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Bishop’s Florida, Brazil, and Nova Scotia poems have, over the years, accrued significant scholarly attention. This chapter turns to a less clearly delineated set of New York poems and argues that from her early years in the city as a recent graduate (1934–5) into the late 1960s and beyond, New York’s culture and environment exerted a pull on Bishop’s imagination and an influence on her aesthetic. We see this from early poems and drafts such as “Love Lies Sleeping” (1937) and “Varick Street” (1947) to much later ones including “Five Flights Up” (c.1973) which, although not necessarily written in or even explicitly about New York, is nevertheless inflected by her experience and memories of it.
ROBERT LOWELL WAS among the last of an august succession of American writers and artists to have traveled to the Old World by sea, and he was among the first to make subsequent journeys by air. He shares this distinction with just a small number of peers: Elizabeth Bishop, who first crossed on the SS Kӧnigstein in 1935 and later traveled by freighter to Brazil, but who thereafter flew across oceans and between continents; Anne Sexton, who sailed to Europe on the SS France in August 1963, in part in order to follow the route of her ancestors as detailed in her poem “Crossing the Atlantic,” but who took airplanes on subsequent trips; and John Updike, who sailed in 1954 but who thereafter became a frequent, if never very enthusiastic, flyer. Others of their generation, Sylvia Plath for example (see her 1960 poem, “On Deck”), sailed but never made the journey by plane. So accustomed are we now to transatlantic flight that we forget how sudden and how significant was the change from the old way of crossing to the new. And in so doing we risk overlooking the qualitative difference that this change made both to Lowell's experience and to the way he wrote about it.
The argument of this essay is that the shift from sea to air travel in the middle decades of the century—a rapid change by any account, but one that for Lowell, for reasons I'll explain below, was particularly compressed— opened up new perspectives, forms, and metaphors and served as an important catalyst for a renegotiation of his relationship with history (both national and familial), with place, and with his emergent model of selfhood. In his poems about his various crossings, I suggest, Lowell devises a new typology that is at one and the same time commensurate with his maritime inheritance and open to the potentiality of flight. Scholars including Robert von Hallberg and Jeffrey Gray have previously noted the significance of travel and tourism in the poetry of the post-war period, with an emphasis in von Hallberg's case on the economic, cultural, and political conditions that favored increasing mobility, and in Gray's on Lowell's deployment of travel, particularly in later life, as “subject matter for the poems.”
Lusoga is an interlacustrine Bantu language spoken in the eastern part of Uganda in the region of Busoga, which is surrounded by the Victoria Nile in the west, Lake Kyoga in the north, the River Mpologoma in the east and Lake Victoria in the south. According to the 2002 census, this language is spoken by slightly over two million people (UBOS 2006: 12).
‘Hermione lived her life and lives in history.’ So murmurs the speaker of H.D.'s long, reflective sequence ‘Winter Love’. This melancholy note provides an apt starting point for a study of H.D.'s legacy for a number of related reasons.
First, the publication history of this particular poem evidences one of the obstacles to establishing definitive lines of influence in H.D.'s case. Written in 1959 and conceived, as Norman Pearsall reports, as the ‘coda’ to 1961's Helen in Egypt, ‘Winter Love’ was not finally published until 1972 (H.D., Hermetic, p. viii). This sizeable – although not in H.D.'s oeuvre unusual – delay means that what may appear at first to be striking similarities (for instance, between the structure, voice and imagery of this poem and examples from Sylvia Plath's work) should be dismissed on the grounds that Plath predeceased the publication of ‘Winter Love’, or argued on rather different premises. In like manner, H.D.'s Asphodel, written in the early 1920s, remained unpublished until 1992. Although editor Robert Spoo identifies in it a ‘high modernis[t]’ tendency ‘toward strong formal control and experimental abandon’, its attenuated publication history makes it problematic to argue for its explicit influence on the wider development of a modernist aesthetic.
The second reason for taking ‘Winter Love’ as a point of departure lies in the speaker's recognition that one might live two different lives simultaneously or palimpsestically, to use one of H.D.'s favoured figures.
When Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath first met in 1956 both were already, in Hughes’s words, ‘curious’ about the other. Both had acquaintances in common and both were publishing poetry in the various literary magazines that proliferated in Cambridge at this time. Two early Plath poems, ‘Epitaph in Three Parts’ and ‘“Three Caryatids Without a Portico” by Hugh Robus. A Study in Sculptural Dimensions’, the first that she published in England, appeared in the Winter 1956 issue of Chequer. Two years earlier, Hughes had published some of his poems, ‘The Jaguar’ and ‘Casualty’, in the same magazine. Several of his friends were frequent contributors. Plath’s poems were mocked in a ‘broadsheet of literary comment’ which Hughes’s ‘poetic gang’ (his words) produced. And although this particular review was penned by Hughes’s friend Daniel Huws, it is clear from the former’s subsequent recollection of events that this was to some degree a collaborative enterprise with Huws acting, at least implicitly, on behalf of ‘our group’.
The literary and historical contexts for Sylvia Plath's writing are surprisingly broad: she straddles a number of different traditions and discourses. Writing in the 1950s, she is partway through the century and thus might be read alongside the so-called ‘middle generation’ of American poets. In her early poetry in particular she employs a number of complex forms (terza rima, rime royale and so on) to considerable effect, thereby demonstrating her debt to an established poetic tradition. But she also coincides with John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell and the early Anne Sexton and thus with the ‘breakthrough’ of what became known as the ‘confessional’ mode of poetry. An American by birth, she traces her ancestors back to Germany and Poland and was brought up by parents for whom English was a second language. In terms of literary and linguistic influences, then, she is partway between American and European heritages. Similarly, as an American who moved to England twice, first as a young graduate student then subsequently as an adult woman, a wife and a mother-to-be, Plath embodies transatlantic concerns or, more properly, inhabits, as Tracy Brain proposes, a ‘midatlantic position’ – one which refuses to choose between two places.
Plath is known as a poet but she saw her real vocation at various times as being a writer of prose fiction or as an artist.
In the opening line of her engaging essay on Sylvia Plath, critic Sandra M. Gilbert explains, ‘Though I never met Sylvia Plath, I can honestly say that I have known her most of my life.’ The familiarity that Gilbert reports is one that many readers of Plath share. The bare facts of her life come to us from multiple sources – from her Journals and Letters Home, her stories and prose essays, her novel, The Bell Jar, and of course from the poems themselves. Beyond this, we pick up clues and information from biographies and memoirs, from critical commentaries and, of late, from other people's poems (notably Ted Hughes's 1998 Birthday Letters) or fiction (Kate Moses's 2003 Wintering) or film (Christine Jeffs's 2003 Sylvia). From these fragments we construct what we believe to be the biographical truth. We learn something, too, from the broader cultural, historical and ideological circumstances in which Plath lived and wrote; as Stan Smith puts it, ‘For Sylvia Plath … identity itself is the primary historical datum: the self is a secretion of history.’
Plath's life, then, seems overdetermined. It is told to us over and over again (indeed, she tells it to herself over and over again, rehearsing certain moments in multiple genres) in so many overlapping layers that it seems, finally, to form a kind of carapace – a papier-mâché shell which masks a gap. Biographical accounts of Plath's life have, as Chapters 6 and 7 will show, been bitterly contested.
Sylvia Plath's writing has been the subject of a rich proliferation of critiques and approaches. These include readings which identify the work as confessional, those which highlight mythological elements and those which draw on the insights of psychoanalysis. Diverse and changing forms of feminist approach have also been applied fruitfully over the decades, as have readings that emphasise the specific historical circumstances in which Plath lived and wrote. In this final chapter I outline some of the key critical approaches to Plath's writing, and briefly note some new directions in Plath studies. I begin, though, with one of the major – if disputable – ways of accessing Plath's writing: through the many biographical studies which have emerged in the decades since her death.
Plath has been the subject of five full-length biographies and countless memoirs, sketches and biographical interpretations. One of the reasons for this plethora of biographical accounts might be that each, on its own, seems unsatisfactory and serves only to stimulate or provoke the next. As Jacqueline Rose puts it, ‘Plath biographies tend to answer each other, shouting like opponents across a legal gulf, each one insisting that she or he has a greater claim to the truth than the one who went before.’ Perhaps, too, there is something specific to Plath's writing that seems to tantalise readers and biographers, inviting them close but then barring the door to any further scrutiny.
In November 2004 Frieda Hughes issued a new edition of Sylvia Plath's best-known collection. Ariel: The Restored Edition (subtitled ‘A Facsimile of Plath's Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement’) embodies, while attempting to lay to rest, debates about the status of this work. Ariel: The Restored Edition presents for the first time the sequence of poems in the order Plath herself seems to have intended. The volume includes a foreword by Frieda, a facsimile of Plath's complete typescript and a copy of working drafts of the title poem. I will refer to this edition as relevant in the discussion below and in particular when considering the late poems which, according to the first typescript of Ariel (now held at Smith College library) were part of Plath's original arrangement, though omitted from the first edition. However, the bulk of my argument will be based on my reading of the first published version. This is the Ariel that, for forty years, has been circulated, studied and discussed and the version which Plath criticism has, until now, taken as its focus.
The poems of the first edition of Ariel were mostly written, as Ted Hughes indicates in his introduction to the Collected Poems, between July and Christmas of 1962. In a letter of 16 October 1962, Plath calls them the best poems of her life; poems which ‘will make my name’ (LH 468).
Sylvia Plath is widely recognised as one of the leading figures in twentieth-century literature and culture. Although in her lifetime she published only one collection of poems, The Colossus, and one novel, The Bell Jar, the posthumous publication of the magnificent poems of Ariel, of her edgy and finely crafted stories and sketches, and of her Letters Home and Journals have consolidated her position as one of her age's most important and influential writers. As Marjorie Perloff puts it: ‘This is a body of work quite unprecedented in twentieth-century American poetry.’
From its first appearance, Plath's writing has remained constantly in print on both sides of the Atlantic and in numerous other countries in translated editions. The Plath catalogue continues to expand, with recent unabridged editions of the Journals and a new ‘restored’ edition of Ariel offering further material for readers to consider. From the outset, her work has been accompanied by a plethora of scholarly responses and interpretations and each new Plath edition stimulates yet more. The first aim of The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath is to offer new readers an accessible, authoritative and comprehensive guide to Plath's writing. The second is to provide an incisive and insightful overview of key tendencies and developments in Plath criticism. This is an immense and varied field. I have tried in the discussions that follow to offer fair summaries of distinct and valuable perspectives and to present a representative range of critical voices.
For some early critics, Sylvia Plath's 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, was best thought of as ‘a poet's notebook’ or as ‘a poet's novel, a casebook almost in stanzas’. More recent commentators have seen it as more than mere apprentice work for the later poetry. Elizabeth Wurtzel commends its ‘remarkable achievement’ and describes it as ‘very funny, smartly detached, and often nasty in a voice too honest to be unsympathetic’, while Robin Peel notes its ‘wonderfully mordant humour’.
The difficulty of assessing the literary merit of The Bell Jar is compounded by its complicated publishing history. It was first published in England by Heinemann on 14 January 1963 under the pseudonym that Plath had chosen, Victoria Lucas. Diane Middlebrook explains that the decision to use a pseudonym was partly influenced by the apparently autobiographical nature of some of the material in the book; the false name afforded a degree of disguise and protection. But she also speculates that it shows Plath's intention to establish an entirely separate – potentially more commercially successful – authorial persona, one that would appeal to a popular audience and not be confused with the persona behind the other, more highly valued, poetic work. According to Jacqueline Rose, the task for Plath was to ‘engage in popular writing without detriment to – without violating – the purity of her art’.
Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems contains work from all her major collections and is arranged chronologically in order of composition from 1956 to 1963. It also contains an appendix of fifty early poems (Plath's ‘Juvenilia’) and a list of more than 150 others written before 1956. This is the date which Ted Hughes, the editor of the collection, controversially defines as the starting point of her mature writing (CP 15). In collecting and defining this material as ‘Juvenilia’, Hughes has been accused of marginalising anything that Plath wrote in the years before meeting him, in other words, of dating her maturity as an artist to coincide with his involvement in her life and work. According to Jacqueline Rose, the effect of this is that ‘Hughes structures, punctuates, her writing definitively with himself.’ While some critics, such as Helen Vendler, agree with Hughes (these early poems, though ‘technically accomplished and psychologically truthful’ are not yet what she would categorise as mature), others dissent. Linda Wagner-Martin argues that ‘Plath was a serious writer right through her college years, beginning in 1950 … it seems clear that her poetry should be considered “mature” long before 1956.’
The relationship between the Juvenilia, early uncollected poems and Plath's later works – first the poems of The Colossus and Crossing the Water but primarily the poems of Ariel with which she made her name – has been of persistent concern to Plath critics.