Sylvia Plath’s Poetry: The Metamorphoses of the Poetic Self, Demiurg, Iasi, 2009
Sylvia Plath, this “Marylin Monroe of the American letters”, as one critic labelled her, is a difficult, but magnetically intriguing figure. The exceptional character of her life, a succession of tragic events and rare moments of passionate happiness, insured the amazing success of her writing, since readers, be they professional or otherwise, will always be attracted by things that are out of the ordinary. The many thematic correspondences between Plath’s life and art misled many into thinking that the value of her poetry consists in the deciphering of the obscure biographical roots that eventually resulted in poems of a strange and dark beauty. However, biography is by no means to be equated with art, and Elena Ciobanu, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Foreign Languages, University of Bacau, is fully aware of this truth which is in fact one of the basic premises of her present book on Sylvia Plath.
Originally a doctoral thesis, this work is primarily meant to find new paths of interpretation regarding Sylvia Plath’s poetry, by avoiding as much as possible, the author says, the psychoanalytical or biographical approaches that have been abusively used in the critical studies on the poet. It begins by recapitulating the “stories” told by Plath’s biographers, divided into “anti-Plath” or “anti-Hughes” ones, and each of them based on subjective interpretations of facts, details, rumours, memories of relatives and friends. This comparative analysis leads Elena Ciobanu to the conclusion that the truth about Plath the person and about her marriage to Ted Hughes cannot ever be retrieved completely, and that “in spite of the amount of data provided by all types of witnesses and researchers, there is, at the center of this vortex, a disturbing emptiness, a space that refuses to be defined.” (p. 35) That is why the rest of the book is focused on the poetic study of Plath’s poetry, the best literary achievement of this poet who also wrote short-stories and a novel. Plath’s Journals provide Elena Ciobanu with intuitive hypotheses and departure points for her demonstrations.
One fundamental idea that structures this book is that Plath’s poetic self undergoes a continual metamorphosis, experiencing a series of textual avatars, a sort of masks tried on and then discarded, because they prove inappropriate vehicles for the meaning waiting to be revealed deep beneath the surface of texts. This idea has been explored before by many other critics as well, but Elena Ciobanu adds to it a subtle hypothesis: that which states that this quest for identity is to be understood as a textual quest of a repressed creative “I” for its own inimitable discourse in the world-wide famous Ariel volume. Before Elena Ciobanu, Anglo-Saxon criticism minutely analyzed the relation between subject and discourse in Plath’s poems (see, for example, Jacqueline Rose’s influential book on Plath), but they did so mainly from a psychoanalytical perspective. The present work undertakes the difficult task of illuminating the poetic aspects of this movement of the “I” in Plath’s poetry, by studying its duality, its ambiguity, “empty signifiers and obscure signifieds” (p. 42), the quality of its suicidal metaphors, the intensity of its “word-grains”, its linguistic and stylistic instability and its endless reinvention of itself.
Thus, we may call Elena Ciobanu’s reading of Plath’s poetry a telelological one, since she admits that the efforts of the poetic self, never mistaken for the biographical one, are directed towards the final undeniable achievement of the poems from October 1962, (following after her separation from her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes), and those written in January-February 1963, just before the poet committed suicide. The continual journey of the poetic self, as Elena Ciobanu argues, makes it into a sort of phenomenon. In this respect, the third chapter of the book subsumes the many dimensions of this self (animism, anthropomorphism, identification and projection, the body and the problem of perception, orality, sexuality, suffering) in order to prove that they represent various ways of manifestation of an “I” whose essential aim is to exist poetically in a self-generated and self-generating world that is not transcended thematically, but that is encapsulated in a discourse transcending all boundaries. Phenomenology is rightfully used not for its own sake, but for the sake of a sound theoretical basis for poetic truths.
The paradox that connects thematic death to discursive life also sustains the dark, but interesting (and completely original) approach attempted by Elena Ciobanu in Chapter V, where she explores the ritual of mummification in Plath’s poems, not only on the semantic level, but, very importantly, on the stylistic and discursive levels. The semantic splitting of the mummy image into two different interpretative versions that eerily co-exist in such a poem like the dramatic, but exquisite Edge, for example, is astutely traced throughout Plath’s entire poetry. The body of death, haunting the poet’s writing, is thus transferred into a discourse that surrounds it and utters the equivocal truths of a self that remains inscrutable. The beyondness of identity which, Elena Ciobanu argues, is what Plath’s poetry is fundamentally about, is cleverly supported through the appeal to very recent theories on identity, such as those of Leon Wieseltier, for example.
The last section of the book proposes a unique exploration of the much discussed relation between Plath’s and Hughes’s poetic careers. Yet, while the vast majority of studies on the subject concentrate on the question of “whodunit”, on the identification of the guilty one in the story of their life together, Elena Ciobanu’s approach is one that ignores biographical details in order to analyse the togetherness of the two discourses. Other critics, such as Diane Middlebrook, have stated that the Plath-Hughes creative partnership turned into a textual dialogue between two poetic personae, but here, Elena Ciobanu daringly proposes that the complex, oblique, uncertain, ambivalent reverberations that the two poetic discourses send to each other should be understood as a type of discursive love that is manifested posthumously. In support of this idea, the author summons Roland Barthes’s famous definitions of the markers of a “lover’s discourse”, which are then identified in the two poets’ works, each represented here by a poem (both Plath’s and Hughes’s poem have the same title: The Rabbit Catcher). It may be hard for some readers to accept the idea of love in this case, but if we keep the two planes of biography and art safely distinct from one another, the hypothesis proposed by Elena Ciobanu here is entirely plausible.
The extensive bibliography, both general and specific, the creative ways in which it is used in the present book, together with the minute analyses and the original approaches to Sylvia Plath’s poetry are a few of the reasons why Elena Ciobanu’s book may be considered one of the more serious of the recent critical studies on Plath belonging to an author outside the Anglo-Saxon area.