17 December 2009

Writing and Reading Life

Having read so much drivel about Plath this year, I decided to turn back the clock a bit...

Linda Wagner Martin's Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life (Macmillan Press, 1999; 2nd. ed. rev. and expanded, 2003) is a gem. What struck me in 1999 when it first came out was the fact that it discussed unpublished materials, be they letters, poems, prose, or other. Discouraged by the number of mediocre books I've read recently about Plath (particularly poems about Plath), I thought I'd give a critical work a read, just to reestablish a connection with good writing about Plath. A good critic can convince the reader that their approach to the subject is the right way, despite any amount of knowledge one may possess about the said subject. Wagner-Martin does this. In the Preface, she states that Plath's life was "genuinely a literary life. There was no other aim for Sylvia Plath..." It is with this in mind that Wagner-Martin writes one of the best critical books on Plath.

The themes in Plath's poetry and prose that Wagner-Martin examines include "Plath's Hospital Writing", "Plath's Poems about Women", as well as "Recalling the Bell Jar" and "Lifting the Bell Jar", amongst others. Each chapter is clearly written and easy to read, full of wonderful, original analysis and shows the constant connections and a continual narrative, in Plath's body of work. Wagner-Martin draws much of her information and analysis from her own experience in working on Plath, as well as the working papers for her 1987 biography, and includes interview transcriptions and correspondence with Plath's friends and family members. It shows the value of good archival research, looking at drafts of poems and their deleted or otherwise unused lines and unfinished ideas.

Wagner-Martin writes, "We care about Sylvia Plath because of her poems, and her progress toward her last poems is one of modern literature's most exciting narratives." A finer way to express why we read Plath and why her poetry and prose matters cannot be stated. By examing Plath's earlier writing, and considering some of the writers she was reading, Wagner-Martin's claim that "Sylvia Plath trained all her life for her art" is easily supported.

The second, revised and expanded edition, published in 2003, includes a thirteenth chapter that looks particularly at Birthday Letters. Wagner-Martin explains that the first edition was already in production when Birthday Letters was published, making it impossible to add commentary about it at that time. While given just cursory criticism and examining just a few poems, the chapter takes a little bit away from the books focus: Plath's literary life. This is unintentional, especially given Wagner-Martin's criticism of Hughes having published the collection in a fashion that she feels usurps "the authority of Plath's narrative" and "literally [takes] the words out of Plath's mouth."

Wagner-Martin closes the second edition with what I consider to be a challenge to Plath's Estate and her readers. She says that, as a major poet, Plath "deserves to be swept along in a steady stream of appreciative criticism, scholarly accuracy and newly loyal readers." I couldn't agree more. Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life is a valuable contribution to Plath scholarship by an ardent scholar and admirer of the poet.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I agree Peter - this is one of the better books about Plath's work that I have read. And it gives some very interesting information on Plath's relationship with her mother, if I remember correctly. Time for a re-read! kim

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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.

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