Sylvia Plath Plath, Sylvia (Vol. 2)

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Plath, Sylvia (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Plath, Sylvia 1932–1963

An American poet who moved to England, Miss Plath is as well known for her suicide as for her poems. She is the author of The Colossus and Ariel, and the novel The Bell Jar. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)

Poetry … is not made by efficiency—least of all Sylvia Plath's poetry. Instead, her extraordinary general competence was, I think, made necessary by what made her write; an underlying sense of violent unease. It took a great deal of efficiency to cope with that, to keep it in check. And when the efficiency finally failed, her world collapsed.

But she was disciplined in art, as in everything else. For a first volume, by someone still in her twenties, The Collossus is exceptionally accomplished. A poem like "The Ghost's Leavetaking" is fairly typical. It exhibits her range of language, in which the unexpected right word comes so easily….

In a way, most of her later poems are about … the unleashing of power, about tapping the roots of her own inner violence. There is, of course, nothing so very extraordinary about that. I think that, in general, this is the direction all the best contemporary poetry is taking. She, certainly, did not claim to be original in the kind of writing she was doing….

It seems to me that it was only by her determination both to face her most inward and terrifying experiences and to use her intelligence in doing so—so as not to be overwhelmed by them—that she managed to write [her] extraordinary last poems, which are at once deeply autobiographical and detached, generally relevant….

[What] is remarkable about ["Lady Lazarus"] is the objectivity with which she handles such personal material. She is clearly more than someone talking about her suffering. Instead, it is the very closeness of her pain which gives it a general meaning. Through it she assumes the suffering of all the modern victims. She becomes the Japanese murdered by the atom bombs. Above all, she becomes an imaginary Jew. I think this is a vitally important element in her work. For two reasons. First because anyone whose subject is suffering has a ready-made modern example of hell on earth in the concentration camps. And what matters in them is not so much the physical torture—since sadism is general and perennial—but the way modern, as it were industrial, techniques can be used to destroy utterly the human identity. Individual suffering can be heroic provided it leaves the person who suffers a sense of his own individuality—provided, that is, there is an illusion of choice remaining to him. But when suffering is mass-produced, men and women become as equal and identity-less as objects on an assembly-line, and nothing remains—certainly no values, no humanity. This anonymity of pain, which makes all dignity impossible, was Sylvia Plath's subject….

The achievement of her final style is to make poetry and death inseparable. The one could not exist without the other. And this is right. In a curious way, the poems read as though they were written posthumously. It needed not only great intelligence and insight to handle the material of them, it also took a kind of bravery. Poetry of this order is a murderous art.

A. Alvarez, "Sylvia Plath," in Review, No. 9, October, 1963, pp. 20-6.

The reception that has been accorded Sylvia Plath's last volume of verse [Ariel] has been generous to a fault. The poems are marked by a good deal of freshness and originality, but collectively they do not seem to me to add up to that self-consuming brilliance that some critics, including Mr. Robert Lowell in his introduction, have professed to find in them….

The life of these poems is centered in their imagery, but having read the volume several times over a period of two or three weeks, I find it difficult to discover under or behind the images a decisively shaping attitude towards experience. I do not mean that consistent attitudes are not present throughout the volume, but Miss Plath sometimes seems to have hardened

(The entire section is 3,339 words.)