Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Defending Sylvia Plath

Just discovered a marvellous essay on Sylvia Plath, in Slate, written back in 2003. It's called Poetry's Lioness - Defending Sylvia Plath from her Detractors,  and writer Meghan O'Rourke is responding to NZer Christine Jeff's biopic Sylvia. It's a same argument Pamela Gordon makes about her aunt, Janet Frame - that people are wrong to fossick around inside art determined to explain it by what happened in the life of an artist.

Here's O'Rourke:

Early on, feminists approached Plath's opaque poems as codes to be cracked with biography, teaching us to think of her as a woman whose art was entirely bound up in her personal grievances. In fact, the poems that Plath selected for Ariel are the least confessional of those she wrote during her last year of life; and, as scholars have pointed out, we can see from Plath's papers that she assiduously removed the most personal details, draft after draft.
(Here Pamela Gordon might part company with O'Rourke, as she would say it was male writers in this country - rather than feminists - who were guilty of boxing up Frame's art inside the frame of a vulnerable, highly sensitive woman, and refusing to let it stand alone.) O'Rourke argues it is reductive to view Plath as a 'death-obsessed neurotic' and see her work purely in light of this, and her suicide at age 30. There is a lot more to Sylvia Plath the artist than that, for example:

Sylvia [the movie] fails to explore the fact that Plath was one of the first major American poets to be a mother and to take the pleasure of motherhood as her subject.  
And then there's the poet's wit, her fascination with myth ... and more  .... it's worth a read. Although I'm not sure I agree with the beating O'Rourke gives the feminists. They weren't the only ones who trapped Plath's work inside her life story, more's the pity.

For an interesting link between Janet Frame and Sylvia Plath, go here.


Gondal-girl said...

Great post Mary - thanks for directing me to this essay - I look forward to reading, love the title. I didn't like the Sylvia film for the reasons you mention - Plath is such a dazzling poet, I cannot think of anyone who nails the feeling of being a mother, except for Sharon Olds - and her humour is biting and sharp and funny. It is always a shame when the end sums up the whole of what is a vast and rich a life.

Hannah Stoneham said...

Great post with which I (in relation to Sylvia Plath) - wholly agree. Obviously biography is an important factor - but in the case of Plath's poetry it is not a magic key. There are other writers where it is more of a key (Antonia White and Jean Rhys spring to mind).

Really clearsighted and interesting post - thanks for illuminating my Thursday!