07 May 2013

Seeing Sylvia Plath with Old Eyes

This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint's falsetto.
I 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...

...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...


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

I understand your passionate rebuttal of what's new in the article, Peter. I read it when it came out in the NYTimes and asked myself in the end, so, she liked fashion, is that really new, important? ~ Carole

suki said...

I started counting adjectives: estranged, poetic temperament, autobiographical and macabre....

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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.