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Indiana University Northwest

Plath Profiles

Responses to Volume 3

Have something to say? Respond to Plath Profiles 3 by sending an email to the editor Bill Buckley.

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I am grateful to Luke Ferreter for his reviewing of my book and for his observations and comments that I value considerably. And, to the extent to which book reviews can also be seen as bases for dialogue, I will add here one comment referring to the relation between Plath’s poetic self and her poetic personae, as I endeavored to explain it in my book.

I will begin by saying very simply that my first assumption about the study of a great poet is that it should be primarily aesthetically grounded. Therefore, an analysis of Plath’s poetic discourse per se was what I started my research with. Her metaphors (to take just the thing that is most conspicuously relevant in Plath’s poetry from a rhetorical point of view) told me a ‘story’ and it was from that story that I went in search of more theoretical principles that would offer me the proper frame for a possible demonstration. And the story of her metaphors revealed that there was a group of images and phantasms that kept coming back to the surface of her poems, thus creating a sort of path on which one could advance as in one of her poems, from one ‘hook’ to another ("Blackberrying"), to the same obsessions of a profoundly and disturbingly ambiguous self.

Paraphrasing one of her personae in "The Stones," her metaphors ‘lay their sameness on the wall’ (in terms of their semantic ingredients, evidently), all the way from her Juvenilia poems down to her 1963 poems. To take just one obvious example, behind the moon in "Edge," a rhetorical analysis cannot ignore the numerous other previous ‘moons’ in her poems, which are not just hysterical repetitions of an image or trope, but re-workings of a metaphor through an endless adding, ramification, multiplication, discarding and differentiation of meaning that ends in an almost impossibly compressed image whose aesthetic value is at its highest. It is this obsessive refining of meaning that both menaces and preserves the foundations of meaning that is, in my view, the defining gesture of Plath’s poetic self. The trying on of so many ‘petticoats’ (i. e. provisional identities/masks/personae) implies a process of continual choice and rejection, of finding more appropriate modes of expression and of refining and perfecting the preferred images.

Phenomenology, particularly Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception was the closest pattern to my view that I could find, as it deals with the separation between the self and its varied manifestations (this is for hermeneutic purposes, as the two things are not two separate entities in reality). From this theoretical perspective, a self is only manifested through a series of provisional identities which constitute only fragmentary ‘incarnations’ of the true self, only transitory masks that both reveal and conceal the original self. The latter can only be apprehended through the observation and analysis of the sum of these masks, seen in the context of their particular temporal and spatial coordinates within which they display reactions that send to a certain consciousness presiding over and uniting them. However, complete revelation of that self is never possible, as long as that self is alive (therefore continually ‘producing’ personae, as it were) and involved in a movement towards the fulfilling of a certain project of existence.

The approach of Sylvia Plath’s poetic self, seen as a consciousness that shows itself more or less successfully in its various or even contradictory personae is indeed one view that would best suit and support the results of my linguistic and discursive analyses. This is not, in my opinion, opposite to the study of each of its ‘masks’, taken separately or considered in all their complexity. I think the two approaches are complementary. If Plath’s avatars feel at times histrionic or incomplete or only partly authentic, this may be because they are estranged, in different degrees, from an original self that cannot find its ways of complete expression, but that never stops from seeking more appropriate ways of inhabiting its discourse.

Finally, I do believe that the poet is also asking a question about the possibility of grasping one’s own identity beneath the many masks the self is forced to wear under the pressure of everyday existence. While we can perceive the masks of a self in their spatio-temporal manifestations, and study them for their complexity and incongruence with one another, we find it very difficult to put our finger on the identity that makes those masks possible in the first place. The divorce between the voice describing/declaiming the provisional faces of the self and the deep sound of unique, irreplaceable identity there is an abyss which we can no longer easily cross, unless we are of those “whose hopes are so low they are comfortable” ("Mystic"). The question of who we really are, beyond our many social and private roles and faces, if we search deeper, remains essentially unanswerable. Or perhaps the answer is lived (or should I say, manifested?) in the flesh and inexpressible like the unutterable Self/meaning of Plath’s disturbing metaphors.

--Elena Ciobanu, PhD Senior Lecturer, Bacau, Romania
Posted: September 29, 2010

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There is much to take in here in this excellent third volume of Plath Profiles: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Sylvia Plath Studies. What I’m particularly drawn to in are the most unusual takes on Plath’s work—the kinds of responses, analyses, and renditions that one doesn’t usually find in the average journal. In addition to smart and savvy essays on Plath, we find in this issue translations of Plath’s poems into Hindi, Macedonian, and Portuguese; Peter Cooley’s personal account of Plath’s importance to him as a male poet (that’s right, ladies; she’s not just for us); and a range of creative responses to Plath in the form of original poems and visual art.

Because of my background in the visual arts, I immediately noticed Hong Zeng’s essay “Sylvia Plath and Edvard Munch: Mindscape of Chagrin.” Zeng reveals that the only comparative study of Plath’s imagery and pictorial art (Constance Scheerer’s “The Deathly Paradise of Sylvia Plath”) likens Plath’s ferocious vision to “Rousseau’s carnivorous gardens” (273). I find such a lacuna in the rich and meticulously thorough canon of Plath criticism surprising, especially given Plath’s own forays into visual art. Also, it’s no secret that certain of Plath’s early works bear the influence of the Italian Surrealist painter De Chirico (look to Plath’s “On the Decline of Oracles,” for example) in addition to Rousseau (see her poem “Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies”). Zeng argues that Plath’s imagery has much in common with Norwegian Symbolist painter Edvard Munch’s sensibility. Both Plath and Munch create “mindscapes,” Zeng says, in which states of chagrin are “represented by the clash of original colors and their symbolic emotions” (281).

I’ll never forget the day I encountered that agonized expression so resolutely archetypal in modern art. I was an eighteen-year-old freshman in art school at Virginia Commonwealth University. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’d drag myself to my early morning art history course and (this would happen about halfway through each class) I’d lean back in my cushioned, wine-colored movie-chair in the darkened theatre, trying not to succumb to a tempting nap. I’d think to myself, “I’ll just rest the back of my skull here for a minute,” and then proceed to snooze away. But that day, my art history teacher rotated the slides with an audible, whirring clack to reveal Edvard Munch’s notorious painting The Scream. Although I’d previously squinted at postcard-sized reproductions of The Scream in my parents’ hardcover art books, I now felt perched on the edge of a world on fire. The projection of the painting must’ve loomed twelve feet tall! I recall peeping through a slit in my half-shut eyelids. I blinked. I straightened my spine. I slowly rose in my seat, startled by the intensity of the central figure’s contorted, open mouth and by the chaotic, searing, blood-red flux of the sky.

“The gaping mouth in Munch’s ‘Scream’,” Zeng writes, “is one of the most frequently occurring images in Plath’s poems” (277). She cites as an example the “pure gold baby” in “Lady Lazarus” who “melts to a shriek.” I’d say too that the “O-gape of complete despair” in Plath’s “The Moon and the Yew Tree” seems an uncanny Munchian gesture. Additionally, the lines, “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets,” from Plath’s “Elm,” perfectly recall the swirling, expressionist vortex of oranges and yellows in The Scream.

Although it’s not breaking news that certain critics fault Plath’s work for its exhibitionism and sensationalism, Zeng’s essay makes for a sensitive and valuable argument against such misinterpretations. Zeng suggests that Plath employs the trope of nausea in order to reject and combat her deliberately theatrical, fleshly burlesques, and that such images of expulsion work toward states of transcendence and purification. “Beneath Plath's sensationalism, theatricality, self-aggrandization, and her roughly jeering tone,” Zeng writes, “is the wave of nausea directed both at herself and at the world” (277). “Through the sickness over her own sensationalism and theatricality,” she continues, “Plath pushes herself further toward the mortification of the flesh and the consequent repudiation of it, so that her spirit might be liberated.” Thus, as Zeng argues, Plath’s sensational screams and chagrined “O-gapes” make possible the spirit’s “rise out of the flesh” in such poems as “Fever 103°” and “Lady Lazarus.”

As a poet and teacher of poetry, I cringe when my students occasionally refer to Plath’s speakers as “whiney” or too self-indulgent (or worse!). Such underestimations ignore Plath’s tonal and formal control, her delightfully wicked sense of humor, and her self-mocking critiques. Like Zeng, I disagree with the negative criticism (of the Harold Bloom variety) regarding Plath’s sensationalism, and I’m grateful to have this new essay, as well as the rest of volume three of Plath Profiles, to enrich my understanding and appreciation of Plath’s work, in all of its complexity, sophistication, and intensity.

--Anna Journey
Posted: August 12, 2010