by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak
I 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.