25 February 2012
Review of How to Write About Sylvia Plath by Kimberly Crowley
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.
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.
- 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)
- Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
- Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, 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. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
- Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
- Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
- 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. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- 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. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.