27 October 2012

Sylvia Plath 2012 Symposium Day 4, Part 1: The Morning

This morning's panels and presentations by Maeve O'Brien, Christine Walde, and Karen Kukil was better than coffee. Below are rough notes taken during the talks and are relatively raw. But it is more important to get this out than worry about finesse, perhaps.

Maeve O'Brien's presentation: "'Something in me said, now, you must see this': reconciling death and 'the empty beaches of memory' in 'Berck-Page'", brought much attention to "Berck-Plage", what she terms a "notoriously difficult" poem. Reframe poem to focus on new themes in the poem. So many of the things at Berck are still there, which gives a tangible grasp of what Plath saw and experienced. O'Brien cited the work of Gail Crowther ("The Playfulness of Time") as well as Anita Helle and others.

Silence - what Plath mentions, but also what is absent from her poetry. What is not revealed in the beach scene in Plath's "Berck-Plage"? Friction between what she expresses and leaves silent. Plath negotiates language on two different levels. War and holocaust imagery more bold after "Berck-Plage", though she touched on this topic in her earlier poems, such as "The Thin People".

First three parts, Plath does not directly mention the war, which by its absence from the poem makes itself apparent. "Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding?" the scene is grotesque and unnatural. Surroundings described in an abstract way. She can feel the hurt and the memories of the pain around her, but does not know why. Distant from memory, history and compassion. Speaker articulates the futility to reconcile the past.

It is at this point where Plath displaces the focus on the beach to the "vanishing" to whom she is in close proximity. This humanizes the speaker. "Plath does not describe around the death of the vanishing man. Instead she is able to keenly observe every small nuance of the scene in a soft, human and almost loving manner."

Seeing Percy Key die gave her first hand experience with death: her father and grandmother's passing were done so at a distance, or, at least, not in her presence. The speaker can then process death more completely, more compassionately. This gives contextual framework to the death and trauma she felt at Berck-Plage.

Plath's artistic response seems to transcend human response. "Plath uses alternative artistic routes to interrogate the difficult and traumatic issues she wishes to explore. She allowed her experience of individual death to inform how she could begin to process mass mechancial and anonymous slaughter."

Christine Walde's spoke on "'The Black Car' poetry on the Plath/Hughes 1959 trip to Canada." Sylvia Plath's archive - and especially her library - has been a tremendous influence on Walde's interest in Plath and to her own poetry. The many references to Lethe throughout has had a particular resonance. Walde read her own original poetry, as well as her artistic response to Plath's use of Canada and Lethe in "Two Campers in Cloud Country," "Amnesiac," and "Getting There." Chrstine has a series of "Rock Lake" poems, inspired by Plath's "Crossing the Water", which was originally titled "Rock Lake at Night". Walde has a personal connection to Rock Lake, it being a location she has spent time in. This gives authenticity to her poems and a unique position to understand the imagery in Plath's Canada poems and her cross-country trip with Ted Hughes from the summer of 1959. Part of Walde's poetric process includes addressing her creative works to both Plath and Hughes. The poems Walde read where movingly beautiful, a fitting tribute to Plath: and among the most original poems on the subject of Plath (and inspired by Plath) that I have ever heard or read.

At 10 o'clock, Karen V. Kukil spoke on Plath’s archival references to "Fever 103°." Talk began discussing Paul ROche and his teaching position at Smith College, how he had a background in and with Duncan Grant & Virginia Woolf. Smith College recently acquired four letters from Plath to the Roche's written from Court Green. March 12, 1962 is the first letter. Plath discusses the Bell Jar in the letter, which is a general rarity in her correspondence. The second letter is dated July 11, 1962, just after the affair was realized. On October 19, Plath's letter is a big revelation about the break-up of the marriage. A very candid letter about the state of things: mentioning her 103 degree fevers. The next morning Plath wrote the first draft of 103. The Roche's visited the weekend of 17th November. Clarissa visited Plath in the first weekend of January 1963,

The discussion of Fever 103 highlights both the biographical and cultural references present in the poem. In an abandoned poem called "Fever" written after the birth of Nicholas Hughes lacked a theme of universal suffering, world annihilation and such that would be present in the later poem, "Fever 103". Very interesting take on an editing decision made by Hughes to the end of the poem. Not him, nor him / nor him nor him" became "not him, nor him / not him, nor him" which disrupts the 3 repetitions of "Nor him" a familiar trope and device in Plath's poetry. Other images in the poem may harken from her 1953 course "The WOrld of Atoms" and a course in Medieval Literature where she read, among others, Chaucer, The Confessions of St. Augustine and Dante, the latter is a particular influence on the poem and is represented quite explicitly.
Karen Kukil calls Fever 103 by Sylvia Plath's "Blow torch virgin poem." Fever 103 is filled with "e" sounds just as "Daddy" is filled with "oo" sounds.

Brilliant paper and slideshow. If you missed it: you missed it!

2 comments :

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

Thanks so very much for all of your write-ups on the Plath Symposium, Peter. It's invaluable information for people like me who wish they could have gone!! I was glad to read that the rebirth motif in Plath's work is generally accepted, having just finished reading Chapters in a Mythology and finding it spot on. I know Graves's work well having based my own doctoral dissertation on it.Thanks again for the reading list you provided, which I am working through with an ever growing sense of wonder at the erudition and complexity of this poet's mind.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I am really hoping to see these papers published in a future Plath Profiles.

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