by Diana Lizotte
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
The Sylvia Plath exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery displays a variety of items from the Sylvia Plath archives at Smith College in Massachusetts and Lilly Library at Indiana University. In the middle of the room is a sculpture made of bell jars that plays music and flashes colored lights. Arrayed around the bell jars are three other display cases containing some of Plath’s journals. On the left wall is a display case with a ponytail of her long, red hair. Above it are two photos of her as a young child, and above the photos are some of her book covers, including Ariel and The Bell Jar. The other walls hold things like letters, drawings, a journal entry, artwork, her Girl Scout uniform with 20 badges, the top of her desk, and a large portrait of her and her two children sitting in a field on a sunny day. The last item in the Sylvia Plath exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is a U.S. postage stamp with Plath’s portrait on it. The stamp’s studium consists of four notable elements: the portrait photograph of Plath; the word “Plath” in large, red letters underneath the portrait; the phrase “Sylvia Plath / USA” to the right and just below the larger word “Plath”; and the final element, the word “FOREVER” in white block letters shining out from the shadow of Plath’s hair. The punctum is that Plath is forever.
Though she committed suicide in 1963, Sylvia Plath is immortal, living on in her archive, the pages of her own work and the work of others who write about her. Though immortality through writing is an ancient concept evidenced in Egyptian scrolls and Romantic epics, postmodernists like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault try to brush it away in the late 1960s. Continuing the ancient tradition and almost as a preemptive strike against Barthes and Foucault, Sylvia Plath discusses a desire for immortality in her journals and interviews, nearly a decade before Barthes publishes “The Death of the Author.” Plath’s poems “Burning the Letters,” “Ariel,” “Stings,” and “Lady Lazarus” allude to the concept of immortality: it is as if Plath were an amalgamation of a Greek oracle and Lady Lazarus, foretelling her own end and subsequent writerly resurrection.
The evidence of Plath’s immortality is fourfold. First, in a superhuman feat Plath’s oeuvre continues to grow, with a new volume of journals due out in 2018. Second, against the postmodernist theory that readers don’t need to know the author to divine meaning from a work, readers and critics pour over Plath’s archival material to divine the meaning of the pieces in her canon. Third, contrary to postmodernist theory that a work and its author are separate, readers and critics feel that Plath’s voice and the work’s voice are unified. And fourth, some Plath critics have reported feeling Plath’s physical presence when they come in contact with material from her archive. Along with reading her work, critics continue to comment on it, keeping her alive in discourse with each word they read about her and each new word they write. Through this expansion of and attention to what she has written, and the connection readers and critics feel when they read and touch her work and writerly material, Plath, the author, has never died.
Immortality through writing is an ancient concept, as evidenced both from Egyptian and Roman narratives. In the Papyrus Chester Beatty IV (dated between 1320 BCE to 1085 BCE), ancient Egyptians wrote that writing is a better means to achieving immortality than creating tombs. The scroll reads: “Man decays, his corpse is dust. All his kin have perished; but a book makes him remembered through the mouth of its reciter. Better is a book than a well built house, than tomb-chapels in the West” (qtd. in David 102). Centuries after the Egyptians, Dante Alighieri wrote about the immortality of the writer in Inferno, which was published in 1320. Dante’s Inferno has many allusions to this tradition of authorial immortality. For example, In Canto VI, Dante, in Hell, meets the glutton, Ciacco. Ciacco implores Dante to talk about him when he leaves Hell and returns to the world of the living. Ciacco asks Dante, “I beg you to remind our friends of me” so that Ciacco’s friends will remember him (VI.88-89). Ciacco, and Dante the author, by writing about this concept, consider the act of being spoken of by friends as a means of achieving immortality on earth.
Another allusion to immortality occurs in Canto XV, when Dante is talking to his old tutor, Brunetto Latini. Dante remarks that Latini had shown him “how man makes himself eternal,” through the art of writing (XV.85). Dante’s guide Virgil, who wrote the Aeneid, also talks of his own immortality. Virgil convinces Ulysses to stop and have a conversation by invoking his fame as a poet; Virgil tells Ulysses, “if I have deserved from you much praise or little, / when in the world I wrote my lofty verses, / do not move on;” (XXVI.81-83). Due to Virgil’s immortality and fame as a writer, Ulysses stops to talk to him.
Although authorial immortality is woven into human narratives for eons, postmodernists reject the notion. According to Roland Barthes in “Death of the Author,” “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (256). At the end of the essay, Barthes declares that the author is dead and only the reader is needed to divine the meaning of a text (257). Another postmodernist, Michel Foucault joins Barthes in declaring the author unimportant to hermeneutics of a text. In his essay, “What is an Author?” Foucault states “[Writing’s relationship with death of the author] subverts an old tradition exemplified by the Greek epic, which was intended to perpetuate the immortality of the hero: if he was willing to die young, it was so that his life, consecrated and magnified by death, might pass into immortality” (206). Foucault brushes away the concept of authorial immortality, stating that instead of producing immortality, the work kills the author; that the writing effaces the author’s “individual characteristics” (206). However, Sylvia Plath’s writing has had the opposite effect on her existence. Like Dante Alighieri, who lives on in the pages of Inferno, Plath lives on in her work. Plath’s claim to authorial immortality contradicts Barthes’ and Foucault’s ideas that the author is dead.
Freud claims that none of us can conceive our own mortality, “in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality” (2nd para). But Plath doesn’t leave the concept of immortality buried in her unconscious self; instead she brings it up to the conscious level. She plays with the concept of achieving immortality through writing, death and resurrection in her journals, poetry, and BBC interviews. In her journals, Plath discusses the ideas of death and immortality related to the written word. She sees her works as representing both herself and immortality. In response to The Yale Review rejecting her story “Johnny Panic,” Plath states, “so writing is still used as a proof of my identity” (UJSP 460). She dreams of publishing the story in The Yale Review and is heartbroken when the magazine rejects it. The rejection makes her question her self-worth, which rests in her writing.
Immortality also rests in her writing, which she discusses in two other journal entries. In the first, she states, “So much working, reading, thinking, living to do. A lifetime is not long enough […] Immortality and permanence be damned. Sure I want them, but they are nonexistent, and won’t matter when I rot underground” (149). In this passage she feels great pressure to be a perfect writer by which to achieve immortality. Here, she feels that immortality is elusive, but she just hasn’t figured out the means of achieving it yet. In a second passage, Plath muses about the lyrics of a dead poetess, alluding to writing as a means of achieving immortality: “So, blown ghost, she comes to our tea, more substantial than many inarticulate mortals. That is strange: the deadness of a stranger who is somehow never dead – the knife of death unfelt, the immortals hover in our heads” (315). Here, Plath feels that although the poetess is dead, she is somehow immortal when Plath hears the words she wrote; the poetess is immortal when her words linger in our minds. In a final journal entry about immortality, Plath muses about how Christ is only a “parable of human renewal and nothing of immortality,” indicating that perhaps one doesn’t need to be the Son of God to achieve immortality (475). Her journal entries about immortality imply that she was contemplating the procedures necessary for achieving immortality. Some of her other poetry furthers this contemplation.
In “Burning the Letters,” “Ariel,” and “Stings,” Plath elucidates ideas about how to achieve immortality. In “Burning the Letters” she describes how the violent act of dogs rending apart a fox, so that the fox’s blood vaporizes in air, leaves an immortal trace on the world:
The dogs are tearing a fox. This is what it is like
A red burst and a cry
That splits from its ripped bag and does not stop
With that dead eye
And the stuffed expression, but goes on
Dyeing the air,
Telling the particles of the clouds, the leaves, the water
What immortality is. That it is immortal. (BTL)
These lines from “Burning the Letters” show the connection Plath makes between a violent end, inscription, and immortality. The image of a violent, red death makes a lasting impression. This is similar to what Jacques Derrida calls the punctum. In his essay titled, “Roland Barthes,” Derrida describes the punctum as a “point of singularity that punctures the surface,” that inscribes contextual meaning to whoever witnesses it (39). The punctum is like sharp shards of memory, experience, or meaning that are transferred through art (photography, literature, or paintings) into the perceiver’s mind. Thus, Plath’s description of the violent, red, death of the fox is a punctum, indelibly marking the fox’s demise into our memories–making it immortal–through Plath’s words. So, for Plath, a “violent,” “red,” “death” inscribes immortality. Looking closer at Plath’s use of the word “red” provides connections to her other immortality poems.
Plath uses the word “red” to connect death and immortality in “Ariel,” “Stings,” and “Lady Lazarus,” where red is also related to resurrection. In the last six lines of “Ariel” Plath writes:
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning. (Ariel 34)
In The Poetry Of Sylvia Plath; A Study Of Themes, Ingrid Melander, ties the color red to themes of death and resurrection. Melander sees the last two lines, “Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning” as an “expression of the idea of death as triumph and may also include the notion of possible rebirth…” (101). Melander’s interpretation seems accurate as Plath is a suicidal arrow with singular purpose driving toward dawn, or rebirth. Plath placed “red” at the end of one verse, separating it from “Eye,” give each word prominence. Here, the placement of “suicidal” with “red” seem to represent death, but “red” with “Eye” evokes ideas of the sun, a celestial being. In human memory, the sun is eternal or immortal. The “cauldron of morning” also seems like a metaphor for the sun at dawn. Dawn is related to birth, with every subsequent dawn a rebirth or resurrection.
Plath uses “red” along with images of death and resurrection in a similar way in the last stanzas of “Stings:”
Is she dead, is she sleeping?
Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her –
The mausoleum, the wax house. (Ariel 88)
“Red” is again by itself at the end of a verse, followed by another celestial being, a comet. A red comet would be noticeable and perpetually returning to viewers on earth. This comet is flying, “Over the engine that killed her,” indicating a resurrection from death.
Plath concretizes the resurrection theme in “Lady Lazarus.” In this poem, she writes about a woman who has died three times. It seems that with each death act she learns something new about the art of dying and resurrection. At the end of the poem, the lady rises from the ashes. In a BBC interview, Plath states, “Lady Lazarus” is about “a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will” (as quoted in Melander 103). In the poem, Plath uses several words to allude to the resurrected male Lazarus of John 11 in the Bible. She uses “miracle” twice, “Jew linen,” “grave,” “cave,” “unwrap me,” and “rocked shut” (Ariel 14). These words describe the scene of Jesus’s miraculous resurrection of Lazarus who had been wrapped in burial linen and laid in a grave (a cave with a rock barring the door) when Jesus came and performed the miracle of raising him from the dead. Instead of being about a male resurrection, Plath informs us that the rebirth in “Lady Lazarus” is about a woman by including the word “Lady” in the title, and referring us to the woman subject in the seventh stanza, “And I a smiling woman” (Ariel 14). Several lines mark this woman’s ability to rise from the dead:
[…]I have nine times to die
This is Number Three
What a trash
To annihilate each decade. (Ariel 14)
In these lines we learn that this woman is on her third death and dies every ten years. Plath has capitalized “Number Three,” not only giving title to the woman’s third death, but also invoking the sacred number three that represents the holy trinity; the past, present, and future of eternity. Several stanzas later, we learn that she sees dying linked to art–something that has to be practiced, but something that she has mastered: “Dying / is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well” (15). And at the poem’s end, there is again that word “red” that twines together death and resurrection: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air” (17). Here is the image of the red phoenix, rising out of the ashes, a resurrected self that transcends men. And this is what Sylvia Plath has done–figured out the way to rise up out of her own death to achieve immortality.
Plath accomplishes this through her writing. In the manner of an immortal being, her oeuvre continues to grow, keeping her alive with each new addition. As a refutation of the postmodernists’ assessment that the author is dead, Plath remains relevant to readers and critics who consult Plath’s archival material to discern the meaning of her poems, find it difficult to dissociate the author Plath from her poems and other works, and feel her presence when handling her archive.
Plath died on February 11, 1963 at the age of 30, but she lives on through her body of work. Before her death, Plath had only published two volumes of work, The Colossus and Other Poems (1962) and The Bell Jar (January 1963). However, in a superhuman feat, she continues to publish; her oeuvre grows almost yearly. Since her death, seventeen other works have been published in her name. Even over fifty years after her death, she is still publishing material: volume I of her letters was published in 2017 and volume II is forthcoming in 2018. In the small Marymount University library alone, there are 55 books in the Sylvia Plath section. Of these, 45 are biographies and criticisms. Many of the critics who write about Plath discuss themes of being and resurrection. They have titles like: Plath’s Incarnations, by Lynda Bundtzen; Ariel Ascending, by Paul Alexander; Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence, by David Holbrook; Revising Life, by Susan R. Van Dyne; Representing Sylvia Plath, by Sally Bayley and Tracy Brain; and The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, by Jacqueline Rose. Critics and biographers can’t seem to write enough about both her life and her works and they don’t see how you can read Plath, and really understand her poems, without knowing her history.
Through her estate, Plath published Letters Home in 1987. Critics found it helpful in understanding Plath and her works. One critic, Linda Wagner-Martin, wrote, “Letters Home is an immensely valuable work and I am grateful Mrs. [Auriel] Plath and Ted Hughes let it be published. It adds so much to our understanding of Plath” (208). Wagner-Martin is not alone in feeling that archival material about Plath lends to understanding Plath. This is because Plath’s writing is highly personal. According to Ingrid Melander, in The Poetry Of Sylvia Plath; A Study Of Themes, “allusions to autobiographical data unknown to the reader probably limits the chance to grasp certain lines or paragraphs even further” (79). Due to the autobiographical nature of Plath’s writing, critics often refer to Plath’s archive to diving meaning from her poems and other texts.
Critics who consult Plath’s archival material to discern meaning from specific texts include David Holbrook and Lynda Bundtzen. In Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. Holbrook refers to Plath’s biography for meaning in the Bee poems. Holbrook interprets “The Beekeeper’s Daughter” in terms of Plath’s relationship with her father, who died when Plath was eight years old and who was a bumblebee expert. In the lines,
Father, bridegroom, in this Easter egg
Under the coronal of sugar roses
The queen bee marries the winter of your year. (Collusus 75)
Holbrook sees the “Father” as Plath’s father, with whom the poem’s child wishes to be reunited. Holbrook states “Daddy, the expert on bumblebees, the maestro with his baton […] the image expresses the child’s desire to mate with her father and to find herself in him” (213). Holbrook also uses the fact of Plath’s father death along with the poem’s reference to “Easter,” the time of Christ’s resurrection, as an indication that Plath ties resurrection to a union with her dead father. In yet another poem, “The Bee Meeting,” Holbrook uses other archival material from Plath’s life to interpret the poem as one depicting a schizoid personality. Holbrook uses Plath’s reference to a bell jar to interpret the meaning of the line “A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight” (Ariel 82). Holbrook states, “Only a ‘curtain of wax’ (a wall of glass, a bell jar) seems to divide her from the ‘bride flight’, and the discovery of gratitude and touch with reality” (219). A bell jar, as Plath described in her novel by the same name, is Plath’s metaphor for her propensity to remain trapped in her own head, replaying thoughts of self-doubt and alterity that separate her from reality. Thus, Holbrook uses Plath’s metaphor to interpret her poem.
Lynda Bundtzen uses Plath’s archival material to examine the meaning of Plath’s work. In “Poetic Arson and Sylvia Plath’s “Burning the Letters,” Bundtzen refers to first-person accounts of events, Plath biographies, and Plath’s other poems for insight into the meaning of Plath’s poem “Burning the Letters.” In “Burning the Letters,” Plath describes the sights and sounds of burning her husband Ted’s letters that she retrieves from his attic study after finding out he has been having an affair. To decipher the poem, Bundtzen first consults the memoir of Plath’s neighbor, Clarissa Roche, who witnesses the pyre that Plath created (438-9). Then, Bundtzen uses Linda Wagner-Martin’s 1987 biography of Plath, which discusses “a mysterious phone call for Ted” which took place on July 10th, after which Plath “tore the telephone wires from the wall” (439). Bundtzen feels that the best evidence for what happened when Plath found out who was Ted’s mistress was in an earlier Plath poem, “Words Heard, by Accident, Over the Phone” (440). The poem, composed on July 11, 1962 describes a room “ahiss,” a word that suggests whispers between lovers, but also sounds like the mistress’s name, Assia (440). To determine the meaning of “Burning the Letters,” Bundtzen clearly does not ignore the author–for her, the author is not dead–instead she refers to Plath’s archival material and poems for context.
Another indication that critics and readers do not ignore Plath when interpreting her work occurs when they do not distinguish between Plath’s voice and the voice in her texts. Foucault said that once a work is written, it kills the author, there is no unified voice, but with Plath, the two are intricately tied and so Plath lives whenever a reader or critic read her texts. Critics who see a unified voice in Plath and her texts include Melander, A. Alvarez, Nichole LeFebvre, Theresa Collins, and Cynthia Sugars
Melander feels that Lady Lazarus is “clearly autobiographical” (103). She agrees with critic A. Alvarez specifically regarding “Lady Lazarus” being Plath’s voice. Alvarez states “The deaths of Lady Lazarus correspond to her own crises: the first just after her father died, the second when she had her nervous breakdown, the third perhaps a presentiment of the death that was shortly to come” (quoted in Melander 103). Melander feels that Alvarez’ comments combined with Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” interview on BBC relates the poem’s dilemma of resurrection through death not only to Lady Lazarus, but to the poet’s persona/narrator and “the poet herself” (103).
Another critic who sees Plath and Lady Lazarus as the same person is Nichole LeFebvre. In “A Tale Of Two Sylvias: On The Letters Cover Controversy–What Do We Look For In A Literary Icon?” LeFebvre feels that Lady Lazarus and Plath are the same woman. “Even in a poem like “Lady Lazarus”—in which Plath calls death “the big striptease” and brags about the “very large charge” for a glimpse at her scars—the tone is chirpy and flirtatious, with those trademark round vowels and confident, declarative lines. It’s this allure—delicious poison—that makes her poetry so powerful, so lasting” (4, last paragraph). Here, LeFebvre thinks about Plath’s “trademark round vowels and confident, declarative lines,” indicating that LeFebvre is imagining Plath’s voice reading the words in the poem. Plath’s voice is available on Youtube, from BBC interviews or other recordings available in which Plath reads her own poetry. For LeFebvre, Plath’s poetry is “powerful” and “lasting” because of Plath’s sexual allure and “delicious poison.” LeFebvre feels that Plath “flirts you close enough to burn you” (5, first paragraph).
Theresa Collins also considers Plath and the “Lady Lazarus” narrator to be unified. In “Plath’s Lady Lazarus” Collins reads the poem as the poet becoming immortal. “The poem is a confession, with all of its autobiographical similarities. The poet’s familiar exhibitionist style is her own artistic device to have us stirring through her ash remains (her poem) like the Nazi doctor (73-75). As a stylite monk would grow closer to God through his self-discipline, Plath becomes closer to being her own artistic god through her poetic performance” (158). Again Collin rejects the postmodernists reading of texts and sees Plath unified with her work.
Cynthia Sugars feels that Plath and her work are “inseparable” (2). In “Sylvia Plath as Fantasy Space; Or, the Return of the Living Dead” Sugars states that critics can’t disentangle Plath’s personal life from her work. She states, “In this way the biography of Plath becomes inseparable from the Plath canon” (2). Sugars agrees with critics who believe that Plath’s suicide has “frozen her outside of time” (2). By reading and criticizing her texts, Sugars feels that critics keep Plath alive. With each new criticism, “The critics exist as uncanny doubles of Plath herself” (3). This dialogue between critic and Plath’s canon makes Plath live on.
Another way she lives on is when critics feel Plath’s presence when they read her texts or touch her belongings. Two critics who have felt this presence are LeFebvre and Tracy Brain. LeFebvre feels a visceral presence when she looks at Plath’s personal books. While getting her MFA at the University of Virginia, LeFebvre was able to hold some of Plath’s private books. LeFebvre is “giddy” as she sees Plath’s handwriting in the margins and Plath’s penmanship impresses her, “the perfect posture of her “y” and “l,” her rounded v, the slight ink smudge along the h’s tail” (5, paragraph 1). LeFebvre then states that she feels a privileged rush because her hands were where Plath’s had been (5, paragraph 1). “The feeling was almost too much,” say LeFebvre, “I leaned forward to listen” (5, paragraph 1). LeFebvre feels that she is communion with Plath, listening to her through her belongings.
In The Other Sylvia Plath, Tracy Brain also describes “skinbristling” moments working with Plath’s archives (34). Brain feels a connection with Plath through her letters and other archival material and states that soon Plath’s handwriting becomes familiar (34). Brain relays how she meets with Plath through a “strong sense of her physical presence and [her] own contact with the material residues that she left behind. Those who work in the archives trail their hands over letters covered in Plath’s fingerprints, open letters that she licked before smoothing them shut on her DNA” (31). This is similar to LeFebvre’s feelings of Plath’s presence when handling Plath’s books. In these types of experiences, Plath also lives on.
Plath is immortal. Her own journals and interviews describe her thoughts on immortality and her poems discuss the ideas of dying and rising up after death. Her oeuvre continues to grow, even after her human death. Critics consult Plath’s archival material to more fully understand and find a unified voice in Plath the author and the voice in her texts. Some critics feel her presence when they touch her archival material. All of this contravenes the notion proposed by postmodernists that the author is dead. Through her increasing oeuvre and the connection that critics feel between both Plath and her texts and between themselves and Plath’s archive, Plath, the author, has never died.
 It would be naive to say that there are not critics who claim that Plath and her voice are separate. Some critics (e.g., Sarah Churchwell in “Ted Hughes and the Corpus of Sylvia Plath,” Jacqueline Rose in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, Diane Van Dyne in “The Problem of Biography,” and Linda Wagner-Martin in Sylvia Plath: A Biography) have chafed at allegations of Plath’s immortality, especially by Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, that Plath and her work are unified and so Plath is immortal. For example, Churchwell feels that it is Hughes who is trying to immortalize Plath by claiming that Plath the poet and the voice in her poems are unified so that he can claim immortality through her. But even Churchwell uses Plath’s poem to prove that Sylvia rejects Hughes’ romantic notions, stating, “But Sylvia Plath, in her poem “The Detective,” explicitly rejects such a romance narrative: ‘This is a case without a body. The body does not come into it at all,’” which is an example of Churchwell unifying the voice of Plath (the body) and her poetry’s voice (the voice in “The Detective”) (127).
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