David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Searching for Sylvia Plath


Here’s a lede that might send you to your room with the vapors: “As a rule the work of women poets is marked by intensity of feeling and fineness of perception rather than by outstanding technical accomplishment.” So writes Bernard Bergonzi in The Guardian in 1960 about Sylvia Plath’s first book, The Colossus.

Aiyiyi! Bergonzi’s CYA rejoinder is hardly better: “Miss Sylvia Plath is, however, a young American poetess whose work is most immediately noticeable for the virtuoso qualities of its style.” Oh, the days when we had dukes and duchesses, poets and poetesses!

But there’s more: “In The Colussus…, which is her first collection of poems, she writes with a degree of assurance that would be rare in her contemporaries of either sex on either side of the Atlantic.” What an anachronistic gem, no?

I know, I know. Don’t get in a whip, really. It’s thoroughly dated. But, boy, it’s priceless, too. And: In the end Bergonzi’s review is swimming with high praise for our American, um, poetess. And here’s his ending, something that might be credited with starting the Plath bandwagon in the first place:

“I read this collection with considerable pleasure, and I can happily recommend it to those inquiring spirits who demand at intervals if there are any new poets worth reading nowadays.”

So, now, why not ask, what of Sylvia Plath? Where is she? I mean, what of Sylvia Plath, who would have turned 80 this year, nowadays?

I’m not sure I can go there. You know, let’s be honest, what can be said about her that hasn’t already been written? She’s a marvel, for sure, the most thoroughly Renaissance sort of, delightful, muscular, physically textural poet of the generation of American poets born in the 1930s.

There’s an alternate universe where Plath is concerned, don’t you thing? In one, there is the poetry world with a virtual Plath living into old age and then who knows what that world would have looked like with Sylvia Her-Self one of the dominant living poets of our time.

In the other is a poetry world as it has existed without her, after 1963, our actual poetry world of the posthumous life of Sylvia Plath, with the hounded Ted Hughes and their children (and with one of her grown children hounded into adulthood too), our actual poetry world of fractured poetics after the death of Plath. It’s as if Plath’s death fragmentified (yes, that’s how we talk in Texas) American poetry for the last half century.

Here’s a late night question for you: Could Plath have kept the iamb alive? Would she have?

I’ll go this far: She’s a mark in time. She never took to the Modernist drink. She didn’t live long enough to relax her style into fin de siecle chumminess, though there is little indication that she would have. She never witnessed confessionalism ditch the mutilated psyche for the suburban anecdote. Her images, metaphors, lines, language, and music are whistle-slick, with what you might call the best poetic footwork of her era. Oh! She had sly boots. She was a whiz, as subversive as Emily Dickinson, as shrewd as Wallace Stevens. She never, and I mean never, reveals a moment in her poems where language undercuts meaning. Post-modernist extremity was not the extremity she was looking for (hat tip: Obi Wan). She was the last writer, after George Orwell, to make the rhetorical cool. Or put another way, if Whitman is our poet of the cosmos, Plath is our poet of the microcosmos. A poet of grammatical curvaceousness, she wrote in the key of the harmonics of the glistening.

And now it’s just hard to find her influence anywhere in today’s American poetry. Except in the searching for it.


Poetry Wire Sound Check Revisited: Last week Poetry Wire invited you to listen to poems on Penn Sound and Poetry Foundation, and asked for suggestions of other good websites with audio or video recordings of poets. Our cup overfloweth. Gratitude to all. Please visit: San Francisco State University Poetry Center, University of Arizona Poetry Center, Lannan Foundation literary archive, Woodbury Poetry Room at Harvard University, and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University.

Poetry Wire Superstorm Sandy Note: To our friends along the Eastern seaboard crimped by the Big One, Poetry Wire’s sympathy is real. Having grown up in hurricane alley in East Texas, Poetry Wire knows something of your suffering, including lack of electricity, lack of clean water, ruined homes, drowned cellars, exhaustion, a grim layer of doom, cancelled work and school, and even the postponement of Halloween which always hurts. But we always come back. What matter is the way we get back up. I write this on October 31 — John Keats’ 217th birthday. Please accept these good wishes for a speedy return to autumn’s “mellow fruitfulness.”

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →