Jeremy Allan's Reviews > Collected Poems

Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath
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Jan 13, 2011

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bookshelves: poetry

First: my rating applies to the edition, not the poetry.

After hacking away at this collected poems for the better part of six months, I'm not sure I have any interest in rating the poems. I think, in part, this is due to a certain experience I had in reading, as if this were a history book or a chronicle rather than a work of literature. Of course, while that reveals something (unsavory?) of my predisposition as a reader, I think it at leaves gives a hint as to how the work struck me.

Whereas the work of other poets of Plath's era, and certainly before, can still touch me in the current moment, as living documents, the majority of this volume felt artifactual, archeological. That is not to say there are not poems that have and continue to hit me in the solar plexus like a sledge — "The Rabbit Catcher," for instance, will likely be a treasured poem for as long as I have a relationship with language. But aside from these highlights, I often had the sensation of reading through an excavation.

In my mind, there is no question of Plath's talent; at moments it terrifies me ("There is no mercy in the glitter of cleavers, / The butcher's guillotine that whispers: 'How's this, how's this?'" — "Totem"). Furthermore, I think there is an abundance to be learned from her that is completely separate from her hypertragic biography. But the biography does haunt her collected poems; it butts its forehead into the reading experience and dulls the ear with its wailing. Certain Plath devotees are liable to put a reader off with their fetishization of her horrible life story; I have been put off in the past. Working past such acolytes, I still sensed their demands in editing of this collected poems.

What am I getting at? What is needed?

A new edition of selected poems. Faber has presented, in this volume, an excellent resource for scholars & collectors. But the truth is that practicing poets, interested outsiders, and casual newcomers have no need for most of what this book offers. We don't need or want the juvenilia that closes the book. Most of the end notes gloss Plath's weird ideas of what the poems were "about," or charts biographical context. And, frankly, many of the poems just aren't good — or, rather, they aren't up to the standards that Plath herself sets in other poems.

What we need is an edition of selected poems, not simply Ariel in one form or another, that judiciously picks from all the work, surrenders biography to anything other than a note on the author, and keeps Ted Hughes many arm lengths away (with all due respect, sir). A sensational life story does not write a poem, and neither does such a biography warrant that we collect and document every scribbling ever written by an author. I say, let Sylvia rest, and let the great poems be revived, free of the shackles that bound their author.

That's a bit dramatic, but you'll have to forgive me — I just finished reading a few hundred pages of Sylvia Plath.
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