I came across this beautiful line by Emily Dickinson early in the month, and something about it feels right. November is somewhat peaceful and (at least in Canada) holiday-less, which makes it just a calm month. It’s not brutally cold, it doesn’t snow yet, but it’s also not too colourful like early fall, or as vibrant as the summer/spring months. Since October I’ve been feeling the morbid reads and I didn’t feel the need for them to end just because Halloween is over. I kind of like the theme year-round. I tried to read Nonfiction for this month’s Nonfiction challenge, plays, and poetry with less full fictional novels than usual. This month I was lost in the Podcast LIMETOWN.
Books I read for Review
- Cello’s Tears by Geza Tatrallyay
- Starlings by Jo Walton
- The Light Between Oceans by M.L Steadman (personal book club)
- LORE <– massive spotlight of all formats
- The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction <– academic work
Books I read for Myself
Endgame & Act Without Words by Samuel Beckett
Maybe I just didn’t have the patience for this…which sucks because I really love Samuel Beckett. I find that an artist has failed in some ways at times when people reading it (according to Goodreads reviews) ask questions like “I’m not sure I get it,” “it’s the same recycled material from his most famous work,” and “I know this is important, but I’m not sure how….I don’t get it.” To which others retort: “you just don’t understand him because your ignorance is showing….*high brow laugh…” Reading it, I felt a little exasperated. I know that it’s what Beckett wants, but it’s not what I want to get out of my reading experience. Maybe he’s one of those people whose intensity comes across from heated discussion, or watching his works be performed live and feeling a tension between the physical presence of the actors, with time to think about it all in your seat because that is your only choice in that time and enclosed space….feeling the grayness of it all. But sitting here in MY space, trying to READ this play was agonizing. …for a person who keeps reminding you life has no point and beginnings and endings are cyclical, it really makes you think: do I want to spend the little time I have on this Earth reading this play?. I just wish it wasn’t so much like Waiting for Godot…I wish it had a different point. Not my favorite….not the worst either. I stand by: Beckett’s plays should be an experience whilst watching them be performed….rather than be read. I think I gave it 3/5 stars if that matters (it doesn’t).
Origins of a Story by Jake Grogan
This book is amazing! I honestly wish it existed long ago. I’ve read many books varying on writer’s hobbies, habits, and odd sources of inspiration but this tiny book covers 202 of them. I liked that Grogan was succinct. He didn’t go on and on for any specific author. If inspiration for some authors took longer, it only goes on for a page an a half. He gets to the essential part and focuses on his thesis which is: where the inspiration came from. He doesn’t take it further than that….like how they wrote, where they wrote etc. For some authors that is a shame because I wish I knew more, but I was content with how he approached this topic.
My favourite story of inspiration that I didn’t know about what Margaret Mitchell for Gone with the Wind. Apparently her husband was so tired of carrying books to and from the library for her and one day snapped and said: “For God’s sake, Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?”
The truth is… the people most likely to pick this up are bibliophiles who have read many novels, love many authors, and know a lot of these stories. For more famous cases you’ll find yourself patting yourself on the back going: “already knew that, 10 points Ravenclaw!”
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I loved this book so much. I felt the need to elaborate on it further, so I wrote a review mixed in with discussion. You can find a link to it HERE. It has one of those plots that is so intricate and there’s so much to discuss that it either takes some time to properly explain plot and then discuss….or just read it. It’s one of those books perfect for a book club.
Key words for it would be: motherhood, thriller, murder
I would totally recommend this.
House of Fiction by Phyllis Richardson
I read this for Non-fiction November and I received a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This book is very well-researched, though a little dry in parts. It was presented to me as a “reference work” so I anticipated a broader overview of many literary houses with starting points. This is actually an academic work and has a lot of depth/detail on FEW literary houses. Phyllis Richardson takes a few houses that were significant as either the birthplace or writing place of authors, or like the one in Virginia Woolf’s case, the location in which several authors gathered (Bloomsbury group). Richardson discusses several aspects of “the house.” How it looked, what it was like, how the author/writer made use of it, who visited it, and the subsequent artworks that came out of it. There are several interesting chapters that had my attention throughout. I thought there would be more obscure writers, but this author chose big names like The Brontes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Hardy, Woolf. The reason I’m pointing it out, is because nowadays, people who are a fan of the ‘big book squad’ like the people mentioned would most likely have already seen at least one biopic, one documentary, or one picture of their house. So in that respect I wish less covered artists would have been featured. Needless to say the book is Anglo-centric, but it is called Great “BRITISH” houses, so it’s fair. It’s well-researched.
The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff
A lot of people have recommended Stacy Schiff’s works to me, and I now understand why. I loved this book so much. I started reading this at the same time in October when I was binge-listening to the LORE podcast. It was a great compliment to it. The work looks at the Salem witch trials in an academic/historical way, but written in such an accessible way that it makes you feel like you’re actually there. I loved the accumulation of references made along the way to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and many other works that refer to the Salem Witch Trials without being completely rooted in truth. She debunks a lot of myths around the stories relating to the Salem ‘witches’ and explains step by step how everything happened. I was surprised to find that even two dogs were killed for being ‘pendle witches.’ I really enjoyed it. It took me two months to read, but I put it down and picked it up on and off. I do recommend this, if the topic interests you.
Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks
I was introduced to Terry Brooks via Ted Talk, and it was such a pleasure to hear him talk. I will certainly give the first three books of Shannara a try. I listened to the audio-book of Sometimes the Magic Works, and it did not quite live up to the standards I had for it. I thought it would resemble his talk and go deeper into some of the themes he touched on. I wanted to learn about how he wrote, why he wrote what he did, the process, the feelings, etc. Instead, this was a sort of post-success story. The first hour or so he keeps on repeating how everyone hailed his work as the equal of Lord of the Rings, and how it rivaled Middle Earth. He kind of takes us through the process of talking to his publishers etc. What I couldn’t stand about this book was the comparison with LOTR (every five minutes), and the way Brooks sees himself as some sort of genius that is lost in this other world which somehow justifies him being “out of it.” I’ve seen many male authors do this thing where they are like: oh I had to ignore my wife and she wouldn’t understand that I was trapped in this other world…I was busy creating…I am so complicated. Guess what? J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien managed to create complex worlds beyond this one with depth and wonderful characters and they weren’t rude to the people around them, especially the ones they are meant to love and be close to. When Brooks talks about the way his wife would talk to him about news or anything and he’d just ignore her….blaming it on the craft….that’s when I was done. There are better books out there on writing, and you don’t have to be some outcast, or completely check out in conversations with people. You CAN be a decent human being. I don’t know why this bothered me so much, but I am not going to hold Brooks’s fiction far because of it. Maybe this was just slightly off. I mean again, I’ll give Shannara a try, because I think it probably is a good series, but this particular book was not for me.
2001; A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
I’ve been meaning to read this Sci-fi classic for quite some time. Earlier this year, I read Rendezvous with Rama, and I really enjoyed it. Clarke wrote a short story called “Sentinel” in 1948 which was published as “The Sentinel of Eternity” in 1951. Stanley Kubrick really liked the story and wanted to collaborate with Clarke and make the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie script. Clarke had been working on the book and wanted to publish it before the movie, but the movie was released first, and people saw the book as mere novelization of a film. The work remains a classic nonetheless in the realm of science fiction. I listened to this work on Audio rather than reading the text.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
I had to return to this sci-fi classic when I realized I didn’t own a copy and came across a beautiful edition of it from Macmillan. I wrote an in-depth review of it HERE. Axel (the narrator and main character) a young man, visits his uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who is an eccentric academic and adventurer. Lidenbrock has recently purchased a manuscript with Runic inscriptions which he and Axel decipher to be a cryptogram indicating how one can reach the centre of the Earth. Axel is in love with Lidenbrock’s goddaughter Gräuben, who promises to wait for him and marry him if he returns. The two leave and find themselves a guide, Hans Bjelke, who helps them reach their goal. The journey leads them from Germany, to Denmark. In Copenhagen they take a boat for several days which gets them to Iceland where “the centre’s” entryway is located. Walking through the inside tunnels of a volcano the explorers find fossils, interesting rock formations, water, and many other wonders.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman
This book was a wonderful experience. I actually spent two months reading it in a personal book club with someone very special to me, and it was the first time in a long time that I read a book at such a slow pace (five chapters per week). The book follows Tom and Isabel who have a difficult past because of the War (WWI) and they fall in love, and move on an isolated island where they take care of a Lighthouse for the Commonwealth. Isabel has three miscarriages and one day, a boat washes up on shore, with a dead body and a living baby. I wrote a much more detailed review HERE.
The Collector by John Fowles
The Collector (1963) is so far my #1 read of the year. I love love love it. It was a weird hybrid of John Burnside’s The Dumb House (1997) and Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) both works I enjoyed immensely in the past. The previous two works mentioned had a few things which made them lacking. The first was the amount of “coincidences” that were almost too convenient, and the second were the several homicides…which were also too convenient. Lolita was a child (though cringe-worthy, her age had its literary devices and significance), and Burnside’s woman lead was already abused by so many, that she almost appeared in the story to conveniently produce the main character’s linguistic experiment. Fowles works in this novel with a woman who is a capable adult, and shows us her point of view, as well as that of her kidnapper/oppressor. The plot, if you have not inferred from my rambles, is: a man kidnaps woman who fascinates him and keeps her in a cabin in the woods. It deals with the depths that make men like Humbert Humbert and Clegg the way they are, and why they do the things they do, but without the completion of the sexual act, which makes it ten times creepier for some reason. There is a lot of complexity to this novel and I will write a proper review very soon. This book deserves a proper analysis. I promise I will be a lot more coherent in my review. It’s already entered my all-time favourites, and I am looking for Fowles’s backlist.
“The scholars want the anatomy of the birth of the poetry; and the vast potential audience want her blood, hair, touch, smell, and a front seat in the kitchen where she died…neither audience makes me feel she owes them anything.”
–Ted Hughes, The Observer, November 21, 1971
“It’s hard to read the original manuscript without trying to understand what Hughes was thinking when he left out certain poems and included others. She loved him. He hurt her. All of us who love her work are caught like children in that crossfire forever.”
-Los Angeles Times
Last Tuesday, April 11 The Guardian posted one article around 4:00 p.m. written from an objective standpoint by Danuta Kean titled “Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Huges” showing how some letters to Plath’s therapist (Barnhouse) from Plath herself suggest that Hughes was physically abusive just before her miscarriage. Shortly after, The Guardian followed up with an opinion piece, only four hours later, by Sarah Churchwell titled: “Sylvia Plath, a voice that can’t be silenced” where Churchwell dives a little deeper in the dynamics of the marriage and draws on her own research. On Wednesday, The Guardian published a third paper that was more from a gender studies point of view by Rafia Zakaria titled: “Sylvia Plath’s letters probably won’t harm Ted Hughes’s reputation” where the article criticizes some of Plath’s biographers for placing much blame on Plath in the deteriorating of the marriage, and society in general. All three articles are linked if you are interested in following.
I read all the comments under the three articles with a lot of interest. I wanted to know what do readers who are part of the ‘Hughes’ or ‘Plath’ fandoms think about the three articles, and the dynamics of this relationship as it fits with the poets’ artwork. I extracted from it three dominant comments which I find crucial to discuss. To sum up, these were the dominant three reactions:
- Seriously, who cares?
- Plath killed herself because of Hughes, as did his mistress, and son.
- Hughes is a monster, not even surprised.
Before I try to address the three questions I would fist like to tell you where I stand. First, I love the poetry of Plath. You may have noticed in my “favourites” list that she is the first person that came to my mind. Of Hughes’s work I have read Crow, The Birthday Letters, and The Iron Man, whereas I have read Plath’s entire corpus (including letters/diary entries) so I cannot pretend to be an expert on Hughes. I have glanced at some of his other works but did not finish them. Her use of language stuck with me since six years ago when I discovered her and through most of my undergrad and grad school I have written most of my essays on her poetry, her print culture (comparing various editions of her work), and even on her tombstone which is often chipped away at by fans. Hughes to me, doesn’t quite cut it. I tried reading his works and they did not have an impact. I found that fans are often divided in the two teams, whether it’s Plath vs. Hughes, British vs. American, Women vs. Men, with the occasional: I like neither, or I like both but don’t care about their life.
Secondly I would like to present the disclaimer that I cannot discuss mental illness or pretend that I’m an expert on it, or apply what happened to Plath to all depressed/suicide cases. I do not romanticize suicide. I will only discuss the relationship and biography of the two poets AS POETS and why it matters (or doesn’t) when discussing their poetry as literature, in an academic setting.
That said, I would like to address the three points above:
At first it seems like we all just thrive on drama and that’s what’s interesting. I certainly thought so for a while, until I realized that the ‘who cares’ question is part of the division I mentioned earlier. The truth is, Plath and Hughes were working on different kinds of poetry. Hughes was working on classical/mythological re-workings like those of Ovid; he was writing rhythmically, and building on a larger British Tradition of what was expected of a poet laureate. So if you like Hughes and his work then frankly, you shouldn’t care because Tales from Ovid, The Iron Man, Lupercal, Cave Birds…among others, exist within a contained context of what is on the page and in response to a larger Western Tradition—he was highly influenced by the Romans and his poetry resembles that of Keats, Shelley, or the more recent Seamus Heaney (to me). Unless you’re reading The Birthday Letters, it really doesn’t matter—as our teachers/professors tell us time and time again: biography of the author/poet shouldn’t affect our reading of their art. True. Yes. EXCEPT in one case. This case includes poets: Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell (Plath’s prof), Allen Ginsberg, John Berryman, W.D. Snodgrass, and Sylvia Plath. They were working on a different kind of poetry known as “Confessional Poetry.” This movement was mostly composed of American Poets in the 1950s and ‘60s who wrote ‘poetry of the personal.’ This personal poetry often didn’t rhyme and dealt with topics like: depression, sexuality, abuse, suicide attempts/thoughts, trauma, and things that were highly private and linked uniquely to one’s biography. Unlike poets like Hughes, these poets were drawing solely from personal experience without necessarily responding to a larger tradition. Confessional Poetry is the only time where the poet invites you to learn about their life and invites you to tie it into their artwork. So to answer the question ‘who cares?’ the answer is: people studying confessional poetry. They care about biography, because it’s important, because it’s connected, and because it sheds light and meaning on the artwork. I need to know that Plath was hospitalized in a white room where someone brought her these red tulips that stuck out like an eyesore, for me to understand “the tulips are excitable” in her poem “The Tulips” or that her father was German and a beekeeper which fuels her Holocaust references in “Daddy,” or the ways he was referenced in The Bee Poems. And perhaps understanding that the two poets (Plath and Hughes) were working on something different makes sense of why Plath fans are very interested in biography, while Hughes fans might not be.
She killed herself because (or for) Hughes.
Claims like these, though kind of directed at ‘shaming’ Hughes, to me come across as demeaning to Plath. First of all, she wasn’t a love-struck Juliet figure who killed herself because a man left her. She was a very intelligent woman, and had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts. Claiming she ‘killed herself for Hughes’ or to prove a point comes from a reductive understanding of Plath, and a reductive understanding of mental illness.
Plath went to Smith College on scholarship for academic excellence (she wrote her paper on Ulysses). She got electric shock therapy (without anesthesia) which right now is illegal. She attempted suicide once when she was much younger. Her second suicide attempt was by overdosing on pills and she hid beneath the house porch. She was gone for three days, and was in the newspapers as ‘missing.’ They gave her electrical shock therapy again. She then went to Cambridge in England on a Fulbright Scholarship (very prestigious) where she met Hughes. Her thesis was on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s figure of The Double demonstrated through Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin’s character in The Double and Ivan Fyodorovitch Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. This is an excerpt from her introduction in her thesis “The Magic Mirror:”
“It is this dangerous embodiment of the Double in two of Dostoyevsky’s novels which is the subject of our paper. The device of the Double, although an omen of doom, is instructive since it often reveals hitherto concealed character traits in a radical manner and thus frequently throws unreconciled inner conflicts into sharper relief. However, the recurrence of the double personality in Dostoevsky’s novels is more than a mere technique for clarifying the psychic oppositions; it is the core of Dostoyevsky’s own polemical philosophy.”
I think sometimes Plath is reduced to this ‘revenge-kick’ stereotype of a dismissed woman looking for attention. Just look at how Norton’s character talks to Darla in Fight Club like yeah, yeah, we’re all dying, Sylvia Plath. As if she was just looking for attention. She’s just as often stereotyped as “teen” literature because of The Bell Jar (which is a memoir reflecting on her teen years). This is a horrible reduction. That’s like judging Jean-Paul Sartre on Le Mots (The Words) only and clumping all of his later work and philosophy in that category. It’s just not fair. Plath was an adult, Smith/Cambridge-educated woman with a career, she wrote a thesis on Dostoevsky, and was extremely well-versed in American, British, and Russian Literature. To look at her like she’s the teenage girl from Thirteen Reasons Why (which got criticism on its own as well), is just not comparable.
To return to my original point, while Hughes was an important part of her life, he cannot be blamed for her death because she had a history of attempting it, a history of depression, and they had already been separated for five full months.
“I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it—
…I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.” – Lady Lazarus
Secondly, to say that she killed herself for a man is something that demeans a woman of Plath’s stature (or any woman) immensely. She was so intelligent and capable, and was part of an emerging new group of poets—which she pretty much dominates now—that to say ‘she killed herself for Hughes/because of Hughes’ would be offensive to Plath herself and her ambitions for herself (based on the biographies I’ve read of her). Suicide is a result of mental illness and Plath wanted us to pay attention to that. Her poetry calls for mental health awareness, and paying attention to one’s life..
Point #3: Ted Hughes is a monster.
Zakaria’s article suggests that his reputation doesn’t get affected by the appearance of the new letters, while some in the comment sections painted Hughes as ‘monster.’ Maybe he was driven to do things like the biographers say, maybe his reputation is ruined or not like Zakaria says. I don’t know so I am not going to pretend I do. I wasn’t there. He gets blamed for burning Plath’s diaries from her last two years, and for many other things including the death of Plath, his mistress Assia Wevill (and her child), and subsequently Nick Hughes (son with Plath).
I myself am thankful for Ted Hughes for one reason and one only: he published Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Collected Poems, and that is enough for me. He could have easily kept the manuscript to himself, burnt it, or never have worked on it. However, he did no such thing. He decided to publish them and in the end those last two published works made Plath the iconic figure she is today. The Collected Poems got her the Pulitzer Prize (which she got posthumously in 1982). The publication or Ariel coincided with the rise of second wave feminism and that is how the two stories clashed and combined. Fans of Plath rarely let Hughes forget, and if The Birthday Letters isn’t enough proof that he didn’t exactly have a fun time after 1963 then let’s just be thankful that he published Ariel which made Plath an icon and famous, as well as The Collected Poems. In discussing this with a friend I received the retort “so a bad person did a good thing, does that make his behaviour excusable?” Obviously not, if he was abusive then I would not (and currently do not) celebrate him. I don’t hail him as a ‘great man’ and like I mentioned, his poetry isn’t one that sticks with me anyway—but if it’s his poetry you like then his biography shouldn’t affect the Hughes side because his poetry doesn’t demand it like Plath’s does. This excerpt from Churchwell’s article highlights an important aspect of this dilemma for us readers:
“the facts may alter with new evidence, but mostly it’s our interpretations that have altered. Our ideas — about feminism, marriage, mental illness, suicide and domestic violence — change and with them or attitudes towards Plath and Hughes.”
To remember that this was the ’60s when women weren’t even allowed to run marathons, have a bank account, or attend universities without signatures from spouses, perhaps Hughes can be seen as progressive by supporting his wife’s literary career. I hope I explained in this post the ways in which I think it’s important to examine this relationship, biography in confessional poetry, and for what purpose.
I would love to know what other people think about this. And if you see another comment in those articles that irked you, why did it? Or in this one. Perhaps I have said things that you found to be untrue in your experience of reading the two poets. If yes, how so? These were the three comments that got to me, but I would love to know what you think.
Other Resources on Plath and Hughes:
Interview with Plath and Hughes
Lecture given at the University of Toronto by Professor Nick Mount.
Sylvia Plath Archives
John Green’s analysis of Plath’s poetry
Discussion of Jonathan Bate’s recent (2015) biography of Hughes: Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life