Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Happy Birthday, Sylvia

Sylvia Plath would be 78 today.

I have communicated my regard for her on these pages numerous times. Whether or not you share my feelings, I believe the quality of her verses to be beyond question. I detest Harold Bloom for his contemptible dismissal of Thomas Wolfe—and, effectively, of everyone who loves him—but for his treatment of Plath, I come nearer real hatred for The Wet-Lipped One. His dismissal is attached to a word—hysteric—that has come to be used by many patriarchal types to put her in her place (in the vernacular of the patriarchal soul) ever since. Not that the tsking and the guffing and the clucking of the patriarchy matters all that much—I'd put Sylvia's book-sales up against Bloom's any day (and Wolfe's against Bloom's, for that matter)—but it is still irritating as hell. Sylvia excites the contempt and subsequent spit-filled invective of white male blowhards like no other, I think (witness Theodore Dalrymple's thick-headed opus to the sound of his own voice, published just this year), and this is testimony to her merit.

To deny Plath's talent and mastery of craft would be absurd, and seldom, if ever, do her critics proceed on that tack. On several occasions, though, I have read judgements of her poetry which claim that Greatness cannot be her's given her subject matter; her poetry did not engage the external world, or help her readers relate to it better, or raise their consciousness, or whatever the hell hoops they expect her work to metaphorically jump through. This is the Henry Higgins-approach—what they are saying, as I read it, is that it's a shame she didn't think like a man. Don't get me wrong—anyone who's read her journals knows she's a different breed of cat—yet still, undoubtedly, some of this disconnect derives from the fact that as a woman she regards the world from a slightly different place. A. Alvarez has said that Plath had "instant access to the inferno of her unconscious", and as a reader, I do not doubt this. Which is the more real, then—the more true? The poet who observes the external through the prism of experiences unknown to us, or the poet we know intrinsically in her work, and who reveals to us the inferno?

(I vote for the latter)

Take a look at this affecting video someone made, to Plath herself reading what is arguably her greatest poem (with maybe the greatest last-line ever).


  1. I pretty much agree with you, with one exception: the issue of really don't have much of a point with that because then logically the greatest poets of our time would be Jewel and Rod McKuen...Texas Monthly uses a similar argument to dismiss Cormac McCarthy (in favor of McMurtry) when of course that's pretty irrelevant

  2. I think you misunderstood what I meant to say, or perhaps I expressed it badly. Because Bloom dismisses these writers out of hand—Plath and Wolfe—he also dismisses their adherents. Both of these writers have catalogues which sell very well, so that's a whole heap of dismissing. So yes, I agree that sales are not helpful when comparing writers. In this case, though, where this ridiculous old man has played havoc with the reputations of two writers I care about, I do believe the fact that millions have loved and continue to love their work is pertinent.