19 March 2012

Review of Poetic Memory by Uta Gosmann

Review of Uta Gosmann, Poetic Memory: The Forgotten Self in Plath, Howe, Hinsey, and Glück (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2012), 243 pages. $85. ISBN: 978-1-61147-036-9.

Poetic memory, according to Uta Gosmann, "posits that the self is more than the compound of a person's remembered biography" (1). It "reaches beyond the accountable facts of a life toward the notion of a self that is dynamic, expansive, and full of potential" (1). "Poetic memory" is an interesting theory and one that Gosmann defines and supports throughout her text with clear expertise and mastery.

Naturally I was very enthusiastic to read the Plath chapter, but I was equally as excited to dive into those on the poetry of the contemporary, living poets: Susan Howe, Ellen Hinsey, and Louise Glück. Howe and Hinsey were new to me; I had not previously read them. Glück is about the only living poet I take seriously, having an admiration and respect for her work that leaves me shuddering for its soulfulness, depth, and beauty.

Well-written, this is an academic book through and through. But it is neither stuffy nor full of itself, the way many academic tomes are. It is readable, enjoyable, and well argued. As a result, I finished the book happily with the impression that it was outside the scope of any meaningful criticism, and for those familiar with my reviews you know I like nothing better than to have something about which to be critical when it comes to Plath. Rather, I found the presentation of Hinsey's poems excellent and has lead me to want to read more of her work. The chapter on Glück is an absolute star. I cannot claim to fathom, understand, appreciate, or believe in psychoanalysis but I was absolutely riveted by Gosmann's reading of Glück's Averno.

There are two minor things which can be remotely criticized about the book, and in particular the Plath chapter. The first is petty: in introducing the poems by Plath which Gosmann will closely read, she introduces "The Colossus," "Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," and "Words," and then immediately launches into "Full Fathom Five." Why this was excluded I cannot … fully fathom (high five!). The only other thing I can muster is that I want more! The Plath chapter is good, but I felt that exploring those five was not enough. There are of course a plethora of Plath poems in which the poets' memories are recalled and that have that bit of controversy about them: are they personal/biographical?, confessional?, distortions/manipulations/appropriations?, chapters in a mythology?, etc.? Some poems that might have been included would be the "The Stones," "Dream with Clam-Diggers," "The Disquieting Muses," and "In Plaster." In fact, an examination of some of the lesser known poems - at this point - might have been refreshing. Plath was an intertextual writer and exploring her "poetic memory" might have been richer and deeper had the sources for the memories been explored in a more explicit fashion, especially given that Gosmann "posits that the self is more than the compound of a person's remembered biography." Plath's journals are - as Tracy Brain has rightly argued - "a writer's notebook where she tried out various tones and emotions. As journals so often are for writers, Plath's were a place to play with and store material that she would later use...There is too large a gap between Plath's 'real' experiences and the mediation of writing for us to use the Journals as simple documentary evidence of her mental state or emotions" (in Gill 143 ). At the same time, Susan Van Dyne writers "In her letters and journals as much as in her fiction and poetry, Plath’s habits of self-representation suggest that she regarded her life as if it were a text she could invent and rewrite" (in Gill 5). I think both of these statements argue positively that Plath's "poetic memory," as Gosmann theorizes, could have used other sources for support than just the poems.

In the poems of Plath's that Gosmann discusses, the narrator is "I". This often leaves to confusion/conflation between the poet and the speaker. As a person who dabbles in biographical readings of Plath, I enjoy discovering the biographical sources - when identifiable - to the poems as well as appreciating whatever other merits are there to the poems creation: technical aspects, etc. But how does "poetic memory" work with where the speaker is arguably Plath but is not "I"? For example in "Dream with Clam-Diggers" the subject of the poem is the third person singular "she," but it is undoubtedly Plath - or a persona of Plath. As a distancing measure, how does Plath's use of she - the omniscient point of view - match up to poetic memory? Just some thoughts...

At $80, this book is out of budget for many of Plath's readers and many of this blog's readers (no, I am not calling you all cheap), but getting it from the library is certainly a recommended option to read what is - plainly and simply - a good and original book.

2 comments :

Melanie Smith said...

I have yet to read this one but look forward to it. Thank you for your usual thoroughness and thoughtfulness Peter.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks Melanie!!
pks

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