Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography

Dennis O’Driscoll
In a review of Linda Wagner-Martin's biography of Sylvia Plath a couple of years ago, Anne Stevenson remarked that 'It is probably too soon to ask for a fully-documented, historically objective biography of Sylvia Plath. The principal members of her family are still alive and vulnerable. Another generation will have to assume responsibility where this one, in the nature of the undertaking, cannot'. We have had fair warning, therefore, not to expect Bitter Fame, Stevenson's own biography of Plath, to be the last word on the subject. Her book is welcome and timely, nonetheless; welcome because its author is not only a distinguished poet and independent-minded critic but also an exact contemporary of Plath's who has experienced similar transplantation from America to England; timely because, as the first biography to enjoy the co-operation of the Plath Estate, it benefits from access to close friends of the poet and her husband (Ted Hughes) who are unlikely to be alive by the time a truly objective biography becomes feasible.
Entry to the Plath Estate is not, apparently, gained without supervision and Anne Stevenson may be alerting us to the cramped conditions she worked under by describing the book as 'almost a work of dual authorship' with Olwyn Hughes, Plath's vigilant sisterin-law who acts as warden of the Estate. Ms. Hughes's interventions can be petty and defensive; but, despite the discretions she was obliged to observe (and it is absolutely proper that the feelings of the living should be taken into account), Anne Stevenson has emerged with a book which greatly illuminates Plath's years in England, where her best poems were written .
. The hostility with which this book was greeted by many reviewers is an indication of the extent to which people identify with Plath. Because they will have read her intensely personal poems and perused her letters, journals and autobiographical prose, her readers may well feel that they know her better than the firsthand witnesses to her life and have, therefore, some stake in
ensuring that she is 'properly' depicted. The issue. has become ideological as much as biographical for those who -.m the face of, to say the least, conflicting evidence - are determmed to a-;vard Plath posthumous status as a feminist. Anne Stevenson applIes a powerful dose of facts to the more Plathological t~n~encies of the poet's followers. A myth can: howeve!, be as addIctIve as a drug
    and the withdrawal symptoms Just as pamful.     .
The mercurial Plath sketched by Anne Stevenson, gIVen to extremes of paranoia and rage, is recognisably the force behind. the Ariel poems. It is the protean nature of the poet that her ~dmlrers tend to overlook. There is no single all-purpose Plath; Instead, there are countless Plath look-alikes, commanding and dependent, offensive and charming, resolute and despondent. Her letters and journals find her frequently at.te~pting to d~fine hers~lf, only to slip the moorings of each defmltIon and dnft off agam betwe~n lonely headlands of fantasy or despair. The abrupt scene ch.anges In her life were dramatic and cinematic, the background musIc of the poetry turning excited. or som~re. Stevenson refuse~ to settl~ for the simplistic perspectIve, offenng a complex altern~tIve PO!traIt of a woman whose inner life and exterior facade were IrreconCIlable.
Sylvia Plath created such a personal and narrowly-focusse? world that it is, at first, surprising how many people can find It accommodating. Yet, her fears and rages, her let~owns and longings, are only extreme versions of .our ?wn. Sh.e glV~s a lo~al habitation and a name to feelings of alIenatIOn and IsolatIOn whIch most people experience, even if in a somewhat l?wer key .. Anne Stevenson observes that women in particular 'dlsco.vered.m her work a shocking revelation of ele~ents In theIr own
    psyches'. Reading Plath can be a cathartIC expenence.     ,
There was an astonishing thoroughness about Plath s procedures. Not only did she recycle her life into language - her poems are flesh made word - but she turned it into ~he language of prose as well as poetry. Her brief enco.unters WIth t?e Devon beekeepers, for example, resulted not only m some stunmng poems but in letters and journal entries. Anne Stevenson relates the prose as well as the poetry to Plath's life. The pe:sona~ natur~ o! her work is such that biographical insights often YIeld hterary mSI~hts. Her relations with Ted Hughes can be relevant to the poetI~al progeny in a way that, say, Wallace Steven~' curious ~oalition ~I~h Elsie Moll is not. Theirs was a true mamage of mInds and It IS difficult to believe that a reconciliation between them would not
ultimately have occured had Plath lived; it is possible (though idle) to speculate .tha.t her suicide bid was intended to effect precisely such a resuscItatIOn.
Contrasting the literary styles of Hughes and Plath, Anne Steve~son states: 'Throughout their writing partnership, husband ~nd WIfe ~xplored a common theme in their poetry: both were mterested m anthropology, primitive myth, and religion. But Ted Hughes:s work ,turned outward to the natural world beyond the self as SylvIa Plath s never could. Her entire development as a writer h~d. consisted of st.eps, in a haIting progress that often made if dIffIcult for her to hve, toward the revelation of the elusive vision at the cor~ of her being'. Plath confessed to identifying her husband 'wIth my father at certain times', a father whom she had lost ~t the age of eight, vowing never to speak to God again. Cert~mly, ~he s~ems to have lived in acute fear of losing Hughes, reactIng WIth VIOlence and venom (pulping his work-in-progress) when wrongly convinced that a female calIer from the BBC was a seducer as welI as producer. A later telephone calI from another ~o~an (an affair was underway by this time) provoked Plath into nppmg the phone from the wall. The anger fuelling these actions wa~ converted into dynamic creative energy in poems that were less polIshed but far more dazzling than her earlier work:
The black telephone's off at the root, The voices just can't worm through.
If I've killed one man, I've killed two ... Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.
The t:iumphant 'I'm through' means, I think, that she has not only exorcIsed the father figures and finished with them but that her calI is getting through - she is finalIy able to communicate her inside ~elf t? ~he outside world. Those fluid later poems, in overlaping ImagIstIC and psychic layers, sometimes resemble the deep disturbing mature paintings of Mark Rothko. Not that Plath'~ techniques were so abstract - to a young art student she said 'If I c~uld paint, I would want to paint things. I love the thingin~ss of thmgs',
The ambitious and competitive Sylvia Plath found in Bitter Fame is inevitably disappointed when reality fails to match expectation ('~s soon as I sni~f nonsuccess in the form of rejections, puzzled faces m class when I m blurring a point, or a cold horror in
personal relationships, I accuse myself of being a hypocrite, posing as better than I am, and being, at bottom, lousy'). He~ mental instability, which had led to a suicide a.ttempt and elec~nc shock treatment before she ever went to live m Englan~, eqUIpped ~er poorly for coping with the mental anguish and physical stram ~Wlth two young children) resulting from the break-up o~ the marnage. Her story is all the more inspiring for being told with detachment (Anne Stevenson leaves room for c?mpassio~ but lets us supply our own tears). It is a story of hterary tnumph over personal adversity, a story of courage, tenacity and ~chievement on a scale which her early life and work scarcely promised ...
Bitter Fame is written in a brisk, unsensatIOnal, unobtrusive style: telling observations are occasionally wrapped .in discreet brackets, yet Stevenson is not afraid to. be assertlv~ where necessary. Despite the odd flash of Hughes-tmted glasses (Te? had shown himself to be a loving father and the m?~t domes~lcally centred of writers .. .'), Anne Stevenson's own sceptiCism contnbutes much to the authority and conviction of the biogr.aphy. uncluttered writing is in sharp contrast with that of Dido ~erw.m whose crudely vengeful memoir is one of three extended t~stImomes appended to the book. There is no reas~~ to doubt the falthful~ess of this account - it is, however, surpnsmg that the recollectl~ns have not been filtered through more forgiving and understandmg impulses after thirty years. Or, perhaps, the permanence ~f the marks and remarks left on Merwin's memory tells us somethmg of the searing side of Plath's personality. Lucas Myers' essay, 'Ah Youth', formulates some of the balances and imbalances ~ffecti~g the PlathlHughes equation. Finally, Richard Murphy. wntes With elegance and precision about a trip to Connemara. which Ted a~d Sylvia undertook prior to their s~paratio?, thr~atemng mome~tanly to metamorphose into an alternatlve rela~IOnshlp between SylVia and Richard. This essay, incidentally, provides a small foretaste of th~ pleasures which the eventual publication of Richard Murphy s
    magnificent prose writings will bring.     , ...     ,
Anne Stevenson identifies Plath s hmItatIOns (a set of intricate, obsessive variations on a few themes') while recognising her stature ('astonishing literary genius'). She honours the work without distorting the life or mythologising the dea!h .. My own favourite Plath poems include that cluster she wrote wlthm a month of moving to Devon with her husband in 1961 ('The Moon and the Yew Tree', 'The Surgeon at 2 a.m.', 'Blackberrying'), bleak yet
beautiful poems of the kind that would end abruptly in the full stop of her death. One of Anne Stevenson's chapters is headed with that pre.scient letter to Plath from her patron, Olive Higgins Prouty, :-vhICh exhorts her to 'Sometime write me a little poem that isn't mtense. A lamp turned too high might shatter its chimney. Please ~ust glo~ sometime~ .. .'. The globe surrounding the lamp _ its bell Jar - dId shatter VIOlently as Sylvia Plath burned herself out. But the sulphurous smell remains and the brilliant, ethereal afterglow.
Allen Ginsberg's motto as a schoolboy was 'Do what you want to ~he? you want to'. He has spent much of his adulthood living up to It WIth th~ help of drugs (heroin, cocaine, marijuana, morphine, LSD, magIC mushrooms) and sex ('whole mountains of h?mosexu~lity'). The complacent face on the cover of this 600-page bIOgraphy IS that of a guru who knows that he has reached nirvana - 'spiritual adviser to the underground scene', 'elder statesman of the counterculture', lover of Billy (William Burroughs) and Jack (Kerouac), a poet to whom William Blake, no less, spoke as he (Ginsberg, that is) was 'absentmindedly masturbating' on a bed.
Ginsberg's crass behaviour in countries like Czechoslovakia a~d Cuba proved him to have nothing more revolutionary on his mmd than sex, drugs and booze. By comparison with a real revolutionary like Vaclav Havel, his priorities seem about as ~ubversive as a soccer lout's. In a purely literary context, however, It woul? no~ be quite fair to suggest that Ginsberg, Emperor of the Beats, IS WIthout clothes. He has written poems that are worth reading, even if their 'first thought, best thought' superficiality ~arely. makes them worth re-reading. Their bustling, vibrant mcluslveness leads all too often to a pot-bellied, word-drunk garrulity or to visions which have been swallowed, injected or sniffed rather than imagined.
In any event, I don't think that Ginsberg would take offence at being called an emperor with no clothes. Nudity, like poetry, ran in the family. His socialist father, Louis, was a poet; his communist, naturist mother, Naomi (so powerfully remembered in Kaddish), paraded her surgery-scarred body before her sons. Bizarrely crowned as May King in Prague, Allen himself announced 'I'll be the first naked King'. At a Los Angeles reading, he stripped on stage - an only slightly less indulgent spectacle than his habit of
substituting 'lengthy versions of the Om Ah Hum and Om Mani Padme Hum mantras' for poems on his post-Buddhist reading tours.
Having sprung from so unconventional a background (the story of his pathetic upbringing and youth is fascinatingly awful), Ginsberg gravitated towards anti-establishment friends. Lucien Carr killed a male admirer; William Burroughs shot his wife dead in a clumsy emulation of William Tell; Allen was arrested after fleeing the police with some criminal flatmates. On the erotic front, the young Ginsberg was a 'sexpest to the whole family' there were close encounters with father, mother and brother. Misogyny was rife among the beats; and, although mixed doubles, threesomes and fivesomes were not unknown, that was no country for young women, the men in one another's arms ...
Those who can bear Allen Ginsberg in small doses only (and for whom the 19-1ine biographical note in the Penguin Collected Poems is sufficient) will suffer an overdose of the man, his works and pomps, from this book. The later chapters, when he is a media celebrity and world traveller, are particularly tough going. Yet much of the biography is absorbing despite the fact that Tony Miles writes without style or sense of proportion. Ginsberg has generous and idealistic streaks that redeem the more egotistical and domineering sides of his character. His poetry may have psychedelic designs on us but as a series of live broadcasts from the beat era, it is of documentary interest at the very least. Those were the days when a work like 'Hi way Poesy' could be spoken into a microphone as the poet sped through the countryside in a VW camper (bought with a Guggenheim Foundation grant). Speed was of the essence for 'Sixties escape artists.
Page 49, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 28