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This item is taken from PN Review 194, Volume 36 Number 6, July - August 2010.

Inside Cover Portrait: Sylvia Plath (David C. Ward)
Portrait of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath 1932-63
It's hard, nearly fifty years after her suicide, to see Sylvia Plath plain, as the photographer Rollie McKenna pictured her in 1959, midway between her graduation with much promise from Smith College (1955) and her death (1963). Plath's story is just too well known and invested by us with so much emotion and meaning that everything we think we know about her life - everything we have imposed on that life and made it answer for - gets in the way of the poetry. This photograph of Plath looking impossibly young was probably taken at Yaddo where she and Ted Hughes summered in 1959 before returning to England after a year in America. At Yaddo, Plath wrote 'The Colossus' and by then she had drafted most of The Bell Jar. As confessional verse, ranging in tone from Lowell's historicised self to Ginsberg's geysering rage, developed in post-war America, Plath performed a skilfully fraught balancing act that used her doubled sense of self-alienation to both feminist and poetical effect. She achieved this by being ice-cold in her verse, however super-heated and self-absorbed her subject matter. This coldness takes her poetry from melodrama (a middle-class, Smith girl as Auschwitz lamp shade? Really?) and raises it to tragedy. As she recognised in 'Lady Lazarus': '...there is a charge, a very large charge,/for a word or a touch/Or a bit of blood.' The double meaning here of 'charge' is wonderful. Except that we know what the charge cost her in the end. A right-wing cultural ideologue, defending the so-called canon, once hectored me, 'Was she as good as Keats? Was she as good as Keats?' The answer: she could have been.
DAVID C. WARD

This item is taken from PN Review 194, Volume 36 Number 6, July - August 2010.



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