "our excuse for torture." While many of the critical events and issues in our current culture may indeed be an extension and late growth of that "military-industrial complex" of which she became more and more aware and wary, the issues of her time are not the issues of our time. Yes, her middle and late poems reflect the cold war culture of the time, the legacy of war during her lifetime – WWII, Korea, McCarthyism, the Hungarian invasion of 1956 -- and her growing political awareness and concern – I do not believe, however, that we should exaggerate either her radicalism or her activism, or conflate her time with ours.

It has been a very long time indeed since any poet was considered a threat to the political status quo. Poets in general have been marginalized in our culture, regardless of how radical their politics – witness poets like Whitman, Pound, Ginsberg, Corso, even Robert Bly, whose poem "The Teeth Mother, Naked at Last" is perhaps the strongest anti-War poem I can think of. Yes, there are others, but the fact that we have to reach to think of their names is testimony to how marginalized they are. While Plath’s peripheral involvement in political issues is certainly an aspect of her growth and maturity, it is not the most important aspect -- her real legacy is a poetic one, and should suffice.

--Jim Long Posted: April 10, 2010

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Okay Jim, Dickinson is not THAT easy, I agree. But don’t you think Plath is dangerous to the social and even political status quo? As dangerous as Blake? I disagree with you that Songs of Innocence and Experience is an easy introduction to his later work. They are revolutionary in their attack upon the concept of "The State," conventional religion, treatment of children, stupid politics, and the denial of cruelty under the hammer of greed, repression, and slavery.

Rooted in World War II, the McCarthy hearings, and our 1950’s view of women, Plath responded like Blake to her own America, so how could her metaphors NOT step on "conservative toes?" I agree that biographical information on Plath will help us understand her poems, and that on first glance, her poems are metaphors for what you call her "state of mind." Yet, at the same time, I think you will agree that even the most personal poems written by a poet reflect the culture that gives them birth.

I believe that Plath’s middle and last poems reflect our current war-culture, our excuse for torture, our Ted Hughes’ and Dick Cheney’s betrayal of the vagina in their philandering rape of other "territories" to be conquered for their "resources." Hughes loved the nature poetry of D. H. Lawrence, but he didn’t get it. Plath did. She wanted a marriage with him under their agreed admiration for Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love. To strap Plath’s vision inside her own mind is to deny her cultural critique of our own status quo in the same way that Blake was marginalized, Lawrence condemned, Ginsberg hounded by the FBI, and now Plath these days dismissed as "adolescent."

Sylvia Plath’s poems, the best we have since Emily D., are more than just "confessional." They achieve, in their own way, a cultural criticism of our land---not, of course, in the style of Howl, but more like Gregory Corso or Larkin.

Here’s my point: I don’t think we can reduce any poet’s writing to biography. We can’t dismiss the power of culture, politics, and history as that brickwork often lowered down upon the free Imagination.

--J. L.
Posted: January 17, 2010

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Congratulations for the second issue of Plath Profiles. What I like best about the present issue of the magazine is the account of the archival experiences of the two researchers of the Plath documents both in America and in England. Plath scholars who perhaps will never have the chance to touch those documents and lose themselves in puzzling labyrinths of unanswerable questions about Plath will thus get the chance to lose themselves vicariously in the experience so sincerely shared by Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg. I, for one, felt as if I was there in the room with them.

Maria Johnston’s and Toni Saldivar’s studies are of course very serious and rewarding. As for Jamie E. Bourne’s account of her experience of Plath’s poetry, my opinion is that it both affirms and denies Plath’s artistic power in a paradoxical way. On the one hand, it prevents one from thinking that Plath’s achievement might be in any way explained through psychiatric, psychoanalytical or any biographical details of her existence. I somehow relished Bourne’s passionate negation of curing one’s mental problems through the writing meant to lead to the so-called self-discovery of the inner troubled self. Her view helps one better realize that Plath’s poetry (or literature in general, for that matter) should not be read as a psychiatric exercise for treatment, and this is a very important issue.

On the other hand, the latter half of Bourne’s essay reads almost like David Holbrook’s words about the poet: "these works may be offering falsifications or forms of immoral inversion which are absurd, or even deranged, and may do harm to the sensitive and responsive young person." (David Holbrook, Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence, Athlone Press, 1976). Apart from the fact that this kind of opinion on Plath is not at all new or surprising any more, it does trigger some attention to the fact that teaching Plath will remain a very difficult thing, precisely because of the very deeply engaging emotional force of her poems. Jim Long’s advice to J. L. in the responses section is also dangerous because biography, in Plath’s case, can illuminate a learned and experienced reader, but it can also very much block the way to a youngster who has read little poetry before and who remains stuck in this biographical explanation, given that professional poetic analyses are so difficult to understand at a certain stage of education. I sometimes think that Sylvia Plath is for college students, and not for high-school ones, on account of her almost impenetrable refinement and intricacy of imagery. Anyway, the discussion is endless.

Jamie Bourne, while she tells us nothing new about how readers perceive Plath, proves one disturbing thing: that this poet is so dangerously close to the human psyche, that the human psyche will sometimes aggressively look back and deny her for its own protection. Experienced readers of literature will however taste her great art for what it truly is.

--Elena Ciobanu
University of Bacau, Romania
Posted: September 26, 2009

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Response to J.L. on the teaching of Plath and Dickinson in High Schools and to Jennifer Yaros’ "Sylvia Plath in 3-D"

The question whether, and how, we should be teaching Plath to high school students (and even to young college students) has been asked before. Most often, of course, the concern has been that impressionable adolescents will identify too strongly with Plath’s sensibility, leading to depression and self-destructive acting out, or that immature minds might think of her suicide as a viable solution for their own problems. And this concern is not without warrant, even as it applies to older students.

But, your question obviously has to do with teaching Plath (and Dickinson) to young students at a fairly high level, but in a manner so as not to offend conservative sensibilities that may take exception to her unconventional use of religious ideas and symbolism. While I remain skeptical about your statement that "Dickinson’s metaphors immediately explain her vision to first-time readers" – she’s not THAT easy -- I should add that I am not a Dickinson scholar, or even a serious Dickinson student, so I’ll confine the rest of my comments to the study of Plath’s work.

First, J.L., based on the examples you cite in your paper, you apparently want to compare the two poets, Plath and Dickinson, with emphasis on the two of them as religious poets. I have a problem with this; because, while certainly a case can be made for Dickinson as a religious poet, Plath is not, in my opinion, primarily a religious poet. The majority of her poems cannot be fruitfully approached from that direction. So why make this the focus of a first approach to Plath for students? Sure, there are some poems that could profitably be studied in this manner: "Mary’s Song," "Mystic," "Totem," "Years," maybe "The Moon and the Yew Tree." She invokes the names of Christ and Mary in some six poems each, not all of them overtly religious in content. (FN1) Even when she does invoke religious figures: Mary, Christ, the saints, "the baby in the barn," they are invoked more for the emotional charge they carry for her than for any conventional religious symbolism. In any case, the philosophical/religious perspective is a very difficult aspect of Plath’s work. As you say, some of these poems would be challenging even for a graduate-level seminar. So why take on these difficult issues as a first approach to Plath for young students? When students are introduced to the classics in high school, do we give them the most difficult works at first? When we introduce students to Blake, they are generally taught the easy stuff first: "Songs of Innocence and Experience" (while not "easy," the poems are accessible enough to provide an entry point into Blake’s body of work), "The Tiger," "The Sick Rose," "A Poison Tree." The point is that we don’t introduce them to "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" or "The Visions of the Daughters of Albion" right off the bat. There is certainly much in Plath’s body of work that can be studied without offending the "defenders of the faith," and much that would be straightforward enough for Honors English classes to grasp without too much difficulty. You might start with the early poems in The Colossus: "Spinster," "The Disquieting Muses," "All the Dead Dears," "Lorelei," "Full Fathom Five," "The Colossus" – a whole unit could be taught just on the Mother and Father poems. Another theme might be poems about domestic discord: "The Rival," "The Rabbit Catcher," "Event," "Words heard, by accident, over the phone," "For a Fatherless Son." There are many of her poems like these, besides the much-anthologized poems like "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," that can be studied profitably without stepping on conservative toes.

The point I want to emphasize is that each poem is a metaphor for a state of mind. Plath was constantly looking outward for metaphors for her own experiences. It is those very experiences, the biographical facts that so many critics want to dismiss as irrelevant to the creative work, that can become a way into the poems for first-time readers, to whom they may at first appear obscure and confusing, too "private and obscure" to be easily accessible to the uninitiated. In other words, it is, paradoxically, their very "private," biographical nature, the "confessional" aspect of the poems, that can be the key that renders their intense interiority accessible.

As an example, Jennifer Yaros’ method of presenting a group of poems sharing a theme, such as "Family" or "Motherhood," is a perfectly good idea. (FN2) But it strikes me that too many of the children expressed confusion about the poems at the point when they’re being asked to comment on them. It seems to me that they need more information to give them a handle, a realistic perspective, on the poems. Now, I understand that Ms. Yaros is teaching composition classes, not literature classes, per se; so, her emphasis, naturally, is on using the poems to stimulate her students to think and write creatively, rather than on close analysis of the poems themselves.

Let’s consider the example of the girl in Ms. Yaros’ class who wrote her own poem, riffing on the phrase "effacement at the wind’s hand," from "Morning Song." Hers was an ambitious attempt to relate a difficult poem to something in her own experience. But, in a literature class, the emphasis would be on understanding the poem via its origins in the poet’s own experiences. Those biographical references need not "overshadow" the poems, but can be made to illuminate the poems from within. In fact, "Morning Song" is an excellent example of this.

According to the chronology set forth in The Collected Poems (FN3) "Morning Song" was written on 19 February, 1961. (FN4) About two weeks previously, on 6 February, 1961, Plath had suffered a miscarriage near the end of her third month of pregnancy. (FN5) On 26 February, Plath wrote to her mother that "I am writing poems again…" (FN6) Within those few weeks, she had written "Parliament Hill Fields," "Face Lift," "Morning Song," "Barren Woman" and its counterpart "Heavy Women" -- a clutch of poems based on her recent experiences of childbirth and miscarriage. What would she have been feeling during those weeks?

"Morning Song" strikes the reader at first, with it’s lovely opening line "Love set you going like a fat gold watch," as a paean to motherhood, celebrating the life of her living child. But then, into the heart of the poem breaks that extraordinary, haunting image of futility:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

Okay, class, here’s your assignment. Considering its context in this particular poem, what does that statement mean? Give me two pages. Is she addressing the living child or the lost? And what about the pun on the word "morning"? In this poem, it is Plath’s experiences of childbirth and miscarriage that provide the key to open a way into the meaning.

You ask, J.L., in speaking of the poem "Medusa,": "In what context should I engage my students in a discussion of Plath’s bitterness?" The context of the poems is Plath’s life itself -- what other context is there? In the volume of Collected Poems, "Medusa" (dated 16 October 1962) appears immediately following the poem "Daddy" (dated 12 October 1962). So it seems that Plath was working on these two poems, one addressed to the father, the other addressed to the mother, pretty much simultaneously. Both seem to result from a need to purge negative feelings about the parents, at the same time that she is still struggling to cope with the breakup of her marriage. Now, in what context can we understand her bitterness?

My advice to both of you, J.L. and Ms. Yaros, is to save the difficult philosophical and religious issues for later and engage your young students by seeing the poems within the biographical context of which they are, ultimately, the product. There is a reason why Plath is categorized among the "confessional" poets " because she, more than any other American poet I can think of (apart from, perhaps, Anne Sexton), treated the intimate details of her private life so openly in her poems. It seems absurd, then, to try to understand the poems without seeing them in the context of that life.

Footnotes:
1. Matovich, Richard M. A Concordance to the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. New York: Garland Publishing. 1986. pgs. 89 and 309.
2. See Jennifer Yaros’ article "Plath in 3-D: High School Students Analyze Plath" in this issue of Plath Profiles, pgs. 221-231.
3. Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.
4. Ibid., p. 157.
5. See Plath, Sylvia. Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963. Aurelia Schober Plath,ed.. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. p. 408.
6. Ibid., p. 410.

--Jim Long, Honolulu, Hawaii,
Posted: August 31, 2009