01 June 2011

Plath and Nostalgia

Last Friday I gave a brief paper entitled "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Plath’s Nostalgia" in a panel organized by Steven Gould Axelrod called "Robert Lowell & His Circle" at the 22nd Annual American Literature Association conference in Boston. You will never guess the subject of my paper...

True confession: I cheated a bit. For the main portion of the paper I used the introduction to my paper for
Plath Profiles 4, which is titled "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow," and wrote a brief introduction to connect it up a bit with Robert Lowell and his influence on Plath. And I thought maybe I could/should post that introduction here to maybe get a bit of conversation going on the subject of Plath and Lowell; and nostalgia as used in Plath's poetry (and other works, too), as learned from Lowell, particularly as I see it in his 1959 volume Life Studies.  Plath and Nostalgia is not a subject that has been explicitly written on (and by explicitly, I mean, that in the bibliography I am building of articles about Plath, the word "nostalgia" does not appear in the title of any except one. See: Marcus, Jane. "Nostalgia is Not Enough: Why Elizabeth Hardwick Misreads Ibsen, Plath, and Woolf." Bucknell Review 24. 1978: 157-177.) And, I think this was a fairly major theme in a number of her works.

I was tempted to add to the piece because there are some obvious short cuts I needed to take in writing it for a 10-15 minute presentation [besides, I tried to read slowly so a) I didn't trip over my own words and b) so that the audience could follow. I tripped over some of my words regardless...]. But, in the end I decided not to do this and hope instead that we can talk and bounce ideas off one another. Maybe we'll see a fuller treatment in Plath Profiles 5 (2012)?  Also, I would like very much not to limit any discussion to just the poetry.  So, here is the brief introduction I wrote for the conference...but you will have to wait to read the text of "A Perfectly Beautiful Time" until
Plath Profiles 4 is published this summer...

When Sylvia Plath audited Robert Lowell's course entitled "Writing of Poetry" at Boston University in the spring semester of 1959 she met the most influential poetry instructor in all her years of education, both formal and informal.  The course description read "Versification. Analysis of contemporary poetic techniques. Manuscripts read and discussed in class." At about this time, Robert Lowell's influential collection
Life Studies was published and he was likely already composing the poems for his next book of original poetry, For the Union Dead, which he published in 1964, the year after Plath's death. Plath first met Lowell in May 1958 at a reading. Reading up on Lowell before the event, Plath wrote in her journal that she had an "oddly similar reaction (excitement, joy, admiration…)" that she had reading Ted Hughes's poems two years earlier (Unabridged Journals 379). In January 1959, just before the classes began, she wrote that Lowell's poetry "is like a good strong shocking brandy (465)"

Life Studies, Lowell achieves perfection in his use of nostalgia as a literary device to convey a personal-historical narrative and I feel Plath learned how to write a successful kind of nostalgic poem herself which had previously eluded her.  There are nostalgic elements to many of her fine, earlier poems. But, ever the impressive student, Plath thus learned her craft from a master (she wrote once, "I need a master, several masters"); certainly much more than she learned as she crafted poems in the styles of W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, and Dylan Thomas, who all served at one point also as a "master" (274). After auditing Lowell's course and moving permanently to England, she was able to successful tap into her own source of original nostalgia.

Plath's more successful nostalgic poetry started appearing in late 1960, when she composed "Candles" and a poem that remains unpublished, "Home Thoughts from London."  In London in the Fall of 1960, she writes in "Home Thoughts" of longing for the colorful New England autumns, and of hurricanes named for women and those rivalrous rites of American passage: high school football games. In "Candles," I see a more direct link with Lowell.  Plath remembers "my maternal grandmother from Vienna. / As a schoolgirl she gave roses to Franz Josef." Plath had written about family before in poems such as "All the Dear Dears" and "Point Shirley," the latter written coincidentally during Lowell's course. However, the particular familial, nostalgic style of musing Plath started using in 1960 I feel she learned wholly from Lowell's poems in
Life Studies. To be more precise, it was through Lowell's worldlier and more privileged perspective and his use of European experiences and locations to place his childhood both in context of actual events and those passed down from earlier generations. And although "Candles" was written about a year and a half after she left Lowell's tutelage, it shows that no matter a lengthy gestation, the reward is a fulfilled poem.  What follows in this paper is Plath-centric: I shed Lowell. However, the root of Plath's later writing which I discuss can most certainly be credited more to Lowell's influence than that of just about any other writer she read.


Anonymous said...

Interesting your notes on nostalgia and Plath, which I think is
connected in some way to the "sentimentality" that Plath accused her mother of indulging, and which Hughes accused Plath of indulging. Plath was trying to avoid it in her works as a result it seems, but nostalgia was part of her works from the beginning, especially for her youth, which was in the end transformed into the great essays such as Ocean 1212W, a "hard" or unsentimental look at childhood.

-Grace M.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you for your comment Grace. I know what you mean about the "sentimentality". In Letters Home after her return to England in late 1959, the letters are relativity full of sentimentality - or nostalgia - for things American. Magazines, kitchen stuff, etc. But I think a lot of the sentimentality Hughes was critical of was with regard to Plath's targeted writing for women's magazines, particularly the short stories (which Luke Ferretter looks at in his Sylvia Plath's Fiction: A Critical Study). But that being the case I do think the two are connected as you suggest.

Anyway, as soon as Aurelia Plath left in August 1962 and the marriage broke-up, boy did Plath do an about face on everything that she was once nostalgic for; especially the poor Ladies Home Journal and other women's magazines.

Yes, when I read your comment about "Ocean 1212-W", I also thought of its companion, "America! America!", which is equally nostalgic but where as "Ocean" is written in a high literary style (really, in a poet's prose), "America! America!" is an intentionally mocking, and hysterically funny recollection of the same childhood Plath portrays more seriously in "Ocean 1212-W".

It makes me think about the novel that Plath was working on, and this might be tangential but please forgive me... her prose matured so much from The Bell Jar to "Ocean", didn't it? This is I think in part due to her professional prose, such as the reviews she wrote for the New Statesman, the introduction she wrote to American Poetry Now, the radio review of Donald Hall's Contemporary American Poetry, and other opportunities in criticism. And it makes me really wonder how good that lost novel was going to be.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

It makes me wonder if perhaps that novel is presently sealed away, to be reopened from the vault in 2013!

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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 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, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • 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: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • 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.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (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, Volume 1, 1940-1956. 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. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • 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. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • 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. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.