Sylvia Plath: Rage and Laughter

Plath at Mademoiselle.jpg

Landshoff/Mademoiselle/Condé Nast

Sylvia Plath on her first day at Mademoiselle, 1953

In his idiosyncratic variation on the vampire story, The Sacred Fount, Henry James proposed that every married couple engages in a continuous power-struggle, whereby one partner is able to drink from the common fount of energy while the other dwindles. Stories of vampires and the uncanny seem appropriate for the always-undead Sylvia Plath. But rather than make the obvious comparison with the James story—did Plath while she lived drain her husband Ted Hughes of poetic blood, and could he revive only after her death?—instead I would propose that it is we who are the partner for Plath, we who seek energy from her; and that instead of diminishing from our repeated quaffs, she is only growing fatter and fatter, like some splendid engorged literary tick.

Fifty years have passed since Plath’s suicide. Two things now seem clear: that her poetry offers one of the indispensable, if often misread, literatures of the twentieth century; and that the overwhelming focus on her life has been the unintended consequence of her literary estate’s mistaken efforts to control what is said about her work.

Among the many recent biographies, Pain, Parties, Work, by Elizabeth Winder, tries a new angle. It unpacks—sometimes by opening the suitcases and listing Plath’s outfits—the 1953 summer that Plath, then twenty-one and still an undergraduate at Smith College, spent in New York City as a Mademoiselle guest editor. Winder is eager to debunk certain preconceptions about Plath, arguing that she was

fully immersed in the material culture of her time…. The bras, lipsticks, and kilts included in the book are vital (Plath’s favorite word) to understanding Sylvia as both participant and product of midcentury America.

Drawing on her reporting, from Plath’s journals and letters, and of course from Plath’s own fictional account of that summer in The Bell Jar, Winder does an excellent job recreating the story—up to a point. That point is where Plath parted company with the world of 1950s material girls and almost-all-the-way sexual encounters, the world of hats and gloves, the world of ambitious fresh-scrubbed co-eds selling their intellects for a pittance. Following the Rosenberg executions (which Plath was horrified by, and took personally), and sexual bullying from powerful men and social bullying from powerful women, Plath cracked. She did not just get depressed. She got enraged—and whether one is reading Winder or The Bell Jar, it is clear that a large aspect of her rage was aimed directly at the world she had signed on for as a Mademoiselle girl. This girl—who, along with her mother, had slaved to save for, and sew, her summer working wardrobe as though it were a bridal trousseau—as a last act before leaving New York City, threw all of her clothes off the roof of the Barbizon Hotel. Yes, it was a kind of “suicide”; but it was also a homicide, the murder of the image, and the materials, of what she had valued.

One of my favorite items in the Plath archive is a collage she made in 1960: the central image is President Eisenhower sitting at a desk; included in the collage is a cut-out of a woman in a bathing suit with a bomber plane aimed at her, and the caption “It’s His and Her Time All Over America.” Readers may look in vain for explicit political content in most of Plath’s poems; such material is typically transmuted through the screen of the literary self. Her own training as a poet and literature student in the 1950s inclined her to avoid direct speech about such “low” topical matters as the Rosenbergs or, for that matter, fabric choices for the spring collections. Only in a few of the poems from the last years of her life do we see her break free from the constraints of her training to speak more directly about the political, material, and sexual culture around her.

In her acid, complex poems about wives and mothers—including “An Appearance,” “The Applicant,“ “Medusa,” and “Lesbos”—she erupts with some of her greatest lines: “How her body opens and shuts—/A Swiss watch, jeweled in the hinges!” and “Viciousness in the kitchen!/The potatoes hiss,” and “Who do you think you are?/A communion wafer? Blubbery Mary?” (In a curious turn of the screw of literary history, that enemy of writers’ copyrights, the Internet, effectively has mooted the estate’s “fair-use” control in recent years. For now that virtually all of Plath’s poems may be found online, it is no longer a hindrance to critics to write about them without quoting them in full.)

It is a commonplace in speaking of Plath to wish that she had lived long enough to write more poems. But in particular, I wish that she had been able to continue the engagement with political themes nascent in her final work, which many readers ignore or misread as only “personal.” Take “Daddy,” a key example of how, in her last poems, Plath’s politics began to emerge more clearly. Of course many will already have its catchy thumping iambs imbedded in their minds—“You do not do, you do not do…” Here’s a stanza from later in the poem:


I have always been scared of *you*,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
With your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

Plath can cause embarrassment through overstatement—going a little too far is her signature move. (One line from “Elm,” another late poem, that best captures her veer towards overstatement is, “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.”) But if we consider embarrassment as an aesthetic strategy rather than as a mistake, we begin to see how funny Plath often is. I confess I had read and admired Plath for several years before her humor struck me full-force—the first time I heard a now-famous BBC radio recording in which she reads “Daddy” with a discernible wave of laughter in her voice. (And yes, there is also rage, and profound sorrow.) I re-read the poem, and realized for the first time that her exaggerations and preposterous claims, which link the Holocaust with an American middle-class “family romance,” were meant to be an elaborate joke, one in extreme bad taste, right on the edge of kitsch. (That both her parents were of German heritage may well have sparked Plath’s idea of a “Nazi” ancestry, though not necessarily in any literal sense.) The dark truths Plath points at involve the difficulty of finding adequate metaphors for the dimly-recalled power struggles of childhood—not hers alone, though vividly hers here in this poem—and the way that adults can be reduced to name-calling when still in the grips of childhood pain.

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

At the time of the poem’s writing, in the early 1960s, the first psychoanalytic studies of Hitler’s childhood were appearing in print; and this poem also has to do with how the Teutonic, rigidly patriarchal, model of the family affects the culture at large. When Plath says, “I may be a bit of a Jew,” she may indeed, as some critics have said, be speculating about her own origins; but more likely she is asserting that, for the purposes of her family, she contains the seeds of the “other” that must be eradicated. In the comic-grotesque scenario of “Daddy,” the bullying father is Hitler, the at-last rebelling daughter a Jew who is deciding, after all, not to be wiped out in the threatened genocide. “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” as the final line ringingly announces, is a political rejection of patriarchal bullying at least as much as it is adolescent foot-stomping.

Another regret I have about Sylvia Plath’s early death is that she did not live long enough to see Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1968). She anticipated our culture’s inevitable reworking of the Holocaust through dark humor by only a few years, and she did it in poetry, not a venue where most people would look for that sort of thing. Consequently, a more misread poem than “Daddy” scarcely exists.

Indispensable, often imitated, endlessly instructive about what poetry can do—Plath slips the noose of biography and stays alive in her poems, where the uncanny is at once personal and political. I was not at all surprised to read recently that the great Austrian film director Michael Haneke plans to make a film about her. I can only hope he has the strength.

Elizabeth Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 is published by Harper Collins.

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