Archive for June 23rd, 2013

“The fiercest poet of our time”: Anne Stevenson on Sylvia Plath

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013
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Anne Stevenson

Beleaguered biographer

The fur is already flying after the publication of Terry Castle‘s controversial New York Review of Books piece on Sylvia Plathas I predicted when I wrote about it hereElaine Showalter tweeted that it was “hatchet job of the year,” among other tweets. And Joyce Carol Oates weighed in with her own angry tweets.  The mysterious Jackson-area blogger known as “Thus Blogged Anderson” has a post here. There’s more to come.

Terry mentioned a friend of mine,  Anne Stevenson, in passing.  Ted Hughes’ sister, Terry writes, “has been a polarizing figure in Plath studies—not least (according to her enemies) for having browbeaten Anne Stevenson, who wrote the only ‘authorized’ Plath biography, Bitter Fame: The Life of Sylvia Plath (1989), into promoting mainly the Hughes family view of Plath. (Stevenson, to be sure, emphasized Sylvia’s mania and shrewishness and, yes, presented Ted Hughes as perhaps more sinned against than sinning.)”

The New Yorker‘s Janet Malcolm, author of Silent Woman, the highly acclaimed study of the Plath estate and scholarship about Plath, had a slightly different opinion. Malcolm lauded Stevenson, saying hers was “by far the most intelligent and the only aesthetically satisfying” Plath biography.

I had a long interview with Anne in Durham over a dozen years ago, before she was the inaugural winner of the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award and bagged a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award and the Neglected Masters Award from the Poetry Foundation of America. The interview was published online in The Cortland Review here

Said Anne:

“But I will say this about Sylvia Plath: she always tucked that pocket of air between herself and her poems. Her poems are powerful because she was essentially an artist before she was a woman or an American or anything else. When she wrote, she had this wonderful hard-headed objectivity. It was when she wasn’t writing that she betrayed herself. But we can agree with Olwyn Hughes [Ted’s sister and Plath’s longtime literary executor] that as an artist, she’s unassailable. That’s why her poems are so powerful; they are much more, very much more, than self-expression. They express the agony of betrayal as well as any poems I’ve ever read. They are wonderful, but the gap between the girl and the artist was enormous. To me, her talent was so much bigger than her personality, it must have been very difficult to carry all this power of language and yet, in the end, realize it couldn’t save her.”

Then this exchange:

plath4

“the pure gold honey bee”

AS: Yes.

CH: And Lucas Myers‘ is so anti-American.

AS: No, I don’t think he was, really.

CH: Oh, he says some pretty offensive things.

AS: Yes, maybe he was trying to be more English than the English.

CH: T.S. Eliot had already won that prize. But I think those accounts gave Bitter Fame a flavor. It gave an inevitability to Sylvia Plath’s story—she does seem a sort of Daisy Miller through it all. Even Hughes’s Birthday Letters reveals a remarkable amount of national stereotyping: “You were a new world. My new world. So this is America,” “long, perfect American legs,” “your exaggerated American grin,” “an American girl, being so American.” One wonders: Did he see her?

AS: Of course, he wasn’t in any way a stereotype of southern England. He was very, very much a product of Yorkshire, and that’s another complication. I’ve always had the highest respect for Ted as a poet and a man because he never kowtowed to the establishment. He didn’t become an academic; he wasn’t ambitious, except to write poetry; he wasn’t ambitious for position. I think he was pleased to be asked to be poet laureate, but he wasn’t working at it. He certainly didn’t work at literary politics at all; he had nothing to do with that; he was horrified by it. And I’d have to say Sylvia, too, was of a mind with Ted. They both were dedicated—seriously dedicated—artists, but, of course, their very dedication and their lack of self-knowledge… I don’t think Ted knew himself at all in those early days, and Sylvia seems to have absorbed advice from everybody: from Ted, from [Plath’s therapist] Ruth Beuscher as a young child, from her mother, so it was awfully hard for her to find herself, and I think she did have a—how do you put it now? A weak sense of identity? I did, too, when I came to England. So you go to everybody for advice and take it from everybody you respect, and then they betray you. How very Henry James. It is Henry James. It struck me right away that Sylvia’s was a Jamesian story.

CH: You wrote three poems for Sylvia Plath. Were they written at the time you were writing the biography?

AS: Yes. Yes.

CH: So those poems are your own say?

AS: That was my own say. I think they more or less say what I had to say.

CH: They’re wonderful. …  The one where you call Plath “the pure gold honey bee” and “the fiercest poet of our time”? …

AS: I don’t know. Oh dear, every time I think about Sylvia Plath I groan. I’m so tired of the whole saga!

CH: I’ll bet you are. It will all be coming out again with the new journals, the revelations from Emory University [where Hughes’s papers are archived], and with the biographies of Ted Hughes, by Elaine Feinstein and Diane Middlebrook.

AS: They’re welcome to do what they do. I’ll never write another biography about a living person.

CH: And yet, you yourself have written: “Writing a biography of Sylvia Plath convinced me that poetry today is at a turning point. Nostalgic wistfulness, individual self-pity, political idealism, angst, fury, vindictiveness, all the emotional magnets of the Romantics, are, in the last analysis, fictions. They have been replaced in poetry, in the twentieth century, chiefly by abstract experiment with language, which, of course, is starvation fare for poets.” So where is the balance between subjectivity and objectivity?

AS: One has to maintain a distance, an air pocket between the poet and the poem—a pocket of objectivity. The poem isn’t an expression of what you could say better in ordinary language, or in theoretical language.