Ann Skea: A Consideration of Fred Beake's 'Plathectic Fallacies'

It is probably the ultimate irony, considering what Fred Beake is saying in his recent paper (Plathetic Fallacies,, that my comments on it are based on my current re-reading of Plath's journals and letters - in other words on her life story. Nevertheless, I think the comments are relevant.

Fred Beake is correct, I think, when he says that the members of the so-called school of "Confessional Poets" would never have acknowledged that it was a coherent movement or group. And Plath, herself, deprecated "true-confessional" tendencies in her own writing (SPJ. 4/3/57, 11/3/57). Plath's comments on a Lowell poetry reading, however, show that she did admire his work: "tough, knotty, blazing with colour and fury, most eminently sayable" (SPJ. 5/5/58); and on Jan. 27th 1959 she wrote that compared to that of Wilber and Rich, his poetry was "like good strong shocking brandy after a too lucidly sweet dinner wine". In spite of this admiration, her comments when she was auditing Lowell's Poetry Workshop do not suggest that particular experience influenced her work in any way, other than by bringing her into contact with Anne Sexton (SPJ. 25/2/59).

Plath's interest in, and need for, personae and masks is very apparent from quite early in her journals. By 1958 she could write: "My house of days and masks is rich enough so that I might and must spend years fishing, hauling up the pearl-eyed, horny, scaled and sea-bearded monsters sunk long, long in the Saragasso of my imagination." (SPJ. 23/2/58). She also wrote of her "beloved Yeats", whose own belief in the use of masks is well known, and there are frequent echoes of Yeats in her writing - spiral stairs, masks, gyres, etc. Most importantly, she reached into mythology for figures with which to identify herself. "I myself am the vessel of tragic experience...", she wrote when considering her work, "What do the gods ask?" (SPJ. 10/2/58). Lazarus was an early identification - from shortly after her first suicide attempt - as well as a late one. And when she was studying Racine at Cambridge, Phaedra, became an alter-ego (SPJ. 5/4/56). ( I think it is no accident that Ted Hughes has recently completed a version of Racine's Phaedra, which he tells me will be performed at The Almeida Theatre this spring with Dianna Rigg in the title role).

Right from the start, Plath was clearly very, very conscious of the style and quality of everything she wrote. The journals are no mere diary, they are a literary work in their own right. It is also recorded that she asked one boyfriend to return her letters after they broke up - the implication being that she considered them as some form of literary work: He responded - "Has it ever occurred to you that you might make carbon copies of your personal letters? ... The principal seems to be about the same, and would indicate in either case that you wrote them for the sake of your own ego, rather than the illumination of, or contact with, the addressee" (Eddie Cohen, Bitter Fame, pp52-52). Her letters to Richard Sassoon, some of which may never actually have been sent but were included in her journals, also show a very self-consciously literary style.

Plath wrote frequently in her journals of her efforts to achieve her own style; to forge a new, strong poetic voice; to "make something tight and riding over the limits of sweet sestinas and sonnets" (SPJ. 25/2/56). She exhorted herself: "Make your own style, don't copy" (SPJ. 11/3/57); and vowed: "I will write until I begin to speak my deep self" (SPJ. 17/ 7/57). Later, she wrote happily of how "Ted says he has never read poems by a woman like mine; they are strong and full and rich - not quailing and whining like Teasdale or simple lyrics like Millay; they are working, sweating, heaving poems born out of the way words should be said..." (LH. 29/4/56). The phrase, `the way words should be said', is important. "Say them aloud always. Make them irrefutable" (SPJ. 17/7/57), Plath told herself; and she instructed her mother: "Read aloud for word tones, for full effect."(LH. 2/2/55). As a child, Plath had recited poems to her beloved father and by her early twenties she felt she was "getting more proficient with the singing, uncrowded lyric line, instead of the static adjectival smothering thought I am usually guilty of." (LH. 28/2/53). A poem's "sayability" was frequently a major criterion in her own judgement of the poetry of others, and her own best poetry is that where her voice is strong and direct and the rhythms are those of plain speech.

Fred Beake asks some questions about the influence of Impressionism on Plath and about her tastes in music. From the evidence of the journals and letters, it seems that although she learned to play the piano as a child, her musical taste was relatively unformed when she went to Cambridge. She tells of listening to Scarletti, Beethoven, Bartok, Schubert and Hindsmith with various boyfriends, but she is never inspired to comment on the music, which is uncharacteristic for her when she is enthusiastic about something.

It also seems that although she was a skilful artist herself and was enrolled in Art courses at Smith College, her interest in the art of others developed later. In 1954, she wrote of a trip to New York where she spent an afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art and commented "I am getting to know it better and better" (LH. ?/3/54), but it was not until she was teaching at Smith College in 1958 that her journals show any real interest in art. At that time, it seems, she attended some art lectures and spent time in the Smith library studying the work of various artists. The colour and light in work by Matisse and Gaughin moved her to ecstasy (SPJ. 26/1/58), but the art poems were almost an exercise. She wrote of aiming to have her art poems " - one to three (Gaughin, Klee and Rousseau) - completed by the end of March" (SPJ. 2/3/58), and on March 20th: "Have narrowed down poem subjects to Klee (five paintings and etchings) and Rousseau (two paintings) and will try, arbitrarily, one a day. Each subject appeals deeply to me. Must drop them in my mind and let them grow rich, encrusted." (SPJ. 20/3/58).

As to the poets who influenced her, she was very widely read in American and English poetry, but most of all she was trying to forge her own, "sayable" poetic style. The work of six women poets in New Poetry of England and America, which she read in 1958, prompted vehement comment which gives some idea of her own estimation of her ability: "Dull, turgid. Except for May Swenson and Adrienne Rich, not one better or more published than me. I have the quite righteous malice of one with better poems than other women's reputations have been made by" (SPJ. 20/1/58). And the poets she admired most? Her journals and letters suggest - Blake, Chaucer, Yeats, Lowell and Hughes.

Fred Beakes's comments and questions are interesting and valuable and I will keep them in mind. I am still reading Plath's letters, journals and poems because Ted Hughes's new book, Birthday Letters, constantly points the reader back to Plath's work. Reading the work of the two poets together, the story they tell is beginning to take on all the qualities of a Greek tragedy. Not least, because Plath's mask was often that of a tragic heroine - a "vessel of tragic experience". She knew she was somehow different to others: she knew she must write. At sixteen, she wrote a poem which showed a knowledge of her own voice and destiny which, in essence, never changed:

You ask me why I spend my life writing?
Do I find entertainment?
Is it worth while?
Above all, does it pay?
If not, then, is there a reason?...
I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.

(LH. Intro. pp34-5)


Plath, A. (Ed. and Commentary), Sylvia Plath Letters Home, Faber and Faber, London, 1975.
(LH. in the above text).
Hughes, T. and McCullough, F. (Eds.), The Journals of Sylvia Plath, Ballantyne Books, N.Y., 1991.
(SPJ. in the above text).
Plath, S., Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, London, 1989
Stevenson, A., Bitter Fame, Viking, London, 1989