“Farther Off Than Australia” some Australian receptions of Plath

By John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan

I want to talk about the internalisation of Plath’s poetry, the fact that its system of references is in many ways quite neo-romantic, and that it’s also more political than people choose to read. By this I mean, apart from “personal” psychological anguish and her trademark dark and nihilistic images, that her vocabulary once it reaches outside her immediate environment becomes almost idealistic. Exotic references in her work are exactly that: exotic. When she speaks of the “Other” it seems unproblematic; it’s as if people outside her own experience aren’t real. And there’s also a distinct tone of racism (“the swarmy feeling of African hands” in “The Arrival of the Bee Box”, or the way “Chinese yellow” in “Wintering” is juxtaposed and near-punned with “Black asininity”), or in the very least, complacency along the lines of Angela Carter. It’s oddly fitting you should mention Angela Carter right there, since as you were speaking of the people not seeming real, I was remembering Angela Carter writing about the difference between a short story and a “tale”, and situating her own work firmly within the tradition of the tale: the unreal, the exaggerated, the Gothic, the overblown. I am as uncomfortable with those images you just mentioned as I am with, say, Carter’s depictions of Irish people in “The Magic Toyshop” in terms of physical repulsiveness. I am not excusing racist shorthand or stereotypes, though there is a sense of the deliberate use of types. Some of the unreality is not necessarily a failing of human perception on the poet’s part, but may well be a strategic literary device. There are poems of Plath’s that suggest she was consciously ironising this process. It’s rare that she attempts any realism at all in terms of depiction of people in her poems. Well, that links to the point I was trying to make earlier, in the sense that there’s a kind of literary artifice at work in her poetry. She has a very sophisticated method of referencing that allows her to build conceits, as in the poem “Cut”. Yes, one doesn’t normally think of a bandaged thumb as belonging to the Ku Klux Klan. But what I find especially interesting is that there’s a kind of progression of connection. So that it’s a layered conceit? Yes, because as you said, you can make a clear connection at “my thumb instead of an onion”, but the rest starts pushing it, and in an amazingly successful way. “Little pilgrim, the Indian’s axed your scalp” is actually a superb undoing of a racist binary – but even so, it is a borrowing from a childhood narrative – even though the irony works implicitly, there is still a distinct sense of disengagement from the pilgrim/Indian trope. In fact it is this disengagement that I admire so deeply in Plath. Far from being self-absorbed, there’s a sharp and distant and discerning self-irony that goes on here. When I say “self-irony”, I mean as herself being focal “subject”; she is channelling all irony through her “self”. Thinking of reading Plath in Australia, I remember hearing students at high school saying that she was “wicked”, which was a colloquial word for powerful beyond comprehension, cutting to the bone, getting right to the heart of the matter. “Cutting to the bone” is appropriate, given the poem you just mentioned. Now the way some people have read her in Australia, and I am talking about various sources – conversations with poets, students, hearing teachers when I was at university, as well as reading reviews that constantly invoked her name for better or worse – seems to lead inevitably to a personalised, pathological interpretation, that locates the poems’ meanings in some imagined defect of their “author’s”. Hence I would hear and read poems like “Cut” being understood as, for example, an expression of female masochism!!! What a reduction of a complex text. Reading it specifically from my position as a white Australian, that is from a colonial society, I cannot help but be struck by the deployment of imagery from colonial discourses. Now I think that “Cut” is only one example; there are many, many poems of Plath’s that are grossly reduced by insisting on the pathological-female, supposedly biographical reading. As you well know, the “reading” of Plath met huge resistance from not only the general public but the academy in the immediate years following her books becoming available in a broad sense. But eventually it would be the WASP-ish aspect of Plath that made her digestible in the canonical sense. It is interesting also to consider that when I first started reading her at high school it was almost “allowed” because her negativity and “suicidally-prone” lyrics were from another culture. Un-Australian, you mean? Yes; the fact that she was neither English nor American, at least insofar as she was taught to us, also made her less culturally threatening. And her landscape conceptually and physically was outside our experience, though we had a kind of borrowed landscape via English literature. (One poem tells a foetus in the womb it is “Farther off than Australia”. Does this perhaps come from her living in England and being married to an Englishman – Australia “conceived” as farthest-flung outpost of empire?) In a sense she was made to sit outside. But as I pointed out, this was to change, and she is certainly now considered part of the English canon; maybe this has something to do with the broadening base of the so-called English canon. The “myth” of Plath was the first thing we heard of at school, even as a preface to the poems. I remember being given a roneo’d sheet that had “Lady Lazarus” on it; it was handed out to the class, and before we had a chance to work through the poem we heard the run-down on her suicide. A decade later I wrote a poem, in my book Eschatologies: “Lilith Considers Two Who Have Died Young”, including a section called “Sylvia Plath”, that ironises this “teaching”. I hope Plath would have approved! “My” first experience was not through school; Plath was not taught at my school. But at age 16 while staying at a friend’s house I came across an anthology with an extract from The Bell Jar: “That shadow would marry this shadow…” — it was the funeral of Joan Gilling, the grave dug in the snow. It literally took my breath away, and I thought, “I have to discover more of this writer.” So I had the good fortune not to encounter the myth first. I couldn’t avoid it for long, though. The Magic Mirror Theatre in Perth staged a production of “Sylvia Plath: A Dramatic Portrait”, which was built up out of pieces of Plath’s own writings, and which constructed, as I remember it, a pathological persona for her, but which nonetheless exposed me to more of her writings, albeit in fragments. That was in 1982 or 1983. I grew very interested in her work and had to contend against much disapproval for that interest, which riled me because it was mostly from people who had read almost nothing she’d written. They seemed to think she would lead me to kill myself! I’m also familiar with this, but in quite a different way. It was considered to be very strange for a boy to like Plath. In fact I learnt that one couldn’t talk about Plath even among students who were generally interested in poetry. The boys seemed to think her “hysterical” and I’d say felt extremely threatened. This of course attracted me more! Do you recall that review by Geoff Page, the Australian critic, where he says of your recent book of poetry “Bluebeard in Drag”, “Plath of course is always a dangerous influence…” Yes – I could hardly forget it – I think something similar was said in another context in an earlier issue of this very magazine. Now, it’s a curious statement, because it’s repeated so often as a truism, without giving the evidence. In what ways has she been a dangerous influence? Well, I suspect that what some writers mean when they invoke this idea is the danger of excess in writing: all of us who have worked as poetry editors for magazines have experienced the would-be-Plath beginner-poets bombarding us with bad imitations. That doesn’t really make her a dangerous influence: most serious art treads a fine line, or a border between potential parody of itself and bathos. The problem there is in the immaturity of those poets, not in Plath. If they mean a dangerous influence in life, where is the evidence to back this up? I’m entirely steeped in her work, and I’ve made it at least to the age of thirty-three… Margaret Atwood said in an interview that there was a stage where as a woman poet you were reviewed only in terms of being “like Plath or not like Plath”, as if this were a benchmark. I have certainly found this to be true; I have also done it to other women in reviews, hopefully not too loosely. In this sense the limiting readings of Plath are probably not specific to Australia, but have much in common with reception elsewhere. As Australians, though, we have added impetus to read her from a post-colonial context (and perhaps to consider where that kind of theorising overlaps with feminism). Re-reading The Bell Jar, I am disturbed by its apparently blithe characterisations of, for instance, African Americans, its use of negative imagery of Asian facial features, and so on. This is throughout the poems too. Yes, this connects with what I was saying when we started talking — it’s the WASP thing. But more than that, it’s an inability to see beyond Eurocentrism. Plath comes at the end of a tradition; she obviously belongs more to Robert Lowell than she does to, say, a poet like Jean Binta Breeze, or Imtiaz Dharker. I can connect that with my experience of teaching her work in a university poetry course in Australia, in terms of feminism: the syllabus had a required component of “feminist poetry”, and while I scarcely felt she could be omitted, being so crucial to the whole enterprise of women’s poetry, I decided to teach her as what I then called “proto-feminist”, in the same way that I would describe the (very, very different) poet Anne Sexton as proto-feminist. Content-wise, they were raising a lot of issues that would be examined by the women’s movement, but they were at that point without the language to do it in a manner called feminist. Not that the ideas hadn’t already been raised (Dale Spender says they are raised and then re-buried in cycles of 50 years at a time), but that you can’t interpret Plath wholly comfortably as being “about feminism” – which I think some people have tried to do, to overcome the pathological model. However, some feminist emphasis is appropriate, to act as corrective to the tendency we have both experienced, to have to learn her “alongside” the work of Ted Hughes – almost as if that “danger” thing, that threat the critics keep fearing, had to be kept in place. Of course, one should recognise that if one is examining the poetry in a contextual sense then it is impossible to do so without looking at Hughes’s poetics, because of his role in constructing her posthumous books. Also there is the added interest of *process*, where you have two accomplished poets attacking the same material, as in their respective pig poems – Plath’s “Sow”, and Hughes’s “View of a Pig”. But linking her poems too closely to her life, or to the male figures in her life, can distort their political aspects. Take a poem like “Gulliver”, which I see, as I do many of her poems, as examining the negotiation of relationships between subject and object, self and other: a dialectical processing. There is of course a colonial aspect to any poem dealing with the figure of “Gulliver”; this recalls for me Firdous Azim’s book, The Colonial Rise of the Novel, which talks about the enterprise of colonialism and that of novel-making as being not only analogous but intricately of the same fabric. The way in which narrative constructs the notion of monolithic self: “I” am not this, not this, not this and not that, all that is other: thus the colonising subject defines itself. As in Gulliver’s Travels. This kind of monolith occurs all the time in Plath as an image (“The Colossus”, or in “Daddy”: “ghastly statue with one grey toe, big as a Frisco seal”), and is severely narrowed in meaning if we take it to refer only to “her” father, Otto Plath. Likewise, if we take a poem such as “For a Fatherless Son” only to refer personally to Plath’s own son and her husband’s departure, we miss the complexity of the references: the monolithic figure of the father under patriarchy, and of the “homeland” or “centre” in its relation to the colonial space:


You will be aware of an absence, presently,
Growing beside you, like a tree,
A death tree, color gone, an Australian gum tree –
Balding, gelded by lightning – an illusion,
And a sky like a pig’s backside, an utter lack of attention.