Not Really About Sylvia Plath

What is the most interesting thing you have learned from a book recently?

This question is routinely asked — by a chatbot, I’m convinced — in the “By the Book” feature of the New York Times Book Review. Like the fatuous and idiotic final question about ideal literary dinner-party guests, it is designed to interest Review readers who delight in everything to do with books except the actual reading.

I thought of the little seminar on Sylvia Plath that I’ve been conducting in the past weeks. It was inspired by a series of essays, three and all, by Elisa Gabbert, in her new collection, Any Person Is the Only Self. These essays are (at least partially) about Sylvia Plath, a poet I never took seriously until now (aged 76). What struck me immediately was the freshness of Gabbert’s interest in the poet; Gabbert herself was born more than two decades after Plath’s suicide, and she writes it though there were nothing controversial about the poet’s claim to fame. Suicide may have made Plath famous, but her poetry has become famous for itself. She is also quite certain that “Daddy” is addressed to her faithless husband, Ted Hughes, and not to poor Otto, the German father who died when Plath was eight and who seems to have led a blameless life, notwithstanding possible Nazi sympathies.

The essays made me want to read Janet Malcolm‘s book, The Silent Woman, again. This book is about Plath and Hughes, both during and after Plath’s life. Hughes’s sister, Olwyn, Is such an oppressive presence that you wonder: was Hughes married to her or to Plath? Hughes’s letters, as quoted by Malcolm, show him to be so utterly overbearing in a passive-aggressive way that he becomes exactly the sort of crushing father-figure whom a girl might want to be rid of once he ceased to be magical. Malcolm takes it for granted that the power of Plath’s last poems speaks for itself. While conceding that Plath might never have become quite so well-known had she not taken her life, Malcolm never suggests that the poetry cheats, as it were, by borrowing some of the luster of Plath’s extinction. But when I reread Elizabeth Hardwick’s essay on Plath, in Seduction and Betrayal, I found that Hardwick isn’t quite so sure that the poems would strike us as powerfully as they do if it were not for proof of the full extent of Plath’s self-destructiveness.

That is the state of my reading so far, and what I have learned from it did not come from any one book. To continue, I shall have to read the poems far more carefully than I have ever done — and far more of them as well. As it happens, I have a copy of the “restored“ edition of Ariel, which necessarily excludes quite a few famous poems that Plath wrote after she stopped fiddling with the manuscript of the collection, most notoriously “Edge.” If I’m to be thorough. I shall have to buy a copy of The Collected Poems, and I’m not so sure that I want to do that. What I have learned from all of this, then, is certainly more than a “most interesting thing,“ and it obviously came from three books at a minimum, four including Ariel.

What we mean by the phrase “the most interesting thing“ when speaking of a book that we have just read is often a minor detail of which we were unaware or about which we were mistaken. There is nothing minor about what I have learned about Sylvia Plath and her poetry from Gabbert, Malcolm, and Hardwick.

I take my hat off to Elisa Gabbert, because I have never been inclined to read about Sylvia Plath as a poet. As a catastrophe, yes. (Hence: Malcolm.) But not as a poet. Gabbert changed my mind about that; no, wait, she opened up to me the possibility that I might want to change my mind. That must be what I have learned from my little seminar. The interesting that I learned was that there are undoubtedly interesting things to learn from further reading. But then I learned that quite a long time ago.