23 January 2008

Review of Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual

Sylvia Plath is in the midst of a renaissance. Since the publication of her Unabridged Journals in 2000, hardly a week goes by without her name appearing in the news, and the publication of a succession of books continues to re-evaluate the poets status in the literary world. Although Plath proved to be one of the most contentious, interesting, and passionate writers of the 20th century, the 21st has been much kinder. The books about Plath published in the last seven years each attempt and succeed to change the way we read her works, examine archival material to enrich our readings, and call our attention to lesser-known poems, stories, and other creative products. This is most evident in Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Visual of the Art edited by Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley.

In addition to six wonderful essays by leading scholars, Eye Rhymes publishes for the first time more than 70 art works by Plath. The earliest dates from when she was just seven years old, and the latest is her Cold War collage, perhaps the most familiar and talked about piece she created. The book marries the artwork and Plath's creative writing, illustrating a one-to-one translation between the two types of creativity; what Susan Gubar in her Afterword calls the "sister arts" of Sylvia Plath.

The essays draw heavily off the Sylvia Plath Materials held at the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington. It is evident, however, that The Sylvia Plath Collection at the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College was used extensively as well. Plath's artwork informs and inspires each essayist; and it is Plath's writing, either contemporary to the artwork or her later, more mature writing, that allows for a clear, steady progression of Plath's talent. Often times, the essays show a kind of conversation taking place between ideas and themes present in Plath's art that resurface either immediately or much later in her poetry and prose. In a way then , Plath is talking back to herself, in addition to talking back to Ted Hughes by writing on the verso his compositions. Eye Rhymes, then, "follows the entire trajectory of Plath's creative genius, from her first signs of artistry on the seashores of New England, to the final culmination of her craft as a poet, essayist, and novelist..." (1). What the essays make perfectly clear that from early childhood straight through to her death, Plath continually worked creatively and that her adolescent and young adult interest in art translates and manifests itself in her best writing. The aim of the book is to "shed new light on Sylvia Plath as artist, critic, and intellectual, and the creative processes she employed throughout her life" (3).

Kathleen Connors essay "Living Color: The Interactive Arts of Sylvia Plath" walks the reader through Plath's childhood and adolescence and into her young adult and adult life as a writer and an artist. The foundation was laid very early in Plath to think and to feel, and most importantly, to express herself in any necessary way. As we grow with Plath, we too struggle to decide whether to study Art or English in college. For it was a struggle, and one story, one prize, made all the difference. Plath's 1952 short story "Sunday at the Mintons", winner of the 1952 Mademoiselle College Fiction Contest, singularly made up her mind which subject to major in at Smith. Connors is painstakingly and passionately detailed in her review of Plath's interactive arts. The value of this essay is in reading and re-reading it, and not through reading my review.

Connors essay could stand on its own in the book. However, the other essays build upon Connors' very solid foundation. Langdon Hammer's writes on "Plath at War", a look some of her war imagery, both in visual and written formats. Plath's political writing has been an exciting subject over the last five or so years, but Hammer's essay, by focusing both on Plath's eighth-grade social studies assignments and later poems such as "Cut" and "Daddy", is wholly original. He is able to tie together writing done by Plath as a 14 year old, and Plath as a 29/30 year old, and he does so very eloquently.

"Plath, Hughes, and Three Caryatids" by Diane Middlebrook is a wonderful and playful piece on Plath's long-titled poem "'Three Caryatids without a Portico,’ by Hugo Robus. A Study in Sculptural Dimensions", and Hughes' two caryatid poems in Birthday Letters. A photograph of Robus's sculpture that inspired the poem is included in the book. It was Plath's "Three Caryatids" poem in Chequer that the Saint Botolph's crew took exception to in a review published in Broadsheet in early 1956. Plath read those poems in the Saint Botolph's Review with a vengeance on 25 February 1956, determined to suss out the writer of that review and make herself known. Middlebrook's playfulness reaches its peak in the following sentence in Eye Rhymes, "This is the origin in the legend of Hughes and Plath: the famous party that set up the kiss that caused the bite that prompted the tryst that led to the sex that became the passion that fueled the marriage that led to the poems of Plath and Hughes" (162). A completely genuine, successful and smart essay by a professional who took such joy her work. Anyone lucky enough to have ever seen Middlebrook discuss the meeting of Plath and Hughes cannot forget the sparkles in her eyes and the smile on her face.

Christina Britzolakis' essay, "Conversation amongst the Ruins: Plath and de Chirico", continues her theoretical and psychoanalytical reading of Plath's oeuvre. This essay looks not necessarily at Plath's own visual art, but at artwork by de Chirico, an important influence on Plath's writing nonetheless. She covers the important poetic outburst by Plath during the spring of 1958, and includes poems attributed as being written a year earlier. Those poems inspired by de Chirico are "The Disquieting Muses" and "On the Decline of Oracles". (Plath's other art poems are "Snakecharmer", "Battle-Scene from the Comic Operatic Fantasy The Seafarer", "The Ghost's Leavetaking", "Conversation Among the Ruins", "Virgin in a Tree", "Perseus: The Triumph of Wit Over Suffering", and "Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies". ) There is some overlap between this essay and and Britzolakis's 1999 book Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning.

Sally Bayley's "Sylvia Plath and the Costume of Femininity" examines "Plath's involvement with constructed forms of femininity reflective of the prescribed social and cultural codes of post-World War II America: the processes of female socialization" (183). Bayley looks specifically Plath from the early 1940s to the 1950s, at "the body of commercial and cultural imagery arising from Plath's artwork: the drawings, home-made cards, collages, and paintings" (183). Bayley argues that Plath's adolescent interest in the "acculturated female" directly informs her mature poems. In addition to journal entries, correspondence, and The Bell Jar, Bayley analyzes "Two Sisters of Persephone", "Initiation", "Cinderella", "Kitchen Interlude", "Lesbos", and notes taken while a student at Smith College.

Fan Jinghua's "Sylvia Plath's Visual Poetics" seeks to "delineate and demonstrate the influence of visual art and its sensibility in [Plath's] poetics from the perspective of visual art techniques and her own visual art practices" (205). He argues, successfully, that Plath's poetics "is developed out of the interaction between the visual and the verbal..." (205). The term for "a verbal representation of a visual representation" is ekphrasis. This is a relatively new way of looking at Plath so far as I can tell, though Jinghua did deliver a paper on it at the first Sylvia Plath Symposium in 2002. Through examining Plath's poems based specifically on works of art, Jinghua traces one of Plath's deepest and longest sources of creative inspiration.

Susan Gubar's contributes an a Afterword on "The Sister Arts of Sylvia Plath". From the start, I noticed the lack of reference to quoted sources, lack of internal citation to artworks featured as plates in the text, and an alarming split of attention between Plath and poet Catherine Bowman. This is the least successful aspect of the book, which is disappointing given Gubar's status and reputation in the academic and literary world.

As I state in my own biography of Plath, her pre-Smith years (1932-1950) are overlooked most often by scholars and researchers. Her published journals and letters both select her Freshman year at college as their starting point. Her Collected Poems start even later, in 1956. However, it is the formative, pre-college years that gave birth to this poet and, in the end, are responsible for The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems for which she is most famous. All the tools and values Plath needed to succeed as a writer came from this period, and it is a shame that it is so frequently neglected. No longer, as any reader of Eye Rhymes will develop a new appreciation for Plath the precocious child, Plath the driven adolescent, and Plath the talented artist. Eye Rhymes is a monumental contribution to Plath scholarship.

This review is dedicated to the late Diane Middlebrook. Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual is published by Oxford University Press (2007).


P.Viktor said...

Exceptional review Peter - extremely detailed. This is one of those books sitting not quite patiently on my bookshelf until my dissertation is done and dusted. From your review, I'm even more anxious to read it!

Kris Underwood said...

I found this book on a sale rack for $5 and immediately snatched it up. It is an amazing book! Plath is one of those poets whose work has been on and off my shelves for years.
Have you read The Unravelling Archive of Sylvia Plath? Loved that one as well.
Both of these books show a completely different side to the poet-author.
Nice blog.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.