Thursday, 24 December 2009

Sylvia Plath

Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath.
I tend to think of Plath as a poet but her writing output was much more varied, and this is a collection of prose writings. In the introduction Ted Hughes describes how she struggled with her writing and finding subject matter for her stories. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, the first story is based on her work at the records office of a mental hospital, a job taken partly in search of 'life experience'.

I am finding it hard because with someone like Plath who has such a mythology surrounding her you cannot help but read her writing in light of what you know about her. The introduction admits that much of her writing is autobiographical, so I read a woman with deep insecurities and lack of self belief. In 'The Wishing Box' we see a young, recently married woman crushed by feelings of inadequacy because of her husband's vivid dreams, which he describes with relish each breakfast time, ending in her suicide when she can find no imagination and no escape. In 'The Fifty-ninth Bear" a married couple on holiday count the wild bears they have encountered. But the wife comes across as being patronised and submissive, the husband viewing her as being incapable of independent thought or action, and you sense a feeling a intense satisfaction for the author when she choses to have him killed by the 59th bear, outside their tent. In 'Sunday at the Mintons' we have a brother and sister, recently reunited for some unstated reason, and she back looking after him, seeing to his every need. Another man belittling and talking down to the woman he lives with. And then you get this fantasy moment as he is swept away by a wave at the beach, getting his comeuppance because of his obsessive knowledge of tide times, although this time it may have been only in her imagination. It was the themes of the stories that were most interesting and her astute character observations. I liked the most a little journal piece from the last section. It is entitled 'Widow Mangada' and describes an elderly woman from whom they rent a room in Benidorm in the summer of 1956, and it is just the most lovely portrait.

I don't think she would have thought of herself as a feminist as such, just an observer of women's experience. You can also read that at heart she is a poet. Just occasionally the way she uses words screams poetry, they stand out from the rest of the writing that is often mundane and ordinary. The pieces from her journals are mostly so everyday, giving practical life details, then just occasionally you get a real glimpse of how vitally she needed recognition for her work: "Crash! I am psychic, only not quite drastic enough. My baby 'The Matisse Chapel' which I had been spending the imaginary money from and discussing with modest egoism, was rejected by The New Yorker this morning with not so much as a pencil scratch on the black-and-white doom of the printed rejection. I hid it under a pile of papers like a stillborn illegitimate baby." (Cambridge notes February 1956)

I confess to not being familiar with Plath's poetry beyond 'Not Waving but Drowning' but have become fascinated by the whole story and plan to read more and also to find a copy of Birthday Letters, in which Hughes responds to her death and sheds some light on one of the most intriguing of literary relationships.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent upstate New York poet, Charlie James, was influenced by Sylvia Plath. If you're interested in his new book, visit


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