I recently wrote about Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my early (and current) literary inspirations. Today I am, like many other writers, discussing another--Sylvia Plath. When I was in high school and first discovering literature and especially poetry, and beginning to write it myself, I was a HUGE fan of Sylvia Plath. Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge. I read many individual poems by many individual poets, but I committed to specifically seeking out the work of very few other poets. Aside from books I had to buy for college courses, the volumes of poetry that I own consist of a few collections, mostly gifts; a handful of Margaret Atwood; one Arthur Rimbaud; some e e cummings; and nearly every book ever written by Sylvia Plath, including her unabridged journals. I often, especially when considering my own journals, wonder if the publication of hers is an invasion, and so I have actually read no farther than the first few pages of that book. I become overwhelmed either by the book's size or by my own guilt.
I wrote my first big research paper in high school Honors English about Sylvia Plath, which is one reason I am equipped with so much knowledge of her biography and legacy. It wasn't a morbid obsession; it was a research project.
To discuss Sylvia Plath is typically to discuss her less as a writer and more as a depressed women who ended her own life at the age of 30. This does Sylvia Plath the writer a disservice.
I myself am guilty, I realized today.
I recall that the teacher who assigned the aforementioned research paper treated my admiration of Ms. Plath as the stereotypical fascination of a maudlin, weird teenage girl, like so many before her, with a melodramatic, openly depressed female writer and her tragic tale. Many adults were similarly dismissive, but none so bluntly as that specific teacher. I recall that researching the paper, I mostly encountered harsh criticism of Plath's work, mostly disgusted with its "confessional" style, as though the emotional honesty of "confession" was unarguably distinct from intellect, art, and skill, characteristic of the hysterical woman, she who is not to be taken seriously. I recall thinking that my teacher's dismissive attitude toward my chosen topic was similar to the dismissive analysis of Plath's critics.
However, I realize today that I have been equally guilty, equally dismissive of my own past love of Plath's work. I smudged my own memories into a blurred untruth, and I dismissed my former fascination as being rooted not in a recognition of Plath's genius, but of my own maudlin teenage imagination that I might identify with her "confession." In truth, it was not this that I admired, but her talent for constructing poetic imagery.
Then I read the opening lines of, "Elm," and I remembered. I remember that I learned the meaning of "tap root" only because "Elm" prompted me to look it up in the dictionary, and that discussions of "tap roots" in my later botanical study could not be divorced from that early poetic understanding of their meaning.
Rather than share "Elm" with you, I will share a few lines from "Cut," because I remember how much it appalled one of Plath's critics, and how I felt that even I, a sixteen-year-old high school student, understood the poem better than the professional critic.
The poem, "Cut," is centered around the image of a simple cut thumb, the way one might cut the end of their thumb while chopping vegetables for dinner. Such a small, prosaic incident is drawn out, each aspect of its image described. The following two lines are the example I would like to highlight: "The stain on your/Gauze Ku Klux Klan/Babushka". Now, I recall that the literary critic, whose name I unfortunately do not remember, pretty much lost his shit at this point in the poem. KKK!? he opined. It was bad enough that Plath so frequently used the Holocaust in her work, but to now drag in the KKK! a whole body of injustice to which she, a white woman, could claim no personal experience!? How inappropriate! How tasteless!
I, as a sixteen-year-old, thought, "What is he talking about? This is a very simple image." Picture a bandage on your thumb, meant to cover its top joint. What does it often form? A triangular hat for your thumb. Like a KKK hat. Like a headscarf ("Babushka.") Perhaps Plath did draw on images of injustice, but on its face, these lines are simply descriptive, and the critic failed to see this at all, skipping past the image to an analysis with which he took offense. It's just a triangular hat-like bandage on the edge of one's thumb. A perfect, well-crafted image.
The following pages inspired this post:
From BUST: On the 50th Anniversary of Sylvia Plath's Dead, Female Writers Reflect on her Life, Work, and Legacy
From The Guardian: Sylvia Plath: reflections on her legacy This should come with a big SPOILER ALERT! if you haven't read The Bell Jar. So here you go - SPOILER ALERT! You can read the first (Lena Dunham's) without anything being ruined for you. Jeannette Winterson's is okay, too. And Ruth Fainlight's, as I now know to whom "Elm," was dedicated.
Don't Judge The Bell Jar by its Cover (Which I did not finish reading)
Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar as you've never seen it--gallery My favorite is the parody cover of Madame Bovary. Or the bell and the jar.