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“Love set you going like a fat gold watch.”

June 3, 2010

My interest in contemporary poetry really took off about six years ago, when my English teacher introduced me to Sylvia Plath. Up to that point, we’d mostly studied the likes of Robert Browning, whose register was a little high for my fifteen-year-old mind to entertain. The few contemporary gems we were given were the likes of Heaney and MacCaig. We were handed the poems and instructed to learn them by heart and analyse them until all their shine was dulled. Luckily, over the next couple of years, once I knew how to appreciate poetry properly, I rediscovered these poets in a manner more suitable and, of course, loved them.

At this point in my life I was reading and enjoying poetry, but writing it hadn’t really occurred to me. It was Plath who made me want to try. I’ll freely concede that I was snared by her biography and the confessional genre did appeal to my angsty adolescent mind, which produced distinctly teenage poetry in response. But even once I’d outgrown these juvenile forays into bad poetry, Sylvia stuck around.

Once you get past the ‘fetishisation’ of Plath’s untimely demise that seems to pervade every critical approach to her work, there’s a lot more going on. It’s almost impossible to separate her work from her biography, especially since her poetry has passed from the private into the public sphere and become cultural property. But this public view has been distorted by the infamy attached to Plath’s relationship with Ted Hughes, not to mention his editorial alterations to her final collection, Ariel. Fortunately, in 2004 Faber & Faber published the Restored Edition of Ariel, an entirely faithful reproduction of Plath’s manuscript. Having compared it to Hughes’s edition, the changes he made are striking. Faber’s corrective publication has gone some way towards reclaiming Plath from the ‘confessional’ label and establishing her as a formidable technical poet and stalwart of the maternal archetype. But there’s more to be done.

Caroline Crew at Flotsam put me onto Fat Gold Watch Press. It’s run by an American student writing an advanced dissertation on 20th century female poets. She’s seeking submissions (poetry, essays, artwork) for a book of responses to Plath’s work or life that do not focus on her mental illness or suicide. I’m thinking of submitting once I come up with something suitable. Having written on Plath earlier this year in my Contemporary Poetry module, I was beginning to think I’d finally exorcised her from my lines of influence.

But it seems like Sylvia isn’t ready to leave me alone yet.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2010 1:07 pm

    I discovered Plath’s poetry relatively late and immediately loved it immediately. I had previously been put off by all the fetishisation you mention

    • June 6, 2010 2:03 pm

      It’s awful how public fascination with biography can get in the way of good poetry. Plath’s life was certainly interesting and tragic, but that shouldn’t be the yardstick against which we measure her work.

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