01 February 2010

Dispersed into the Machinery: Review of Confessing Cultures: Politics and the Self in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath

Let me get this out of the way first. Anybody that calls David Holbrook "debilitatingly opaque" deserves our admiration. (x)

In Confessing Cultures: Politics and the Self in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Lisa Narbeshuber sees the poetry of Plath "working through in detail the geography of post-war society. Talking culture as machine, [Plath] traces the lines of production of mechanical brides and grooms, underscoring oppressions and looking for openings." (x) She does this by first challenging Robert Phillips inclusion of Plath amongst the Confessional Poets. The main difference between Plath and these poets such as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman is that Plath's "persona often fuses and disappears into her surroundings." (ix) This is in direct contrast to Lowell, Sexton, and Berryman whose poetry more consistently "document[s] the poet's soul." (xii)

For Narbeshuber, "Plath sustains the alien moment." (xi) As such, Plath "conflates the human and the machine, finding her way into pathways of the cultural circuitry, documenting the new ontology." (xi) In doing so, Plath's "self is dispersed into the machinery." (xi) Thus through this fusion and conflation, Plath's poetry transcends simply being about personal experiences: the poetry becomes a poetry of "cultural critique." (xii) Ultimately, Plath "directs the inner, the intimate, and the familial outward, turning the personal into a cultural confession." (xxiii)

Building on other analyses of Plath and politics (Tracy Brain and Robin Peel), in Confessing Cultures, Narbeshuber takes complete control of the subject at hand and has written a sound, solid work. She is at her best in Chapter 2, which is a close reading of "In Plaster." While not an obscure Plath poem, this kind of treatment I think is not the norm. She also examines the more canonical poems by Plath including "Lady Lazarus", "Daddy," and the bee sequence, and in doing so further supports her thesis and opens new avenues into each. This is a short book - but do not let this trick you. Lisa Narbeshuber has written succinctly and there is neither a wasted word nor an excess. The economy with which she has executed this critique mirrors, perhaps intentionally, those poems of Plath's she examines and her view of their inspiration, cohesion, and construction. As far as the book itself, it is wonderfully designed - the cover of dried poppy seed pods ("Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?") is lovely. There is a colophon, which is nice to see; but no index, which was sorely missed.

No theory or critical approach can encompass the whole of Plath's works (nor should it!); therefore promoting one methodology over another necessarily removes from the field of inspection a large chunk of Plath's output. Narbeshuber carefully looks at a handful of poems, but the genius of her study is that the work she does discuss is done so expertly. Critics (and/or academics) really fear biographically reading Plath's poems. Susan van Dyne, Tracy Brain, and Marsha Byrant and many others seem to want to avoid it at all costs. However, each has needed the biography at some point in their own valuable contributions to Plath studies: it is simply unavoidable. But no matter what, if you look at Plath's poems using approaches such as psychoanalysis, feminist, historical, environmental or another, the biography comes into play. It is important. It does matter. And in doing so one is not necessarily supporting either that Plath should be read biographically or her inclusion as a Confessional Poet (which as Narbeshuber has argued rightly is a bad assignation). This little digression, by the way, is not meant as anything negative about Confessing Cultures. While Narbeshuber seems to agree that "focusing too exclusively on Plath's life" can be limiting in the attempt to decipher her work; her own work - just like all books of criticism - is limiting because it does not (cannot) apply to everything Plath wrote. (xi) This is clearly one of those "Why can't we all just get along" moments! The more we examine Plath's works in an historical context, the more reliant we are on the accuracy of her biography as a means to assess.

4 comments :

P.Viktor said...

Great review Peter, as always. Is this book available now?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks! I never know if anything I've written makes any sense, so I'm glad to know you liked it!

Amazon.com still lists the book as temporarily out of stock. I'd advise to write the publisher directly to see what's going on. They are at els@uvic.ca

Cheers
Peter

Melanie Smitj said...

excited - mine is in the post apparently...

Melanie Smith said...

Ahhhh got my name wrong...

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