In response to:
Sylvia Plath's Apotheosis from the June 24, 1976 issue
To the Editors:
Karl Miller, in his review of my book, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (NYR, June 24, 1976), says:
Judith Kroll is ingenious and determined. Many of her findings have been checked with Ted Hughes, and it is evident that the two of them are keen to draw Plath’s verse as far as possible beyond the reach of exploitative biographers and of those critics who treat it as “confessional,” like Lowell’s or Anne Sexton’s.
These remarks, in the context of Miller’s review, may well create the impression that in contending that Plath should not be viewed as a “confessional” poet in the manner of Sexton and Lowell, Ted Hughes and I (“the two of them,” perhaps conspiring together) have been “keen” to put across the view, which we know to be misleading, that the reading of Plath’s poetry should be divorced from her biography. In Ted Hughes’s case it would seem understandable why he should be “keen” to do this. But whatever else Ted Hughes may have done, he has never suggested anything so absurd. Nor have I, and in misrepresenting my views (“[Plath’s] poems, then, are not autobiographical”) Miller has left open to speculation what has made me so “keen” to take the position I do. One might of course be “ingenious and determined” in the pursuit of truth, but that does not seem to be Miller’s point in ascribing these virtues to me.
By asserting that my work is tendentious, Miller invites one to look for an ulterior motive, and though he does not suggest what this might be, except that it might have something to do with checking my findings with Ted Hughes, Edward Butscher, whose book was reviewed with mine, has volunteered the statement that mine was a “Hughes-sanctioned study” and has contrasted it with his own “poor unauthorized product.” Reading between the lines of his letter (NYR, September 30, 1976), one gathers that Butscher is hungry to advertise the claim that more juicy parts are to be found in his “critical biography” than in my book of criticism. That is true enough, and being just as interested as the next person in gossip about Plath, I find it gratifying that Butscher has gathered so much of it together in one place, though its reliability would be greatly enhanced if he didn’t hate Plath so much. It is not clear from Miller’s statement whether he thinks I would consider any complete, honest biography of Plath to be “exploitative.” I would not. Far from being “keen” to keep her poems out of the reach of biographers, I look forward to seeing them in the hands of a good one.
What I do oppose is the reductive view of Plath’s poetry that is implicit in labeling it “confessional.” Miller claims to be surprised that for all that my book “has to say about the impersonal and the elemental and the eternal, this mythic scheme can look like the story of Sylvia Plath’s life….” I find this baffling, as I repeatedly say that it is the story of her life that Sylvia Plath’s poetry mythicizes. But it is through the mythic dimension that her poetry confronts the larger issues and asserts its claim to greatness. There is no denying the autobiographical element—I certainly do not. But there is something more as well, not to be found in “confessional” poetry, though the autobiographical elements in Plath can be diverting enough to absorb all one’s attention. “Critical biography” (as Butscher labels his book) can have little hope of success in Plath’s case unless one begins by taking the poetry seriously, on its own terms. Given that, it is upsetting to have a reviewer insist on treating my book of criticism “mainly from a biographical point of view,” as Miller announces he is doing (for which the NYR’s practice of “bunching” is partly to blame); it is of course upsetting to me personally, but also because it shows how difficult it is, amidst the everpresent sensationalizing, for Plath’s work to be treated with the seriousness it deserves. Miller does concede that my “explanations can help one to figure out poems that often prove as difficult as they are shapely and translucent.” Where does he think these explanations come from—does he think they would have been available to me if I had thought Plath simply a “confessional” poet and had confined myself to looking for blood on the page?
Finally, what Miller has implied and Butscher stated about the nature of my relationship with the Hugheses is wrong, and I would like to set the record straight. I thought I had made this plain in my preface, but perhaps I did not make it plain enough.
In 1972, I studied and took notes about manuscripts of Plath’s late poems. It was not because of my keenness to dispense with the “confessional” label that I got to see these manuscripts; in fact, neither Ted nor Olwyn Hughes knew anything about my interpretation of Plath’s work until two years later, in 1974. I saw the poetry manuscripts in 1972 only because Plath’s papers were up for sale, and the president of the college where I was teaching asked me to go to London to assess their scholarly value. While in London, I mentioned to Olwyn Hughes that some of the manuscript material I had studied would be useful in confirming my thesis, and she said, without asking what my thesis was, that I should not use anything without letting her know first. When I returned from London, she wrote expressing concern lest the manuscript material somehow be circulated and thus diminish the value of the papers, and I assured her that I had no intention of passing around my notes.
Two years later, just before handing in my dissertation, I sent her a copy; but by this time she had already asked me to work on establishing the text for an edition of Plath’s Collected Poems, and so the reason for this, too, cannot have been that she approved of my critical approach to Plath. But she did know I was well acquainted with Plath’s texts, as I had pointed out a number of misprints and textual discrepancies. And it might have mattered to her, since she was worried about confidentiality, that I had seen the manuscripts two years earlier.
In 1974, shortly before I left for England to work on the Collected Poems, Olwyn Hughes told me that she had on her own initiative passed my dissertation on to her brother, and that he had made some notes on it that he would communicate to me. I was of course happy to have his comments, but I was not credulous in accepting what he said; and, as anyone can see, those arguments in support of which I choose to cite his authority are of an entirely uncontroversial nature, such as that Plath read certain books, and his information is nearly always used to give further support to internal evidence which I had already adduced. He did ask that I delete my discussion of a particular poem; but I felt, in the end, that there was so sound reason for doing so, and I left it in—though I added a note pointing out that the poem did not tell the whole story.
All of the material I got in England in 1974—including my several conversations with Ted Hughes, and access to some of the books in Plath’s library—was, while useful and welcome, of a secondary or confirmatory nature (except in a few cases where I followed through some of Ted Hughes’s remarks to develop new footnote material), and did not alter the approach I had already written up.
The context in which Miller refers to my checking my findings implies a collaboration between “the two of them.” It ought to be plain that I did not communicate with Ted Hughes before completing my dissertation; nor did I submit my findings for his approval; nor have I been under any obligation to him.
In the year following my conversations with Ted Hughes, I revised my dissertation extensively into book form, adding more than a hundred pages of typescript, yet I never again “checked findings” with Ted or Olwyn Hughes, nor have I had any further communication with them about my book.
In short, it is false to suggest that my work is authorized by anyone other than myself, or that there is anything I have been determined and keen to do other than to present the truth about Plath’s poetry as I see it.
Karl Miller replies:
I said that Judith Kroll checked many of her findings with Ted Hughes, and her letter says much the same thing. Why shouldn’t she have done so, and why shouldn’t it be mentioned as a point of interest? I did not suggest that these people conspired.