14 June 2009

Review: A Poet's View of Britain: "Wuthering Heights" by Sylvia Plath


This 30 minute program on "Wuthering Heights" (and other poems) by Sylvia Plath is well done. The commentary by Owen Sheers - with one notable exception - was thoughtful, informative, accurate, etc. The footage of Sheers in Yorkshire, as well as the high resolution images of Plath, her book covers, etc. added to the beauty of Karen McCallion's production. I have always found that being in the place Plath wrote about adds authenticity and understanding to the work at hand.

Sylvia Plath is the only American writer to be included in this BBC Four series, A Poet's View of Britain. This is an accomplishment. Sheers discusses Plath's Yorkshire poems "The Great Carbuncle" and "Hardcastle Crags" before setting on the title poem, "Wuthering Heights". He discusses how both Plath experiences in Yorkshire and her earlier poems paved the way towards the composition of "Wuthering Heights". These poems well place Plath within the tradition of landscape poetry; but Plath does add her touch in "Wuthering Heights", adventuring into the landscape of the mind as well. Each of the poems were read - either by Plath or someone else. As each poem was read, the words were added artistically to the screen in various scripts. The interview snippets of Plath and Aurelia Plath were quite welcome. I am pleased the producers obtained permission to use these.

Fellow Plath reader, the poet and author P.Viktor, in a review on his blog, comment, "it is also refreshing to see a male poet talking about Plath's work without the usual cliches and accusations of hysteria". This is a very wonderful observation. However, with this in mind, I noticed - aside from the storyteller in the pub on the edge of Widdop Moor (where crumpets are -by the grace of God - still just 20p), that Sheers is the only male with a speaking part throughout the program. And the storyteller wasn't even discussing Plath.

The side trip to take wine with some Cambridge girls and the interview with Jo Shapcott (especially Shapcott's reading of her own poems, which I found irrelevant) were slightly off the mark and added little. That being said, Shapcott's comments on Plath were actually quite well spoken. Clare Pollard, who contributed to a program on "Superman and Paula Brown's New Snowsuit", was also interviewed.

All this in mind, I am fan of the program and find it contributes positively to the growing list of televised documentary works on Sylvia Plath. Some have remarked that there was little focus on the biography of Sylvia Plath, but having watched it several times, I found that the program is heavily dependent on Plath's biography: this is not a fault, but illustrative of a crucial way in which to approach Plath's poetry.

The reading of "Wuthering Heights" is dramatic, made more so by the words flashing across the screen and the recorded scenes running parallel to Plath's images throughout the poem. Quite well done, bravo! Very moving; it adds some autheticity to the poem that one can only experience by being in the same place about which Plath wrote.

The one notable exception, mentioned above, regards the following comment by Sheers: "'Wuthering Heights' must have been a poem that Plath rated highly as she made it the opening to Crossing the Water, the second collection she had planned for publication". Absolutely not. Neither was "Wuthering Heights" selected by Plath to be the first poem in Crossing the Water nor was it intended as her 'second collection'. This poem -and many other poems written between 1960 and 1962- was ultimately rejected by Sylvia Plath as a "book" poem, as she liked to call them. "Wuthering Heights" was selected by Ted Hughes for inclusion in Crossing the Water, Plath having died eight years prior to its publication. Likewise, assigning Ariel as Plath's third publication is incorrect.

For those inspired by these poems and want to read more works by Plath set in Yorkshire, try her story "All the Dead Dears" (published in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams) and her non-fiction piece "A Walk to Withens", which was published on 6 June, 1959, in Boston's The Christian Science Monitor. Yorkshire and Haworth also feature in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (ed. Karen V. Kukil, 2000).

1 comment :

panther said...

I , too, was taken aback by the reference to CROSSING THE WATER as a second collection.But what an extraordinarily good poet, to be able to discard "Wuthering Heights" and those other pieces as not quite up to scratch ! Or, at least, not quite appropriate to her purposes when she was preparing ARIEL.

And as for Sheers being the only speaking male in the piece, I found Clare Pollard's remark "Plath has had a HUGE impact on women writers" quite annoying. Will people (of either gender) PLEASE stop using the term "woman writer" !!! There are writers, end of. Of course their gender feeds into their work. . .but along with loads of other stuff.

I didn't find the storytellers out of place : they were there to give a bit of local colour (I don't mean that patronizingly.) And I wouldn't have expected them to tell ghost stories actually featuring Plath, though that did set me thinking : given her connection to this part of Yorkshire, and her occult leanings, and her Gothic sensibility, how appropriate it would be if she became a haunting in her own right !

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