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Tag: Sylvia Plath

Seminal Lines

Photograph by Ralph Gibson

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

Mad Girl’s Love Song – Sylvia Plath


David Stephen Calonne: A biographer of skill, humour and insight

“There is absolutely no plan to it,” Charles Bukowski once claimed speaking about the process of writing, “it’s just me, the typewriter and the chair”. In reality, this was not strictly true says David Stephen Calonne in his new critical study. “Writing was for him,” explains Calonne, “a kind of ritual accompanied by four necessary accessories; alcohol, classical music, the sound of the typewriter, tobacco.” Toward the end of Bukowski’s life the list was extended by the addition of cats – the “smart/spontaneous, self-/absorbed, naturally poised and awesomely/beautiful” creatures – who not only lay at his feet while he wrote but also often made into the writing. They teach us humans, Bukowski observed in a poem called Exactly Right, a “grand lesson in persevering”. A worthy lesson indeed but one Bukowski didn’t need tutelage-in having spent years at his typewriter trying to make it. And when he did finally make it, he made it all the way to the prestigious Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where his literary archive is now kept alongside William Shakespeare, Galileo, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langston Hughes, Jack London et al. “To many it is a matter of some pleasurable amusement,” says Calonne at the end of the book, “that Bukowski’s literary legacy is now housed in this cathedral of culture which is located not far from his own preferred temple – the San Anita race track where he spent so many happy days and evenings.” This would no doubt be a source of some amusement to Bukowski himself, who has also recently made it to the literary (web) pages of The Daily Telegraph.

In this slight but expansive 170-odd page book Calonne covers every aspect and angle of Bukowski’s life, from his childhood to his old age, from his friendships to his relationships, from his work to his leisure,  providing a wonderfully complete overview of this enigmatic barroom-bard whose life, at least in theory, seems full of contradictions. Bukowski wanted literary success but hated fame; was brutish but frangible, forthright but guarded, sensitive but apodictically chauvinistic. And yet, toward the end when age had finally bestowed its wisdom and the bravado had dissipated somewhat, Bukowski unclenched revealing his “tender emotional nakedness,” which began to mark his work. To illustrate this ostensible shift Calonne quotes from Bluebird, a poem which very clearly bridges the gap between Bukowski’s “outer image and his wounded heart”. It is all there in the artless sincerity, when Bukowski says: “there’s a bluebird in my heart that/wants to get out/but I’m too tough for him/I say, stay in there, I’m not going/to let anybody see/you.” But – perhaps faced with his own mortality – Bukowski knew that he had to let us see him, this bluebird, which he had kept hidden for so long. Subsequently, his late style was defined by an “increased attention to death, to his literary heroes, to his cats, to a new metaphysical, stripped-down and often tender lyricism”. Calonne also notes that during this particular time Bukowski kept heed of world news and current affairs, commemorating events such as the 1992 LA riots in his work.

Never a political writer, however, Bukowski preferred to concentrate on what he knew best, drinking, women, the racetrack, love. In one of his two essays on poetry, Basic Training, he says he always endeavoured to hurl himself towards his “personal god: SIMPLICITY”. But it was sheer determinism that proved to be the sulphur in his blood, the superhuman resilience to incalculable personal and professional rejections. Bukowski would often say that it was, in fact, his father who made him a writer because he first became interested in literature as a means of escape from the harrowing reality of his early domestic life. “His literary style was forged in the crucible of his youthful anguish,” writes Calonne, “as he would learn to handle words as if they were fists, pounding back at the injustices he had endured.” This bravura would eventually evolve into “his characteristic sarcasm, tough guy persona and his combination of courtly style with rough house antics”. Calonne adds that Bukowski’s way of coping was by “rebelling, revolting against everything, with a bit of charming humour thrown into the mix.” Again, this would become a defining trait, running through his uberous canon, adding to it a touch of impertinence and wisecracking which is distinctly his own.

Bukowski started out with poetry, short fiction, essays and reviews but by the 1970s his champion and friend John Martin suggested he tackle a novel. “Bukowski took immediate action,” writes Calonne, “he sat before his typewriter each evening precisely at the time he used to begin work at the Post Office: 6:18”. A mere 19 days later he had finished a book, which was published on 8th February 1971. Post Office has been translated into over 15 languages and remains one of Bukowski’s most popular works. This is partly because it has wide-ranging themes, depicting everyday working class life in a distinctively “scatological, sexual and colloquial style,” which Bukowski fashioned after one of his literary heroes, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It is also a work that clearly sprung from the vantage point of experience. “The book telescopes various periods of Bukowski’s life,” Calonne explains, “returning to the early 1950s, when he worked as a mail carrier; snarling dogs, sexual encounters with lonely women; the struggle to memorise postal codes.” It is not entirely clear, the biographer suggests, whether Martin approached Bukowski to write full time or vice versa but the leap toward a literary career came just at the right time as Bukowski’s absenteeism from work and association with underground newspapers had not gone unnoticed by his employers at the Post Office. In many respects, Bukowski’s writing was more auspicious or at least more constant than his personal life. Here too, Calonne has every angle covered, chronicling his subject’s romantic inconcinnities with objective sympathy.

Calonne’s book is meticulously researched and assembled from select excerpts of Bukowski’s saporous letters, poems, novels and other elements of autobiography he left behind. The biographer has extensive knowledge of his subject and beyond, which he uses to construct multiple interpretative frameworks to present Bukowski’s work, his dualistic German/American identity and his place in today’s literary landscape. Unrefined, voluble and ventripotent, with  “beer-maddened” breath, coarse canescent hair, speck-brown eyes and a face like a cribriform plate, due to severe adolescent acne, Bukowski was never a typical man of letters. But by his fortieth year, says Calonne, he “had found his genius and marked out his literary territory,” and thus “the terror of existence” became him subject Literature for Bukowski was always directly related to “his own experience of living” and in a way it led to his innovative and idiosyncratic style. “It is a miswriting of literary history, for example,” says Calonne, “that the ‘Confessional poets’ –  Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton – are given sole credit for the invention of a new mode of self-revelation, which dealt with the most intimate, hidden and painful aspect of the psyche, when actually Bukowski was doing this form the outset.” Calonne is clearly passionate about his subject and it shows as the book comes wonderfully together to illustrate a man’s life through the biographer’s lens of skill, humour and insight.

Publisher: Reaktion Books 
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 224 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 9781780230238

Ted Hughes: The male lead dressed in veteran RAF black asserting his voice over the dead

Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes in 1956 at a student party in Cambridge. Overcome by some libidinous caprice Plath bit Hughes on the cheek, an incident which Hughes immortalised in St Botolph’s by recollecting “the swelling ring-moat of tooth marks/That was to brand my face for the next month/The me beneath it for good”.  For her part, recording the evening in her Journal, Plath described him as the only man there “huge enough for me…the one man in the room who was as big as his poems”. Later, she wrote to her mother in a distinctly mythologising vein describing Hughes “as the strongest man in the world…a large, hulking, healthy, Adam, half French, half Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God – a singer, storyteller, lion and word-wanderer, a vagabond who will never stop.” She was right, at least in part; he never did stop not until death got the better of him. I read the Crow a number of years ago and found the satanic folktale impenetrable. This bias, however, did not affect my decision in buying Birthday Letters. The collection of 88 poems was published in 1998 and documents Hughes’ professional and personal relationship with Plath in a startlingly and markedly confessional tone, a tone which Hughes had previously eschewed from his work.

I never really thought of Ted Hughes as a poet, but rather the handsome yet slatternly scholar dressed in “veteran RAF black” playing the inconsonant husband to Plath’s staunch wife. The two met at University, she a Fullbright scholar and the daughter of New England intellectuals, he a working class boy from Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire; marriage, mortgage, children followed and later infidelity, despair, abandonment and Plath’s suicide.  The plateau of their connubial life was firmly protected by Hughes’ silence thus Birthday Letters came as a momentous turn – apparently propelled by Hughes’ need for “inner liberation”. Writing at the time to his friend Kathleen Raine, Hughes said: “Those letters do release the story that everything I have written since the early 1960s has been evading. It was in a kind of desperation that I finally did published them – I had always thought them unpublishibly raw and unguarded, simply too vulnerable. But then I just could not endure being blocked any longer…If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago, I might have had a more fruitful career – certainly a much freer psychological life.” And later defending his decision he said the grief had “gagged my whole life, arrested me, essentially, right back there at that point. Like those First World War survivors who never climbed out entirely out of the trench.”

The collection is marked by a mixture of humility, self-aggrandizement, self-liberation and love and gives a profound insight into the crippling sense of guilt, anger, sadness and chastisement Hughes’ experienced after Plath’s death. It paints an intimate portrait of their torturous relationship from that initial encounter, when he was still oblivious of “being auditioned for the male lead” in her drama. The poems are characterised by long, un-rhyming lines, few stanza breaks and little distance between the speaker and the poet offering the most emotionally palpable work of Hughes’ career. Candid, tensile, accusing, vulnerable they recapitulate all the major preoccupations that characterised Plath’s own writing – death, survival, love, loss, the self – revealing the extent of her influence on Hughes and his work.  And yet his voice, is never submerged, looming over poems such as Fullbright Scholars (The picture: The Fullbright Scholars…/Maybe I weighted you up, feeling unlikely/Noted your long hair/loose waves/Your Veronica Lake bang…/Your exaggerated American/Grin for the cameras), Portraits (What happened to Howard’s portrait of you? I wanted that painting…/Molten, luminous, looking at us/From that window of Howard’s vision of you), Perfect Light (There you are in all you innocence…/Perfect light in your face lights it up…/Among your daffodils. In your arms/ Like a teddy bear, your new son)  and Drawing (Drawing calmed you…/I drank from your concentrated quiet/In this contemplative calm/Now I drink from your stillness that neither/Of us can disturb or escape) where Plath is nothing more than a memory, a static image, as Hughes asserts his living voice over the dead.

Hughes’ authority, however, is transient. He shifts it toward Plath by naming her as the dominant party in their relationship, at first covertly in A Pink Wool Knitted Dress when he describes the contrasting reactions to their wedding day, saying: “You shook, you sobbed with joy, you were ocean depth/Brimming with God/You said you saw the heavens open/And show riches, ready to drop upon us/Levitated beside you, I stood subjected/To a strange tense: the spellbound future.” This characterisation becomes more overt in Trophies when he describes Plath as a “big cat” and himself in a “shock attack of a big predator”. In 18 Rugby Street Hughes emphasises Plath’s role as the hunter, saying: “I can hear you/Climbing the bare stairs/Alive and close…/That was your artillery; to confuse me/Before coming over the top in your panoply/You wanted me to hear you panting.” And again, in The Shot, when he engages in a proverbial combative struggle with his wife, comparing her to a hit: “Your Daddy had been aiming you at god/When his death touched the trigger/In that flash/You saw your whole life. You ricocheted/The length of your Alpha career/With the fury of a high velocity bullet/Till your real target/Hid behind me. Your Daddy/The god with the smoking gun/For a long time/Vague as mist /I did not even know/I had been hit/Or that you had gone clean through me/To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.”

A lot of the poems ruminate over Plath’s lifelong preoccupations with her father and death, and the fibrous roots of one in the other.  Occasionally, Hughes intimates that she used her writing as a weapon to not only to hurt herself but also her family. Her poetic achievements, which a traditional elegy would commend, are muted and tinged with her husband’s regret. In Moonwalk Hughes says: “You carried it all, like shards and moults on a tray/To be reassembled/In a poem to be written so prettily/And to be worn like a fiesta mask/By the daemon that gazed through it/As through empty sockets – that still gazes/Through it at me”. Later he laments the destructive potency of her work by saying her poems followed her with their “blood-sticky feet” and in Apprehensions he relays Plath’s own worries: “Your writing was also your fear/At times it was your terror, that all/Your wedding presents, your dreams, your husband/Would be taken from you/By the terror’s goblins.” The tentative bridge between fact and self-contained symbolic image, between Plath’s exploration of the relationship with her dead father and death itself, becomes a world. And even when she “had stripped the death-dress off/Burned it on Daddy’s grave,” it’s never for long. Hughes observes in Dream Life that despite it all: “You descended in each night’s sleep/In to your father’s grave/Your sleep was a bloody shrine it seemed,” and in Being Christlike he says almost accusingly: “You did not want to be Christlike. Though your father/Was your God and there was no other, you did not/Want to be Christlike. Though you walked/In the love of your father.”

The poetic terrain of Birthday Letters is multifaceted, revelatory and contains a magnificent fusion of private and universal motifs giving a voice to Hughes’ piercing impression of the life he shared with Plath. Between the poems of guilt, accusation and blame, and the poems of life and death, are poems of love; tender, lachrymose, retrospective, sad. Hughes recollects their first meeting in St Botolph’s, for example, with great tenderness, saying:  “Taller/Than ever you were again, swaying so slender/It seemed your long, perfect, American legs/Simply went on. That flaring hand/Those long balletic monkey-elegant fingers/And the face –  a tight ball of joy/I see you there clearer, more real/Than in any of the years in its shadow/As if I saw you that once, then never again”. And in 18 Rugby Street he surmises that Plath was “a new world. My new world/So this is America, I marvelled/Beautiful, beautiful America!” Hughes never really explores the breakdown of their marriage or their mutual literary influence on one another’s work, preferring to concentrate on Plath’s inner issues and his feelings of subverted rejection. But perhaps he felt no need to state the obvious, because in Birthday Letters Hughes’ voice is undeniably intermingled with his wife’s to the point where these two individual poets become inseparably one.

Sylvia Plath: “Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.”

I was about 16 when I first read The Bell Jar and much like the heroine in Sylvia Plath’s novel “I was suppose to be having the time of my life” only I wasn’t. I was deeply troubled, conflicted, resentful, fragile, alone, adrift, contemptuous of everything and going slightly mad. Upon initial reading the book didn’t leave much of an impression, but I could definitely identify with its heroine, Esther Greenwood, not merely via the superficial coincidence of also being “a person with brown eyes and brown hair” but by feeling as if “everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.”

By the time I read The Bell Jar I was already familiar with Plath’s poetry and thus the slender picaresque relayed by a jolie-laide disenchanted with her big-city simulacrum of paradise did not entail the same vociferous puissance. Now, over a decade later, having just finished reading Sylvia’s opus again I have arrived at the same conclusion. And yet, I have enjoyed the book immensely: its polyphonic literary tone, its frank and caustic observations but most of all its autobiographical elements unifying the author and its heroine. It’s partly true then, I guess, that a book is nothing if not “the impression of its author’s experiences.” The Bell Jar though is more than that it is in fact a carefully re-worked, condensed and fictionalised version of Plath’s journals.

The story chronicles a sort of virile inner emptiness propelling its heroine into a state of complete mental dissociation from the world and all who inhabit it. Meditating on his own troubles John Cheever once wrote: “I am in a bell jar or worse since I seem to respond to nothing I see.” Esther Greenwood, on the other hand, is at the other extreme of the spectrum and thus responds to everything with painful sensitivity while trudging on through an increasingly darkening landscape of her life. It is impossible to dissimilate Plath’s voice from that of her heroine as the two are almost identical in their acutely cerebral ruminations, modest beginnings, academic success, interest in poetry, optimism in despair, elation in anomie, grief over the loss of a “German speaking” father, experiences of electrotherapy, numerous and identical suicide attempts and general preoccupation with death which, incidentally, comes to the fore in the opening sentence when Esther begins her story by saying: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.” The opening of The Bell Jar sets the tone for the rest of the book, auxiliary portents abound in the subtext of every page, and thus the reader is almost expected to know that things are set to go askew.

As the story progresses we witness Esther growing more irresolute and dejected not only about working on a ladies magazine, frequenting Bloomingsdale’s for her “patent leather shoes” and going to parties which make her feel like “a numb trolley-bus”, but also her predestined career as an editor for which she had spent most of her life “studying and reading and writing and working like mad”. And yet irrespective of Esther’s downcast outlook, her bemused demeanour, self effacing charm, rapier wit and penchant for peculiarity is intensely compelling. Her character, much like Plath’s own, is one who treats life as material for literature and thereby muses on a plethora of subjects personal and peripheral which range from chapter to chapter. Yet for all her precociousness Esther’s attitude toward life, sense of purpose, lack thereof, love and the opposite sex, while ostensibly cynical, is in fact naive. Eventually, Esther’s increasingly erratic behaviour – commencing with her throwing her clothes out the window into the “dark heart of New York” and culminating with her trying to bury herself – lands her in a psychiatric facility.

From there on in her madness takes over, accompanied by expert valetudinarians and shock therapy which makes for truly uncomfortable reading. Yet for all the differences between us I could relate to her. I could relate to feeling lost and going crazy and being “cynical as hell” and to her feelings of inadequacy and to her merciless self criticism and to her plight in trying not to let “the wicked city” get her down. I could relate because I was that girl. Re-reading The Bell Jar took me back to a time when I was…pretty much how I am today. Except I’m no longer 16, so maybe it’s time I grew up. Then again, I’m with Charles Bukowski in that the people who never go mad must lead terribly tedious lives.

Anne Sexton: “I have been her kind”

I spent my formative years reading the works of Sylvia Plath, convinced that there was no one in the world that could topple that high priestess of verse from her throne of poetic supremacy. Until, that is, I discovered Anne Sexton. I was awestruck and startled by her words, her choice of subject matter and its reverberating resonance, by her ability to deploy metaphorical structures at once synthetic and analytical, her unerring descriptive powers, extemporaneous wit and muscular rhythms. Her poetry, antithetical to that of the previous generation, was often characterised by multiplicity and simplicity, the sacred and the profane as she strived to illuminate the uttermost struggle of human experience. And there is little doubt that Sexton shone an edifying light on human nature from the beginning of her career until her death which she “wanted so badly and for so long”.

On October 4th 1974, Anne Sexton had lunch with friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin to revise her manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God. Upon her return home she donned her mother’s vintage fur coat, poured herself a large vodka, locked herself in the garage and ignited her car engine thus committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. And just like that, the woman who’d been courting death for the last three decades had finally seized it. Martin Heidegger once said that human beings live toward and for death; this could not have been more true of Sexton. Her work canonised the connection between extremist art and suicide as a form of poetic destiny, most notably in Her Kind where she asserts that a woman like herself “is not afraid to die”. Similarly, Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn ends with the line “there is no safe place,” a belief which haunted her throughout her life, and in Wanting to Die the poetess admits that even when she has “nothing against life” the “almost unnameable lust returns” because despite all reason “to die whole/riddled with nothing/ but desire for it/is like breakfast/ after love”.

It is difficult to write of her posthumous royal shadow, her imprecating confrontations, her insolent righteousness and the reflective truths she exposed by breaking boundaries and violating taboos. The largely critical response to her poetry stems, in part, from the fact that she wrote about the unspeakable – death, suicide, sexual anxiety, madness, familial wounds, adultery, lust – discarding her well-bred prudence in favour of candour and a personal, prejudiced and plaintive manner, thereby carving herself out a role as the creatrix of the confessional. In turn, she was often rebuked for the intensity of her artistic preoccupation with the self and her unashamedly self-reflective, auto-referential rodomontade innate in her linguistic identity. But while many find these qualities inherently repellent, I think they constitute the virtues of her craft. Though often disparaged, Sexton managed to maintain an admirably impervious disposition toward the critic, highlighted quite auspiciously in Alan Dugan’s poem called Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton when the poetess declares with hardened conviction: “I don’t care what you think,” an attitude which Sexton seemed to have maintain throughout her career.

But it was her poetry that was her real strength, a calling, and one she saw as her vocation, once saying in an interview: “When I’m writing, I know I’m doing the thing I was born to do.” Her concentration on human relationships produced masterly, virile portraits of those who’d crossed her path. Her take on love and all its particulars comprises some of my favourite works, as well as those poems about and to her lovers, including Admonitions to a Special Person where she declares that, “to love another is something/like prayer and can’t be planned, you just fall/ into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief,” before warning that special someone to “watch out for intellect/ because it knows so much it knows nothing/and leaves you hanging upside down,/mouthing knowledge as your heart/falls out of your mouth.” And the ever-so-brilliant For My Lover Returning to His Wife where she bids her paramour to go back to his connubial stead saying: “I give you back your heart/ I give you permission” after all “I have been momentary/She is more than that” for “she is the sum of yourself and your dream/ Climb her like a monument/ step after step/She is solid/ As for me, I am a watercolour/I wash off.” And one of my all-time favourite openings, in The Kiss which commences with a masterfully vivid illustration of emotional emptiness when she says:“My mouth blooms like a cut/ I’ve been wronged all year, tedious/nights, nothing but rough elbows in them/and delicate boxes of Kleenex calling crybaby/crybaby, you fool!”

Sexton exercised not only formidable control in her work but also a remarkable visceral fortitude. Although her style and approach shifted, she continued to deal with the subjects that had concerned her from the start: personal transformations from wife to poet, from sanity to madness, from love to loss, from life to death. Her knack for autology remains in principal unmatched. Prompted to write by her long-term psychiatrist, Dr Martin Orne, she sought to make her art a salvation, an exercise which was only in part a success as her work attests to the continuous backslides from struggles with destruction to affirmation of life. In As It Was Written she expresses a deep cynicism when she says, “all in all, I’d say/ the world is strangling/ And I, in my bed each night/ listen to my twenty shoes/converse about it/And the moon/ under its dark hood/ falls out of the sky each night/ with its hungry red mouth/ to suck at my scars.” This fatalistic attitude is later supplanted by a sense of contented acceptance in The Truth the Dead Know when the poetess exclaims: “My darling, the wind falls in like stones/ from the whitehearted water and when we touch/ we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone/Men kill for this, or for as much.” But then the foreboding returns in Despair when Sexton once again begins to question the purpose of life, asking is it “The love that goes down the drain like spit?/The love that said forever, forever/ and then runs you over like a truck?” before addressing Despair itself by saying: “I don’t like you very well/You don’t suit my clothes or my cigarettes/ Why do you locate here/ as large as a tank/aiming at one half of a lifetime?” And again in All My Pretty Ones a poem about her father whom she forgives all his wrongs in the closing lines, “Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you/ bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you,” yet later she renegades on that forgiveness. The backward and forward shift and the presence of vacillation is a continuous theme in Sexton’s work. And while hope is never far away neither is hopelessness.

The extent to which Anne Sexton connected art and self-destruction may have been symptomatic of her illness and later her addiction to pills and alcohol. For all her efforts to purge her innermost demons, her anger remained turned inward albeit she fought against it with spectacular might. Her work dares to defy convention and carries the capacity to linger in the reader’s memory with a complex unease. It makes for difficult, sometimes uncomfortable reading but it also demands to be read. And as I sit here, over three decades after her death, contemplating her work, I realise that Sexton was an embodiment of something that’s in all of us, a reminder that while we can change, a part of us never does. But beyond that, I will always think of her as a “walking miracle” in her elegant shift dress, her smouldering aristocratic face framed by a shag of liberated hair, reading her verses in her coarse patrician burr, pausing to take a drag on her cigarette before exclaiming: “A woman who writes feels too much.” I have been her kind.

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