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Joyce Carol Oates on Sylvia Plath

The Death Throes of Romanticism: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath

1973

. . . the cult of Plath insists she is a saintly martyr, but of course she is something less dramatic than this, but more valuable. The "I" of the poems is an artful construction, a tragic figure whose tragedy is classical, the result of a limited vision that believed itself the mirror held up to nature—as in the poem "Mirror," the eye of a little god who imagines itself without preconceptions, "unmisted by love or dislike." This is the audacious hubris of tragedy, the inevitable reality-challenging statement of the participant in a dramatic action he does not know is "tragic." He dies, and only we can see the purpose of his death—to illustrate the error of a personality who believed itself godlike.

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Why the Plath Legacy Lives

New York Times, March 24, 2009

The suicide of Sylvia Plath was and is obviously of enormous cultural significance because Plath was a brilliant poet—at the time of her death she was already considered a very important poet and since her death, her reputation has risen continuously while others who were her gifted contemporaries—Anne Sexton, John Berryman, even the much-acclaimed Robert Lowell—appear to have faded.

Also, Plath wrote specifically about suicide—her own suicide, much-meditated and plotted—and her much-publicized ill treatment at the hands of her husband Ted Hughes made her into a feminist martyr of a kind. (Though Plath herself was contemptuous of feminism and of most other women.) It is probably not the case that “creative” people commit suicide to a degree beyond that of the general population but this is the popular stereotype.

It is known that a suicide in a family may precipitate subsequent suicides in the family; one can surmise that for the children or relatives of suicides, especially those who are prominent and whose suicides have been much dramatized, self-destruction provides an “exit” that seems ready-made, as it would not be for others. (I cannot comment on Plath’s and Hughes’s son, because I don’t know his personal history.)

Ernest Hemingway, who committed suicide at the age of 62, has the father in his short story “Indian Camp” offer an explanation of an Indian’s suicide—“Maybe he just couldn’t take it any longer.” A young person associated with both Plath and Hughes would have had to contend with the literary-journalist’s equivalent of Tabloid Hell; maybe he couldn’t take it any longer. (The kindest response would be a sympathetic silence on the part of the media.)

Uncensored Sylvia Plath

2000

"I am made, crudely, for success," Plath stated matter-of-factly in her journal in April 1958. Yet Plath could not have foreseen that her success would be almost entirely posthumous, and ironic: for, by killing herself impulsively and dying intestate, she delivered her precious fund of work, as well as her two young children Frieda and Nicholas, into the hands of her estranged husband, Hughes, and his proprietary sister Olywn, whom Plath had perceived as her enemies during the final, despairing weeks of her life. As her literary executor, Hughes had the power to publish what he wished of her work, or to publish it in radically "edited" (that is, expurgated) versions, like The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982); or, if he wished, he might "lose" or even destroy it, as Hughes bluntly acknowledged he had done with two of the journal notebooks written during the last three years of Plath's life. As the surviving, perennially estranged husband, Hughes excised from Plath's journals what he called "nasty bits" and "intimacies," as he had eliminated from Ariel "some of the more personally aggressive poems," with the excuse that he wanted to spare their children further distress. This new, unabridged and unexpurgated edition of the journals assembled by Karen V. Kukil, assistant curator of rare books at Smith College, is "an exact and complete transcript of the twenty-three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection," that suggests that the person Ted Hughes most wanted to spare from distress and exposure was himself.

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Haunted Sylvia Plath

1991

Jacqueline Rose is not the first commentator on Sylvia Plath to have entered into conflict with Ted and Olwyn Hughes, but she may well be the first to have detailed the experience in print, in this book's most passionately argued chapter ("The Archive"), and to relate the Plath controversy to theoretical issues of who "owns" another's work; who controls "facts"; is there a "singular truth" of a historical narure to which all other speculation must conform; who defines another's "real self," which in Rose's words, "can surely have meaning only as self-definition, as a self-defining of self"? (This, in response to Hughes's imperial statement that only the poems he has so judged are the work of Plath's "real self"—her other writings are "waste products.") Rose notes wryly that, at one point, not only do the Hugheses censor Plath and what they can of commentary on Plath directly, but Plath's mother, Aurelia, in assembling her determinedly upbeat collection of letters from Sylvia, Letters Home (1975), which omits letters and passages that might reflect poorly upon the mother-daughter relationship, in an effort to correct "cruel and false caricatures" promulgated by Sylvia Plath in her work, is forced, in turn, to conform to further cuts in these letters demanded by Ted and Olwyn Hughes. On all sides people claiming to know Sylvia Plath's "real self" and what "really happened" feel obliged to correct "false" texts—the locus of falsity being, of course, Plath, and not her censors.

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One For Life, One For Death: Up Country by Maxine Kumin; Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath

1972

. . . all of the poems—those that are obviously not-quite-finished as well as those that are technically perfect—have that exquisite, heartbreaking quality about them that has made Sylvia Plath our acknowledged Queen of Sorrows, the spokeswoman for our most private, most helpless nightmares.

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Winter Trees

1972

Though critics have begun to react against the initial awe with which Sylvia Plath's posthumous poems were greeted, it seems incontestable to me that her poems, line by line, image by image, are brilliant. Of her emotional and intellectual maturity it is perhaps best to say little, except to point out that poetic genius has rarely depended upon maturity; it is enough to acknowledge the existential authority of these poems, which, ultimately, go beyond criticism.

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