Why We Suck at Sylvia Plath

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Plath Poem 2I can’t take it any more. In our cur­rent lit­er­ary dis­course, we sim­ply suck at talk­ing and writ­ing about Sylvia Plath. The suck­i­ness never sub­sides; it only increases, as evi­denced by Terry Castle’s horror-show review recently pub­lished in the New York Review of Books. That review has, rightly, inspired a num­ber of harsh reac­tions that cover appro­pri­ate top­ics such as misog­yny and slut sham­ing, as seen here, here, and here.

Even with these defenses, I’m find­ing that when it comes to Sylvia Plath we have a hard time talk­ing about her poetry as poetry. When look­ing at Castle’s ven­omous asser­tions and the sub­se­quent spir­ited defenses, the field of argu­ment is always cul­tural, bio­graph­i­cal, or his­tor­i­cal. Beyond the mere cit­ing of lines, it is never poetic or craft-based crit­i­cism. The clos­est we get to Plath’s poet­ics comes by way of Cyn­thia Haven, who rightly points out that Plath’s humor and delib­er­ate use of the absurd remain largely under­es­ti­mated. Still, is this what makes Plath a poet? Couldn’t she have an unrec­og­nized taste for “over-the-top” expres­sion if she were a nov­el­ist or painter? I would say so. So what’s going on? Why is it so hard to get an assess­ment of Plath’s stature as a poet sep­a­rated from the sen­sa­tion­ally pre­sented drama of her life? The first answer feels oft stated and obvious—because she’s a woman. The sec­ond is less obvi­ous: because we’ve sur­ren­dered poetic cri­tique almost entirely to cul­tural cri­tique, espe­cially when the writer is a woman. This needs to stop. Now.

Let’s try a lit­tle exper­i­ment: how would the literati por­tray a male poet, maybe a cult fig­ure, who also com­mit­ted sui­cide? Who would fit the bill? Hmmm… how about John Berry­man?  In 1990, Paul Mar­i­ani pub­lished Dream Song: The Life of John Berry­man, which was reviewed by Gene Lyons in Enter­tain­ment Weekly. Behold, the open­ing para­graph of Lyon’s review:

To any­body inclined to be the least bit mis­trust­ful of the lit­er­ary author­i­ties, John Berryman’s career offers much to pon­der. In Berry­man, after all, we have a poet whose 77 Dream Songs won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize, fol­lowed by the 1969 National Book Award for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. What’s more, two aspects of his work would seem to guar­an­tee aca­d­e­mic enshrine­ment: its incom­pre­hen­si­bil­ity and Berryman’s pub­lic enact­ment of the myth of the artist as for­ni­cat­ing, drunken, roar­ing boy. Indeed, by the end of Paul Mariani’s fas­ci­nat­ing, if not quite per­sua­sive, biog­ra­phy, Dream Song: The Life of John Berry­man, read­ers may be for­given the sus­pi­cion that even the poet’s 1972 sui­cide — by plung­ing off the Mis­sis­sippi River Bridge in Min­neapo­lis — con­sti­tuted, in its way, as shrewd a career move as Berry­man ever made. (empha­sis mine)

This feels like stan­dard male-artist mythol­ogy to me (albeit, a self-aware one): sub­stance abuse, sex, sui­cide, and gen­eral destruc­tive ten­den­cies are cause for awe, even cel­e­bra­tion. At the very least, you are invited to mourn the loss of the artist, not repeat­edly kick their corpse. Con­versely, how does this play with Plath? Over to you, Terry Castle:

It will come as no sur­prise that I’m one of those who will always be turn­ing away from Plath. Or try­ing to. I find her taste­less, grisly—unbearable, in fact—precisely because, even five decades after her sui­cide, she and her corpse-infested verses hold on with such ghoul­ish tenac­ity. She seems never to tire of cre­at­ing tragic inhu­man mis­chief from beyond the grave. That the infant “Nick” addressed in those final poems from Devon, the very poems cited as “nature poems” by the kindly Boland, hanged him­self in 2009 seems only the lat­est malig­nant turn of the Plathian screw. A respected fish­eries biologist—he taught at a uni­ver­sity in Alaska—Nicholas Hughes had appar­ently done every­thing pos­si­ble to dis­tance him­self geo­graph­i­cally and psy­chi­cally from his par­ents’ cursed his­tory. (Most of the peo­ple who worked with him knew noth­ing of his fam­ily story.) Yet Lady Lazarus caught up with him at last. He was said after­ward to have been “lonely” much of his life and depressed by his fail­ure to find love. His mother was by then long dead—he had never had any mem­ory of her—yet even so I couldn’t help want­ing to kill her.

Who knew that sui­cide has a glass ceil­ing? John Berry­man kills him­self and cements his lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion; Sylvia Plath com­mits sui­cide and as a result is blamed for the death of her son. Kurt Cobain: hero. Amy Wine­house: wasted life and tal­ent. Check. At least Cas­tle didn’t sink so low as to “blame the vic­tim,” you know, that go-to rhetor­i­cal trope of misog­y­nists. Oh, hold on a second:

What to make of it all after half a cen­tury? From one angle Plath had only her­self to blame for the rhetor­i­cal excess she provoked—and still does provoke—in read­ers. She was crazy, after all. Even fifty years on, the grue­some men­tal suf­fer­ing that she wrote about con­tin­ues to pierce and frighten and exasperate.

I dare you to try and make sense of the state­ment. Go ahead. I’ll give it a shot: Plath, like all women who suf­fer from a men­tal ill­ness or dare ven­ture out­side in shorts, is respon­si­ble for the actions of oth­ers based on her siren-like provo­ca­tions. Does that sound about right? And finally, how does Cas­tle view Plath when jux­ta­posed with a penis-possessing poet? Alas, Castle’s own ver­sion of “Daddy”:

Unlike Larkin’s own poetry—or so one in turn might venture—Plath’s verse lacks wis­dom and humor and the power to con­sole. She invari­ably scours away any­thing sane or good-natured.

This is all, frankly, crass and dis­gust­ing. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are exam­ples of crit­ics out there who delve deep into poet­ics, who under­stand the dif­fer­ence between poetry and biog­ra­phy as genre and trope. Mar­jorie Perloff is one of those crit­ics. As a model, Perloff writes tire­lessly about male and female poets (largely of the avant garde) in a way that fore­grounds poet­ics, craft, and rhetoric while min­i­miz­ing sen­sa­tional trash. Put another way, she hasn’t for­got­ten the def­i­n­i­tion of the inten­tional fal­lacy. Mar­jorie Perloff also pro­vides a use­ful assess­ment of how crit­i­cism in the human­i­ties should func­tion, and it pretty much cap­tures why so many peo­ple fail when talk­ing about Sylvia Plath:

Partly as a result of such Pla­tonic skep­ti­cism about “teach­ing” poetry, as well as the unfor­tu­nate divi­sion of “lit­er­a­ture” depart­ments into the “crit­i­cal” (“Eng­lish”) and the “cre­ative” (“Cre­ative Writ­ing”), poet­ics has increas­ingly been viewed as a branch of his­tory or cul­tural stud­ies. From this per­spec­tive, a poetic text is pri­mar­ily to be under­stood as a symp­tom of the larger cul­ture to which it belongs and as an index to a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal or cul­tural for­ma­tion. Lit­er­ary prac­tices, more­over, are taken to be no dif­fer­ent in kind from other social or cul­tural prac­tices. A poem or novel or film is dis­cussed, not for its intrin­sic mer­its or as the expres­sion of indi­vid­ual genius, nor for its expres­sion of essen­tial truths or its pow­ers of per­sua­sion, but for its polit­i­cal role, the “cul­tural work” it per­forms, or what it reveals about the state of a given soci­ety.  (empha­sis mine)

In short, instead of only assess­ing what Plath’s poetry might tell us about mar­riage in the mid-twentieth cen­tury, feel free to talk about and judge Sylvia Plath’s poetry as poetry. There are any num­ber of works we could read about mar­riage as an insti­tu­tion, or depres­sion as a con­di­tion, but the major­ity of them are not poetry; in other words, the sub­ject mat­ter is not the defin­ing ele­ment of Plath’s work; it is the craft­ing of that sub­ject mat­ter into the con­ven­tions of a spe­cific genre—poetry—that should hold that place. If you’re going to assess Plath’s work, you start with her rhythms, meter, line phi­los­o­phy, and fig­u­ra­tive pre­sen­ta­tion, not with Ted Hughes or the fact she com­mit­ted sui­cide. Is all of that clear? Great.

I love Sylvia Plath as a poet. To my ears and mind, she is eas­ily one of the best Amer­i­can poets who ever put words to paper. Of course, whether I’m “right or wrong” about this is debat­able, but what is not debat­able is the pri­mary mate­r­ial I use to base my judge­ment: her actual work. Take for exam­ple Plath’s poem “Mir­ror.” Grasp­ing this poem’s bril­liance depends upon under­stand­ing how Plath shapes rhythm and meter to con­vey, and match, the con­tent. Take these two lines:

I think it is a part of my heart. But it flick­ers.
Faces and dark­ness sep­a­rate us over and over.

The first line is com­posed of ascend­ing rhythms, mainly iambic and anapes­tic feet. The sec­ond line, how­ever, works in reverse, built on descend­ing rhythms: the line opens with a dactyl and closes in descend­ing fash­ion with the rep­e­ti­tion of “over,” which taken by itself is trochaic. Why is this impor­tant? The poem is about a mir­ror and thus log­i­cally builds upon the con­cept of mir­ror images where things are reversed. Plath mas­terly addresses this con­tent con­cern in a for­mal way, fre­quently revers­ing rhythms in the poem, some­times within the con­fines of a sin­gle line, such as the bril­liantly con­structed final line, “Rises toward her day after day, like a ter­ri­ble fish.” Scan it. Read it. Hear it. Love it.

The exam­ples of Plath’s superla­tive poet­ics are legion. Do we really need to explain why “Ich, ich, ich, ich” is such a bril­liant line of poetry, where four stressed syl­la­bles com­pose the entirety of a line about the tongue being stuck in the mouth?  Do we need to look at “Morn­ing Song” and dis­cuss how all of the ini­tial trochaic feet are verbs and why Plath made that for­mal deci­sion? Should we take some time to march through the phonic bril­liance and beauty of “Lady Lazarus”? Do we need to explain why a line like “A dozen red lead sinkers around my neck” scans as it does, and why it wouldn’t work writ­ten any other way?

Appar­ently, the answer to all of the above ques­tions is “yes,” since many don’t want to take the time to judge this poet by her poetry. That’s a shame. Not only are Plath’s genius, tal­ent, and poetry for­mi­da­ble, but so was the amount of work she invested in pur­su­ing that vision. The very least we can do is judge her by the qual­ity and results of that effort, and to do oth­er­wise is a dis­ser­vice to our lit­er­ary and poetic tra­di­tion, a dis­ser­vice that is ampli­fied by the all too famil­iar smears of sexism.


4 thoughts on “Why We Suck at Sylvia Plath

  1. Pingback: Why We Suck at Sylvia Plath | Sad Iron | John B...

  2. Pingback: The Word Made Flesh is Sylvia | marniere

  3. By God I think he’s got it” — you may be the first man in his­tory to artic­u­late the female expe­ri­ence with accu­racy, intel­li­gence and unbe­liev­able insight! Thank your Mama for me — she “raised you good’! xo

    • So much love and appre­ci­a­tion for this post. Read­ing Plath seri­ously tends to get reduced by oth­ers to an angsty emo lit­er­ary phase or that you’re some sort of depressed fem­i­nist for hav­ing any inter­est in her poetry. They miss the beauty, the skill. And half the time, they haven’t really read her work.

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