06 September 2012

Paul Mitchell's Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Negativity

There is no need to make reading poetry more difficult than it may already be. Paul Mitchell does this in his 2011 book Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Negativity. If ever there was a book that made me relish the writing being critiqued, it is Mitchell's with its excessively intricate obtuseness. It is not completely his fault; for through his application of Kristevan theories of the poetics of language (and my own imbecility), completely accessible writing such as Plath's is made unreadable. In fact unrecognizable.

The "Introduction" and first chapter lulled me into a false sense of complacency. The second chapter, which introduces the theories of Julia Kristeva quickly turned me off. In the Introduction and first chapter Mitchell offers a fairly comprehensive review of Plath scholarship from the 1960s and 1970s through the very present: 2011 in fact. These are very worthwhile reads though the tone of the writing is quite pompous.

In the second chapter, it was this set of sentences that made me shut the book for good:

"All of these concerns may be understood in terms of the thetic - the constitution of the subject through symbolic stratification (maternal repression, the imposition of the signifier-signified dyad and logico-semantic articulation) against its destruction by the irruption of semiotic drives, psychosis and fusion with the phallic mother; and these are enacted at every level of the text's intra-linguistic nexus (semantic, lexical, syntactic and phonological)."

Oh wait: that was one sentence, not a set of sentences. This kind of writing should be illegal. In the margin I bracketed this sentence with three letters and a mark of punctuation: WTF?

I did not finish the book and am disappointed that the writing was not good, clear writing. What's up with that cover? Seriously? Makes S. V. look good!


Alice in East Washington said...

I didn't even read that sentence. Ugh.

Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D. said...

Not sure this went through: Peter, I'm writing a chapter on Plath and Hughes right now in a larger scheme about dissociative experiences in poets: Ouija board, seances, automatic writing, voices. I've read the journals, the letters, the poetry, the short stories, The Bell Jar, Rose, Koren and Negev, Middlebrook, Alexander, Bloom, Vendler, Materer, Sword, tons of neuroscience on ECT and depression. I read Ferretter's article on the ECT; I see he has a book too, which I just ordered. What other books do you suggest are a must read for ways into her mind and creativity?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Jess - You're better off for not reading that sentence.

Carole - Thanks for your comment. Your approach to Plath and Hughes through the scheme of dissociative experiences in poets sounds wonderful. Books that I and found helpful include Heather Clark's The Grief of Influence, Nancy Hargrove's The Journey Toward Ariel, Judith Kroll's Chapters in a Mythology, and Gayle Wurst's Voice and Vision: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. I should say that I don't know whether these volumes will be at all helpful, but they are among my favorites.


Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D. said...

Thanks so much, Peter, for your thoughtful suggestions. That's just what I needed! I'll get on it.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm gonna have a bash at this. I think what he is getting at is that in her poems, Plath sets up a thing and writes about it in a particular way with imagery and meanings and at the same time works against this by conjuring up other things (images, meanings) that are opposed to the established thing and she does this in her choice of words, their ordering, meanings and sounds. Could have just said that instead of the unholy alliance of Hegel, Kristeva, Saussure and Freud that lurk in this word salad. Now, I'm off to read my Margaret Drabble novel. She, at least, can string a sentence together without causing the reader's eyeballs to bleed. G'night Peter! Cath

Peter K Steinberg said...

Cath- Thanks so much for your comment. In plain English it makes sense. Almost. I'm just too generally educated to get it... As this is the case, thanks for keeping it relatively monosyllabic! Perhaps I'm spoiled by my involvement in Plath Profiles in which it is an unspoken mission to make all writing on Plath accessible (though, perhaps our essays are too dumbed-down for higher intellects!).

All jesting aside, I do appreciate your comment and am sincere that it does help.


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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.