Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What We Talk About When We Talk About Plath

When we talk about Sylvia Plath, we talk about Ted Hughes, the poet-husband who nurtured and tormented her. We talk about the way she died, and occasionally the downstairs neighbor she nearly killed in the process. We talk about her overbearing mother and monolithic father. We talk about her confessional style and how this relates to Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. We talk about her infamous mental health issues.

What we discuss less often, outside of criticism and academia, is how formidable she was as a writer. The personal struggles she faced have eclipsed this fact in popular discourse, and as a result, the public keeps Plath pigeonholed. Hers is the domain of madwomen in the attic (or, in her case, the basement), mothers needing their little helpers, females who act out when they are spurned. While she was certainly aware of her own issues--she was often medicated and had a close relationship with her therapist--she was far more than a depressive girl crying huddled in her room. 

Just after they met, Plath wrote a poem about Hughes called "Pursuit," in which he is a panther. She knew then that Hughes was dangerous. What she neglects to mention is that she was a God-damned tigress.

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Tracy Brain, in her essay "Unstable Manuscripts: The Indeterminacy of the Plath Canon," featured in Anita Helle's anthology The Unraveling Archive, makes a compelling case that the reader and/or scholar cannot fully rely on Plath's published works--particularly Ariel (including the Restored Edition) and The Collected Poems--because Plath's archives reveal typographical discrepancies between manuscripts and "finished" products as well as Plath's own working manuscripts and notes, and those notes especially reveal contradictions and changes we can't fully understand, as Plath was dead by the time the bulk of her work fell onto editors' desks.

While this issue shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, we are, thanks to Ted Hughes, largely left to rely upon printed material as "definitive." Even if we can never know whether "Edge" was truly the last poem Plath wrote (Hughes seemed to think so, based on his sequencing in The Collected Poems, but the argument for "Balloons" is equally valid), we must work with what we have been given and rely on Hughes' judgments.

"Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like," he tells us, and "if she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy." This is not the idle speculation of a husband who took walks as his wife scratched away with her Shaeffer pen. It's the keen observation of someone who often wrote by her side and who trusted her with his own words, both as typist and workshopper. He knew her prowess with words, and her capacity to wound with them: he was the subject of many of Plath's more powerful poems ("Daddy," "Burning the Letters," "Words heard, by accident, over the phone," and more), and though he was in a position to suppress their publication, he chose to go ahead with them and make sure that the world knew her name.

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No one has ever written a truly "authoritative" biography about Plath, because her legacy is complicated. 

Ted Hughes, by his own admission, destroyed her final diaries after her death, eliminating the possibility of scholars gaining personal insights into her final, powerful poems. 

Aurelia Plath, Sylvia's mother, worked diligently to expunge certain unfavorable communiqués from the record when she published Plath's collected Letters Home. (Not coincidentally, this is the same reason Plath delayed the publication of The Bell Jar so long: to spare feelings.) However, the originals remain largely intact, mainly in the Lilly Library at Indiana University but also elsewhere; the first volume of Plath's wider collected correspondence is set to be published this fall. 

Olwyn Hughes, Ted's sister and the executor of both estates until her death in 2016, was notorious for refusing to cooperate with anyone who might criticize her brother too much. Plath herself was not a fan of Olwyn, but Hughes trusted her implicitly.

The net result of this is that most biographies of Plath lean heavily in favor of either her or Hughes, depending on who the author cozied up to during the research process. Aurelia died in 1994, but not before she assisted Paul Alexander while he collected information for Rough Magic. The biography is problematic in some ways for the reasons listed above, yet it remains the best available overview of the poet's life.

Fans of Plath almost uniformly come down on her side, and her grave was repeatedly vandalized; rather than gravediggers, she was disturbed by headstone editors, who would rip the "Hughes" off the marker so it read Sylvia Plath rather than Sylvia Plath Hughes. They would rather Ted Hughes be punished in perpetuity, Plath be rid of him in death.

For my part, I think Hughes made some mistakes. Undoubtedly, a few of them were even cruel and contemptible. And he had no right to do what he did to Ariel prior to its publication, though he was, in general, a capable advocate for Plath's work. And as a poet, he is unassailable; his work is not my style, but he knew what the Hell he was doing.

Further tangling the matter of biographical scholarship are two obvious figures, one innocent toddler, and a much-maligned woman: the Hughes children, Frieda and Nicholas; their half-sister Alexandra, called Shura; and Assia Wevill, the most widely recognized of Ted Hughes' affair partners. Frieda Hughes has gone on record, sometimes in verse form, to criticize those who are obsessed with her mother and who have fired shots at her father. Nicholas Hughes committed suicide in 2009 after pursuing his love of nature and ecology, no doubt following his father's example (Ted Hughes' fascination with the outdoors is one of his trademarks); the younger Hughes was always reluctant to discuss his mother publicly. 

Shura died at the age of four in her mother's murder-suicide. As for Wevill, it's no secret that she was married to a poet (David Wevill, a respected Canadian writer) before meeting Plath and Hughes and later chose gas as her weapon of choice when she killed herself and her daughter. These are not mere echoes of Plath, and Wevill is often a reviled figure in the Plath mythos.

But again: these are things people always discuss when Plath comes up in conversation. Except for the most casual readers, everyone knows at least that the Plath-Hughes marriage was torn asunder and that Hughes' actions after Plath's death--all the way up to his own demise in 1998--led to controversy. What they might better discuss is how each of these people appeared in print. (Shura, born two years after Plath's death, is exempted.)

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Aurelia  Plath became the focus of a few of her daughter's works, as any parent of a serious writer might expect. Yet she attempted to be even-keeled about the matter, at least publicly. "One observation I can make," Aurelia wrote in 1983, for a piece in Paul Alexander's anthology Ariel Ascending, "[...] involves Sylvia's tendency to fuse characters and manipulate events to achieve her own artistic ends." In truth, this statement might apply to every writer who ever lived, and I believe it is both a fair assumption on Aurelia's part as well as her fervent wish as a parent that it be completely true.

Plath could be cutting when she directed her words at specific individuals, however obliquely. And Aurelia did feel that sting: "[...O]ther poems [...] involve the mother figure as the whipping boy, so characteristic of the Fifties." She also mentions that in The Bell Jar, Plath "transformed personalities into cruel and false caricatures." However, as one might expect of a mother, she asserts that "I had faith in [her] genius."

No amount of faith, though, can change the fact that the title of "Electra on Azalea Path" contains a name that sounds awfully like Aurelia Plath, nor the fact that Mrs. Greenwood in The Bell Jar is, in the main, a character who hews closely to Aurelia as Plath experienced her during that electroshock summer.

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Ronald Hayman speculated in The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath that Plath intended to kill her children when she took her own life in 1963, but this is based on a reading of some of her final poems, including "Edge," and not supported by the documented facts of the incident. And anyway, the opposite argument can be made using different pieces; Plath often wrote about her children, in pieces like "Nick and the Candlestick" and "Morning Song." It's likely that she did this for the same reason another writer might: they were readily available subjects, like their father and grandmother.

If you subscribe to the notion that turnabout is fair play, it's worth keeping in mind that three out of those four had their own say in various works published later, as we see above. Call it a literary circle of life.

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In the main, Assia Wevill has been unfairly castigated. Yes, her final act--killing Shura--is unforgivable and must have been the source of much anguish for Ted Hughes (who later dedicated Crow, his 1970 collection of poetry, to the memory of both Assia and Shura). But in life, Wevill was no different from a million other women: a little bit wild, prone to making mistakes, desperately in love.

Of course, one can also understand why Plath despised Wevill. She was a woman who committed the highest form of girl-on-girl violence: man-stealing. But Plath wasn't utterly unreasonable; she also laid the blame at Hughes' doorstep, where it belonged. (Ultimately, neither Wevill nor Hughes can be held more culpable than the other, but Hughes' betrayal was worse, as he broke the vows he made to his wife.) 

As in other cases, though, Plath was vicious in her descriptions of Wevill, particularly in "The Fearful." And Wevill was not unaware of Plath's ire. She--like many others--ended up haunted by the specter of her (ostensible) rival. But like Plath, she was also haunted by her own past and by the invisible scourge of mental illness.

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I know what you're thinking: "Cate, please. You've only given us examples of poems about Plath's family. So why SHOULDN'T we snoop around and learn things about her personal life?"

And that's totally fair, if you didn't listen to the thing Aurelia Plath said about situations and characters transforming in Plath's--or any writer's--imagination. And again, it's totally fair, if you're willing to ignore Plath's craftsmanship and Hughes' statement about it. And sure: it's totally fair, if you're willing to ignore the criticism Frieda Hughes levels at everyone she feels has co-opted her mother's legacy.

And once more: it's totally fair, if you're willing to forsake all other possible critical responses to Plath's work, or the multiple angles the biographical method could use: an American woman living abroad, a scholarship girl coming up in a privileged environment, a pre-feminist powerhouse, a deeply academic personality, a poet living with and surrounded by other poets. 

This is about so much more than just mental illness and interpersonal drama, and we must acknowledge that, or we are doing Plath, and ourselves as readers and critics, an enormous disservice.

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Sometimes I wonder if Plath deserves better than us: the avid, trenchant fans who think she is somehow a projection of ourselves and that--as a result--we can claim some ownership of her. I attempt not to be that person, but I admit it: I get defensive of her, and I am often dismissive of those I deem clichés--the sad girls dressed in black trying desperately to be serious--even though I am exactly the same. On the other hand, fame (especially the posthumous kind) comes at a price, and devotees are one item on the bill of sale.

And sometimes I wonder if we deserve better than Plath: a woman who was nearly always on the edge of becoming unhinged, who threw Holocaust metaphors around to describe her own pain, who once destroyed some of Ted Hughes' manuscripts in a vindictive bonfire. On the other hand, if we threw out Plath, we would have to get rid of the Conrads and Hemingways and Fitzgeralds of the world, as well, to avoid committing the double crimes of sexism and hypocrisy.

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I spend a lot of time thinking about Sylvia Plath.

It's true that I arrived at her doorstep, as most of us do, when I was a moody teenager struggling to fit in. This is a detail I can't help and won't deny. But I think it's worth noting that the bulk of the time I've spent with her was in my early 20s, near the end of my college journey, at a juncture when people were starting to refer to me as a woman rather than a girl. As it happens, I was also about the same age Plath was when she made the suicide attempt later immortalized in The Bell Jar.

It was a time when I loved boys and eyeliner and the idea that my future might actually turn out the way I wanted. But I resembled Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of The Bell Jar, too much for my own comfort, so I chose to focus on Plath's poetry instead.

Years later, I return to her work again and again, and I do so happily. And if I didn't know all the things I know, it never would have occurred to me to write about her now.

I composed this essay, as I compose so many things, in fits and starts between other activities, and it took me about a week and a half to draft. My memory of facts learned over eight years ago was surprisingly solid, which I take to mean that Sylvia Plath has never been far from my mind. I did have to retrieve my collection of books by or about Plath (and Hughes, and Wevill): 18 in all. 

For a complete accounting of my Plath collection, see the list following this post. Some books are either out of print or difficult to locate; many of my volumes came from Better World Books or Thriftbooks, both excellent online sellers for academics searing for titles your average used bookstore doesn't carry. There are many, many more titles out there that I've never seen or read; Plath has her own cottage industry now.

I do encourage readers to seek out resources that will illuminate Plath's craft, as well as those which properly contextualize her in both American and British history as well as in the continuum of literature. There are so many things to explore in her work that lie outside the confines of biography.

And when you talk about her, remember that she was both human and hard-working.

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Resources

About Plath
Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath (ed. Paul Alexander) 
Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (Judith Kroll)
The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (Ronald Hayman)
Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: A Marriage (Diane Middlebrook)
Rough Magic (Paul Alexander)
The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (A. Alvarez)
Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life (Linda Wagner-Martin)
The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath (ed. Anita Helle)

By Plath
Ariel: The Restored Edition
The Bell Jar
The Collected Poems (ed. Ted Hughes)
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
Letters Home (ed. Aurelia Schober Plath)
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (ed. Karen V. Kukil)

About Hughes
Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet (Elaine Feinstein)

By Hughes
Birthday Letters
Difficulties of a Bridegroom

About Wevill
Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes' Doomed Love (Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Why Are You Sad?

Well, the day arrived.

I finally looked a little too off, was a little too slow to smile, and my niece asked me the question I've dreaded answering "Why are you sad?"

In this case, I was able to deflect. "I'm just very tired," I told her. It wasn't a lie; I was exhausted. But it wasn't the truth, either. At least, it wasn't the entire truth.

I've always thought that, when the time is right, I'll be open with Niece and Nephew about my mental health struggles, because I'm terrified that either or both of them will turn out to have the same problems I've faced and don't want them to suffer alone. Neither of them, however, is at an age where they can adequately grasp the depth of anxiety and depression. Possibly they won't even understand the concept; for their sake, I hope they don't, because that would be a horrible thing to know when you're so young.

The thing is, they're inquisitive, and Niece has already been labeled gifted, so I expect more moments like these will arise whether I want them to or not. And to date, this is the worst part of depression I've had to face. Everything else seems easy compared to the anguish of knowing I've let the kids see me this way. 

I hope it will all make sense to them in the future. I just don't want it to have to make sense right now.

-Cate-

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Feeling Ragey

Last month, I was very angry about something.

Although I'm loath to discuss the situation itself here, I do want to talk about that anger and how it affected me. More specifically, I want to explore the impact it had on my writing.

For one thing, I find myself veering away from poetry and toward non-fiction (which is--mostly--to say, this blog). I've made an attempt to write the most uplifting stuff possible to counteract the ire, although I admit I'm not awesome at that part. But the biggest advantage is that it makes me more honest.

That's not my way of admitting I'm a liar. There are, however, times when all writers shy away from the toughest parts, whether that means telling a difficult story or facing a hard truth about oneself. I think I'm pretty good at admitting shit to myself, and sometimes to others, I suppose, but that's not totally the kind of honesty I mean.

Rather, it's honesty about my basic feelings and about the things that matter to me. Trust: you wouldn't be reading posts about the similarities between Madonna and Walt Whitman if those two people held no significance for me. I guess the anger forces me to reevaluate things, in a way. And I'm okay with that.

What I'm less okay with is the anger itself, and I'm working on it. Little by little, I'll calm down and get back on track--even if that track is a new one. And it will be, out of necessity. I hope I can still be so honest on the other side and suppress myself less and less.

-Cate-