No Lineage: Sylvia Plath's Influence

by on Jan.08, 2013

[I wrote this a couple of days ago:]

Lo and behold, there’s a poetry review in the NY Times today…This is what the reviewer writes:

This powerful poetry is a heart offering by way of Ms. Cruz’s ancestor-sisters Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. In “Kingdom of Dirt” she seduces the reader like this:

Meet me in the love-
Burned orchard
Where the beautiful doomed
Meet at last.

This book is her charred orchard.


And, as the reviewer points out, Cruz’s book does seem to be operating under the influence of Sylvia Plath. I just read Danielle’s discussion of Plath and feminism in The Volta, where she quotes Susan R. Van Dyne:

Few critics have liked the tone of “Daddy.” Commenting nearly a decade apart, Irving Howe calls it “monstrous” and “utterly disproportionate,” and Helen Vendler finds it adolescent and unforgiving. Even a sympathetic ear like Margaret Dickie’s hears it as “hysterical.” […] other critics have been embarrassed, as Vendler is, that a woman of thirty reverts to baby-talk in her fury at parental injuries. The critical disapproval of Plath’s tone, it seems to me, indicates doubts both that the speaker’s excesses are altogether appropriate to the occasion and that Plath is entirely in control of her tone […] I grant the tone that critics have heard in “Daddy” is indeed present, but I believe its excesses are part of Plath’s conscious strategy of adopting the voice of a child, of creating a persona who is out of control […] The child persona dramatizes a woman writer’s powerlessness; it mirrors the cultural allegation that woman is child, and it gives form to her experience of being treated like one.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been reading a lot of poetry from the 60s/70s recently, and criticism of this poetry. Like the “Neo-Surrealists” of whatever they were, Plath is often described as “stunted” (this word appears frequently) – as if there’s an inability to grow up, to transcend her troubles, to give us a pay-off, an epiphany, a failure to make poetry edifying.


A little anecdote: I remember meeting with a professor of contemporary poetry a few months ago at an Occupy Chicago event. A very smart, engaging guy. We started talking about the Rita Dove anthology of modern American poetry, and we both objected to certain startling omissions, such as Allen Ginsberg (Did she really leave him out? That still blows my mind!). But then I said, “Yeah, and she left out Plath.” To which the professor of contemporary American poetry said: “Oh I took her off our Comps list as well because she was more of a mass culture phenomena to begin with and she hasn’t influenced anybody. George Oppen is more important; we have all his books on the list.”

Huh? That’s strange, I explained, because I see her as an incredibly pervasive influence among the poets I’m most interested in – obviously the “gurlesque” vein in American poetry (Chelsea Minnis, Cathy Wagner or Danielle Pafunda for example) but also in other countries (such as Sweden, South Korea etc) – often via radical readings of her work (through surrealism, film, the gothic etc), as opposed to the old “defense,” that she was really a masterful craft-woman (ie “in control”). Iowa Writers Workshop prof Mark Levine’s first book, Debt, has a huge “debt” to Sylvia Plath (he’s even got two “morning songs”). But this professor of contemporary poetry had never heard of any of these poets.

Plath is not “important,” she’s a dead species with no descendants, no future. She has no lineage and is therefore not important. Stunted. Just a degenerate beauty queen, to quote Lana Del Ray.

I think it’s not just in “avant-garde studies” that Plath is marginalized. Very seldom do you see Plath viewed as an important figure of a lineage. She’s a scandal, a one-off, a controversial case. Rather than producing offspring, she produces “glut” – ie “imitators” and bad women poets and tasteless teenage girls. In many ways the problem is that she is too “popular” and that her poems eliminate the kind of critical distance that is seen as a hallmark of tasteful and/or moral aesthetics, an aesthetic that allows us to remain in control, to properly judge it, to remain un-destroyed by the art.

And like my post about Sarah Kane yesterday, we can’t make easy distinctions between Plath’s life, death, iconicity and artwork. Her blacks crackle and drag.

20 comments for this entry:
  1. Seth

    Whenever Contemporary Poetry Studies wants to do away with a poet permanently, it simply denominates that poet a “Confessionalist.” Or, increasingly, a “post-Confessionalist.” It’s a succinct statement — in the view of CPS scholars — of why that poet never need be thought of again by anyone important. The problem, of course: The so-called “Confessionalist” school was made up out of whole cloth by academics, with virtually no historical support whatsoever, simply so that they could… again… discard certain poets permanently. A vicious circle.

    It’s of no import to a poet whether or not someone is a “mass culture phenomenon” — what matters is the work, and Plath’s work (deeply misunderstood and wrongfully typecast) was, is, and will remain influential well beyond those few, non-representative poems that poets and scholars alike unaccountably fetishize (e.g. “Daddy”).


  2. Johannes

    Seth, I think the “mass culture phenomenon” connection is interesting, but certainly not a reason for dismissing something.


  3. Spencer

    Interesting stuff, J.

    I guess it really depends on what angle you approach prominence and influence. You’re obviously right to point out the contemporary extensions. But in terms of canons or revised canons of canon-surrogates or whathaveyou…

    …Konuk Blasing, for one, repeatedly returns to Plath – placing her as a central/tutelary figure of the metonymic lineage of American poetry. (I think Carina may have lent you my copy of American Poetry?)

    Worth noting. And reading, I think. To me, it’s still one of the better examinations of metonymic belatedness and the kind of over-abundant or gothic results it produces.

  4. Johannes

    Oh that’s your copy! I have it in my office. I actually thought about that book. But then it also includes Poe, who tends to be pretty much discounted by American poets/scholars (luckily I am eurotrash in this regard). Johannes

  5. Spencer

    Probably should be “figure IN the metonymic lineage…”

  6. Spencer

    True, true. I think – as far as possible for a structuralist argument – her analysis of Poe and Plath fits neatly alongside where you’re going with this. I also think it’s helpful to think of both through the lens of Eliot, as well. But yes, very much the case that these “kinds” of poets are tough to condone/square off, and thus often neglected.

  7. David Applegate

    Very interesting, Johannes. Particularly, I’m curious about Plath’s “failure” to produce a genealogy through being out-of-control, incapable of being properly judged, and destroyed. It’s as though proximity to something (you call it art, though I might change that into simply “being alive”) turns Plath into a field which attracts all sorts of poetic miscreants. She accidentally founded a sort of “stupid underground” to use Paul Mann’s phrase.

    When you say “we can’t make easy distinctions between Plath’s life, death, iconicity and artwork” I’m reminded of a passage Nick Land wrote on Trakl in his essay “Spirit and Teeth,” which I’ll quote.

    “Trakl’s texts are scrawled over by redemptionist monotheism, just as they are stained by narcotic fluidities, gnawed by rats, cratered by Russian artillery, charred and pitted by astronomical debris. Trakl was a Christian and an atheist and also a Satanist, when he wasn’t simply undead, or in some other way inhuman. It is perhaps more precise to say that Trakl never existed, except as a battlefield, a reservoir of disease, the graveyard of a deconsecrated church, as something expiring from a massive cocaine overdose on the floor of a military hospital, cheated of lucidty by the searing onslaught of base difference.”

    Nick Land also calls Trakl a “general confusion.” Maybe a similar tag could be applied to Plath. Her work is the site of a various influence which is difficult to map and therefore rejected. With Oppen, for example, you can number all sorts of little facts which allow his work to “make sense,” set down roots for a “proper discussion” or whatever else happens in school.

  8. Johannes

    Yes, great quote. And in addition, there’s something unwholesome about both Plath’s and Trakl’s gothic imagery. It might be possible to read Plath and Trakl through the discussions, fascinations and fears surrounding the gothic. / Johannes

  9. Spencer

    My typos are ridiculous. Freudian slip? I meant cordon not condone. Eek.

  10. Ted

    During a workshop with Lisa Robertson a few years ago, she said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…have you been reading Plath recently?” And then she qualified the statement by explaining the harshness of my end-stopped lines in a sequence of poems, and how that along with the pained images reminded her of Plath.

    Guess what? I had never read Plath at that point, because of the attitudes of scholars towards her. I’d consumed Lowell and Berryman, all right, but Plath? Eh. The mass-culture phenomenon that Seth mentions turned me off, though that might have been some youthful misogyny which has faded with age.

    Anyway, I went and read Plath, and found that Lisa had been right about defending her work, and that I had been duping myself, or had been duped, for years about the import of her work to contemporary poets, simply because of the anti-Confessionalist, dare-I-say misogynistic dismissals of the Academy.

    I know, boring sort of story, but I do really appreciate your thoughts on poets of the ’60s and ’70s. Reading arguments about Larry Levis for the first time has been a highlight of my week.

  11. Thomas

    I think all strong poets are a “one-off.” Their singularity is the very quality that produces the “glut” of imitators that follows. The bad poetry inspired by Plath is hardly Plath’s doing, just as the bad poetry–indeed a true “glut” of it–inspired by Ashbery isn’t his. But as far as Plath not being part of a lineage, you’ll find that the scholar J.F. Diehl disagrees. Check out her book “Women Poets and the American Sublime.”

  12. Janet

    Tracy Brain wrote a book called “The Other Sylvia Plath” that discusses how we’d read Plath if she hadn’t been edited by Hughes to look like a head case bent on self-destruction. It’s worth looking at, particularly for its discussion of Plath’s interest in ecology.

    But how much of the ‘oh, we took her off the Comps list’ can be attributed to the boring and obvious fact that Plath primarily influences women poets? Sexism is a rampant beast when it comes to “professors of contemporary American poetry.”

  13. Johannes

    There has been a lot of interesting books about her, but I just haven’t seen the idea of “influence” the way I read about Pound for example or Olson etc. It might be that lineage is a very masculinist way of looking at influence, and that may be part of what’s the issue here. But this professor I’m talking about was definitely not a sexist professor in the sense that he had plenty of women on his comps list. But there are of course other gender dynamics involved.


  14. Kim

    How ridiculous. Plath and Ginsberg sort feels like the last superstar poets, able to cross pollinate across cultural labels, after which half closed themselves in offices and the other half went out and bought electric guitars. They’re both also extremely poetical and probably influenced the latter bunch more./k

  15. Carina

    Johannes, you do indeed have Spencer’s copy of Blasing somewhere in your office, and she makes a really solid argument placing Plath in a lineage that A) respects her as a master craftsman with a pyrotechnic ear and B) does not fall prey to the Perloff trap (ie, pretending that the only really interesting thing about Plath is Plath). It’s worth looking at American Poetry for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it’s the first critical text I, personally, have ever read that refutes this idea that she is just a pop phenom.

  16. Rauan

    Rauan Klassnik great, Johannes, great — & if was more of a thinker & reasonable expresser i’d say more beyond that i’m stoked & proud (& seething thru my teeth & nipples) that Danielle Pafunda’s blurb of my new book begins ..

    “In the wound of a stabbed cosmos, Rauan Klassnik’s moon, kin to Plath’s moon ‘bald and wild’, bucks against despair…” …

    thx, again, Danielle,… 🙂

  17. The Plath Diaries

    Fascinating thoughts on Plath, so delighted to read such a thoughtful piece. I suppose the major question is what do we define as “influence” in the first place. Certainly the case for Plath being a cultural influence (a la Marilyn Monroe) is strong, but in literary terms, it’s more difficult to place.

    Does the negative appraisal of Plathian influence in contemporary poetry perhaps have anything to do with the fact she is a woman writer of our own time (or thereabouts?). In her book “Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers,” Janet Badia suggests that Plath’s definition as a heroine for morose teenage girls is indicative of how women writers (and readers) who are more inclined to visceral texts can be brushed under the carpet as eccentric or bizarre – and wholly discredited as artists and audience.

    I think it’s much easier for critics to charge Plath with inspiring “bad” women poets than to perhaps tease out the difficult complexities explored in her work and wonder how they translate and trickle down to the poets of today.

    If we look at Plath’s schooling: her essays on Yeats, Lawrence, Chaucer.. Intoxicating literary love affairs with Auden, Eliot, MacNeice.. it is crazy to argue that Plath – being influenced by these literary figures – remains impotent in her own influence.. But sadly, that is where we stand in her criticism.

    For my own part, and this could perhaps just be because I’m from Ireland and over the past two years have immersed myself in a lot of contemporary Irish poetry, but I think poets here are very deeply influenced by Plath. I think that writers like Heaney, Paul Durcan, Eavan Boland and even never names like Leanne O’Sullivan owe much to Plath. Plathian expression of emotion through mythology, descriptions of nature, transcendence, re-thinking and re-remembering all figure very highly thematically for these writers.

    Personally, I think we have a long way to go before Plath is taken more seriously as an artist. The obsession with her life and death has certainly muddied the waters of criticism but at the same time we cannot exclude biography. It is a balancing act between life and inspiration and I don’t think anyone (bar perhaps Tracy Brain) has hit the nail on the head yet. Heather Clark writes convincingly about influence between Plath and Hughes – but Plath’s influence on current writers has yet to be properly explored.

    I’ll finish with one of my favourite quotes about Plath, from Eavan Boland – a fantastic poet in her own right and loyal Plath fan 🙂

    “She had gone into that room as a student and participant in this extraordinarily high canon of poetry which had been so reluctant to name children and she had named them all by herself and I had immense respect for that, immense respect for her.”

  18. Johannes

    THanks for the extensive comments, “The Plath Diaries.” Interesting that you bring up Seamus Heaney, since Adam Strauss recently – in one of the comment sections to a previous post – suggested some not-so-obvious connection between Heaney and Aase Berg, the Swedish poet I’ve translated and who I think is one of the people who has take a lot of the Plath impulses to some place very original and interesting. Perhaps the connection between all three is a “stuff”-ness of language, the kind of foregrounding of mediumicity and language.

    Also, maybe if Ailbhe Darcy, Irish poet and scholar, sees this she can weigh in on the Irish angle; I know she brings the gurlesque – which is most obviously a radical reading of Plath – to bear on some Irish poets in her dissertation.


  19. Nathan Hoks

    A few years ago Court Green did a Sylvia Plath issue (#5), full of poems & essay in response to / influenced by Plath.

    Unfortunately is appears to be out of print. I just thought it was worth noting in light of this conversation.

  20. Ailbhe Darcy


    Well, I certainly won’t pretend to be an expert on Plath’s influence on Irish poetry generally – though, having read your post, “Plath Diaries”, I’ll be paying more attention to this question in the future!

    And, just to be clear, the Gurlesque is only relevant to one of the poets I’m working on – Dorothy Molloy, who’s unquestionably very much influenced by Plath. I feel that readings of Molloy’s work so far have presented it as more genteel and comfortable than it really is, and that reading it in the light of the Gurlesque does fuller justice to its dark, kitschy, ecstatic take on violence and sexuality.

    I suppose that my suspicion about Plath’s influence on other Irish poets would be along similar lines – doesn’t their reading of her work rather neuter it? I’m thinking specifically of Heaney, only because I’ve read his critical writing about Plath. It’s a while since I read Finders Keepers (and now I’ll have to return and re-read it) but I seem to recall that essay beginning with an odd insistence that Plath’s work is somehow fresh and spontaneous (as if her poems weren’t revelling in their own artificiality) only to turn to a glowing consideration of her craft.

    Readers of Molloy have tended to comfortably ignore the glee she takes in portraying sexual violence and her insistence on embodiedness (it’s this insistence, incidentally, which Lara Glenum suggests *distinguishes* the Gurlesque poets from Plath). And I just wonder if Irish poets – for whom the sincerity of verse has been so important – have comfortably ignored Plath’s gleeful revelation of the artificiality, the untrustworthiness, the flirtatiousness, the exhibitionism of lyric?