by Ashley Bales
A new volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters were released, a piece of news I discovered first through criticism of the UK edition’s choice to depict Plath as “a blonde in a bikini,” and second in a blurb from Sehgal’s piece in The New York Times discussing Frieda Hughes’ (Plath and Hughes’ daughter) defense of her father. Of the things I care about regarding any publication with Plath’s name on it, low on the list are her beachwear choices and her relationship with her husband. As for so many young women, Plath was an icon I couldn’t spend enough time with--pouring over her novel, poems, and journals--but I’ve never particularly given a shit about her relationship with Hughes. I’m interested in her writing, not her biography, or her celebrity. Celebrity is the real issue here and the treatment of female celebrities in contrast to male. You certainly don’t have to think hard to come up with some male literary suicides where popular interpretations of the act don’t rest on victimization. If Plath was a victim, it is the least interesting thing about her and I would rather remain ignorant of the details than let it shape my interpretation of her work.
Is it indicative of certain continually depressing realities that Faber (the UK publisher) chose a bikini-ed image for their cover? Sure. Is there value in using Plath and Faber’s presentation of her work as exemplar of these issues? Potentially. Does it also place feminist debates before celebration of Plath’s work? Certainly, and I can’t help but mourn the continued need to celebrate successful women for their sex before their substance.
On the subject of journals, Wulf, writing for The Atlantic, discusses Thoreau’s “real masterpiece… …the 2 million word journal he kept until six months before he died.” It depicts Throreau’s struggle with balancing literature and science. Thoreau criticized scientists for their unengaging reports. He believed Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature was poetry, and stated that “Facts fall from the poetic observer like ripe seeds.” Easy for him to say. There is certainly no limit to the poetic details that can be pulled from nature and the more you study the natural the world the more beautifully specific and interconnected these examples can become. The conflict comes in how scientists define rigor and bias, how can you explore the poetry of specificity when metaphor and symbolism are deemed misleading distractions?
For a student interested in a writer’s mind and process, journals are precious; so much more valuable than curated autobiography or criticism’s contextualization. And to avoid hypocrisy, here is Plath, speaking through her journals from the summer of 1958, when she was 26, two years after graduating from Smith College and two years before the publication of her first poetry collection, The Colossus:
Paralysis is still with me. It is as if my mind stopped and let the phenomenon of nature-shiny green rosebugs and orange toadstools and screaking woodpeckers—roll over me like a juggernaut—as if I had to plunge to the bottom of non-existence, of absolute fear, before I can rise again… …Lines occur to me and stop dead: “The tiger lily’s spotted throat.” And then it is an echo of Eliot’s “The tiger in the tiger pit,” to the syllables and the consonance. I observe: “The mulberry berries redden under leaves.” And stop. I think the worst thing is to exteriorize these jitterings… …Defensively, I say I know nothing: lids shut over my mind. And this is the old way of lying: I can’t be responsible, I know nothing. Grub-white mulberries redden under leaves… …Humbly, I can begin these things. Start in two realities that move me, probe their depths, angles, dwell on them. I want to know all kinds of people, to have the talent ready, practiced, ordered, to use them, to ask them the right questions. I forget. I must not for get, not panic, but walk about bold and curious and observant as a newspaper reporter, developing my way of articulation and ordering, losing nothing, not sitting under a snail-shell.
This week on the blog, Eric Beebe writes about childhood memories of his grandmother, Daniel Johnson explores video game narratives, and Shawna Perrin discovers punk-rock.
Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.