Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Plath’

Poet R.S. Gwynn on Ted Hughes: “Mysticism and hormones are a deadly combination.”

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017
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Sam the Man.

After my post a few days ago, “Was Sylvia Plath a Battered Wife?” discussing new revelations, or interpretations of revelations, about poet Sylvia Plath –  thanks to a new article at Lit Hub by Emily Van Duyne – my friend R.S. “Sam” Gwynn and I exchanged a few messages on the subject. The first was a comment on the post itself, then we messaged each other on Facebook.

We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I find his views refreshingly level-headed, on this and many other subjects. And our conversation turned also to our mutual friend, the poet Anne Stevenson, who called Plath “the fiercest poet of our time,” and author of a controversial biography of Plath. From Sam:

I recently read Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes. He was a fairly despicable man and, after his first two books, not much of a poet–England’s James Dickey. But to take Plath at her word in letters to her former therapist raises other questions. Plath’s letters to her mother, collected many years ago in Letters Home, are full of proven exaggerations, omissions, and outright lies. Thus, I doubt that we will ever find out what exactly went on in that torturous marriage. Still, if Emily Van Duyne thinks that Hughes was “knighted by the Queen,” her credentials as a biographical commentator are definitely not “beyond dispute.”

Anne, a pretty good poet herself.

He said that he burned one volume of her journals, written during the last months of her life, so that their children would not see them; I don’t blame him for that, especially after a poem like “Edge.” He also claimed that another volume had been lost; perhaps it will eventually turn up, perhaps not. He edited the poems for Ariel in such a way that Plath, who was relatively unknown at her death, became posthumously famous; this did no permanent harm as Ariel was later re-edited along the lines of Plath’s own manuscript. I would not say that his point-of-view has prevailed; Van Duyne’s article is just one of many examples of the “pro-Plath” side, and defenders of Hughes have become increasingly rare. Rough Magic, which I found fairly bizarre, is one example of a biography that sets the blame on him. He seems at heart (if you can call him that) an increasingly silly mystic as he aged. He also had way too much testosterone. Mysticism and hormones are a deadly combination.

I think I’ve read most of the biographies of both of them – a morbid fascination. I think Anne [Stevenson]’s the best of the batch, even if it was heavily overseen by Olwyn Hughes.

We had a couple of long chats (very difficult with her hearing at the time) but I decided to leave Plath as the elephant in the room; I’m sure she’d had enough questions about the bio. Plath was what we used to call a “curve-wrecker”– the perfect student who did everything by the book to end up in first place. She was about as sexually liberated as one could be before the pill and could stand her ground with any of the boys she knew before Ted. I think it was a classic case of both meeting their match at first, but the complications of marriage and children fell more heavily on her, as it did on many women of her time. Portraying her as helpless in any way except as a victim of her mental problems is probably a mistake. I’m sure she could give as much as take in a relationship.

There is a strange contradiction in many women critics of Plath. On the one hand, they see her as the vengeful spirit of “Lady Lazarus” but on the other as victimized. Maybe you can have both, but they’re hard to reconcile.
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Was Sylvia Plath a battered wife?

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017
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The fiercest poet of our times

The short answer? Yes.

Over at Literary Hub, a persuasive and passionate argument by Emily Van Duyne. In a nutshell:

To anyone as familiar as I am with Plath’s life and work, the fact that Ted Hughes was likely abusive—emotionally and physically—is not news. In fact, the only way we can discount the certainty of that abuse is if we choose to disbelieve Plath at her repeated word in her journals, reports to friends and family, and now, it seems, letters to Dr. Ruth Barnhouse, Plath’s therapist-turned-confidante. Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic contains a dramatic account of Hughes attempting to strangle Plath on their honeymoon in Benidorm, Spain—a grim tale supposedly told to the author by Aurelia Schober Plath, Sylvia’s mother, who allowed herself to be interviewed for the book. Plath’s Unabridged Journals, published in America in fall 2000, and edited by Karen V. Kukil, who curates the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Plath’s alma mater, Smith College, are peppered with references to her violent relationship with Hughes.

If Van Duyne’s article has taken the literary world by storm, perhaps it’s because of its obviousness. Didn’t we know it all along? “Why, for instance, did Plath meet Hughes one night at a party, bite him on the cheek when he kissed her, flee to Paris to see another boyfriend with barely a mention of Hughes’s name, and then marry him with no further commentary three months later? What had happened in between?” asks Van Duyne, who is writing a book about Plath.

Yet Van Duyne glosses over that legendary meeting at a party, which is well-known and often recounted. Here’s Maria Popova‘s summary over at Brain Pickings, quoting Plath’s account:

Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face. As Plath bit deep into his skin, she thought about the battle to the death that Hughes had described in “Law in the Country of the Cats” and the perpetrator’s admission of the crime: “I did it, I.” Hughes carried the “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for the next month or so, while he admitted that the encounter and the woman remained branded on his self “for good.”

To talk only about what he did to her is to bathe her in victimhood, which, I think, would have appalled her. We’re tiptoeing around the mysterious link between sex and aggression, sex and violence. I have no special insight to put on the table, but offer the subject for reflection. Plath was clearly familiar with this nexus. It is a delicate topic, given the violence towards women in this culture – any culture, really. Yet whole masses of people have formed in bondage clubs, and S&M clubs – Fifty Shades of Grey had women swooning across the nation. What’s up with that? Who wants to open that can of worms? (A woman once told me, her eyes sparkling with excitement, that when she was attracted to a man she wanted to slap him. Again, what’s up with that?)

The reaction in the days since Van Duyne’s article was published has been telling. Comments on the social media have lamented Plath’s vulnerability, how she was helpless, “sick,” at his mercy. I am offended by the portrayals of Plath as a weepy victim, a basket case, a social liability. She was by many reports lively and smart and witty and a helluva lot of fun to be around – when she wasn’t on the downside of her bipolar swings. The flipside of these comments portray the patient Hughes who put up with this anchor on his career – when, in fact, she taught Hughes discipline and determination, typing his manuscripts and goading him into submissions.

This part of Van Duyne’s argument is well worth reflection and in my opinion beyond dispute:

I want to point out the cultural bias against women’s voices and the domestic truths of women’s lives and the deep role this has played in painting Plath as both a pathetic victim and a Cassandra-like, genius freak. It is only in a culture where these two things be claimed simultaneously that Hughes, a known philanderer and violent partner, can spend forty years botching the editing of, or outright destroying, his estranged, now dead wife’s work, then win every conceivable literary prize and be knighted by the Queen. It is only in this culture that Plath can tell of his abuse, in print, for the better part of the same 40 years, only to have the same reports in a handful of letters recognized as “shocking.” And it is only in this culture that unseen letters detailing abuses as dreadful as a miscarriage induced by beating, and the expressed desire that one’s wife was dead, be described, without irony, as “tantalising.”

Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that she was “the fiercest poet of our time.” I just discovered her poem “Mushrooms” at the West Chester Poetry Conference last month. Read it here.

Syrian author Iman Al Ghafari: “I did not want to leave my country forever!”

Sunday, August 28th, 2016
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Larsmo, Ghafari, and Linderman at the Sigtuna Literary Festival. (Photo courtesy Sigtuna)

“I did not want to leave my country forever,” said Syrian author Iman Al Ghafari. When she left her homeland in 2012, she had hoped to recharge her batteries and return to fight for gender issues. Now she knows she cannot go back. Most recently, she worked at the Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality, as well as a stint as a guest writer in Utrecht.

Now Ghafari is the Sigtuna literary center’s newest sanctuary writer, a guest in Sweden for the next two years. Sigtuna itself is one of nearly sixty International Cities of Refuge (ICORN), an independent organization of cities and regions offering shelter to writers and artists at risk, advancing freedom of expression, defending democratic values, and promoting international solidarity.

Ghafari spoke at a Sigtuna Literary Festival event yesterday about the plight of feminist and lesbian writers who wish to discuss the issues that concern them in the public sphere. She was joined by author Ola Larsmo, president of the Swedish PEN, and Sigtuna Foundation director Alf Linderman in a conversation about the freedoms we so often take for granted in the West.

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Sigtuna’s newest guest writer

She has a doctorate in English literature from Cairo University; her dissertation was on the poet Sylvia Plath. “There was a feeling of anxiety in Syria, a feeling of being excluded in my own country,” she said. “I was not able to appear in public or express my opinion.”

“Then the situation became unsafe in general – every day explosions and bombs,” she recalled. She left the Syria and has been an exile ever since.

The authorities gave other reasons for her marginalization – she said that to admit the truth “would have been a confession.” Or rather, they gave no reason at all. She insisted she had not resigned from her faculty post, but her university said it no longer wanted her. “Before I left, I was involved in a personal war in Syria. I was not allowed to get an income or leave.” She felt like she was a hostage in her own country and an exile even while living in it.

PEN’s Larsmo said that writers and journalists have a special position within society. When waves of people are fleeing a dangerous situation, they are heading in the opposite direction: “Journalists, truth-finders, those are the people who are trying to tell us what is happening there. They are heading in that direction as others flee,” he said.

He noted that the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie provided a model for the way these people are denigrated and held in suspicion by the very people who should be protecting them. He cited four commonplace accusations they face: 1) The threatened artist is “artistically bad,” he said. Hence, Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses is condemned for being a “lousy novel.”  2) The threatened artist was deliberately provocative to get fame and money. 3) The threatened artist is putting other, innocent people in danger – for example, publishers, illustrators, or bookstore personnel. 4) The threatened writer or journalist is fundamentally “a bad person,” or unhinged and unstable. In keeping with the blaming-the-victim mentality, Ghafari recalled fellow Syrians blaming her, asking her, “Why do you put yourself at risk? Stay on safe subjects. Keep quiet. Don’t create problems for yourself.”

Larsmo recalled an incident where asylum was denied to a Bangladeshi blogger for fear he might overstay his welcome in his potential host country. Instead, he was murdered in his own. “I get furious still when I think about this,” said Larsmo. “In spite of the world situation, you have to keep your decency.”

In the absence of free speech, governments exploit divisions among people and persecute writers. “Turkey is now literally a prison for writers and journalists,” said Larsmo. “Erdogan wants to emphasize polarization. Who knows where Turkey will be in five years?”

Linderman asked Ghafari to look in her to make a few near-term predictions. “I’m not optimistic,” she said. “I see more restrictions on freedom of speech moving to the Western world.”

 

Yes, David Foster Wallace read Ulysses… how do I know? Update: Scammed!

Saturday, May 17th, 2014
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Sylvia Plath reportedly went ballistic when someone marked books in any way whatsoever.  I, myself, have been known to lightly pencil brackets or little stars in the margin with a very soft #2 – and sometimes a single word, such as “Phooey!” But take a look at what David Foster Wallace did to James Joyce‘s Ulysses.  (Hat tip Cal Doyle; this is making the rounds on Tumblr.)

mitchumUpdate:  We’ve been had!  The photo was posted on the respectable Housing Works Bookstore in NYC here – so we weren’t alone in thinking it was legit, even though the words aren’t readable on the page. However, several people, including Christine in the comments section below, and on a Facebook comment thread on our friend Mikhail Iossel‘s page, have identified the text as Lee Server‘s biography of Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care. The words “Robert Mitchum” are in the lefthand page header, and the chapter heading “Phantom Years” on the right. The plot thickens: why would anyone feel the need to annotate a biography of movie star so heavily?  As one Facebook commenter noted, David Foster Wallace’s obsessiveness about his writing, his writing about his writing, and others’ writing about his writing is well known. But Mitchum? Said another commenter:  “I’m sure many writers could confess that Robert Mitchum was a bigger influence on them than Joyce.”

“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:

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“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.

 

A morbid anniversary: two new books mark the half-century since Sylvia Plath’s suicide

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013
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plath6Gosh, Terry Castle is a brave writer.  And a bracing one.  She is still recovering from the bashing over her Susan Sontag piece of oh, a decade ago, and here she leaps into the fray with a fire-eating piece on the Sylvia Plath morass in this week’s New York Review of Books. The avalanche of letters she’s triggered may never, ever stop.  She begins:

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and as one might expect given the sensational details of her short and appalling life, both her US and UK publishers are celebrating the occasion with a kind of vulpine festivity. Faber has just issued an “anniversary” edition of The Bell Jar (1963)—the harrowing autobiographical novel Plath had just published at the time of her death—and has been marketing it, distastefully enough, as “chick lit” avant la lettre. A clutch of new biographies … are likewise among the morbid tie-ins. “Sylvia Plath may be the most fascinating literary figure of the twentieth century”—so the publisher’s copy for one of them gushes. “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide and her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes.” Such ambulance-chasing fans no doubt also dote on Frida Kahlo’s near-fatal impaling by the tram rail.

Given this opening, it’s not hard to figure out that Terry is not a Plath fan, given the poet’s “shocking necrophilia and refusal of life.”  She claims “Plath’s verse lacks wisdom and humor and the power to console. She invariably scours away anything sane or good-natured.”  I wrote last year (here) about underestimating Plath’s over-the-top sense of the ridiculous – and that her “Daddy” was meant to be dark and above all fun, anticipating Mel Brooks‘s The Producers by five years.

I’m glad April Bernard took up the cry earlier this month in the New York Review of Books:

Plath can cause embarrassment through overstatement—going a little too far is her signature move. (One line from “Elm,” another late poem, that best captures her veer towards overstatement is, “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.”) But if we consider embarrassment as an aesthetic strategy rather than as a mistake, we begin to see how funny Plath often is. I confess I had read and admired Plath for several years before her humor struck me full-force—the first time I heard a now-famous BBC radio recording in which she reads “Daddy” with a discernible wave of laughter in her voice. (And yes, there is also rage, and profound sorrow.) I re-read the poem, and realized for the first time that her exaggerations and preposterous claims, which link the Holocaust with an American middle-class “family romance,” were meant to be an elaborate joke, one in extreme bad taste, right on the edge of kitsch.

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Not a fan.

Terry’s task at hand is two new additions to the Plath library:  Carl Rollysons “diverting, gossipy” American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, which “bounces along, jalopy-like, at a madcap pace. No slack metaphor, shameless cliché, or laughable anachronism can slow the authorial juggernaut.”  Curiously enough, she doesn’t mention that one of Rollyson’s more controversial efforts was a biography of Terry’s own bête noir, Sontag.) Andrew Wilson‘s more judicious work, Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, turns over a few new stones – he even had the partial cooperation of Plath’s so-far-silent lover Richard Sassoon.

Could it all have been different?  Counterfactuals abound. A chance meeting at a party Ted Hughes hadn’t planned on attending, interrupting a serious affair in Paris with Sassoon.  Terry writes:

plath5A striking effect of the chronology is to take away some of the fatal glamour one associates with Hughes. He seems less the craggy, carnal bogeyman of Plath mythology here and more just another contender for Plath’s widely broadcast sexual charms. It all could have gone a different way. “Plath’s feelings for Sassoon were so intense,” Wilson argues, “that, had Richard decided to stay in Paris, it’s highly probable that [Plath] would never have returned to England to marry Hughes. It was his rejection that catapulted Sylvia into Ted’s arms.” Waiting in vain for Sassoon to return to Paris, she wrote to a friend, “If he would come today I would stay here with him.”

And here once again, the fancy that Wilson’s book—a study at once stately and strange—so often elicits: how easily the “life before Ted” might have become the “life without Ted.” Would such a tweak in the course of destiny have meant more years—with or without poems—for Sylvia? Sanity, self-possession, and an escape from the prescribed doom? Or merely some other kind of agony and mental collapse?

She tips her hat to a former colleague: with about fifteen Plath biographies in English to date — “some adversarial in tone, others less so” – then rates Diane Middlebrook’s elegiac Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—A Marriage as “one of the more balanced and sensible.”  She also credits Eavan Boland for her kindly assessment of Plath’s legacy.  But she has limits to her charity.

At times, Terry seems to be judging the person rather than the poet, even blaming Plath for “creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave,” with the suicide of her son a few years ago, after a largely lonely life.  She hints that he lacked a mother’s love.  It is a great misfortune to lose one’s mother so young.  But … didn’t he also have a dad somewhere?

Read all of Terry Castle’s piece here. It’s better than coffee for a jolt.  Really.

Rejected! Advice to writers everywhere.

Thursday, June 20th, 2013
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She tried. Lots.

You might easily overlook this website with rejection advice for writers everywhere.  You shouldn’t.  It’s really good stuff over at Aerogramme Studio.

A sampling:

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” – Barbara Kingsolver

“I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader. This report shredded my first-born novel, laughed at my phrasing, twirled my lacy pretensions around and gobbed into the seething mosh pit of my stolen clichés. As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash…knowing I’d remember every word.”David Mitchell

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”Sylvia Plath

Read the rest here.

Poet Eavan Boland bags PEN prize

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012
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A winner

I’m on the PEN mailing list, so I got this one hot off the presses last week: Eavan Boland, director of Stanford’s Creative Writing program and one of Ireland’s leading poets, has won a 2012 PEN award for creative nonfiction with her acclaimed collection of essays, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, published last year by W.W. Norton.

PEN Center USA will fete three honorees and give 11 awards in particular genres at its annual awards festival on Oct. 22 in Beverly Hills. Grove/Atlantic Press publisher (and Stanford alum) Morgan Entrekin will receive the Award of Honor; Joyce Carol Oates will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award and CBS correspondent Lara Logan will receive the Freedom to Write Award.

In addition to Boland’s award for creative nonfiction, the other genre awards are given for poetry, fiction, research nonfiction, children’s literature, graphic literature, journalism, translation, drama, teleplay and screenplay.

“I’m really honored to get the award. And especially from PEN, which is an institution that does so much to advocate for writers,” said Boland.

Boland has published 10 volumes of poetry – most recently New Collected Poems (2008) and Domestic Violence (2007) and an earlier collected volume, An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-87 (1996). She has received the Lannan Award for Poetry and an American Ireland Fund Literary Award. She has published a previous volume of prose, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time.

Joyce Carol Oates at Stanford, with Anne Fadiman and Tracy Kidder

A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet traces Boland’s own development as a poet, and also offers insights into the work of Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop and the German poet Elizabeth Langässer.

Irish author Colm Tóibín named it a “favorite book” in the Irish Times last year, calling it “urgent and wise.” Britain’s Poetry Review called her “one of the finest and boldest poets of the last half century.”

Boland balances two worlds: free-spirited California and Ireland, a land of historical persecution and occupation, with its “painful memory of a poetry whose archive was its audience,” she said in an Academy of American Poets interview.

“I sought out American poetry because of that powerful, inclusive diversity,” she said. “I always remember I’m an Irish poet there, but at the same time some part of my sense of poetry feels very confirmed by the American achievement.”

New FBI files: Was Sylvia Plath’s daddy “pro-Nazi”?

Monday, August 20th, 2012
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Before "Daddy": Aurelia and Otto Plath with their daughter Sylvia

I thought not.  But that’s what the Poetry Foundation’s headline says:  “Newly Released FBI Files Corroborate Sylvia Plath’s Characterization of Her Father as Pro-Nazi.”

The files say no such thing – or at least not in the bits and pieces of them that have been described in The Guardian.  One problem with the screaming headline.  The poet’s father Otto Plath died in 1940.  He emigrated from Prussia to the U.S. in 1901, at age 16.  Which means that when he left the Germany, Adolf Hitler was a 12-year-old.  That won’t dissuade an eager reporter:

Scholars of Plath have expressed their astonishment at the newly discovered FBI files, as they were unaware that Otto, a scientist, had even been investigated over alleged “pro-German” sympathies. “My heart literally jumped in my chest,” one of them said.

Of course, “pro-German” is not the same as “pro-Nazi.”  Could it be that the Prussian simply missed the lost land of his childhood, the taste of its native foods and its smells, sights, customs, language?

The files also reveal that he lost a salesman job for not buying Liberty Bonds to aid the war effort, and it is implied that he had a less than wholehearted attitude towards the first world war and America.

Face of the Muse

Whoops!  This was the wrong war.  Could it be that he didn’t want to support the effort against his family and his ancestors in the futile bloodbath known as World War I?

Heather Clark, who is writing a Plath biography, offers a strain of common sense in an article that struggles to make 2 plus 2 equal 7: “She dismisses the suggestion that Otto had Nazi sympathies: ‘He was a pacifist … Maybe [Sylvia] was misremembering, or angry towards him.'”

A pacifist?  That knocks a whole out of the Nazi theory altogether.

If you read between the lines, however, a darker story emerges, and not about Otto:

The FBI files, headed “Pro-German”, recorded that, as an “alien enemy”, Otto lost teaching positions, having graduated from Northwestern College and the University of Washington, Seattle. Later however, he did obtain positions.

In one passage, they noted his “morbid disposition.” In another:

“He has stated … that he will return to Germany after the War, and seems to have assumed a rather pro-German attitude towards [it] on account of losing his positions.” But later they commented he had “a rather indifferent attitude” and mentioned a denial of saying he would go back to Germany after the war.

He also told investigators that his parents came to the US “because of the better conditions” but defended his homeland, saying: “Some things are rotten in Germany, but not all; that the German people and their character is not altogether rotten.”

FBI officers reported “his brooding over the bad luck he is having making a living” due to his nationality and that he felt persecuted.

So apparently he experienced some discrimination for his German heritage.  No wonder he was “brooding.”  We’ve seen a lot of such brooding given the high unemployment numbers today.

Mel Brooks's version in 1968

But Nazi?  This is a horse that won’t run.  It may, however, indicate that he was prone to depression, which may suggest that he did indeed pass on something of a curse to his brilliant daughter.

He was also, of course, posthumously stigmatized by her in “Daddy”:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You –

The critic A. Alvarez recalls that Sylvia Plath described this poem as ‘light verse’:

When she first read me this poem a few days after she wrote it, she called it a piece of ‘light verse’. It obviously isn’t, yet equally obviously it also isn’t the racking personal confession that a mere description or précis of it might make it sound.

Was it Alvarez or someone else who recalled visiting Plath and a friend, rolling on the floor with laughter as they read the acid verse, days after it was written?  Is it at least theoretically possible that she was angry, grief-stricken, abandoned, mortally wounded – but still found momentary release in black, black comedy?  Over-the-top?  Certainly. Offensive?  Undoubtedly.  It was years before Mel Brooks would make the same kind of material in The Producers.  In this, as in everything else, she seemed to be ahead of her time.

Postscript on 8/21:  Peter K. Steinberg wrote to the Book Haven to identify Clarissa Roche as the Plath pal in the paragraph above who was ROTFL.  Thanks!  And over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq., Russ Bowden of Poetry & Poets in Rags made this insightful comment: “Read in light of the Book Haven article, Plath’s poem Daddy seems to make light of and consciously use how her father was mis-characterized, the prejudices against him: Daddy.” Thanks, too!  And Andrew Shields writes to say that the episode reminds him of Franz Kafka reading his story to Max Brod and laughing … about which I know nothing.

The bashing of Helen Vendler

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011
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Has she been "slimed"?

The internet has been warmed this week by the fires between Harvard critic Helen Vendler and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove.  The upshot: Vendler didn’t like Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, and Dove didn’t like that Vendler didn’t like it.  Angry letters have been pouring in against Vendler.

Vendler’s Nov. 24 article in the New York Review of Books, “Are These Poems to Remember?” notes: “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as ‘elitism,’ and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. … Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?” Why only six pages for Wallace Stevens, and no more than the single poem from James Merrill?

Vendler takes particular aim at Dove’s introduction:

“She denigrates Frost’s ‘Design’ and ‘Acquainted with the Night,’ for instance, as ‘blunt and somewhat smug,’ calls Eliot ‘a sourpuss retreating behind the weathered marble of the Church,’ and says that Elizabeth Bishop ‘somehow managed to chisel the universe into pixilated uncertainties.’ Merrill, whose ‘formal verse placed him squarely on the side of the poetry establishment,’ is said to have shed ‘the jeweled carapaces of formalism in favor of the rules of the Ouija board.’ Can Dove think that a poet of Merrill’s depth can be confined to the putative space of a vague ‘poetry establishment,’ or that placing poets on one side or another of such an assumed ‘establishment’ says anything about their abilities? And as a poet herself, she must know better than to refer metaphorically to formal verses as ‘jeweled carapaces’: carapaces belong, after all, to insects and tortoises. Such cartoonish remarks are not helpful to the understanding of poetry. …

She stands by her review.

These are the kind of passages that makes every writer cringe.  Who among us can throw the first stone?  Haven’t we all written hastily, sloppily sometimes?  On the other hand, that’s exactly what critics are for: to spank us when we do.

Dove responded in a 1700-word letter.  She could have done it more effectively with far fewer words.  She has some good points to make. Taking on Vendler’s comment,  “Did Dove feel that only these poems [five early poems by Stevens] would be graspable by the audience she wishes to reach? Or is it that she admires Stevens less that she admires Melvin Tolson, who receives fourteen pages to Stevens’s six?”

Ah, here we go, totting up pages of poetry rather than the poems themselves. Tolson is represented by two poems (actually, one poem and one section of a book-length poem); Stevens by six. Should Tolson be denied representation because he writes long poems? As far as the selection of early Stevens goes, my original choices included several middle-period poems, but rights problems prohibited their final inclusion. I can’t expect Vendler to know this, and though it is a sad comment on the deplorable state of the American reprint permissions process, I accept responsibility for the resulting omission. However, in juxtaposing a great Anglo-American poet with a great African-American one, Vendler immediately draws unsubstantiated conclusions that fit her bias.”

But then Dove goes too far.  She accuses Vendler of racism, and stoops to attack the critic rather than the criticism. Finally she foams: “I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt, and no defense is necessary against these dishonorable tactics except the desire to shield my reputation from the kind of slanderous slime that sticks although it bears no truth … she not only loses her grasp on the facts, but her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance, snarls and grouses, sidles and roars as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again.”

Vendler’s response is short: “I have written the review and I stand by it.”  It’s not a “cheeky” reply, as The Atlantic Wire wrote.  It’s professional.  And The Atlantic is also wrong in asserting that “what they’re really fighting about” is “each other’s credentials.”

Largely, the two women have a different idea of what anthologies should do, and it’s a discussion worth having.  Is Vendler looking for a “Top Ten,” Dove asks?  Truly, there is a lot to be said for favoring a minor, relatively unknown poet who lights a fire in a few souls over some widely accepted canonical poets. How to balance the worrying, risky – and inevitably biased and unfair – process of winnowing against the easy out of letting 175 flowers bloom?

Also, Vendler is reacting to a literary world where poets often have an eye to classroom sales. Bashing off a quick anthology with a breezy introduction is a cash cow for an otherwise poorly remunerated profession.  I’ve seen some shamefully sloppy stuff from some very prominent poets – they get away with it because their names are big.

Fortunately, James Fenton at the London Evening Standard takes a more even-handed p.o.v., and slaps down political correctness and Penguin, too, while he’s at it:

The best thing Dove could have done was shut up and let people draw their own conclusions. Vendler is known to “bear, like the Turk, no rival near the throne”. Perhaps this was just another example of territoriality.

Excepting that it wasn’t. In most, though not in my opinion all, of her criticisms, Vendler put her finger on blatant weaknesses, although she ignored the most obvious weakness of all: nothing by Sylvia Plath, and nothing by Allen Ginsberg. Dove explains in her introduction that her permissions funds did not run to such expensive poets, and she says to the reader: “For these involuntary gaps, I ask you to cut me some slack.”

This is just not good enough, and the fault here is largely with Penguin for not seeing the difficulty Dove was in and coming to her aid. A small publisher might plead for the reader’s understanding over such omissions. A large one has to decide whether it is prepared to stump up the money to do the job properly.

Fred Viebahn offered this tidbit in the comments section of the London article, pointing out Dove’s words in the Dec. 2011 edition of The Writer’s Chronicle: “… the worst offender by far [demanding outrageous fees] was the publisher of Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg, whose ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude resulted in none of this house’s authors being included … Negotiations dragged on literally until the day when the anthology went into production; seeking common ground, I offered several solutions, including reducing the overall number of poems … while meeting their exorbitant line fees … The answer was nothing less than shocking: All or nothing. In other words, if I didn’t pay the same high line fees for all their poets as well as, unbelievably, take all the poems I had initially inquired about, I couldn’t have Ginsberg nor Plath … Pleas from upper Penguin management and even from one of the affected poets, who declared his willingness to forgo royalties, fell on deaf ears; the day before the anthology went into production, [the publisher of Plath and Ginsberg] withdrew all pending contracts and declared the negotiations closed.” He adds that  paying more for some permissions would have violated agreements with other publishers that did not permit to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

He ought to know. He’s Rita Dove’s husband.

Helen Vendler will be speaking on “Wallace Stevens as an American Poet” at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free and open to the public.