25 February 2012

Review of How to Write About Sylvia Plath by Kimberly Crowley

The "Introduction" by Harold Bloom notwithstanding, there is much to like about Kimberly Crowley's How to Write About Sylvia Plath. A book specifically built for library shelves and written for student readers, Crowley writes an accessible book which is easy to read and to follow, and which should help students jump start their ideas in writing about Sylvia Plath's prose and poetry.

The book begins with a long chapter called "How to Write a Good Essay" which culminates in the printing of what should pass for a good essay and is followed by "How to Write About Sylvia Plath." It is not the cleanest written text, and what I mean by that is there are instances throughout where bad information is conveyed. For example, Plath did not die on 10 February 1963, as page 51 would have you believe. The section "Her Influences" is completely misguided. Rather than looking at those writers from whom Plath learned (Stevens, Eliot, Lawrence, Hughes, Yeats, etc.), Crowley focuses on those writers whom Plath influenced (such as Catherine Bowman) and how Plath has infiltrated popular culture. It is only about three pages, but it is a miserable experience. Crowley often applies the title of biographer to a number of critics she quotes. These scholars, Lynda K. Bundtzen, Kathleen Connors, Pamela Annas, and Jacqueline Rose are not biographers of Plath, and in general assigning them as such is careless. The niggling errors are scattered throughout the book, and to experienced readers of Plath, it begins to get under the skin as students will look to this work for guidance in the essays they write. As an editor of Plath Profiles - which loves to publish student papers - I shudder to think that on the one hand the book is filled with lovely ideas to help students who may be on their first Plathian journey, but on the other had may be the first resource they encounter and may start them off with bad habits (bad information).

Crowley examines just one story, "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dream," six poems "The Colossus," "The Moon and the Yew Tree," "Ariel," "Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," and "Three Women;" as well as Plath's lone published novel, The Bell Jar. Each work discussed contains the following headings "Reading to Write" and "Topics and Strategies." The "Topics and Strategies" has sub-headings that look at "Themes," "Characters," "History and Context," Philosophy and Ideas," "Form and Genre," "Language, Symbols, and Imagery," and "Compare and Contrast Essays." Each section offers ample examples of Plath's writing, a discussion about the work, and a section of questions and topical ideas to lead students directly into the work discussed, additional Plath works, and other works, too. After each work discussed there is a list of bibliographic sources. This is fine, but the book lacks a complete bibliography at the end which makes it very difficult to track down the sources referenced. A full bibliography is very much missed and counts against the book and the series.

Publishers have a responsibility that is often ignored to publish good quality, factually accurate information. There is a lot of bad information out there, but there is also good, accurate information too. And there are people out there, myself included, that care enough about Plath that they get frustrated when this bad information is disseminated as authoritative. So, publishers and editors: get an literature expert or a Plath scholar to read these books in the editing/proofing process to correct this persistent issue. I will not get into every single instance where the book fails to impress, but when Crowley asserts in the section of "Lady Lazarus" that both this poem and "Daddy" are villanelles, I laugh and draw the line. Crowley writes, "Although this poem does not follow the [villanelle] pattern completely, Plath's poetry is considered by many to be a contemporary form of the villanelle" (181-182). Crowley sites this page from poets.org in which Plath is listed as a writer the villanelle and asks, "How has Plath updated the villanelle for a twentieth-century audience" (182)? She then quotes a passage from Plath's Journals (8 March 1956) in which Plath writes "I rail and rage against the taking of my father, whom I have never known; even in my mind, his heart, his face...My villanelle was to my father; and the best one" (page 230). This is most likely "Lament: A Villanelle" which begins, "The sting of bees took away my father / who walked in a swarming shroud of wings / and scorned the tick of the falling weather." However, instead of sorting out which poem Plath was referring to, Crowley hits 88 mph which activates her flux capacitor (at a charge, a very large charge of 1.21 gigawatts) and leaps to the future asking, "How does Plath's use of the form in 'Daddy' compare with her use of it in 'Lady Lazarus'" (182)? No. Just no.

The only reasons I can think of to make the erroneous connection that "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" were villanelles are: A. Laziness/unfamiliarity with the subject and B. That by clicking the link to Plath's name on that Poetic Form: Villanelle page on poets.org you eventually can read "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" on that website. However, that is no excuse, and the possible ways of thinking of them as villanelles and linking a 1956 journal entry about a 1955 poem to poems written in 1962 are mysterious.

"Lament" was published in October 1955 in the New Orleans Poetry Journal. You can see the cover of this issue here.

4 comments :

PHD said...

Brilliant review as always Peter! Perhaps the book is aimed squarely at the generation of students who think Wikipedia is a valid source for references? I simply cannot believe the fundamental blunders the author has made - completely unacceptable. Perhaps this book is worth avoiding?

BridgetAnna said...

I just read the section on Sylvia Plath in the book "Death Becomes Them" by Alex Strauss and it, too, was filled with so much misinformation it made me squeamish. I mean, even the worst biography of Plath out there has the basic facts straight - why don't these secondary sources try a little harder if they are clearly going to be much-read (and, in turn, much quoted) due to the subject and nature of their article/book (i.e. Sylvia Plath, major literary and "cult" figure of the twentieth century)? Ugh!

Thanks for the heads up on the book, Peter!

-Bridget

Peter K Steinberg said...

PHD- Thanks for your comment! I think there are some really good aspects to the book but hopefully the students using it will have the energy and motivation to use additional sources for their research.

Bridget! Long time no comment! Yes, the Strauss chapter is simply, purely unforgivable.

pks

Jess McCort said...

Thanks for the review. I've been thinking about this book for students working in my Critical Issues course, in which we read -Ariel-. I think I'll have them read the work I know I admire and trust instead. J

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