Studying Sylvia

Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study by Tim Kendall. Faber & Faber/FSG. $15.00 (paper).

As Reviewed By: Justin Quinn

It has always been difficult to disentangle critical appreciations of the poetry of Sylvia Plath from the lurid anecdotage that surrounds her life and premature death. Most critics haven’t even tried and the results have been dispiriting, at least for readers whose primary fascination is the poetry itself. Tim Kendall’s study, which eschews feminist theory and the usual martyrology that has dogged Plath criticism in favour of close-reading, is refreshing for the way that the poetry and not the scandal takes pride of place. As he says in his preface, “It should not be controversial to assert that the most interesting thing about Sylvia Plath is her poetry”. That Robert Lowell and John Berryman are not even mentioned in the index (the closest to the latter is John Betjeman), and that Anne Sexton is only mentioned once, indicates that Kendall has no interest in situating Plath in the tired critical narrative of Confessionalism. In his opening pages, he discusses one poem from a prosodic point of view with surgical accuracy, and at length, and while there is only a little of this particular type of rhythmic analysis in the rest of the book, the point is well taken. This is close-reading as necessary astringent and not escapism.[private]

Kendall is even-handed, judicious, and never less than attentive to transformations of imagistic motif and dramatic situation in Plath’s brief but intense development as a poet of the first order. One of the most surprising chapters is the second in which Kendall discusses Plath’s treatment of landscape; he uses as foil the Emerson of Nature (1836). Kendall’s Emerson is optimistic, cheerfully embracing the pathetic fallacy when he wanders abroad in the landscape; however for Plath, his disgruntled scion, landscape is inimical to the poetic self (for instance, the poem “Elm” concludes: “These are the isolate, slow faults / That kill, that kill, that kill”). Kendall remarks that “her exploration of the relationship between the individual and the natural world is fundamental to the development of her mature voice”, and, given the readings that back this statement up, it is difficult to disagree. One might quibble that Kendall’s version of Emerson is something of a straw man–for instance, this optimist is not the same author that inspired Nietzsche’s ideas on the will to power–but the figure does help us to see how Plath is in dialogue with the American Romantic tradition, and this important aspect of her work has been previously passed over.

Also of interest is his chapter on “Plath’s Theology” where he holds that “the proliferation of mouths in Plath’s poetry intricately relates to her explorations of religion and sacrifice”. At the end of the chapter he makes a case that Plath’s treatment of the Holocaust, attacked for instance by Seamus Heaney, is integral to the development of her most important themes. Heaney remarked that “Daddy”, “however brilliant a tour de force it can be acknowledged to be, and however its vindictiveness can be understood or excused in the light of the poet’s parental and marital relations, remains, nevertheless, so entangled in biographical circumstances and rampages so permissively in the history of other people’s sorrows that it simply overdraws its right to our sympathy”. When Kendall rebuts this by saying that “this argument fails to take adequate account of Plath’s developing interest in, and integration into the self of, the Holocaust throughout the last year of her life”, it appears that he is not listening closely enough to Heaney’s scruple. That she “integrated into her self” the story of the Holocaust is precisely the objection: the historical event becomes merely a facet of the egotistic drama of Plath’s poetry. Moreover, the suspicion remains that Plath employed Holocaust imagery as a kind of radical chic, much in the same way that a heavy-metal band will suggest that they are Knights in the Service of Satan.

The most arresting chapter is the final one which is devoted to the handful of poems she wrote in 1963. Surprisingly, he describes her in this period as “pitilessly charting her own inevitable demise”. Perhaps the old characterisations of Plath moving inexorably towards suicide were right after all. Kendall bases this opinion on careful elucidation of the poems, and does so persuasively. I had previously thought that there was more variety here, as in the optimism of “Balloons”. This is deflated by Kendall, and the trajectory is down-hill to the crackling blacks of perhaps the most frightening poem of the last century, “Edge”.[/private]

About JQuinn

Justin Quinn was born in Dublin in 1968 and educated at Trinity College Dublin, where he received his doctorate in 1995. Since then he has worked as a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague, where he lives with his wife and son. His first two books of poems, The 'O'o'a'a' Bird (which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection) and Privacy, were published by Carcanet. His third book of poems, Fuselage, was published by Gallery Press in 2002 and his study, Gathered Beneath the Storm: Wallace Stevens, Nature and Community was recently published by University College Dublin Press. Metre, which he edited with David Wheatley for ten years. 2005 sees the publication of his American Errancy: Empire, Sublimity and Modern Poetry, a study of American poetry from T. S. Eliot to Jorie Graham. At present he is writing The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800-2000 and works at the Charles University, Prague.
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