October 5, 2017
It’s hard to say when my work was first called Plathian. It certainly could have been during a senior year college seminar, though the other students’ reverence for her would have rendered that comment a compliment my fragile ego would have cherished and remembered, sticking it into my heart’s spiral journal and doodling rainbows around it.
Instead, I recall the dozen-plus other times someone, almost always a man, encountered my work and proclaimed that it “reminded him of Plath.” One such time was at my first writers’ conference just three-and-a-half years ago. I had made a decision that, after years of multi-job hustling and baby-having, I was going to commit myself to writing again. I was the first poet reviewed in the conference’s first workshop, and this was the first comment made: “This really reminds me of Plath. So full of feminine rage.” The irony of this statement was that it then filled me with feminine rage.
That definition which follows the initial comment is important, this equation that Plath=woman rage. On this, there is so, so much to say. I’m far from the only woman poet to get this observation flung at my work, and what we find is that this proclamation is usually offered with a kind of rhetorical tongs, as if its womany anger was toxic or, at the very least, icky, and probably connected to menstruation.
So let’s begin here, with the problem of anger. No—with the perceived problem of anger in work by women. It can seem as if we’re past this, comfortable with affording women all levels of human emotion and expression. There are plenty of examples, right? I want to list them here, women poets who negotiate the tonal moves of their work from reflection to anger, and yes, to rage. I want to list these writers, but I know what that can do—to call a woman out as angry isn’t just to paint her as such for a while: it’s to tattoo, ultimately limiting the scope and nuance of her work, rendering it easier to dismiss.
A very recent example of this can be seen in a Publisher’s Weekly review of Lynn Melnick’s newest collection, Landscape With Sex and Violence (YesYes Books, 2017). Though the review doesn’t call Melnick’s work “angry,” outright, it does seek to discredit the vision of the book, one which uses an “I” to examine the impact of men’s sexual predation. Men, the review complains, “are depicted as undeserving, suspect, but also run-of-the-mill and unfortunately common; they encroach upon the poet’s sense of possibility, provoking contempt, disgust, and indifference.” The reviewer limits this behavior not as an observation of the actual but to an issue of depiction. Further, it bemoans that “there is never a we depicted here,” because if there’s one thing we know, a woman’s “I” has no authority; it is not to be trusted. (See: mansplaining / see: “Yeah, but…”). Women presenting the truth of their own lives are constantly told they are unreliable narrators, mistaken and hysterical. Men, however, are often given a long rhetorical leash to opine with authority on subjects with which they have little experience, like dismissing as being singular a woman’s discussion of how living in a culture saturated with sexual violence has had a deleterious effect on her psyche.
It’s not debatable whether or not women’s anger makes many men uncomfortable (see: the 2016 presidential election, subcategory “Nasty Woman”). It does. It’s old saw to note that our rightful expressions of anger have to be couched in supportive, nonthreatening ways if we want action to be taken (see: all places of work), and women of color have an extra set or 100 of prejudices to negotiate. But calling a woman’s work out as “angry” is also a way of marginalizing it, an attempt to strip it of its legitimacy. This is absolutely connected to aesthetics that decry the use of “I” in contemporary poetry, that if a speaker can’t be male, too, what she says can’t be fully true.
This is a criticism often thrust at the work of Plath. Her poems’ keenly-rendered emotional centers vibrate with intensity—sometimes with anger, yes, but never, ever just anger. They are intricately woven, evoking a range of complex and even seemingly contradictory emotions: a basket into which readers can put so much of themselves. That some read her poetry and find the emotional content unrelatable and therefore irrelevant is certainly more their problem than anything to be found in hers. There seems to be a kind of indignation with her, and many women’s use, of “I”—how self-serving, it claims, as if asking Who do you think you are to be the subject of art?
A problem also arises when we fail to see women’s anger as justified, focusing on the tenor of the response rather than what engendered it. We see this shifting of focus and responsibility in all aspects of our culture (see: victim-shaming / see: but what were you wearing), and it courses throughout comments about work designed to reach those notes. It can be tempting to dig into Plath’s own biography as a way to defend the appearance of anger in her work (see: the existence of Ted Hughes), but it’s unnecessary. The speaker in her poems is quite often a woman, and a woman was, and still is, a hard thing to be. A collection of Plath’s letters was recently rereleased in the United Kingdom. On its cover smiles a 22-year-old blonde Sylvia in a bikini on a beach. If this were standard issue (Derek Walcott in a Speedo! Galway Kinnell in a coconut bra!), then fine. Instead, we get the message that a woman, even one dead for nearly 55 years, has no right to expect to be something other than the subject of sexualization. It underscores how our worth is accorded, and it’s something to be pretty pissed off about.
A clumsy Google search of “anger in poetry by women” took me to the Academy of American Poets site—the first poem listed was “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath, seen by many as the godmother of angry women poems. A rereading of this poem revealed another problem with my work being called, in the example above, Plathian—the reader was attending only to the tone, but not the music which made it. Sylvia Plath was the 20th century’s master of sound in English-language poetry. I am more than willing to fight anyone on this topic—meet me at the corner of Woman Boulevard and Rage Street. There’s a really nice feminist bookstore there that serves wine on Wednesdays, so maybe we can get a drink after!
It’s true that the work of Sylvia Plath has influenced me arguably more than any other poet (I like to imagine her and Wislawa Szymborska drinking celestial Polish vodka and clucking over my unnecessary modifiers). Yes, her work made room for me to go dark, to push into the shadow, what Robert Bly calls “the long bag we drag,” and pull out meaning. But perhaps even more importantly, her poems alerted me to the possibilities of music and sound. As a 20-year-old college student, I no doubt found solace in the commiseration the subjects of her work provided, but in the twenty years since, it’s her crisp attention to sound that thrills me. One of my favorite parts of being a creative writing professor is reading the work of Plath to unsuspecting undergraduates and having them focus on craft, pushing aside for a bit content and tone and looking instead at rhythm and rhyme and line—they love it and I convert them. Reading her work out loud is such a sensory pleasure—a young man in a recent class ended the silence after reading “Lady Lazarus” by yelling, “Chills! Who’s got chills! Man! Fuck!” Exactly, earnest young poet: Man, fuck.
If having my work referred to as Plathian was a way of saying that it too was chill-giving and musical, I’d take it, and I have on the couple of occasions a reader has said of a poem something like: This reminds me of “Daddy” in the way it transforms effect of sound through repetition. I’ll take that very specific and insightful comment. But usually, that’s not what the speaker means: they mean I use first-person in poems that are about being a woman and being mad.
This comment also gets used as a way of dismissing work that reflects on the poet’s own life, work that is “confessional.” This brings me to my final point of contention about how some see the work of Plath: the term “confessional” itself. In some mouths, it’s used derisively, snidely, a way of couching this kind of work as less ambitious in scale and therefore having diminished impact and meaning. There’s too much in here about things I don’t know about, like having a period, these commenters seem to say. But I’ve seen birds! Give me more birds! One, there is the issue of telling anyone, much less a member of a historically marginalized group, that their lives and experiences aren’t worthy of exploration or investigation. But secondly, there is the issue of the term. In Catholicism, confession is seen as a necessary part of atonement and forgiveness for one’s sins. To confess means to admit guilt, to recognize one’s wrongs. But I think this phrase draws from the wrong Christian tradition. It’s more accurate to say that Plath’s work, and my work, and the work of many writers I love, isn’t confession at all: it’s testimony.
I grew up as a Southern Baptist, and though I’m now a full-fledged agnostic with threads of heathen and atheist, certain approaches still make sense. In most protestant sects, there is no confession to anyone but God; no human can provide absolution. And yet, there is still the idea that we must be accountable to each other, and so protestants testify. At my church, usually in the evening services on either Sundays or Wednesdays (I really loved church), there would be a period of time where people could stand and offer their testimony. These were usually stories involving departures from a righteous path as a way of highlighting God’s goodness in guiding them back, but they were also sometimes stories about strength, about temptation and darkness but also joy. No one in the congregation could offer forgiveness; all we could do is listen and Amen, full in the understanding of our mutual, messy, glorious humanness.
Seen in this light, Plath’s work offers up testimony: here is what I have seen, what I have done, who I am in this world. In this way, it lets us into a larger understanding of human love and pain, as is what happens from the sharing of any individual story. Testimonial poetry isn’t limiting at all—it expands what we know. It moves abstraction into action, providing evidence of why we are who we are.
The week I write this essay, a man hits on me despite the book in my hand, despite my facing the jazz band, despite the ring that’s too loose on my finger and so which I don’t always wear. He asks if I’m a librarian. I say no. He says I look like one but, you know, sexy. I have a beer and food in front of me and don’t want to leave, so I tense and say No, not a librarian. In fantasies I say fuck off, but it is Sunday and still light out and feels early to tell someone to go fuck themselves. He asks about the book I have in front of me—I say it is poetry. I say it is about pain and desire and how hard it is to go around in a woman’s body in this world. What did you say, he asks, about hard bodies?
And then I change the route I walk to my car.
When women’s poetry is said by some to be Plathian, what they mean is hysterical. They mean to say that any exhibition of anger is an overreaction. What I say to that is I walk with my keys like a knife no matter the town. What I say is that if you think my “I” doesn’t contain multitudes, women who’ve felt the same, your curriculum needs to change.
Fifty-five years ago this past October, Sylvia Plath was hurriedly composing some of the most powerful poetry she’d ever write: “The Bee Meeting,” “Daddy,” “Fever 103º,” “Lady Lazarus” and more. This is what I think of when I think of Plath in October—the nearly unparalleled output, the intricate works of artistic genius. I don’t think it’s a matter of reclaiming a term like Plathian because it was never theirs to begin with, not really. All the hob-gobbling Hughes compatriots and the inheritors of that moral tweed—none of their attempts at dismissing Plath as an artist worked, so they got personal. They still do. For us to be right about our experiences, women’s experiences of fury and frustration expressed often with a laser-sharp “I,” means that these feelings have a source: these expressions call for accountability, even if it’s just in a failure to notice what is happening. It’s easier for some then to dismiss such work as one woman’s anger. Easier too if you can offer up her mental illness as evidence she cannot be trusted.
And yet I do not think it lessens the legacy of Plath’s artistry to acknowledge that her work often taps into a vein of fury, one rooted in an experience of being a woman in a world that characterizes sexual violence by men as unfortunate but natural (See: locker room boys being boys but what did you do to encourage them). That was part of her experience, her “I,” as it is mine and all women I know. We navigate the constant threat of being disappeared. Our bodies. Our I. Our righteous anger.
Sylvia Plath does not own any of those emotions, and there are countless other women of less privilege whose stories we do not know. But she made it all into art, art so bright it guides me still into the dark places poetry is called to go.
November 5, 2017
The day I consider sending this essay out, the news about film producer Harvey Weinstein breaks, of his harassment and even assault of scores of women over decades. Stories surface about other powerful men, their actions and their complicity. Women take to social media to share their own experiences as support—see: #metoo. That same week a man grabs me from behind and kisses my neck forcefully, repeatedly. His dry lips sear my skin. I had been chatting with him kindly for about a minute just before and wonder what I did to make him think he could do that, and then I’m filled with anguish; not at what he’s done, which seems unfortunately unremarkable, but that my first thought was don’t say anything—don’t make a big deal. That week all the poetry I write is brittle and sharp, the world viewed through the scope of a gun.
I don’t send the essay out, considering it dead. After all, women have spoken up en masse, providing evidence that our rage has roots, our use of “I” hard-earned. But then, ten days or so later, a student of mine publishes a column in the university newspaper that talks of her harassment at the hands of a former professor. She is not the only one to have been the focus, but she is the one that speaks up. Some say it was an open secret; others attack her. These others are almost all women—perhaps she led him on? Perhaps she liked it? Perhaps she’d slept with him and was trying to cover it up? The column is exquisitely written, but in my office the student confesses she doesn’t believe in her talents any more, that his praise of her work had been a move calculated to entrap. And now she feels she’s become the subject not of sympathy but of whispers. More than whispers: loud statements of disbelief.
“The peanut-crunching crowd / Shoves in to see / Them unwrap me hand and foot—/ The big strip tease.”
What is it, then, to be Plathian? Is it simply membership in a sisterhood tired of subjugation, of abuse and belittlement? Or is it the knuckles on a fist that wraps around this, squeezing?
At the first reading for my first book, just released, a woman student of mine newly in love with Sylvia Plath asks if my work is inspired by her. Absolutely, I say, with nothing to be ashamed of.
ERIN ADAIR-HODGES is the author of Let’s All Die Happy, winner of the 2016 Agnes Lynch Starrett prize from the Pitt Poetry Series. A native-born New Mexican, she is currently a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Toledo.