False grinning facesBy THOR KAH HOONG
Many former English Lit students cringe at the mention of Sylvia Plath and her untimely self-destruction. But, wait, THOR KAH HOONG suggests looking at her writing above all.
WEEKS ago, this writer detailed the risible embarrassing farce that was his effort at writing a Master’s thesis on Sylvia Plath (and Anne Sexton). The trauma of that experience and the subsequent decades of avoidance of her work were banished when I rashly suggested that, via The Journals of Sylvia Plath (Faber), I would confront that amnesiac area of my cortex.
Talk about avoidance! It has been several weeks, and I have written about several other things, even managed three pieces on Chekhov, a writer I had had little empathy for previously (in case, you’re counting, only two were published in StarTwo; the promised piece on the collaboration between Chekhov and Stanislavsky is really for more specialised interests. Contact The Actors Studio Academy if you want to hear that piece).
It wasn’t all psychological. The journals do take some reading, all 670 pages or so. And they are dense with observations, feelings, poems. (I’m glad the journals had not been published when I embarked on my Master’s project. I would have been paralysed with the effort of absorbing all the material in the journals and slotting them into my Grand Illusion.)
There is such a wealth of material for those interested in Plath. And there are so many interested in her. Why? Because she was an exceptional poet?
How many would have regarded the suicide of Ted Hughes’s second wife as an individual tragedy and not a macabre appendix to the Plath story?
My feeling is that it was the latter group of readers that largely accounts for her appeal to many.
It is just like Malaysians slowing down on the highway to gape at an accident. At dinner that night, we will politely shudder and bemoan the bad driving habits of other Malaysians, but we will be brave in detailing all the gory details.
It didn’t help that Plath and Anne Sexton were fellow students in Robert Lowell’s class. Bing! Light-bulb revelation. The “Confessional School of Poetry” was born in some academic mind(les)s.
Lowell, with his distinguished family tree rooting in early New England, writing about his breakdowns and confinement in asylums. Sexton keeping pace with Plath in number of suicide attempts.
(In fact, on hearing of Plath’s suicide, Sexton wrote a creepy whining poem complaining of her friend dying ahead of her.)
Years of therapy, menopause, abortion – nothing was too private to be “confessed” in poetry.
Well, if three poets make for a very small school, throw in (or more appropriately, throw off) John Berryman. He had been in the nut-house too, and threw himself off a bridge on campus.
The label of confession didn’t stick. Lowell still exhibited his classical education, his poetic moments never raw slabs of bloody emotions but veiled or restrained in classic poetic forms. Berryman was obviously on his own demented ride and not attending any school.
If being “confessional” is to expose the most private and ugly of experiences without qualms, then possibly only Anne Sexton fitted the bill. And even she made an effort to govern her material by using, in at least two of her books, the structure and metaphors of fairytales and the Bible.
Plath’s flirtation with Death is obvious in her poems only if one knows her biography. She was too careful a writer to just allow unmediated pain to speak for itself, as if confession was sufficient virtue or redemption.
Hughes noted: “? her writing depended on a supercharged system of inner symbols and images, an enclosed cosmic circus.”
Or in one of her journals: “How can I tell Bob that my happiness streams from having wrenched a piece out of my life, a piece of hurt and beauty, and transformed it to typewritten words on paper? How can he know I am justifying my life, my keen emotion, my feeling, by turning it into print?”
“Transformed”. She was a writer. Her journals make that clear. They may have been private, but there is a sense that when Plath made her entries, recording her days, she was not only absorbing but also shaping her feelings and experiences, practising her writing. One senses that she was writing with someone else in mind, that it was not just inner communion.
One may regret Ted Hughes’s destroying of her last journal, the last entry just three days before her suicide, but it would only have fuelled interest in Plath for all the wrong reasons; a ghoulish preoccupation in personal grief that diminishes her achievements as a writer.
The same kind of lip-smacking morbidity in other people’s tragedies that has made a success of her novel, The Bell Jar.
I consider it one of her weakest works, of interest only because it is so autobiographical, the events in the novel matching her editorial stint at 17 magazine, and her ingesting of pills and crawling under the house to wait for death.
In fact, I didn’t think she was good in prose. I didn’t take to her short stories too. But now I’m immersed in her journals, and I think they are a monumental legacy.
“God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfilment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in it’s (sic) appalling self-consciousness, is horrible and overpowering –”
This was written by an 18-year-old girl!
You may carp that age should not be a consideration in an objective assessment of her writing.
I have marked thousands of English essays in my time. Quite a few students had a good command of the language. Many of them may have had similar feelings of emptiness and isolation. But none, in my experience, has merged such depth of feeling with such fluid expression.
Damn, she could write.
Thor Kah Hoong is a lecturer, playwright, theatre director, actor and bookstore owner. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask him to recommend some reading material at Skoob Books (03-77702500), Mutiara Majestic, Old Town Petaling Jaya.