Why Sylvia Plath Still Haunts American Culture

Her name, at this point, is almost onomatopoeic: the elegantly coiled, haute-American Sylvia, poised and serpentine, and then the Germanic exhalation of Plath, its fatal flatness like some ruptured surface resealing itself. Her whole history is in there somehow: the shining prizewinner with a death obsession, the supercharged, comical/terrible talent whose memory is the lid of a sarcophagus.

 “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.” That’s the Plath-world, freakishly bleak, exerting its tractor-beam fascination on American culture. Fifty years after she killed herself, we find her vital, nasty, invincible, red-and-white poetry sitting in a region of cultural near-­exhaustion. Her short life has been trampled and retrampled under the biographer’s hoof, her opus viewed and skewed through every conceivable lens of interpretation. A Massachusetts girlhood; a precocious literary ascent interrupted by an early nervous breakdown; a decampment to England; marriage to—and separation from—the poet Ted Hughes; suicide. In her lifetime, she published just one book of poetry (The Colossus and Other Poems), one novel (The Bell Jar), and a few stories in magazines. Upon her death, the bulk of her work—including the completed manuscript of Ariel—was still unknown to readers.

Out of these elements, endless constructions and conjurations. The ’70s enthroned her as a feminist martyr. She has been posthumously psychoanalyzed, politicized, astrologized. She did, it’s true, pack into her three decades a remarkable number of reboots and re-selvings—transformation, and its lethal opposite, was her theme—but even so … Can’t we leave her alone?

Not just yet, we can’t. This year has already brought us two new biographies, two more runs at the imago. Carl Rollyson’s American Isis declares her “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” This is not as daft as it sounds: When Plath arrived in England in 1955, on a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University, she was, at least to English eyes, ablaze with American glamour. She had fashionable hair, man-eater lipstick, and a wobbly sense of momentum about her. She posed in a swimsuit for the university newspaper. She wore red shoes, as in a fairy tale. She wanted, she needed, to be famous. Rolly­son makes much—too much, perhaps—­of a dream Plath had three years later, in which Marilyn appeared to her “as a kind of fairy godmother,” giving her a manicure and promising her “a new, flower­ing life.”

Mad Girl’s Love Song, by Andrew Wilson, cuts a little deeper, because it comes in at a sharper angle. Querying the notion that Plath’s career was essentially a countdown to the artistic blastoff ofAriel—­the poems she wrote in the months preceding her death—Wilson zooms in on her pre-Ted life: the bold college girl, adventuress in the virginal ’50s, who finally rebelled into madness. In Wilson’s book, we get to know in depth her extraordinary, leather-jacketed pen pal Eddie Cohen, who wrote to Plath after reading a short story she had published in Seventeen magazine and then—though only a couple years her senior—took it upon himself to be her epistolary instructor in art, sex, and the life authentically lived: “Petting, if it does not culminate in orgasm for both parties, will increase rather than alleviate frustrations.” Cohen was of the “Howl” generation (“I have seen many of my friends,” he wrote in one letter, “all of whom are hard-headed, clear-thinking people, driven to sanatoriums and asylums”), and he had intuited that Plath was a high risk for cracking up. Plath, on the other hand, in literary-hustler mode, would later propose that their correspondence be published as a book called Dialogue of the Damned.

Wilson also gives us one priceless image: that of Plath, her hair bound up, retiring each night in a viscid mask of Noxzema, its odor so strong that her roommate considered finding alternative accommodations. This is about as Sylvia Plath as it gets: the bedtime beauty routine turned ceremonial horror, the lady cream with its repellent smell—ecce mulier, at the brink of the underworld, passing semi-­monstrously through the rituals of American womanhood on the way to some deeper, darker initiation.

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