01 March 2011

Review of Heather Clark's The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath scholarship just got better. Heather Clark's The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes is one of those landmark publications; the one to which future works will be measured; the one that turns a corner. Clark's Grief continues a revisionary inspection of Plath's poetry that started in 2001, around the time of Tim Kendall’s Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study (Faber) and Tracy Brain's The Other Sylvia Plath (Longman).

For a long time it seemed as though writing about Plath and Hughes together was something that couldn’t be done, or shouldn’t be touched. Part of this has to do with the fact that Hughes was still living, and could therefore exert some control over what was being said. However, it seems like writing about Plath and Hughes together (in essay form) has found an market in books about Hughes, but not yet in those about Plath. For example Plath gets chapters in Neil Roberts’ Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan) and in Terry Gifford’s 2009 Ted Hughes (Routledge) and his forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes. These chapters are really very good. But I can’t recall necessarily such treatment and page-count/coverage dedicated towards Hughes and Plath, per se, in books (monographs or collections of essays) about Plath. While it would seem that Hughes scholars might be the ones to hold a long grudge on Plath, the opposite is the case: writers on Plath seem quite resistant to giving Hughes any more coverage than is obligatory. This kind of debate is old...let's move on.

Since the opening of the Ted Hughes papers at Emory in Atlanta, a new energy has infused critical interpretations of the two-faced nature of the Plath & Hughes manuscripts. While long-acknowledged, it has only been more recent that these papers - and their somewhat coded interactivity - have come under closer (and more intelligent) scrutiny. Decoding the conscious and unconscious interweaving of images is a great challenge, but Clark adeptly builds upon the earlier research of Margaret Uroff, Susan van Dyne, Lynda K. Bundtzen, and the late Diane Middlebrook, whose biography Her Husband (Penguin), seemed to re-introduce the couple as a couple. bringing this “call and response” way of looking at the poets and their poems to mass attention. Heather Clark acts a Justice of the Literary Peace and marries the two all over again.

One of the particular strong points of this book is its quoting from archival letters that are sadly not readily available. The quotes serve two purposes. The first is obviously to support Clark's arguments and the second serves to remind all of Plath's (& Hughes') readers that there is so much more "stuff" out there that can help us to understand what went on creatively and personally in these poets' careers. For example, when quoting from an uncollected letter of Hughes' held at the Lilly, I learned that Plath wrote a poem circa 1956 called "Evergreens" (114). Having read and enjoyed much of Hughes' Letters (edited by Christopher Reid, published in 2007), it was evident that the letters that were not included are still very ripe for the picking: especially if his estate will permit quoting. The same is true of letters written by Plath. There are ample examples of quotes from letters held primarily at the Lilly Library. It isn’t always possible to know if Clark’s quotes are from excerpted letters or from excluded letters, but they still open up newer words and ideas of our favorite poet. If her estate is relaxing some of their policies a hearty Bravo is due them. The good poems and stories and interviews are well worth knowing and repeating, but something of a revolution in scholarly Plath & Hughes research can and will benefit from quoting leniency for archival materials.

Clark acknowledges that previous scholarship has tended to focus on Hughes' influence on Plath. While her book agrees and supports this, it turns the tables and shows very convincingly how Plath influenced Hughes: and right from the beginning of their relationship too. There has been at the least a nearly fifty year critical he said/she said, he did/she did battle. At this point it is this reviewers opinion that the debate is rather hackneyed. Yes, it sells newspapers. It might sell books too. But what good does this really do? I cannot speak for Clark, but in reading her book I believe her general feeling is “Get over it.” And I would agree with her. This goes to both sides. Being someone who sits squarely in the Plath-camp, there were instances in this book where I thought to myself, "That's going to upset the Hughesies." But I also have some feelings that could be described as pro-Hughes, which I suspect would upset and/or frustrate some of this blogs readers so I’ll keep them private for now. And while I think both camps are protective and defensive of their interests, The Grief of Influence I feel is a kind of silo-busting study. I think Plath became a better poet because of Hughes, and likewise I think Hughes became a better poet because of Plath. The trouble is that both were talented geniuses. Plath’s poetry and other creative writings have an intensity and urgency that is frankly lacking from Hughes’s, but I suspect this fact is due to her much shorter life. Whereas Hughes’s works are massive and bulky; he simply had more time. In some ways it is truly like comparing apples to oranges.

What I took away from this book is a deeper appreciation for Hughes' work, an oeuvre of which I admit I am not as well-versed. Clark's readings of both poets poems is clearly presented and argued. The connections she finds in their word choices, cadences, rhythms, and other poetic devices left me nodding in my seat. There were many "Eureka!" moments for me. Perhaps my favorite quote in the book comes when Clark is examining Plath's influence on Hughes' Gaudete: "it is difficult to understand how critics have been able to persist in ignoring her role in this work" (208). This is the kind of thing that happens repeatedly in this book. I love the sass in this comment, as though after Clark wrote it she slammed down her fist on her desk in a "Take that" kind of way. This reminded me of "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Inspector Martin exclaims, "By George! How ever did you see that?" Holmes replies, "Because I looked for it."

The set up of the book, the order of the chapters shows the progression of influence, first in the direction of Hughes on Plath, then the other way, including Lawrentian and Nietzschean influences of both. Having read and enjoyed and admired Clark's "Tracking the Thought-Fox" when it was published in 2005, I wasn't too surprised to see that the chapter was slightly re-written. In the book, one of the the original theses - as I see it at least - is present in this chapter: that Plath's Ariel was not as liberating as she would like it to have been; that it "did not allow Plath to 'break' from Hughes" (153). This is not necessarily a bad thing and Clark's work on the mutual influence - and grief - is fully supportive of such an argument. In fact in her Introduction, Clark sums it up rather nicely, "Missing [from previous scholarship] is a thorough analysis of the ways in which Plath and Hughes looted each other’s poems" (2). Clark does this. Earlier in the text when commenting on Sandra Gilbert’s and Margaret Uroff's statements that "Plath 'triumphed' over Hughes in writing Ariel …" and "Not until such late poems as the bee sequence, 'Lady Lazarus,' 'Daddy,' and 'Ariel,' among others was Plath able to break clear of all influences," Clark says rightly, "While other critics have contested this 'breakthrough' theory, few observe that Plath did not turn away from Hughes during these months; instead, she plundered his poems for material" (131). But while I think Clark shows that Plath failed to break free of Hughes' influence the same can certainly says, and proves, the same for Hughes.

Clark's approach to Plath's poem "Ariel" in her chapter "Tracking the Thought-Fox" is really unique. I always imagined the speaker of "Ariel" almost at the same vantage point as that of "Sheep in Fog": out on the moors, perhaps atop "a hill of macadam" as Plath wrote it quite early one cold morning. Clark has it differently: "Plath's positioning of her speaker in a quiet room, presumably a study, sitting before a window as the sun rises and her child wakes suggests that the poem is a comment upon the imaginative ascent engendered by poetic inspiration: the speaker's journey upon Ariel parallels Plath's creation of the poem" (155-6). I find this quite a provocative and original interpretation.

One of my favorite parts of the book is in Chapter Eight, "Hughes's Plath." In supporting her claim that Hughes "believed Plath was a genius, and took his custodianship of her work and legacy seriously" she states that "It is ironic that [Hughes] found himself so at odds with feminist critics since both worked toward the same goal: to promote Plath's work and secure her a prominent place in the canon" (185). This is insanely important point to remember.

Back to archival holdings. Clark received permission - gracious and generous permission - to quote from an amazing amount material. You may recall that I loved Luke Ferretter's Sylvia Plath's Fiction: A Critical Study when I reviewed it last year (N.B. I still love Ferretter's book even as I am reviewing this one). Aside from subject matter, there is a gigantic discrepancy in Luke's book and in Heather's: the quoting. So much so that I mourn for what might have been in Luke's book had he had permission to quote from unpublished, archival materials. Both books explore under-discussed aspects of these writers and both promotes Plath's (& Hughes') works in a way that will lead many to be eager for the publication of more material.

In her convincing look at how Plath influenced Hughes' poetry after her death, I couldn't help but wonder also how much of an influence his editorial work on Plath's posthumous publications affected that influence. In the works discussed by Clark, the following shows what Hughes was more or less working on while concurrently editing Plath's works:

Crow (and to a minor degree Wodwo) : the first four posthumous volumes Ariel, Crossing the Water, Winter Trees, and possibly The Bell Jar. Not to mention the many limited editions that Hughes published through 1971, as well.

Gaudete
& Remains of Elmet : Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and The Collected Poems.

Moortown : The Journals of Sylvia Plath.

In her discussion of Birthday Letters, Clark draws comparisons between Hughes' "Fever" and "Sam" and Plath's "Fever 103°" and "Ariel," calling Hughes' poems a "revision" of Plath's (236). The one's influence on the other in this instance I feel is a bit of stretch for chronologically, the events they describe, are years apart and I really can’t reconcile this comparison in my head. Others might. "Fever" and "Sam" recall events from from early in their marriage from 1956 or so; while "Fever 103°" and "Ariel" describe, or at least have a sort of a literal background in events from 1962. I do see a kind of connection: fever/horse; but Plath's honeymoon hypochondria was not nearly the same sort of illness as that which she endured six years later. Likewise, the event that Hughes writes about in "Sam" more closely recalls or revises Plath's "Whiteness I Remember”, while his “Night-Ride on Ariel” is a more or less direct response to Plath’s “Ariel.” This is a minor criticism to make in an otherwise brilliant study.

The last thing I can say is that I am certain a book about Plath has never ended so beautifully.

The design of the book is good. The dust jacket is really lovely and the pages a nice, crisp white. Having footnotes rather than endnotes, I feel, encourages their being read. It makes the process of reading flow far easier than flipping back and forth. The font throughout the text is on the smaller side, with longer, block quoted text just being that much smaller. Also, the block quotes are not indented which rather has the effect of making them not stand out, thus harder to locate. These affect the books readability negatively, but thank goodness this well researched is written so well that the text holds our attention regardless.

5 comments :

panther said...

Thank you for this, Peter. What a rich read this promises to be.

I wonder if you could say more about the title of this book. "The GRIEF of influence " ? Is the author arguing that Plath's influence on Hughes, and vice versa, was something that each regretted or came to regret ? It seems to me that each was the other's best critic.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Panther, the influence aspect of Clark's book is derived from the Voldemort of Plathiana's "Anxiety of Influence."

For lack of a better way to put it, I'll quote from the Wikipedia page, "[Harold] Bloom's central thesis is that poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintained with precursor poets. While admitting the influence of extraliterary experience on every poet, he argues that "the poet in a poet" is inspired to write by reading another poet's poetry and will tend to produce work that is derivative of existing poetry, and, therefore, weak."

Therefore, no, I don't believe Clark was arguing that either poet came to regret, in any way shape or form, the influence each was to the other. The way I interpreted it is that each poet wanted to be recognized for their own poetic style and individuality, but that ultimately within the scope of their marriage and creativity, this was practically impossible: and not in any detrimental, co-dependent kind of way. I think to Hughes' comment that he and Plath had a "single, shared mind" and that it was almost, if not completely, intrusive: and therefore invasion of privacy. How else could one possibly explain "Event" and "The Rabbit Catcher"? Plath certainly caught a spark off Hughes to recognize, within days of the Wevill's May 1962 visit, that something would happen...

Hope this helps (and makes sense).

-pks

panther said...

Thank you for explaining, Peter.

If that is Bloom's central thesis, i think I rather disagree with it. Of course, a writer is influenced by other writers, just as every human being is influenced by other human beings. A good writer absorbs what is useful in the influences and makes his/her own stuff which is unique and not derivative.

I can see that in the Hughes/Plath set-up, being so very close to another excellent poet could be problematic. Especially if the two poets share certain wavelengths !

Melanie Smith said...

Hurrah! Well said Peter.

Clark's book really is one of the most thought-provoking Plath related texts to be published in awhile and whilst there are moments where I might go, hmmm not sure, that is part of its richness. There is so much that it opens up for the reader/scholar and it is a gem. I like that it makes me think about both poets and that even when I waver as to whether I agree with Clark (only in a few small places) that then prompts me to think further.

I agree, there is so much out there 'undiscovered' so to speak and I relish more of it through other works and what can be quoted coming to light.

Her Ariel reading is certainly compelling and makes me wonder, in my teaching program this year, if there is some room for me to examine the layers of meaning and mutiple ways of reading/interpreting with my students.

I also found myself liking Hughes that little bit more.

Everybody... GO READ IT!

XX

Julia said...

Nice review, Peter. I think when one digs and sees the back and forth between Plath and Hughes, it's rather hard to hold that grudge entirely against Ted.

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