Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Plath: an under-standing


My volume of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems is on the bottom of my bookshelf. I notice it now that I have organized my favorite to-reach-for books at eye level.

The placement seems disrespectful. That’s Sylvia Plath by criminy! How’d she get down there? It’s not that long since I read the poems. I perused them last summer while reading her unedited journals, trying to match poems she hints at in the journals with how the writing of them turned out, not an easy task as she was anything but methodical in her journaling.

Like many of diarists, Plath journaled mainly when in a disturbed state of mind. The journals make for heavy reading. The journals written during the last two weeks of her life while she madly spun out the Ariel poems that would render her name indelible in American letters, don’t exist. One would love to read them alongside the poems.

Her final poems have an eerie brilliance, like the allure of a lampshade made of human skin. You can hardly look; hardly look away. They are etched like acid on the page; we read them like scars.

Before reading Plath I had fallen in love with poetry through Christina Rossetti and Dorothy Parker, poems I got from my mother, then Blake and Eliot in college. Blake felt like a prophetic soul mate while Eliot’s Prufrock made the scales fall from my eyes as I sat bound up in a blanket on a wintry day in a dorm room in Oslo. I looked around the room and saw everything in acute chromaticity.

When I started writing I discovered Plath. Her poems were contemporary in aesthetic, relevant in experience. They attracted magnetically, mesmerizingly, not least when she read them herself as I heard on the PBS documentary series that I think was called The Power of Poetry. Whenever people have asked me which poets have influenced me I name Plath.

Now the vantage of my writing chair puts Plath in a different light, a symbolic one. She is on a shelf I never reach for. Shadowed between duplicate copies of anthologies my own poems appear in and a Norwegian translation of Dante’s Inferno. The only other thing the shelf holds is a well-worn, well-loved leather satchel I bought at age twenty-five with money I didn’t have. It was beautiful and would be a place to store beautiful writing. I used to carry all my writing in it. Now I have a full-size study to house my writing self.

I stare at the Plath volume for a moment and a thought flashes – it’s like horses. The idea is so clear and simple it just might be true: Plath is to young women on their way to being poets what horses are to young girls on their way to being women. Every girl I grew up with loved horses, and most women I have asked have some sort of horse story from in their youth. Likewise, women poets I know who came into their writing in the 1990s had had an affair of the mind and soul with Plath. Among life’s key phases: horses and Plath feature regularly in women poets of my generation.

Once I lived and breathed horses. It was from horses I learned to know myself. Whatever self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence I had as a girl was due to them. They were my happy childhood. Now I live happily without them. I appreciate horses now, but don’t long to have one. Wouldn’t to take it if you offered me one. Been there, done that. Moved on.

Plath is not the greatest influence on my work. But once she gave me all that poetry was, absorbed on a cellular level from her visceral writing. Now she’s down there on the shelf of things I no longer need every day. Was she a phase? No. Maybe it’s a foundation that shelf, the cornerstone of this entire study.

I recently finished reading Plath’s journals. A reprieve of many months of not reading them allowed me to go back in. I’ll end this contemplation of Plath with my Goodreads review.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Karen Kukil, ed.)

Finished reading 26 April 2017

I find this really hard to review, star, or even called finished. I balk at rating a piece of writing that the writer did not intend to have read by anyone. What I’m rating perhaps is the effort of the editor and publisher to put it together, to transcribe all her journals verbatim, and I mean vebatim, leaving repeated words, misspellings, punctuation intact. That so much of Plath’s journaling reads like complete essays, for example, her letter (“to a demon”) dated 1 October 1957 about being a “middling good” writer and teacher; her deep anxiety about teaching, preparing lectures, getting ahead with planning and grading (oh, don’t we know it); the essay winds toward accepting herself as a failure in order to fight her perfectionism demon. If only it had been doable. One clue to her demise is in her next journal fragment of 5 November, still disconcerted about teaching, where she declares that the best way to deal with her worries is not to share them with Ted. “I must shoulder my aloneness somehow, and begin to be nobler.”

In the many camps of Plath-analysis, not her poems but the debates about her suicide and mental instability, I am staunchly aligned with the tend-to-blame-Ted group. That view is only strengthened by reading the journals, seeing her desperate attempts to support his writing and give him space and peace of mind for writing, while suppressing her own. A typical female position then and now. The fact that these journals are NOT complete, because he personally destroyed the journals she wrote in the two weeks preceding her death, only implicates him more. Recently discovered letters she wrote to her friend/therapist in the States at that time reveal that he beat her. She probably wrote about that in those journals is my guess.

Plath’s poetry opened windows of insight and understanding for me (third in line after Blake and Eliot) as a poet. Reading her journals, at times an uncomfortable and invasive if not prurient experience, opens windows of insight and understanding into her. I have not read any of the biographies of Plath, but I like the premise of the one that parallels excerpts from her despondent journaling with chipper chatty letters to her mother written on the same dates. As far as I know that biographer’s intent was to unmask something about Plath that would quelch her sympathizers. I think it just shows how complex she was, and how complex the times she lived in were for women who juggled job, dinner parties, mothering and their writing alongside being a most devoted helpmate, the woman behind the successful man. “So: a stoic face. A position of irony, of double-vision.”

The journals reveal that she demured to Ted the better poet, said his success should come first, then hers. A typical stance for a woman of the 50s, or was it true? The poems she wrote during those last weeks of her life, in the period he destroyed the journals of, surpass anything anyone was writing, him included. To his credit he highly valued her poetry, seemingly more than he valued her person, spoke of their brilliance and saw to their publication.

I once had a poet friend whose sister committed suicide as a teenager. One time when looking at poems he had written about her, he tried to tell me how unexpected her death was by turning to me and saying, “Rasma, she wore fingernail polish!” I knew what he meant, because we who then thought that our poetry stemmed from our dark depressed broodiness were not the fingernail polish types. Deep thinkers wouldn’t wear fingernail polish was the immature insight of our youth. Plath’s journals are filled with her obsession with dresses, dates, flowers, dances… all the fingernail polish variety concerns of a young woman, at the time of her first suicide attempt at age 20 and as a mature woman in the year she died she wrote about recipes and dinner parties and doing favors for the neighbors. What these journals offer most is a glimpse into the raw complexity of a human being engaged in what we are all engaged in, being human.



This entry was posted on 02/05/2017 by in Poetry, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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