Monday, January 30, 2012

Rediscovering Plath

I have a confession. Until recently, I attempted to avoid Sylvia Plath. Not completely, but mostly. I'd read her most famous work in survey courses in college and I'd read most of Ariel, but I'd never devoted much time to her as a poet. Why? It actually has little to do with Plath, but more so with the myth of Plath.

Plath is a poet who lives outside of her poetry. This happens to many writers and often can become a real problem. Many flock to her because of her life story and her suicide. Many of these people are not great readers poetry. For example, I've taught a few poetry courses where a student enters my class and the only poet he/she knows is Plath. I always know when I hear this I'm in for some badly written poetry.

Sadly, Plath has become the poster girl for writing troubling poetry about depression and suicide. This has always annoyed me and somehow caused me to avoid digging into Plath. Again, this was no reflection on Plath's actual work. I've never disliked her poems. I just never wanted to be the poet who goes in and says, "Plath is my favorite poet." It felt like a cliche.

This year, I set out to change this and to rediscover Plath. I selected her Collected Poems as one of my books to read in 2012. Over the weekend, I finished reading it. In all honesty, I might be even more annoyed now. Plath is a rich and complex poet and yet so many have written her off as this symbol of 1950s and 60s mental health issues. Plath wrote about many topics and some are rather dark, but her poetry is not the over-wrought and cliched work that she has inspired over the years. Her poems aren't depressed diary entries with line breaks. She knows what she's doing and her work is far more diverse than she's often given credit for. Of course, true lovers and readers of poetry know this.

I won't say I loved all of her work, but I appreciated it. This edition of her poems includes many that are clearly exercises in form and technique, but that's part of the fun of reading a collected book. What I enjoyed most was when she completely surprised me. I would be reading along and thinking this is a well-constructed poem that references nature and the landscape of England, and then all the sudden she'd throw in the most startling and strange image or she'd say something rather contemporary and modern. This technique works so well. In many of her poems, she gives you want you might expect, lets you get comfortable, and then hits you with something unexpected and thought provoking, which often causes you to go back and read again.

In many ways, this was the perfect time to read her work. I turn thirty this year, which is the age that Plath killed herself. It's amazing how much she accomplished in her short life. This book is also interesting because you can see how much she changes and grows as a writer through the short years it covers. I think of my own life and work and know how much I've changed in my 20s. Of course, it's hard to read her work and not ponder where she would have gone had she not killed herself.

Plath is a poet who has to fight off some of the cliches and myths that surround her. I was struck by the notes section in this edition. It included various introductions written by her for BBC radio. What struck me is that her descriptions were always removed. She never spoke about her work as being a reflection of herself. We often think of her work as being so personal and confessional, which made this stand out to me. I also enjoyed the section in the back that included 50 poems from her undergraduate years. Many of these poems weren't very good and were clearly written for a class assignment, but you could see the seeds of a great poet. I'd love to teach a creative writing class that used some of these early poems and some of her older poems to explore with students the growth of a poet.

Reading this book has made me reconsider Plath and her role in my own growth as a poet. It is also fitting that I read this book now, because it goes really well with the new book project I'm writing. Plath's lending me a hand.

Favorite poems:
"Street Song"
"The Snowman on the Moor"
"The Everlasting Monday"
"Two Views of a Cadaver Room"
"Suicide off Egg Rock"
"Electra on Azalea Path"
"The Net-Menders"
"Poem for a Birthday"
"In Plaster"
"Wuthering Heights"
"Three Woman: A Poem for Three Voices"
"The Applicant"
"Lady Lazarus"
"The Fearful"

-Stephen (Plathing)

1 comment:

  1. I think your take on this is right on target. I appreciate reading your "first time" experience with Plath, I think you see right into both her strengths and the problems caused by the myth that surrounds her.

    One thing I've been thinking about, in terms of the whole teenage angst things is: I have encountered countless bad poems by young women who adore Plath. Yet it seems to me that the equivalent for young (gay) men is Rimbaud, who has some very similar myths gathered around him. The point is, your comment about how the myth around the poet can override the poems is right on.