Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems – Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. But I’m just not convinced.

March 8, 2013

So on my table at the moment, among other things, are four volumes of poetry. Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, Thom Gunn, Collected Poems, Robert Lowell, Selected Poems. Anne Sexton, Complete Poems. I have randomly flicked through all four. I read Sexton’s The Wall. I read Gunn’s The Differences. I read Lowell’s A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich. (I didn’t bother with Ginsberg, because, I mean, why would you?) And then, a week or so after I’d read them the first time, I read Plath’s Wuthering Hieghts, and  Man in Black.

And I;m sorry, but I just don’t get it.

To clarify – I read a poem each of Gunn (his later stage) and Sexton to convince myself they were as accessible as I remembered them to be. I read Lowell because I studied him at high school 25 years ago and have occasionally read him since, and Plath and Sexton attended a workshop/class he conducted, and I wanted to convince myself he was as accessible as I remember him to be. And then I reread Plath, to remind myself that she was in fact as inaccessible as I’d found her over the past two weeks.

This, incidentally, is not like comparing John Donne to Jon Silkin. Lowell was born in 1917; Plath in 1932. Between them are Gunn (1929) and Sexton (1928). Gunn sits a little apart from the other three – British born, drug-fucked rather than mentally ill. But  for a few years, in the late 50s and early 60s, they were all getting poetry published.

sylvia plath poemsAnd I’m sorry. This is not what I’m supposed to think. I know I’m supposed to be like “Oh my god she is so awesome I cried my eyes out reading her last night seriously who writes like her like ever?” Sylvia’s the weakest. In fact, if we take Gunn’s somewhat impenetrable early work out of the equation she’s easily the weakest by a country mile.

This is the kind of stuff that gets bloggers hate mail, yeah?

I’ve said this before, and no doubt some people disagree with me: Anything you read should have an immediate payoff. This is what makes Sexton and Lowell and Gunn”s later work so enjoyable – you can read it once, and enjoy it, and then go back and excavate it. Some of Gun’s earlier work rewards rereading as well, although some of it remains aggressively indecipherable. And that’s my problem with Plath. It feels deliberately, aggressively obtuse. I don’t know how many of these poems I reread – not as many as in Gunn or Sexton, because it became swiftly apparent that rereading would do me no favours. But I reread a lot. And I was right. It did me no favours, or at least very few.

Some people enjoy this, and I get that. Some people enjoy the idea of reading something that is completely impenetrable, something that makes no sense, and going back to it again and again until finally they make some sense of it – although whether that sense is the sense the writer wanted them to make of it, or the sense they have imprinted on it, is anyone’s guess. It’s just that I don’t get it.

When I’ve blogged about poetry in the past I’ve usually, if not always, strewn the names of a few of my favourite poems about. I can’t really do that with Plath. And I really don’t want to make references to the Empress’s New Clothes, but, um… I have to wonder.

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