Sunday, April 05, 2009


Over at the Harriet blog they're having a discussion about whether Sylvia Plath is "major" or not. It seems to be mainly if she's good or not. A lot of talk about "rankings": of course the most reductive form of criticism. "Who's on top" merely seeks the approval of authority. Judging is the least enjoyable for of reading. I know that from the contest we had at Action Books.

There is little talk about what "major" means on the Harriet Blog. And why Plath is such a problematic figure for such discussions. Because I think she is. You can see it in the way even her proponents fail to make her into a major poet. In the 1980s they tried to emphasize her "craft" and skill and to divorce her from her lurid life story, the myth of Plath. This seems totally reductive to me.

I was just reading Dodie Bellamy's Letters from Mina Harker, which not only plays with this divide, but like Plath evokes a kind of rewrite of the Gothic (Mina Hark is from Dracula). On the whole the Gothic is not considered High Literature. Has never been considered major. Since Romanticism has been considered feminine, unserious, low, a prostituted mode. Something teenage girls like (and they do).

And I think that's part of Plath's problem (and Bellamy's). And part of that is of course the visceral power of Plath's poetry. High Art distrusts the visceral. It's hard to quantify, to put standards on.

The other day, one of my students presented on an ee cummings poem that personifies death as a young man. It's a great poem and we started talking about this trope of the personification of death and thanks to the Internet I was able to show them on the spot death personified in Bergman's Seventh Seal and midieval representations of Death/Plague. And thanks to the Internet I was able to call forth Plath's "Death & Co" which I read rather casually, assuming most people had already read it. When I looked up my students looked totally punched-out and blown away. I had forgotten what a great poem that is (masturbating glitter!).

But: Is that a serious response to a poem? Hysteria! Can't be major!


Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Just a thought on that final line (Hysteria! Can't be major!) - cf. Kristeve et al on Écriture féminine - "be hysterical!"... I think in a way it is paradoxically Plath's 'marginality' that paradoxically makes her major, her construction of an Othered persona that draws power from its status as operating outside the confines of domesticisty. I'm thinking especialy of the (hysterical in it's extremity?) lines that close Lady Lazarus, where the speaker adresses God and Lucifer telling them to "beware", then anounces that she "eats men like air". This seems to reflect the Othering of women in greek tragedy (the medea, the bachaae, etc) creating transgressive adn thus horrific personae, a technique plath is coopting here for her own ends.

I think this also could have bearing on the previous discussions of Juliet Cook's review of Maximum Gaga, with regards to Excess and craft, and Écriture féminine. I also just read the catalog for the Her Noise exhibition at South London Gallery, and there is an interesting essay in there proposing a "Musique féminine" that is worth reading.

6:47 PM  
Blogger konrad said...

In answer to your question of that last post apropos this post: what do LS, CB and BA have in common? It might move the argument forward to consider, in light of M Perloff's characterization of LS's writing, that what they have in common is " ' hysteria' "

Not that having that in common makes them "the same" with respect to "SH, LH, et al" - i'm just talking about resemblances, not essences.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Vance Maverick said...

I think you're right about the mistrust of the visceral. For me, the question of Plath's value was settled by Veronica Forrest-Thomson's Poetic Artifice. Weird, to write that a book could settle such a question, but that was its effect on me; F-T briskly swats down the objection from (in effect) Plath's accessibility, and integrates her into the company of Ashbery and Prynne.

3:00 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

The gothic isn't usually considered High Literature, I agree, but that has long since made it more interesting to the American academic world than High Literature, which is more or less dead as an academic subject. Gothic Lit and other historically popular literature fits very well with the move towards cultural studies and/or a class/race/gender analysis. I finished my dissertation related to the gothic 15 years ago, and it was already getting played out as new academic terrain.

True story: at a major American university where I was teaching as an adjunct, I run into the new tenure-track hire in Gothic Literature. I tell him it's a subject I have some interest in and ask him about his research. He says, and I quote, "Well, some people have explored the question of gothic literature and religion, and other people have explored the question of gothic literature and sexuality, but I'm the first person to explore the relationship between religion and sexuality in the gothic."

Not entirely sure why, but I thought maybe you might want to know this story... perhaps because any implication that the gothic is not taken seriously needs to recognize that in the academic context, it's been at least 20 years now since anybody much cared about the concept of High Literature, which has long since been critiqued and discarded, while studies in the gothic are much more common.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Ross, Konrad, Vance,

Thanks, I think you just wrote my review of the American Hybrid for me.

I agree about academics-gothic connection. It's funny I've been interviewing for jobs and going on campus visits and such, and inevitably I get along really well with the Victorianists and they seem much more able to go along with my aesthetics than the general poetry crowd. On the reverse, a lot of the books I read are in fact studies of sexuality and the gothic and the grotesque. I think a lot of interesting work has been done in this area over the past couple of decades.

HOWEVER (and this is huge), these studies have not seem to filtered into Contemporary American Poetry. COntemporary American Poetry is still hugely invested in poetry as High Art. American Hybrid is a monument to this: it is poetry as high art and that's why the hysteria of poets as varied as Plath, O'Hara and Bruce Andrews (as Konrad notes) are not compatible with this anthology.

As I noted in my post on Iowa, poets like Lyn Hejinian post no threat whatsoever to the current Iowa Aesthetic. But the Gothic does. The grotesque does. Vulgar queerity does. Talk about deviance and sexuality does. It's not Serious Art.

For proof, just go to the most recent edition of Rain Taxi, in which the ad for Andrew Zawacki's new book admires him for his treatment of Poetry as "High Art." Or go to Laura Carter's Facebook page and see her complain that the Gurlesque is "too emotional" and not "Thoughtful" enough. It goes on and on.


7:57 AM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

I think Plath is upsetting to some and hard to pin down not only because of the visceral and hysterical quality of her work (though that is certainly worth noting), but because of visceral quality of the work + the visceral quality of her "real" life (i.e. the suicide).

Just look at the messy and dangerous way her life and her art intersect. You can't divorce the two, and therefore she totally fucks with our idea of "art" as a benign concept or as something separate from life or something that cannot affect life in a way that is not "uplifting" or "positive." As was pointed out here already, this messes with the potential for any kind of safe or critical distance, and makes the poetry itself something more than "poetry"--something far more dangerous. I mean physically dangerous.

Bellamy does this blending too in Harker, and well, but with other emotions--not with despair.

It's important to note too I think that Plath is pretty canonized at this point, despite the upset her work and life creates. There are countless books written on her life and her work and even on the problem of writing about her life and work. I wonder, though, if all of this mania of both critical, gossip writing and myth-making and obsessing over the details of her life over and over, etc., is our vain attempt to "correct" or "write over" the destructive equation Plath has set up for us. To create noise to fill the disturbing silence at the center of the poems, which is the silence of death.

God, I sound morbid. And to think that Plath's son committed suicide a couple of weeks ago. Creating further mess, and, of course, further fodder for the myth-machine. Sad.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Both Kate and Ross bring up the essential point that Plath is in some ways very popular - including in the academia. And this has to do with some of the very elements that I claim counts her as non "major".

[Kate is also right that part of what makes her both popular and not-major is the blurring of life and art. It's not writing about a messy life (like Lowell's lame schtick) but a poetry/life that blurs such distinctions. I wanted to evoke Dodie because Mina Harker does do this, it's true. And Dodie talks about Plath in her wonderful book of essays, Academonia, in these terms too.]

But I think it's important to note that though Plath is popular and people compulsively read and talk about her and her life, I still insist that she's not considered "major" - official, "top-ranked", model poet etc.

But then Deleuze and Guattari based their "minor" literature on Kafka, who is popular if anybody ever was.

Part of Plath's resistance to being ranked by the ranking boys on Harriet Blog etc also I think has to do with her baby-talk. That's definitely not major.

I thought it was interesting in Sweden that the book that seems to have freaked out the critics most was Uppland, which is all baby-talkish.


5:04 AM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...


I'd love to see some examples of Plath's baby-talk. I know you've talked about that term before on this blog, but I can't remember how you coined it and I'm having trouble seeing how it plays out in Plath's poems. Do you mean the slang she often uses? Or the fact that many of her poems have a sing-songy, nursery rhyme quality (in addition to being intent on creeping people out)?

3:25 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

yes, im talkiing about nursery rhyme quality.


6:32 AM  

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