The following is a review of Panel 5: "Plath's Influences: Sexton and Lowell, the Qabalah" and was kindly attended by and written up by Bridget Anna Lowe, author of the Plath Profiles 5 essay "Burning Free: Sylvia Plath's Summer 1962 Bonfires and the Strange Case of the Surviving Christmas Card".
I had the pleasure this morning of attending the Sylvia Plath Symposium's Panel #5 on the topic of "Plath's influence on/from other poets." The panel, which was comprised of three speakers, presented their papers in the following order: Sarah-Jane Burton on "Literary Influence and the Boston Trio: Plath, Lowell and Sexton;" KatieRose Keenan on "Plath and Sexton's Mutual Influence;" and, finally, last but certainly not least, Julia Gordon-Bramer on "Plath's Ariel: The Feminine Arrow into the Apocalypse."
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Speaking first on the panel was Sarah-Jane Burton; in the approximately twenty minutes she was allotted, Burton discussed in some depth the 1959 Boston-trio of poets which consisted of Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. The three poets came together serendipitously in the spring of that year when Plath and Sexton, then strangers to one another, audited a Boston University poetry course taught by the renowned poet Robert Lowell.
As Burton writes in the synopsis of her paper (as provided in the Symposium's Program guide), "Through a discussion of the details of this period  and an analysis of the limited critical attention it has received, [Burton's paper/presentation] aims to illuminate the influential relationships between Lowell, Sexton and Plath, thus reevaluating Plath's writing from the time and presenting a new theoretical lens through which to view all three poets."
Lowell was clearly the lynchpin of the trio; it was his poetry course that brought the three poets and personalities together, with special attention paid by Burton to the meeting of, and subsequent mutual influences upon, Sexton and Plath in particular. Without Lowell's course, Plath and Sexton might very well have never met and interacted on the friendly, comradely level they did, despite their having grown up so near each other in Wellesley, MA.
Burton's main question she posited was the following: "Would [Plath's and Sexton's] careers have been the same without each other?" To which she answered, definitively, "No." Burton then went on to explain this resolute answer of hers, thereby providing the meat of her following presentation, by detailing and describing the women's influences on one another, especially Sexton's influence on Plath.
Burton set up her analysis of the three poets’ respective personalities, lives, and writing styles by describing letters written by Sexton, Lowell, and Plath. This correspondence includes letters written to, and between, one another; i.e. Lowell and Plath wrote to each other about Sexton, and Lowell and Sexton wrote to each other about Plath (but did Sexton and Plath write to each other about Lowell?).
She also spoke about the various ways in which the three poets, many years after the poetry class had ended, made public their feelings and impressions about the said poetry class: Sexton wrote a memoir about Plath and her time spent with Plath during class and afterwards at the Ritz; Lowell wrote the introduction to Plath's Ariel; and Plath recorded a revealing interview with the BBC's Peter Orr in which she discussed the respect she had for Lowell and Sexton as anti-gentility influences.
Burton elucidated the fact that Plath and Sexton had vastly different life experiences in some respects, while in others their experiences were very similar. For instance, in terms of their differences, Sexton never went to college whereas Plath was a star-pupil who excelled at Smith. Regarding their similarities, Plath and Sexton were both depressives who spent time in mental institutions; the two women even bonded by discussing their own respective suicide attempts over martinis at the Ritz in Boston.
Burton said, and n.b. this isn't verbatim, "It was as if the three poets were meant to meet each other. They were all hungry for experience. Plath, like Sexton, was ready for the fire--of writing, of the [poetry] class [taught by Lowell]."
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KatieRose Keenan was the second speaker at the morning panel; the title of her presentation, as mentioned before, was "Plath and Sexton's Mutual Influence." Keenan's presentation fit ever so neatly and nicely in sequence with Burton's earlier presentation which also included the mutual influence of Plath on Sexton and vice-versa (albeit Burton additionally incorporated Lowell into her triangle-of-poetic-influence).
For me, the last sentence of Keenan's synopsis provided in the Symposiums's program guide best sums up the gist of her presentation: "Weeks before the Ariel poems had begun to be written, Sexton had given Plath an advance copy of her second book, All My Pretty Ones (1962). Sexton had already mastered the art of confessional free verse poetry and could have inspired Plath, who was going through hard times, to take off the emotional mask she often presented to the outside world and dive headfirst into her poetry."
Keenan began her presentation by introducing herself as someone who has been "mildly obsessed with Plath and Sexton." She said that she is "fascinated by their relationship" but also that they were "so different" from one another. Her obsession with Plath began when she was 12 years old and came across a copy of Ariel in her library; she subsequently kept the library book, never returning it and leaving it delinquent. She brought with her up to the podium this same beat-up, much-loved copy of Ariel.
Keenan initially set-up and compared Sexton's poem "My Friend, My Friend" with the similarly arranged poem "Daddy" by Plath. Keening supposed that it was possible that Sexton had brought "My Friend, My Friend" to Lowell's 1959 poetry class (see: above description of Lowell's poetry class included in section on Burton's presentation) to share; "Daddy", as we know, was famously written in October 1962. What was the extent of Plath's debt to Sexton in terms of these two similar poems? This was a question I wish I had asked of Keening during the Q&A period.
As well, Keenan discussed the women's differing personalities and appearances, both of which were in stark contrast from one woman to the other. Sexton was, and I quote Keenan's lighthearted comment here, a "hot mess" who dressed well and stylishly, whereas Plath was business-like and dressed herself with a utilitarian sensibility in mind.
Keenan said that she had asked herself what "spurned [this] transition" in Plath's work, the "transition" being the change from her earlier, restrained Colossus-poems to her angry Ariel-poems; it was from this question that the thesis of her paper was born. Keenan said that this "transition" has never been discussed at length, and her paper was written in response to this perceived need.
In regards to Sexton's influence upon Plath, Keenan put it like this: Plath's early poems (i.e. the poems she wrote before, during, and shortly after the Lowell class) showed "restraint and calculation." It was only after the Lowell class and meeting Sexton, however, when Plath's poetry took a significant change in direction, one building up towards the "unbridled rage" we see in her Ariel poems. It is Keenan's contention that Sexton was at least partly responsible for this drastic transformation in Plath's poetic work, her former "tendency to hide her inner turmoil."
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Julia Gordon-Bramer was the third and last speaker of the morning's panel. Her presentation, "Plath's 'Ariel': The Feminine Arrow into the Apocalypse," "explores the fifteenth and title poem from Ariel, examining the numerical correlative Tarot card, Temperance, as the poem matched with Temperance's meanings and symbols" (Plath Program Guide, synopsis). The presentation was excerpted from a larger essay entitled "Fixed Stars Govern a Life: The Mystic Reinterpretation of the Work of Sylvia Plath."
Admittedly, I am totally naiive to Tarot and Qabalah so my attempting to explain and summarize Gordon-Bramer's presentation would be futile. Therefore, I will let Julia's synopsis do the talking:
The poem 'Ariel' is matched directly to the six facets of Qabalah: Hebrew/Tarot correlations; alchemy; mythology; history and the world; astrology and astronomy; and arts and the humanities. [...] This presentation will take the reader line-by-line [through 'Ariel'] to reveal the Hebrew, gematria, and numerological correspondences, as well as an occult initiation rite. Plath wove in details of classical literature such as King Arthur and The Little Mermaid, and Irish Medieval, Celtic, Norse, and Babylonian myth in celebration of female power and fire. [...] Perhaps what is most impressive however is the juxtaposition of the real-life history of the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the sideline tales of American fighter pilots and female foreign correspondents. [...] Most have understood the poem 'Ariel' to be about a wild ride on a runaway horse. And that might still be true, as one small and less-significant meaning. We have always known that 'Ariel' is one of Plath's greatest poems. Now, it is time to understand why.
I was most impressed with the way certain parts and lines from 'Ariel' corresponded so closely with certain aspects of World War II and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For instance, the incomplete-phrase "And now I" from 'Ariel' may signify the red "eye" ("I") (or circle) on the flag of Japan. Also relating to red "eye" ("I")s, besides the red circle on the flag, are the red eyes of those people who survived radiation from the bombs--the radiation turned their eyes red.
I asked Gordon-Bramer at the Q&A section of the panel, again naiively, if she meant to say that Plath had written 'Ariel' with an eye (“I”?) towards consciously relating the poem to the Tarot and Qabalah etc, or was it just pure coincidence? Gordon-Bramer's response? "Both. The link is both divine and conscious."
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As I write this review of the morning’s panel, it is late and it has been a long day; I am sure I have not done justice to these three women’s presentations: each was excellent, insightful, and intelligent. Just lovely. Thank you Sarah-Jane, KatieRose, and Julia.
-Bridget Anna Lowe.
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)
- 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. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- 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. 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
- 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. "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. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
- "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.