Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems

Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems

Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems

Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems

Synopsis

Susan Van Dyne's reading of twenty-five of Sylvia Plath's Ariel poems considers three contexts: Plath's journal entries from 1957 to 1959 (especially as they reveal her conflicts over what it meant to be a middle-class wife and mother and an aspiring writer in 1950s America); the interpretive strategies of feminist theory; and Plath's multiple revisions of the poems.

Excerpt

For Sylvia Plath, revising her life was a recurrent personal and poetic necessity. In her letters and journals as much as in her fiction and poetry, Plath's habits of self-representation suggest she regarded her life as if it were a text that she could invent and rewrite. In her earliest journal entry at seventeen, she already exhibits a sense of her identity as a projected persona: "I think I would like to call myself 'The girl who wanted to be God'" (LH 40). Repeatedly, at moments of crisis, she imagines she can erase the inscription of personal history and be reborn, unmarked as an infant, inviolate as a virgin. In one of the last poems she wrote, Plath regards her life as if it were a completed oeuvre, an already closed book that she has produced in her writing: "The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment" ("Edge").

In the Ariel poems that Plath wrote during the fall and winter of 1962, the rupture in her personal life demanded a refiguration of her identity in and through poetry. In claiming, as I do, that in drafting and revising these poems Plath tried to reconstitute a self, I am not arguing for a "poetics of transparence" in which the woman writer is assumed to be writing directly and authentically from her lived experience. Rather, what I want to examine is the proliferation of masks and performances that Plath produced in her poetry. My reading of Plath assumes that there is no master narrative of her life or her art; neither the pathological understanding of her art as having been determined by her suicidal impulses nor the reading of her actual suicide as a by-product of her textual, metaphoric strategies describes adequately the ways Plath's poems revised her life. Not only is there no single explanatory paradigm; there is no inevitable progression in these poems.

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