Saturday, 10 February 2018

Sylvia Plath

            My apartment was very hot on Wednesday morning. I had both living room windows open during yoga but the wind wasn’t blowing any cool air inside. I saw the snow start falling when my head was upside down in the fish pose and I kept hoping for a random flake to fly in and touch my skin.
            There was a snowstorm through most of the morning and I spent the day dreading my bike ride downtown to English class. The ploughs kept working and the salt was scattered but it still looked pretty messy by the time I had to leave.
            I took it slow, especially on the nerve wracking side streets. There were cars parked along a lot of College Street and where they weren’t parked the bike lane had not been cleared, so I had a narrow area to thread between the streetcar tracks and the banked up snow. When I got to campus I didn’t feel brave enough to go out in the middle of College to make a left turn into King’s College Circle, so I just went to the lights at McCaul and then crossed. The Circle itself was less clear than I’d ever seen it. There are about ten sections of the road with rumble strips to keep the cars slowed down but with a sweet lane in the middle for bicycles, but the snow was covering the center of the road and so I had to take all of the bumps.
            I arrived at class later than usual and so half the class was already there but I still hade five minutes before start time.
            The first half of class was taken up by the film about Sylvia Plath.
            Plath says, “I didn’t have a happy adolescence and that’s partly why I turned to writing diaries, stories and so forth and was quite introverted during those early years.”
            Plath arrived in London in the fall of 1962. She had hit the motherlode and was writing poems of an order that was extraordinary for this century. She was writing two or three a day.
 “Fever 103 degrees” – “ … The tongues of hell are dull … Dull as the triple tongues of Cerberus … incapable of licking clean the aguey tendon, the sin … Love, love, the low smokes roll / from me like Isadora’s scarves … One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel …”
            She used to get up before dawn, rather like John Donne did … She tried to get in as much writing as she could before the kids stirred … It was pouring out of her … but not in some unformed lava-like way. It was highly disciplined and skillful.
Sylvia: “I cannot sympathize with uninformed cries from the heart … One should be able to control and manipulate these experiences with an intelligent mind.
            She was turning anything that came to hand into poetry.
            “The poets that excite me most are Americans … My background is German and Austrian … On one side I’m first generation and on the other I’m second generation … I was brought up on the northern coast of Massachusetts … I remember spectacular hurricanes … and there’d be sharks washed up in the garden ...”
            When her father died she said, “I’ll never speak to god again!”
             When she was 8 she gazed at the moon and said, “The moon is a lock of witches hair, tawny and golden and red and the night winds pause and stare at that strand from a witch’s head.”
            She learned to type very competently from the age of 13 … On a standard typewriter she was going 80 words a minute. She said, “The typewriter is an extension of my body.”
            “Ocean 1212W” – “When I was learning to creep, my mother set me down on the beach … I crawled straight for the coming wave and was just through the wall of green when she caught my heels. I often wondered what would have happened if I had managed to pierce that looking glass … My final memory of the sea is of violence … in 1939, the sea molten, steely-slick, heaving at its leash like a broody animal …”
            Her father died in just about the year when World War II broke out … The father is a vehicle for her through which she can also think about history and the world … She was torn between being a decorous good girl and being a person committed to the disquieting forces represented by the muse figures in de Chirico’s painting, “The Disquieting Muses”.
            In “The Colossus” she’s trying to work within very strict forms. She’s counting syllables, she’s read Marianne Moore, she’s read Thomas, she’s writing villanelles and sonnets … All of that work with strict forms made possible the later kind of explosion of language that you get in Ariel.
            Her early poetry was influenced by W.H. Auden. She was always passionate about Yeats.
            “When I was at college I was stunned and astounded by the moderns. By Dylan Thomas … At one point everything I wrote was desperately Audenesque.”
            She went to Smith in 1950 … She was a ferociously ambitious and gifted student … She loved going to a girl’s school because there was no competition with boys … There was an effort to make little girls into ladies … It was the housemother’s duty to keep up certain standards of gentility.
            She won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle. The magazine brought her to New York in the summer of 1953 … The New York Times had a long account of her disappearing … She was found in her home after two or three days.
            She came home and that was when she had her breakdown. She couldn’t concentrate, she couldn’t read … The only thing she read was Freud’s Abnormal Psychology … When she became conscious after her first suicide attempt, the first thing she said was, “That was my last act of love.”
            There were two words that she used a great deal: “never” and “always” … I never knew anyone to reach the heights of joy that she reached nor the depths of despair. (It sounds like she was bipolar).
            She talked about suicide as if it was something that she’d once had a go at. It was as if she had once played tournament tennis … She loved to show her scars and tell the story of her smashing on the basement floor.
            Sylvia won a Fulbright scholarship to study English at Newnham College, in Cambridge, England in 1955 … The difference between a women’s college in the US and in England is that they don’t have stars at Cambridge or Oxford.
            “One of the things that I like most about the English is their ability to be eccentric, to be themselves to such an extent that they are strikingly different from anybody else.”
            She said in her journal that, “Virginia Woolf makes my work possible … but I will do better than she did.”
            There are amazing pictures of Sylvia Plath modeling a bathing suit on the cover of a Cambridge newspaper … She sent a copy to her mother, signed “Betty Grable.”
            In February 1956 she met Ted Hughes … She tells the story in her journal of biting and then falling in love with the great English genius.
            Hughes had enormous influence on her work because he was, in a very Lawrentian way, looking at the underside of life. He was dealing with the big, dark feelings. He helped her find her own voice.
            “Ted’s interest in animals made me look back in my own life … My father kept bees …”
            Her father wrote a book called “Bumblebees and Their Ways” … She began to learn to keep bees after the birth of her son and it was the local midwife who inducted her into the strange, ceremonial world of beekeeping … There’s a great deal in the beekeeping poems that has to do with the tension between the sexually fertile self and the aesthetically fertile self.
            Her father might have been an ordinary man, but he had been Sylvia’s bastion against her mother.
            Towards the end of  “The Colossus” she discovered Theodore Roethke, who also wrote poems about an overpowering father … Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.”
            In a strange, ironic way, what a wonderful husband Ted was … The artifices peel away when you have children … It meant an enormous amount to Sylvia that Frieda was born without being dragged from her in some sterile hospital. She loved the word “midwife”.
            “I envision a large house stocked with small children and small animals.”
            Sylvia and Ted went back to America in 1957, where she taught for a year at Smith. Then they decided that the academic life wasn’t for them and they went back to England … She took up beekeeping and learned to ride on a rather stolid old horse named Ariel … It was in Devon that she wrote many of the poems that were later collected in “Ariel” and where her marriage began to go wrong.
            With “Ariel” there is a kind of ghost text behind the real text, which is the poem as it would be if you rewrote it in blank verse … It’s got all that fifties apprenticeship in it and at the same time it’s free … She stopped being what she called Roget’s trollop. She stopped using her thesaurus … and she surrendered to whatever dark forces in her that were represented by the disquieting muses.
            Probably Sylvia saw all women as rivals … Assia Wevill went to Devon to visit … Nothing compared to Ted Hughes, who by this time was very famous … The implication that Ted went off with Assia is false … Sylvia had been punishing him; making scenes … She burnt his work …
            She needed to be destructive about herself and everything that mattered to her in order to get the raw material of “Ariel” … She was trying in some of her “Ariel” poems to make a new mythology of women … In order to write those last poems she shed all the poetic formulae she had acquired during her apprenticeship …
            Mysterious fevers … wouldn’t go away … Boiling hot … burned up …
            In early January, 1963 she came to London with her children aged 3 and 1. She found a flat in Yeats’s house, which meant a lot to her … Her name was big in the poetry world …
            It was the worst winter in living memory … All of London froze … She had flu, sinus and was chronically depressed … Her friends abandoned her. She was very difficult … If you are handling volatile material it’s like poetic terrorism …
            After the film there was a break and then Ira Halpern, the teaching assistant handled the rest of the class.
            Sylvia Plath cannot sympathize with cries of the heart and yet she is considered to be a confessional poet. She is confessional, but beyond confessional. Her biography has overshadowed her legacy. Obviously her biography influenced the poetry but don’t let it govern your criticism.
            What is confession? I said that it’s fearless personal honesty. Someone else compared it to confessing one’s sins. In the Freudian sense it is talking about one’s problems. Robert Lowell said confession is raw. M.L. Rosenthal said it is nakedness. We now live in a confessional culture.
            The aspect of Modernism that was important for Plath was impersonality.
            T.S. Eliot said that the poet’s mind is a receptacle. Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape. Rosenthal sees Eliot as proto-confessional.
            Confession is not necessarily personal. So confession can be Modernist. Confession can be compared to legal discourses. The enemy within: communism could be anywhere.
            I read the first part of Daddy.
            Is it wrong to reference the Holocaust in a personal poem. She uses simile rather than direct metaphor to identify with the Jews of the Holocaust. It’s a critique of fascism. “Every woman adores a fascist” is a cultural critique. Her use of genocide to explore personal experience is done with a great deal of control. The control required to portray confession must be relevant to the bigger things.
            I said that a poet should use whatever imagery hits them to convey what they need to bring across.
            Thinking about it later I would add that by making the Holocaust a metaphor of personal experience Sylvia Plath probably made millions of people aware of aspects of the Holocaust that they hadn’t been aware of before. If the goal is to never forget then the Holocaust has to become personal. So entering the consciousness through metaphor serves an important purpose. With “I may well be a Jew” she comes closer to the events. Conflation of mental illness with historical events.
            Lady Lazarus is not purely confession but a self-conscious staging of confession. She exposes exposure. A grotesque strip tease takes charge of her own commodification. She is metacommenting on confession. The poem asks who is going to capitalize on these exposures. Publishers? Psychiatrists?
            She wanted to be famous.
            I said that the rhyme in the poem renders it somewhat comic and lightens the impact. She survives suicide and then says, “I eat men like air”. I said that she has become a cannibal and had to become something horrible to rise above something horrible.
            Scott says that she means to be offensive in breaking the body down to its parts in a renaissance trope.  The term “blazon” was used by several renaissance poets who practiced a genre of poems that praised a woman by singling out different parts of her body and finding metaphors to compare them with. 
            Sylvia Plath would have been critical of the mythologization of the psychology of her poems.
            “Lesbos” is a poem about inauthenticity. It’s a cultural critique of domestic conventions and artificiality.
            I said that I think the title is meant to be ironic.
Plath is insisting on the primacy and importance of reckoning with history.
Her poem “Mirror” is from the perspective of the mirror. The mirror is looking back. Confession is not always looking in a mirror.
I watched a couple of episodes of the Big Bang Theory. Raj broke up his friendship with Howard because his criticism was ruining his self-confidence and he subsequently got a job at the planetarium. Sheldon and Amy get frustrated with fighting over wedding planning and decide to elope but then change their minds again at city hall, deciding they do want a wedding after all. In the second one Sheldon surprises Amy with a Little House on the Prairie style homemade frontier dinner for her birthday and they both get food poisoning.

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