Monday, February 27, 2012

Sylvia Plath

Last week I finished The Journals of Sylvia Plath (the edited version). Three things struck me:

 1) How familiar are her struggles about how to see herself—"Am I a writer or not? Am I a poet or can I be a novelist, too?" I've struggled with the same thing, trying to move from poetry to prose. Do all poets long to be novelists? Also familiar was the way she struggled with unstructured time. Once she was out of school and had days ahead of her in which to write, she had a hard time figuring how to make herself work, deciding on goals, trying to feel that she was really working while also needing to fill her tank with reading, etc. And how tempting it is to just dribble the day away with "stuff." It's this struggle that makes me want to get back into school. I need the deadlines, the structure.

2) How much more desperately she wanted to be great than I do. She was so much more determined and work so much harder than I do. She made herself (and I like to think it was more enjoyable for her than it is for me) do writing exercises, describing scenery, real people, etc. All the things a great writer should do, the warmup and flexibility exercises. I hate them. She did them, hard and often and well. She was hungrier than I.

3) Once again, why is it that so many great poets were/are mentally imbalanced? What does the self-interest, the self-examination that goes along with being a poet have in common with mental illness? Does one lead to the other? Can I use my mental health and overall contentment with my life as an excuse for not being all that great as a poet? Can I? Because I am. Content with my life. Pretty well-balanced. Able to abandon my work at the drop of a pin and wander off to enjoy something else, possibly indefinitely.

(It's a nice reframing of my basic laziness.)

Some favorite quotes:

I wonder about all the roads not taken and am moved to quote Frost . . . but won't. It is sad to be able only to mouth other poets. I want someone to mouth me. (33)

Why am I obsessed with the idea I can justify myself by getting manuscripts published? . . . Do I like to write? Why? About what? Will I give up and say, "Living and feeding a man's insatiable guts and begetting children occupies my whole life. Don't have time to write"? Or will I stick to the damn stuff and practice? (33)

So I am led to one or two choices! Can I write? Will I write if I practice enough? How much should I sacrifice to writing anyway, before I find out if I’m any good? Above all, CAN A SELFISH EGOCENTRIC JEALOUS AND UNIMATINATIVE FEMALE WRITE A DAMN THING WORTHWHILE? (35)

Perhaps my desire to write could be simplified to a basic fear of nonadmiration and nonesteem. (37)

If all my writing (once, I think, an outlet for an unfulfilled sensitivity—a reaction against unpopularity) is this ephemeral, what a frightening thing it is! (37)

The artist's life nourishes itself on the particular, the concrete: that came to me last night as I despaired about writing poems on the concept of the seven deadly sins and told myself to get rid of the killing idea: this must be a great work of philosophy. Start with the mat-green fungus in the pine woods yesterday: words about it, describing it, and a poem will come. Daily, simply, and then it won't lower in the distance, an untouchable object. Write about the cow, Mrs. Spaulding's heavy eyelids, the smell fo vanilla flavoring in a brown bottle. That's where the magic mountains begin. (170)

I began realizing poetry was an excuse and escape from writing prose . . . Where was life? It dissipated, vanished into thin air, and my life stood weighed and found wanting because it had no ready-made novel plot, because I couldn't simply sit down at the typewriter and by sheer genius and willpower begin a novel dense and fascinating today and finish next month. Where, how, with what and for what to begin? No incident in my life seemed ready to stand up for even a 20-page story. I sat paralyzed, feeling no person in the world to speak to. Cut off totally from humanity in a self-i9nduced vacuum. I felt sicker and sicker. I couldn't happily be anything but a writer and I couldn't be a writer.  (249)

I feel I could crack open mines of life—in my daily writing sketches, in my reading and planning: if only I could get rid of my absolutist panic. I have, continually, the sense that this time is invaluable, and the opposite sense that I am paralyzed to use it: or will use it wastefully and blindly.

My worst habit is my fear and my destructive rationalizing. Suddenly my life, which had always clearly defined immediate and long-range objectives—a Smith scholarship, a Smith degree, a won poetry or story contest, a Fulbright, a Europe trip, a lover, a husband—has or appears to have none. I dimly would like to write (or is it to have written?) a novel, short stories, a book of poems. (251)

I felt if I didn't write nobody would accept me as a human being. Writing, then, was a substitute for myself: if you don't love me, love my writing and love me for my writing. It is also much more: a way of ordering and reordering the chaos of experience.

Well, I imagine you can tell a lot about my own struggles by reading the quotes which stood out to me . . .


Carl Rollyson said...

I think of all the quotations you list, this one sums up Sylvia Plath in a sentence: "I felt if I didn't write nobody would accept me as a human being." When she faced that awful summer when she could not write, she tried to end her life. She wasn't by nature a depressed person, and I think people get that wrong when they think about her. Rather it was her drive--as you say her ambition--that defines her. On February 11, 2011, St. Martin's Press will publish my biography: AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SYLVIA PLATH.

Darlene Young said...

Thanks, Carl. She's a fascinating person. I bet you've had an interesting adventure in the writing of this book.