Monday, July 14, 2008

Sylvia Plath

I was thinking about Ron's review of Chelsey Minnis and his desire for her to be about the rawness, no "coyness." The shock should be the shock of the real coming through the repressing patriarchal cultural mores.

This reminds me of the entire discussion that has been surrounding Sylvia Plath since the very beginning. In Robert Lowell's introduction, he begins with:

"In these poems, written in the last months of her live and often rusehd out at the rate of two or three a day, Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created - hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another "poetess," but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines."

I think Lowell should be given credit that he picks up on the complex contradiction in her work - it feels very "real" (rushed out, becomes herself etc) and visceral ("super-real"), and yet distanced ("hardly a person at all, or a woman"). Is that unrealness "coyness"?

Something that interests me about Plath is her treatment of what may loosely be called the cinematic experience. Countless theories about the movie-going experience focus precisely on the contradiction of alienation and viscerality, mediation and immediacy. The movies both seem too real and fake, to put it bluntly.

And I read a lot of Plath's poems as informed by the movies. If you read Plath's letters and journals you get the sense that all she did was watch movies. As critics have noted, there are remakes of Hitchcock. The voice-over and cuts of "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" seems to reoccur in more and less obvious forms throughout Ariel. Cinematic montage seems to be a major influence. But perhaps most of all, this "coyness" - alienated viscerality.

The critical reception of Plath continues to interest me. All these people inspired by Plath to confess in their poetry - viscerally affected by Plath, but the result are a kind of dull "realness" that is never in Plath's poetry. On the other hand the attempt to recusitate her as a "serious poetess" in the 1980s by stressing her "craft," her traditional poetry-writing skills. And of course all the people who dismiss her as a popular poet (which she is), somehow simplistic.

In all of these responses, there seems to be an anxiety, an attempt to control this visceral charge of her poetry (similar to what Dodie Bellamny perceptively calls attention to in her response to Ron's post). And in some ways perhaps this anxiety is the same anxiety as people have about movies - its visceral effects are too much, we are not rational at the movies, it's lowbrow (as I wrote about the gurlesque, that's a feature that runs throughout the reception history of the grotesque) etc.

Interestingly many members of the historical avant-garde were drawn to this quality of film. For example Blaise Cendrars ("The ABC of Cinema") and Gunnar Bjorling ("the entertainment whirl" - "everything should be immediately interesting all the time").

Also, a while back I read an interesting article awhile back where a scholar went into her archives and found she had made Hannah-Hoch-like photomontages and in that article too I believe he talks about her affinity for Paul Klee.


Blogger UCOP Killer said...

This is a nice post, Johannes. I agree with you completely about Plath. Whatever one ends up deciding about the merits of her poetry, it doesn't work to read it in the way that later, literalistic versions of confessionalism have taught us.

Not incidentally, I think this same tension between, say, authentic or real life and artifice holds true for Lowell at his best. And it's the central tension in Berryman.

I think in the future, now that they and their progeny have been shut down, we'll be able to read these writers with a more generous eye, and with a sense, as here, of the kinds of cultural knowledge they can provide.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Lara Glenum said...

I love the tie-ins to Hoch and Klee and Hiroshima, Mon Amour, all of which seem so apt. I read Plath not as a Confessional poet (or even a late Modernist) but as a practitioner of the female grotesque (which places her closer to artists like Hoch or Loy). In light of recent discussions here, I’d say that Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” is a key text for the gurlesque. Plath’s speaker is performing a female burlesque, a “strip tease,” that ultimately “unwraps” the female body not as an erotic object but the site of grotesque mortality and non-compliant subjectivity. In this poem, the speaker ironically wields her body as a souvenir of her own death-drive, both performing and mocking the idea of souvenir as a “trace of authentic experience.” Authentic experience, after all, always involves a myth of origin, and every time Plath goes back to access origins, she finds herself trapped inside a performance of Romantic Sublime, which spells the death of the female subject.

If Plath’s task is to put the mortal, non-erotic female subject into the poem, it is an almost impossible task – according to this poem, nearly as impossible as reversing history or raising the dead. Thus Plath’s extensive use of grotesque figuration (i.e. there’s a female body/subject here, but it’s anarchic, diseased, covered in worms, houses a mechanical heart, etc.).

The tie-in with Hiroshima, Mon Amour is also fabulous. Like Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Plath’s poems thematize the colonization of the present by the past. Through the narratives of history, Nazism and the father produce the after-effects of power which serve as a prolongation of their actual power, encouraging the victims to identify themselves with and through the narratives of their persecutor. In such a landscape, nothing can be considered “pure” or “authentic” (those twin pillars of Romantic experience). Plath’s stroke of genius, though, is her recognition of Nazism as the perverse flowering of German Romanticism. In establishing this link, she is able to suggest that the Romantic Sublime and the public spectacles of the Third Reich are not separate phenomena. Spectacle is a public staging of the sublime for political purposes, ostensibly in contrast to the “naturalness” of the Sublime itself. Spectacle always has an agenda. And yet Romanticism, which was ushered in at the birth of the Industrial Revolution, conceals and thus naturalizes the damaging effects of “progress,” and thus it, too, participates in a political agenda of dramatic exploitation.

8:06 AM  

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