Poets have, in recent years, found the life of the poet and the experience of poetic creativity increasingly hard to sustain. The school of modern American poetry termed “confessional” has aspired to a kind of total public honesty, a public self-examination and airing of private anguish, an open leap into the anxiety of unpredetermined creative process, which has taken its toll. In all too short a time, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton, among others, have found the step into the private blackness of self-inflicted death a choice preferable to continuing in the merciless self-scrutiny in the public eye seemingly necessary for their craft. Such tragic figures fascinate us; frequently they become more popular after their suicides than they ever were before. Each death conjures up images of the shortlived Romantic poets of a century ago. Each suicide provokes endless postmortems, endless analyses of the person, the craft, the society, to try to make sense of what to most of us seems a totally senseless act. Some of our interest comes from a sense of loss, of being cut off from a vibrant and living poetic voice; some of it may well come from a human fascination with death, especially in its self-inflicted form.
For whatever the reason, Sylvia Plath’s death has created an industry of post-mortem volumes—reprintings of her work, collections of her unpublished writings and letters, and this volume, an anthology of writings both about Plath and about her work. The risk in all this is that the real achievements of Plath the poet can easily get lost in efforts to use her tragic life for a writer’s own ends. A good place to begin in this volume, therefore, is not at the beginning but at the end, with Irving Howe’s sensitive “The Plath Celebration: A Partial Dissent.” Howe points to the dangers—that a good but minor poet’s achievements will be lost in the rush to proclaim her great, that such lives as hers lead often to the sort of sweeping romantic generalization that would claim that all poets run the risk of dying young. But he also points to the real achievements, the real poetic gifts, the truly fine poetic moments. Howe’s balanced approach will serve as a touchstone for the rest of the essays in this volume; like it, the best ones strive for balance and realism, while unlike it, the worst put Plath to their own uses, to rage against imagined injustices or to celebrate a black and nihilistic vision of our age.
Edward Butscher must be complimented that most of the essays in this volume are of the former kind. He has brought together seventeen of them, nine of memoirs, some written especially for this volume, and eight of criticism, all reprinted from prior sources. It is the memoirs which are the most given, in this volume, to excess. Laurie Levy’s “Outside the Bell Jar” traces her own emerging sense of herself as a writer, which she credits in part to Plath’s influence; but to see Plath as a kind of muse of youthful agony, is to give in to the easy temptation to make of her a personal icon. Much the same sort of thing fills Paula Rothholz’s memorial poem “For Sylvia at 4:30 A.M.,” where Plath’s suicide becomes a protest against a world which would render her impotent and delight in her fall. We can never know what brought Plath to kill herself, but such speculation, to serve one’s own ends, can only do a disservice to the private dignity of the dead.
Fortunately, all the memory-pieces are not of this vein. The best are personal reflections on who Plath was, and what it was like to know her. Gordon Lameyer’s “Sylvia at Smith” gives us an image of Plath as a diligent college student, just beginning to write, eager to do well, but already troubled, already too eager to please, already too dependent on the opinions of others. Dorothea Krook’s “Recollections of Sylvia Plath” presents the young American in England, at Cambridge, where she studied on her Fulbright Scholarship. It chronicles her efforts to do as well in her new studies as she did in her old, her eagerness in studying Plato, her marriage to the English poet Ted Hughes. What comes through Krook’s essay is a sense of guilt, a sense...
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