To the Editor:
Any man who presumes to enter into the psychic innards of experiences which are uniquely feminine, especially the sexual and the maternal, is bound to end up in the quicksand of (for him) the unknowable and the quagmire of a women’s-lib counterattack. All the more so, if the woman in question died by her own hands, and is now undergoing a revival of recognition as a poet. I am referring, of course, to the late Sylvia Plath, and to John Romano’s “Sylvia Plath Reconsidered” [April].
Mr. Romano begins by reiterating the currently fashionable (but in my opinion fallacious) dogma of the New Criticism, that a writer’s persona is an impermissible criterion for judging his literary product. He then proceeds to contradict his own disclaimer by going beyond the decency of allowing the dead (and suicides, particularly) the privilege of privacy, which they have earned by their self-sacrifice. Now, whether suicide may truly be given the accolade of “earned” is a matter for theologians, and perhaps for psychiatrists, to judge, not for literary critics. . . . Mr. Romano’s credentials do not entitle him to refute the validity and severity of the biblical curse to Eve: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow, and thy conception; in sorrow shalt thou bear children, and thy desire shall be to thy husband, who shall rule over thee.” This curse and its social and psychological consequences have been called “the biological tragedy of women.” A woman may face up to it with resignation or with rebellion, which will inevitably find expression in her poetry, if she is a poet. Men, as lifemates or as critics, should tread this hallowed, yet too often profaned, ground with awe, or at least with caution. This, Mr. Romano unfeelingly fails to do. . . .
That Sylvia Plath herself committed the sin of delving into the (to her) unknowable agony of the victims of the Holocaust, need not deny her the right to be judged on her merits as a poet. The first I agree should rightly be the prerogative of the survivors; but only the second should have been Mr. Romano’s concern in his essay. One may fault Sylvia Plath for narcissistic self-admiration in disguise, in dwelling upon her “fifteen years of straight A’s,” and criticize her misfortune of unwanted wifehood and motherhood on social or moral grounds. One may cast psychiatric aspersions upon her ultimate act of self-immolation. But only the objective-correlative vectors of the poetic transfiguration of these intimacies into fiction need concern the critic, not her right to them (posthumously, all the more so).
Mr. Romano, I feel, has expended too much gratuitous talk on the first at the expense of his responsibility to deal adequately with the second. Sylvia Plath still deserves serious reconsideration as a poet, without disturbing the rest of her soul after her death, and the ghosts which tormented her during her tragically abbreviated lifetime.
Spertus College of Judaica
To the Editor:
John Romano ought to reconsider his reconsideration of Sylvia Plath. It is, in fact, not a reconsideration, but the same old vindictiveness we have been getting since her suicide. Wherein does he differ from Irving Howe who said much the same thing about her concentration-camp images well over two years ago in Harper’s (January 1972)? Plath’s poem “Daddy,” according to Howe, “aggrandizes on the ‘enormity of ready emotion’ invoked by references to the concentration camps, in behalf of an ill-controlled if occasionally brilliant outburst. There is something monstrous when tangled emotions about one’s father are deliberately compared with the historical fate of the European Jews.”
Mr. Romano’s questioning of the legitimacy of using Dachau and Auschwitz to portray Plath’s suffering is much the same as Mr. Howe’s. Why? Is the fate of the Jews in camps a fate that can never be duplicated? Cannot one individual’s psyche approximate the suffering of a people? Or must one keep one’s hands off such images because they are the chosen images of a chosen people?
Referring to the events of The Bell Jar—suicide, rape, electro-shock therapy—Mr. Romano says: “They stack up like atrocities on the evening news.” Precisely. The events of the book mirror the insanity and murder of the external world, horrible though they may seem in the book, in the form of the experiences of one individual.
Mr. Romano wonders what women can learn from “a text of such self-hatred,” as in Plath’s poems, but I would ask Mr. Romano to address himself to the reasons for such hatred not only in Sylvia Plath, but in the recent (and past) literature of women. Surely, the Gothic mode reflects this self-disgust, yet it has also produced many great works. Shall we write this tradition off because of the fastidiousness of male critics?
And finally, why are the same old issues of Plath’s suicide and martyrdom being rehashed? Few critics have looked at her work . . . as deftly and surely using personae to express her life and her suffering. Rimbaud did this. So did Baudelaire. Why not attack them for being failures aesthetically and morally . . . because they could not “apprehend the self in others”?
Montclair State College
Upper Montclair, New Jersey
To the Editor:
John Romano does not so much reconsider Sylvia Plath as join such critics as Joyce Carol Oates and Irving Howe in disparaging her. This is a very easy thing to do. Despite the fashion for despair and the apocalyptic in literature, most critics—indeed most cultivated persons—must affirm “an allegiance to life.” Sylvia Plath’s allegiance to death and her persistent fascination with the darkest aspects of life, often expressed with extraordinary power and exquisite nuance, show that she was unbalanced, in the sense that, like Poe and Beddoes, she habitually slighted large areas of life in which most people, and the best writers, find sustenance.
However, I believe she does illuminate the arresting experiences and feelings she chose to write about. The incapacity adequately to apprehend the selves of other people is perhaps a defect in her writings. But feelings of isolation and desolation are usually so much a part of desperate, especially suicidal, emotions that I can accept her self-absorption (and her failure artistically to objectify it as a theme) as being the price one must pay to witness her terrifying but compelling vision of life in such superbly rendered poems as “Totem.”
Her poetic treatment of her father, both in the use of Nazi imagery and in the hazy portraiture of him as a once-living presence, strikes me as being valid. That kind of highly authoritarian parent can appear in the dawning consciousness of a child as a being much like God: the source not only of love and unquestioned standards of value but also of fearful disapproval. The child eventually learns that the parent is not only imperfect but capable of cruelty. This experience, if not quite universal, has parallels in modern religious and political experience. I do find Sylvia Plath’s painfully emotional association of her Prussian father, a professor, with the history of modern Germany . . . to be “relevant.” And the poems “Daddy” and “Little Fugue” are relevant to a central fact of life: the circumstances of our helpless childhood, like the circumstances of our citizenship, are often overwhelming factors in our development and treatment as persons.
Roger N. Hofmann
New York City
John Romano writes:
David Kuselewitz finds me “unfeeling” because I refuse to join in the applause for Sylvia Plath’s “self-sacrifice”—his dubious word for her suicide. I can only reiterate the position taken in my article, that it is the applause which is unfeeling. There should be no need to say that I find Sylvia Plath’s life and death extraordinarily moving, but in any case it is neither her suffering nor her suicide, but her writing, that is under judgment. In view of Mr. Kuselewitz’s opinion that “feminine experience” is “unknowable” for men, it is not surprising that he fails to see the point of my criticism. From another point of view, it is in the very difficulty of communication and empathy between the sexes that a poet of sexual anguish, like Plath, can find her calling. Furthermore, it should be pointed out to Mr. Kuselewitz and also to Carole Stone, who take my article as a women’s-lib counterattack, that the new feminists are by no means unanimous in finding Plath a satisfactory spokeswoman. Many accuse her, justifiably to my mind, of cultivating a Victorian self-image (woman as man-fearing martyr) and, simply, of whining.
Miss Stone’s scorn of my remarks on the concentration-camp imagery is less comprehensible. I certainly did not say that such images were off-limits, “the chosen[!] images of a chosen people.” But surely their use may be evaluated critically: Are the allusions supported internally by structures of meaning within the poems? Or—as in “Lady Lazarus”—are they gratuitous poetry at little cost to the imagination? I agree entirely with Roger N. Hofmann that the poems are powerful, their vision “terrifying and compelling,” and this is partly because of the generous use the poet made of the Nazi metaphor. But, as the article undertakes to say, it is not as a tool of insight and apprehension that Plath employs the metaphor, but rather as a way of impressing upon us how much she suffered. When Mr. Hofmann says that her poems “illuminate” her experience, he has surely chosen the wrong word. Their achievement is to convey a certain intensity of pain, as to the source of which we are left mainly in the dark.