17 January 2013

Guest Post: Review of Sylvia Plath Poems Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy

The following is a guest post book review by Susan McMichael of Australia. Many, many thanks to Susan for writing this for us!

Review of Sylvia Plath Poems Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy
by Susan McMichael

In the late '80s, I began collecting poetry anthologies in which Sylvia Plath was represented, looking at how she was perceived as a poet. 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus' were often represented in the late 70s and early 80s, but as the 80s turned to the nineties, there were many more poems used and often ones which were not from Ariel.

Now that we now have Plath's Collected Poems, what is the point of anthologizing and selecting her when we can just read the entire oeuvre? For any poet, a good Selected should have a purpose, give a range of a poet's work and a good Selected, can take a keen or interested reader to further work: more poetry; stories; letters.

A good Selection always has my favourite poems in it....or reminds me of my favourite poem so that I can go to the Collected Poems and read it too.

Ted Hughes did a lot for Sylvia Plath's work: if in the eighties like many people I wondered what poems were lost, what was left out, I admired what he did for Plath's poetry by keeping her poetry in the public view and championing her as a poet. I have however, always been irritated by the 'Publisher's Notes', in the front of all of Plath's works, which have always tried to distance themselves from the choices that Hughes has made and by the nature of the third person notes, scream, I have left poems out!

Hughes' Selected Poems (Faber & Faber, 1985) beginning three poems, 'Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper', 'Spinster' and 'Maudlin' locates Plath as nasty and anti-female and this book ends with 'Edge' and 'Words', which remind the reader of the biographical nature of Plath's poetry.

This edition doesn't show Plath's development as a writer as well, nor give as interesting a range of poems as I think is possible. It is too constrained with thinking: what can't I say, what can't I put in. It nonetheless gives a good example of Plath's technical ability.

Middlebrook's Poems (Knopf, 1998) suffers from the opposite problem: the book has 255 pages and as much as I love Plath's poetry, by the time I got to 'Three Women' I wanted to scream: 'Stop! I have the Collected'. I don't think this is the response you want in a reader and I'm sorry about this, because I think Middlebrook had good intentions with her selection.

Middlebrook gives a much better idea of Plath as a woman poet with a wider range of Plath's children and mother poems than the Hughes'. If this phrase seems out of date or not necessary these days, when Plath began her writing, her poems such as 'Stillborn', 'Candles' 'Zoo Keeper's Wife', 'Face Lift' and 'Morning Song' were all novel ways of writing when Plath's work was first published.

In Middlebrook's selection we understand Plath's work in terms of structure and development much better- the Ariel poems didn't just come out of nowhere.

Having said that, I reiterate, there are far too many poems for a coherent Selected. The 'Bee' poems are good, but which of them represent Plath best? All of them are Middlebrook's choice...Why does Middlebrook, if she wants to portray Plath in a more positive light and to try and lose the suicidal-poet version of Plath, end with 'Edge'? She has all the poems that Plath wrote, published in the Collected Poems, from 1963…

The newest edition of Plath's selected poems, Poems is edited by the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. What I like best about this version, is that Duffy has chosen and thought about her subject: Duffy chooses 'Poems, Potatoes', because this poem represents various things about Plath's work: It is an early poem; it shows that Plath is aware of poetry as an art form; it shows poetry as work, it shows Plath as a craftsperson and, it's funny. It also shows how Plath works with form and helps the reader to see how Plath broke the form in the Ariel poems; it also took time to get there.

Plath's poetic development is shown well with the three sections. This avoids the sense that the Ariel poems came from nowhere. The first section begins with work from early 1956: 'Ode to Ted', and ends the section with the Colossus poem, 'Mushrooms'. The second begins with the 1960 poem 'You're' and ends with the 1962 poem 'Poppies in July'. The last section starts with the poignant 'For a Fatherless Son' and the final of the poem of the book is 'Child.' Thus, the new Selection doesn't shy away from biographical poems, like Ted Hughes' Selected (1985), nor is it overwhelmed by what to leave out, like the Diane Middlebrook book from 1998.

There are seventy five poems in this book; it's a solid selection. Duffy represents Plath's work well, stylistically and thematically. She has chosen poems that represent Plath in different and interesting ways. For example, Duffy gives us a sense of Plath as a poet concerned with children in a wide variety of ways.

The new choice represents Plath with an introduction. Unlike Hughes' brief note in the 1985 edition, Duffy discusses how Plath has been presented over a number of years and places her in context. She thinks about which poems will represent Plath best: choosing poems which show Plath's use of colour, a variety of themes, children and nature, the raging Ariel poems, funny poems like 'Fiesta Melons', Plath's different books, and stages.

The book itself is actually very beautiful: design of the book is interesting: thought has gone into the colour and jacket of the Duffy Selection. I was sorry that there is a typo on page 116 in 'Nick and the Candlestick' ('The last of Vittoriana' rather than 'The last of Victoriana'); however, as 'The Munich Mannequins' so aptly observes a few pages later: 'Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children'.

However, best of all I think, Duffy has thought about her subject and structured the poems. This includes some of Plath's poems from 1963: the last poem in this Selected is 'Child': 'Your clear eye is the one beautiful thing. / I want to fill it with color and ducks'.

'Child' is not a joyful poem; it is meditative, wondering, and fearful; ending with: 'this dark / Ceiling without a star.' It locates Plath a poet interested in social issues and people.

This book makes me want to go and reread my favourite Sylvia Plath poems: is it 'Mary's Song', which isn't in there? Or, is it one of the ones that is included? I'm not sure, but new readers of Plath's work will find in Duffy's selection a satisfying mix of fabulous poetry: they will discover a funny and tender and raging poet.

Readers who know Plath's work will be pleased to find an interesting mix of poems which remind them why they love Sylvia Plath's poetry and we all might well be tempted to go the shelf and find our favourite Plath poem...

Books reviewed:
Sylvia Plath Poems Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy
London: Faber and Faber, 2012. ISBN: 9780571290437
Edition: Hardback; No. of pages: 160

Sylvia Plath's Selected Poems edited by Ted Hughes
London: Faber and Faber, 1985. ISBN: 9780571135868
Edition: Paperback; No. of pages: 96

Plath: Poems. Selected by Diane Wood Middlebrook.
New York: Knopf, Distributed by Random House, 1998. ISBN: 0375404643
Edition: Hardback; No. of pages: 255

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,
Nice post, thanks for this! Makes me want think about my favourite poem (it changes....all the time!)

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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." 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.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • 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.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (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. 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. 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.