Monday 19 February 2018

Why attack on Plath is poetic justice

John Boland

Has the New York Review of Books taken note of Clive James's recent assertion (mentioned in this column) that hatchet jobs are frowned upon by American periodicals? Or is just coincidence that two such putdowns feature in the NYRB's current issue?

Reviewing Rachel Kushner's much-lauded new novel, The Flamethrowers, eminent US poet Frederick Seidel finds much of the book "hysterically overwritten; desperate to show how brilliant it is; a fatiguing, endless succession of arrestingly clever similes".

Furthermore, even though the author "writes like mad", the utterances of her "not believable characters . . . never sound like what real people say, like real thoughts or real speech". Finally he asks "What's this book interested in?" and concludes: "It's interested in being made into a movie."

A few pages later, literary scholar and essayist Terry Castle is just as direct in her view of Sylvia Plath, who has been raised to sainthood by her admirers but whose poetry I've always thought so bitterly self-obsessed as to be quite repellent. Castle is of like mind, referring to "all those kitsch near-masterpieces that make the poet a sensation still among bulemic female undergraduates".

And she goes further, finding Plath "tasteless, grisly – unbearable, in fact – precisely because, even five decades after her suicide, she and her corpse-infested verses hold on with such ghoulish tenacity", while the poet herself "seems never to tire of creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave".

The particular reference here is to the 2009 suicide of Plath's marine biologist son Nicholas, who was born in 1962 to Plath and husband Ted Hughes. This recent death leads Castle to observe that "Lady Lazarus caught up with him at last" and to conclude angrily that although "his mother was by then long dead . . . yet even so I couldn't help wanting to kill her".

Some feminists will no doubt deplore this attack by a woman writer on their heroine, but I found it a bracing corrective to all the adulation that has elevated Plath to unearned mythic status.

Irish Independent

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