This is newness: every little tawdryI am a fool. I admit it, I am a fool. I have been fooled. And likely not even for the last time. All year I've been fooled. So much media coverage on Sylvia Plath! It was supposed to be a sort of a dream year for the Plath scholar and fan. I was supposed to be having the time of my life...
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint's falsetto.
...that's all there was to read about in the papers -- goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me...
Each Google News Alert sent my heart aflutter! Instead, it's turned into something else: my worst nightmare! Article after article after article on Plath: all saying the same thing. That is: all saying nothing! All promising sounding with sexy titles (and a few sexy authors) but nearly all delivering cliched, old-school, boring, emptiness. The Guardian kind of started it off pitting Olwyn Hughes against Elizabeth Sigmund. Again. The most recent appeared online Friday and in the Sunday 5 May 2013 print edition of the Sunday New York Times.
In regard to this recent article "Seeing Sylvia Plath with New Eyes" by Liesl Schillinger. I let out a rather big yawn. The article hit the usual, boilerplate facts: 50th anniversary of The Bell Jar, 50th anniversary of since her suicide, the estranged husband; the manuscript of poems...etc. All in the first paragraph. Nothing new there.
Second paragraph highlights the (reprisal) reading of Plath's own Ariel spearheaded by Frieda Hughes and including a line-up of only women...nothing new there. Remember when Ariel: The Restored Edition was published in 2004? Yeah, there was a public reading of the poems in New York City at that time... with an all-star line-up, too! And one that included men readers. (Read one such article on it; and another for good measure).
The third paragraph gets into some new material: certainly a new name (to me) in the Plathosphere. It's wonderful that Plath-length courses are being taught at the university level, but some overused keywords such as "problem," "insane," "depressive," "cutter", and "rage" blight the attempt to portray newness. Why is the "problem" of Plath the focus of the course? Why not teach the "solution"? And what is the course description? It's not stated at all in the article. Alas, I have found it...
The Problem of Sylvia Plath
How do we read a poet whose biography has overwhelmed the reputation of the work? In this course we will examine the nature of literary fame and read Plath's poems and fiction with a fresh and critical attention. We will study Ariel - Plath's posthumously published masterpiece in the edition assembled by her husband Ted Hughes, and compare it to the recently restored, facsimile edition assembled prior to her death by Plath herself. We will also read Plath's journals, letters, stories and novel. Additionally, we will read criticism, poems by Ted Hughes and parts of the one "official" biography of Plath - Bitter Fame, by Anne Stevenson. Prerequisites: None.
Well, largely the course description sounds same-old, same-old. Would love to know what the outcome of it is... "Fresh critical attention"? Like what? 1989's Bitter Fame? It is 2013, right? If he uses the 1998 reissue of Plath's abridged journals...well...I quit. In the rest of the article, additional hackneyed words appear, such as: "macabre," "tragedy," and "neurotic" to name a few.
The Tweeter in the fourth paragraph is a novel idea, but, it's not new and not newsworthy. If anything, Schillinger's alerted the estate of Sylvia Plath to a potential copyright violation! I get that the person that started @itssylviaplath is bringing Plath's words to the larger context of social media...but any search through Twitter for Plathian references may quickly lead one to be bored... Certainly what they find are stereotypical reactions, tasteless references to Plath's death, etc. The reference to Lena Dunham & her "obsession" again harkens back to a stereotypical way of referring to Plath's readers. But it also opens a sore wound for me. Not only is the forthcoming reading of Ariel all women: but that Dunham piece from The Guardian was also only female voices. In fact, the presence in Schillinger's article of Bennington professor Mark Wunderlich was refreshing: but he was the only male mentioned and interviewed. (I don't count references to Bill Clinton, Ted Hughes, or Muhammed Ali, etc. etc.) A "new" way to see Sylvia Plath would be more balanced with male and female voices represented from many countries. Come on New York Times!
Now, the article makes wonderful use of Elizabeth Winder's recent book Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. But, what about Carl Rollyson's American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath and Andrew Wilson's Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted. Both of which, like Winder, benefited by "[d]rawing from a trove of interviews, correspondence and diaries." Both Rollyson and Wilson present "new" photographic images of Sylvia Plath on the covers of their books (and inside, too). This is the more literal, new way to "see" Plath and far, far from the old way of seeing her. It seems to me that a host of other publications might have been mentioned that have made valuable, massive and "new" contributions to the literature on Sylvia Plath & the way her is perceived and received. A few are: Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual (edited by Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley), The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath (edited by Anita Helle), Plath Profiles, Representing Sylvia Plath (edited by Tracy Brain and Sally Bayley), and The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (by Heather Clark), for starters.
At the very end there is a slight shift towards Plath's poetics in quotes by Tracy K. Smith and Meghan O'Rourke, but there was nothing really "new" in them. In large part, I think the way Sylvia Plath is changing most dramatically starts within each of her readers: in each of us. We are impatient for the dawning of a new age where Plath can be read for her poetic control; her voice; the economy of her poetry and the rapid maturity that we see in such a short space of time. In a fast-paced world lead by social media, it's no wonder we want this change to take place overnight. But it isn't going happen that way. Collectively, the cultural response - the response at large, in popular culture, the media, etc - will be slower to take effect and slower to notice. It does seem that academia is well ahead of the curve. Point in their favor! Of course we want to say "We're seeing Plath in a whole new way" have it take effect right then and there. But it might not happen in our lifetime. It must mean something that the New York Times is seeing Plath with "new eyes" but the article betrays itself by not concretely presenting anything really new.
How much of this "new"-ness not being "new" is the result of my being hyper-aware of Plathiana? A lot, likely. So perhaps it is not "fair" of me to be on this diatribe in the first place? Speaking personally, there is I think more "new"-ness, for example, in any part of a "These Ghostly Archives" essay than in 1,000 articles published via news sources. It starts in the archives. It starts with Plath. It starts with those who knew her, such as what we learned from the leg work Rollyson, Wilson, and Winder did in their books. That is the direct path to the "new." It continues with publications of her work that present previously unpublished materials. There are massive amounts of unpublished stories, poems, letters, early diaries, etc. While the forthcoming Sylvia Plath: Drawings (Faber, 5 September 2013) looks like a start - and I am greedy to see it - it is a piggy back publication to both the out-of-print Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual (Oxford University Press, 2007) and limited edition Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings (Mayor Gallery, 2011). But in 2013 - 50 years after the publication of The Bell Jar and 50 years after her death and 51 years after she wrote and assembled the poems that were to become her Ariel - Plath's name and the legend and the myth and all that it means is simply and sadly fashionably in vogue. I'm looking forward...