Sylvia Plath, Safe Spaces, and the Violation of Women

“Being born a woman is my awful tragedy. From the moment I was conceived I was doomed to sprout breasts and ovaries rather than penis and scrotum; to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable femininity. Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars — to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording — all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…” (The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 77).

These words written by the eighteen-year-old Sylvia Plath in the summer of 1951 sound horribly contemporary. Her yearning for unconditional access to public space, to feel safe, to do what she wants when she wants without men interfering or threatening her, is the same old story that spawns through the years decade after decade.

There is rarely a time when women’s bodies are safe or free from scrutiny or judgement. Any body. Any shape, size, colour, age, physical ability, physical wellness, dressed or undressed. It is hard to know what the female body would be that managed to escape this critical, threatening surveillance. But the female body does not exist in a vacuum, it exists at multiple points of intersection. A white woman’s body is rarely safe. A Black woman’s body is even less safe. A transwoman’s body is extremely high risk. A lesbian body is unsafe (especially if it is a lesbian body showing affection to another lesbian body in public space). The intersections are endless, but they all amount to the same thing: lack of safety.

Location too. All of these women’s bodies are not safe in public space. A woman can be going about her day-to-day business; shopping, at a concert, walking down the street, and be violated. That could be verbally, or physically. All uninvited, often unexpected, always shocking. Many women feel unsafe walking home, especially late at night. But many women are frightened to take a taxi alone at night. Public transport, busier, could be seen as safer, but the last time I was on a night train, a man stood in front of me and dropped his trousers. I won’t use night trains. So, for many, if we’re out at night, we don’t want to walk home alone, we don’t want to get a cab, and we can’t get public transport without feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.

Many heterosexual women are not safe in their homes. They may have verbal, emotional or physical abuse directed at them every single day. They cannot leave. If they do leave, that is when they are most at risk. If their partner drinks, their safety is compromised. If the national football team is playing, they are unsafe. If the national football team is playing and lose, they are even more unsafe. There are myriad ways and contexts in which women are not safe at home.

Women’s bodies are not safe in schools or on university campuses. They are not safe in places of work. There are so many places where women’s bodies are not safe. In busy places, in quiet places, indoors, outdoors. Walking. Moving. Standing still. Where do we get to feel safe?

What about in virtual spaces? Are women safe online? No. Death threats, rape threats, unsolicited pictures of male genitals, men explaining women’s own areas of expertise to them designed to question and belittle, messages about selfies that leave you so humiliated you delete them from your social media account, bodies too fat (“Who ate all the pies?” “When’s it due?”), bodies too thin (“You need to eat more pies”), too much make-up, not enough make-up, too slutty, too frigid, never “right”, never safe from comment, judgement, remarks and opinions casually tossed out without a thought of how they violate, how they hurt, how they encroach and make space – any space — unsafe or uncomfortable. The lasting damage. The absolute unthinking privilege and entitlement of hegemonic masculinity.

Is there any space where women can feel comfortable? “…to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable femininity.” Increasingly I think, no. There is no truly safe, comfortable space for women to escape from all of this in day-to-day life. From male strangers, friends, lovers, family members. Yes, I know it isn’t “all men”. But it doesn’t need to be all men for so many women to be, and feel, unsafe. It is suffocatingly depressing. Because in the end what all women are entitled to is to live as freely as many men enjoy. To be able to fulfil Plath’s 1951 longing, that she never achieved, and that so many of us never will either:

“But, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…”

This, it seems, is the impossiblity.

“Calamity’s magnet”: Sylvia Plath and the Art of the Macabre

Sylvia Plath’s study in Court Green was a large room with a red carpet and two windows. One overlooked the side of the house and a small peach tree. The other overlooked St. Peter’s church and the churchyard, including a wall of old gravestones that separated the end of Plath’s garden from the churchyard itself. A boundary wall of the dead. A large yew tree dominated the scene above crooked, lichen-eaten headstones. It was this tree that often snagged the moon in its branches, pointing upwards. “It has a Gothic shape” wrote Plath (Collected Poems, 173).

Court Green. Sylvia Plath’s study was the upstairs corner room.

Above Plath’s great elm writing desk in her study, she had a wall of faded, yellow newspaper cuttings. One was a story from an American newspaper describing a young man whose mother had died. He kept her corpse in the bedroom, trying to bring her alive again with electric shocks. Or at least he did until the neighbours began to complain about the smell…

Another clipping was from an American magazine about extreme plastic surgery. Written by a woman who had paid $30,000 for a face lift, the article outlined the hellishness of the experience; flaps of skin, swelling, stitches, intense pain, scars tucked under hair. The writer advised all women to go out and do the same, the pain was well worth it.

Another photograph tacked up on the wall was of a railway accident.

Sylvia Plath’s love of the macabre was documented fairly well in her journals. In March 1958 while teaching at Smith College she recounts, “One night, late, we walked out and saw the lurid orange glow of a fire down below the highschool. I dragged Ted to it, hoping for houses, in a holocaust, parents jumping out of the window with babies…” (Journals, 356). She continues speculating on her love of disaster, “The fire was oddly satisfying. I longed for an incident, an accident. What unleashed desire there must be in one for general carnage. I walk around the streets, braced and ready and almost wishing to test my eye and fiber on tragedy – a child crushed by a car, a house on fire, someone thrown into a tree by a horse.” (357).

Despite being perceived as odd, this love of horror and gruesomeness does serve certain social functions according to sociologists. It can partly be about indulging fantasies which act as a sort of cathartic outlet for our darkest thoughts. But some psychologists feel it gives us an opportunity to suffer death from a distance, to get as close to it as possible, without being engulfed ourselves. This is why, following, say, a road accident or a terrible house fire, people gawp, hoping to catch a glimpse of horror or carnage. Plath even put this into her poem, “Aftermath” — “Compelled by calamity’s magnet / They loiter and stare as if the house / Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought / Some scandal might any minute ooze / From a smoke-choked closet into light…” (Collected Poems, 113).

Murder, death, crushed bodies, charred, smoking houses, the gothic, the extreme. Elizabeth Sigmund noticed that often Plath found amusement in what other people might find gruesome. And this gallows humour certainly seems evident in some of the Ariel poems and sections of The Bell Jar. In fact, what struck me about the newspaper cuttings tacked above the desk in Court Green was just how very Plathian they were. The themes surely crept into her poems. Dying and being brought back to life by electricity, burnt along all your nerves, the horrific sight of a head swaddled in bandages after a face lift, peeled away to reveal lineless skin, the desire for disaster, to witness some scandalous tragedy as if it were one’s own, but with the safe distance of it very much not being.

About twenty miles away from Court Green, lies Princetown, a small hamlet in the middle of Dartmoor dominated by the high granite walls of a prison. It is a grim, foreboding building and each time I have visited the weather has been suitably fitting – thick fog rolling across the moor, dark clouds, splatters of rain. Princetown has a long history dating back to 1809, but became a civil prison in the 1850s. A classic, looming Victorian presence, all jutting chimneys and towers. It has housed some notorious murderers and criminals over the years and has a history of prisoners escaping, trying to find their way across the moors. Such stories featured in the Sherlock Holmes books, and more recently in the James Bond film Spectre. Plath was aware of this brooding presence just across the moor from her containing exactly the sort of people she was fascinated with. When she was living alone at Court Green in late 1962, she wrote that she heard a window smash during a storm and called the police thinking someone was breaking in. One imagines she did this with a combination of horror, fear, maybe even a slight thrill? Or was this disaster perhaps too close to home? “Dartmoor convicts keep escaping on these black nights & I keep an apple parer ready and the doors bolted” she wrote to Ruth Fainlight on November 20th (Letters Vol. II, 915). It is unnerving to think of Plath alone in the house with the children, wind and rain whipping up the trees outside, a branch breaking the window, her yellowing newspaper cuttings tacked up in an empty study in the early hours of the morning, with their lurid headlines blaring to no one in particular.

On a recent visit to an old shop full of various jumbly bits of treasure, I came across this vintage postcard of the prison at Princetown from the mid-1950s. On the back a daughter has written a message to her mother: “Dear Mum / Sunday / We went to Princetown and saw Dartmoor Jail / It has been a lovely day.”  I think Plath would have loved the humorous irony in this. In some sort of perverse homage to her, I now have the postcard tacked above my writing desk.

Credits:

The photograph of Court Green is taken from the book by Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (Tuscon: Schaffner Press, 2003).

The photograph of the Princetown postcard ©Gail Crowther.

The details of the cuttings above Plath’s desk can be found in Box 1, Folder 18, Rose Library, Emory University.

The Clothes of the Dead

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about clothes of the dead. This is partly because I am writing about them, but also generally I’ve been thinking about the status of a dead person’s objects. I’m curious about their value and their meaning. When I encountered several items of clothing that had belonged to Sylvia Plath in the sale room at Bonham’s in 2018, I was immediately struck by the different status these objects had compared to say a poem manuscript or a book.

First, I guess, there was something more personal about them, perhaps more intimate in a way. But they also seemed (and I find this hard to articulate) like some sort of stand-in. Plath’s body is no longer with us, but here’s what used to encase it, here’s its shape and size and imprint. Margaret Gibson writes eloquently about the powerful immediacy that clothes can offer us — sometimes containing a trigger of memory, sometimes a record of the past, often returning the dead to the spaces inhabited by the living. She says clothes mobilize our emotions because they are partly how the dead person chose to construct their identity. After their death, we are left with these fragments, which we can piece together to somehow reanimate, resurrect.

In this sense then, clothes of the dead offer some sort of continuity. Their biographical history and value resonates through the years. Perhaps that is why I was so moved to touch Sylvia Plath’s blue Chinese silk maternity top, or feel the cotton of a yellow summer dress. Equally, it is why I felt something akin to wistfulness when I discovered that many of Anne Sexton’s clothes had been given to local charity shops after her death. I imagined women walking around Boston in her dresses or blouses completely unaware of who they belonged to, what might have been written while Sexton was wearing them, where they had been.

Melancholy objects, Gibson calls them. And it is true, they are. A reminder of loss, a memorialization, but at the same time, a celebration — the past carried forward into the here and now offering the comfort that the dead never really leave us, but stay in one form or another, negotiating death, ensuring remembrance.

[Photographs copyright Gail Crowther]

Objects, Auras, and Mysterious Transactions

Imagine a person, years dead. A dead poet. Physically gone, or so it seems. A plait of hair in an archive still shiny, still lustrous and alive, handwritten manuscripts with ink blotches and fingerprint smears, spilt coffee stains, traces of skin cells, tears, blood. Laundry lists, household chore rotas, menu plans, half sewn scarlet material lying in a sewing machine, cheque stubs, receipts, the blue eye of the turquoise swinging on its silver chain. Traces, residues. What constitutes a body of work asks Foucault? Is it everything that someone has ever written, uttered, deleted? Passages, drafts, plans? He asks, ‘How can someone define a work amid the millions of traces left by someone after his [sic] death?’ (104).[1] Things are somehow more solid than traces, more there and the temptation is to treat them as something more reliable because of this physical presence. Both in conversation and in her writing, Plath discussed just how this solidness seemed important:

I do not trust the spirit. It escapes like steam

In dreams, through mouth-hole or eye-hole. I can’t stop it.

One day it won’t come back. Things aren’t like that.

They stay, their little particular lusters

Warmed by much handling. They almost purr.              

                                                                         Last Words (172)[2]

There is an uncontrollability and unpredictability about something that ‘escapes like steam’ – it can’t be stopped. It is also impermanent and irretrievable (‘one day it won’t come back’). In direct contrast, Plath’s speaker states clearly how things are not like that. They are permanent, they stay, respond to handling, enjoy handling even, so that they almost purr. The comforting solidness of these warm things in their little lustres explains further why in conversation Plath would state ‘I love the thinginess of things’. Indeed, her archives confirm Plath’s claim that things last and are durable. Her childhood paper dolls and toys, intricate pastel drawings, illustrated letters, locks of baby hair.

It must be remembered though that the importance of the objects lie not only in their physicality but in their significance and use to the person who is no longer alive. So, the seemingly solid based reality of these things becomes instantly undermined if we consider our fascination with them not so much as how-they-are-now but how-they-were-then. The relics that we invest so much meaning and value in, may for example, have been irritating clutter to Sylvia Plath. Once we have written shopping lists or menu plans, do we ever revisit them as sites of great knowledge or are they usually thrown away and forgotten about? Moreover, if Plath herself did not invest value in these objects, why would we? How can an object be both significant and unimportant at the same time?

Karl Marx discusses how the ‘mystical character of the commodity does not arise from its use-value’ (10).[3] Rather Marx suggests that something a little inexplicable can occur to objects, something almost secretive. He cites the example of a piece of wood made into a table. Although the wood is altered to become a table, the table continues to be wood. But for Marx, as soon as this table emerges as a commodity, something else happens, ‘it transcends sensuousness’ (ibid) and a whole range of unthinkable transformations can occur to this piece of wood until it ‘evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will’ (ibid).

We see a fine correlation between Marx’s example of the table and one object stored in the Smith College Archives in Northampton, Massachusetts. For hanging there on the wall is the large six feet long elm plank that Sylvia Plath used as her writing desk. In itself, this is a piece of wood, wood made into a table and table that is still nevertheless wood. However, what occurred on this table (the writing of the Ariel poems), the person who used this table (Plath) lends a kind of mystical quality, a value that goes beyond economics. This elm plank is transformed in a way that we cannot quite define. Walter Benjamin (1973) describes the ‘aura’ of an original object and how this aura exists simply because the object is unique. The more an object is reproduced, the more precious the original becomes. Yet in the case of Plath’s desk, although it may be reproduced visually at least, it cannot be reproduced in any other way. There is only one desk upon which she wrote those Ariel poems, there is only this one desk that holds the ink stains and traces of that time. It is this uniqueness that makes it so special and perhaps it is Benjamin’s notion of the aura which affords it what Marx calls a ‘mystical quality’.

Perhaps it is because objects are curious things. Often inanimate and ordinary, they can be transformed into something imbued with power and meaning. This transformation that occurs seems to be a process brought about by a complex use of fantasy, social meaning, and the cultural biography of the object.

In the recent Sotheby’s auction of Plath possessions there was a range of items, such as a tarot card deck, two wedding rings, letters, recipe cards, and family photographs. Each had a unique monetary and emotional value placed upon them. Each had, what Benjamin would refer to, as an auratic presence. The pleasing mystery is how that auratic presence transfers itself into an inanimate object and becomes active. Whatever that process is, seems to me to be the real valuable transaction taking place here. Unique and secretive. You can almost hear the objects purr.

[An adaption from my book The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath (2017), Chapter 5 ‘Objects’]


[1] Foucault, Michel, 1984. ‘What is an Author?’ in Rabinow, Paul, (ed.), The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.

[2] Plath, Sylvia, 1981. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber.

[3] Marx, Karl, 2000. ‘The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret.’ in The Consumer Society Reader. (ed.), Martyn J Lee,Oxford: Blackwells.

What cost, Sylvia Plath?

Today, watching Sylvia Plath’s Sotheby’s auction, I felt myself feeling a little like the “passionate, fragmentary girl” Plath wrote about in her journal. My self of sense was utterly splintered and if this seems a messy, tangled, off-the-cuff blog post, I guess that’s because it’s exactly what it is.

For anyone viewing the bidding this afternoon, it was an intense, emotional experience. The voyeur part of me watched fascinated, excited, disbelieving. The scholar in me watched appalled at the collection being broken up and sold into (presumably) private hands (though we don’t know this yet). The sociologist in me had whirling thoughts about the significant historical moment and the cultural biography of objects. The daughter in me felt I should wind my neck in, these items have been preserved by Frieda Hughes for decades. They belong to her, she has every right to do with them what she wants. Then there was just me, Gail Crowther, reader-fan of Plath, feeling somewhat melancholic and not really sure how or what to feel or why and because of that, a little confounded.

Moments like this matter, and perhaps they take some time and reflection to understand why. But being caught in that confusion can start some interesting conversations about what we value and why? Who gets value attached to them? Why are objects so important? Why would a writer’s set of tarot cards sell for significantly more than a handwritten letter? Where and why we place ourselves in somebody else’s life that we never even knew.

In the next few days, the items will be packaged up and sent off to their new homes almost certainly all over the world. They will be treasured, I’m sure. Some we may never see again. They will start a new cultural part of their history, their provenance firmly cemented. They are safe and most importantly preserved. But still I kept thinking: what cost, Sylvia Plath?

The Anonymous Photograph

While I was writing Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz my research took me to Boston. A highlight of the visit there was to be shown the room where Plath and Sexton met for their poetry workshop with Robert Lowell in 1959. It was a small room and felt much unchanged from the 1950s. A wonderfully old, worn, wooden floor; a narrow shape leading to a bay window overlooking the Charles (just). The back wall by the entrance door lined with bookshelves and the edges of the room lined with chair-desks.

Although initial research had suggested to me that the room was small, nothing much prepares you for the actual dimensions of a space you have only read about. The staircase leading up from the entrance hall has a beautifully carved balustrade. The red, white, black tiles on the floor are original and jaunt their way along corridors. It is easy to imagine Plath and Sexton making their way to class; Plath early and organised in her camel coat, Sexton late, rushing up the stairs in her printed dresses with jangling jewellery and dropping cigarette ash.

It was while I was researching photographs to include in my book that I came across an old press photo of Sexton teaching her writing class. I bought a print because the details in the image were wonderful. Had I not visited Room 222 on Bay State Road, the significance of the image may have passed me by. I immediately recognised that in a wonderful cyclical turn of events, in the late 1960s, Sexton ended up teaching her own writing classes in the same room that had housed Lowell’s workshop. Of course, I immediately wanted this photograph for my book, but first I had to clear copyright and get written permission.

This is where the problems began. From sketchy writing on the back of the picture it suggested that this image was perhaps used by a Boston newspaper to accompany an obituary of Sexton, but which Boston newspaper was not clear. Archive searches revealed nothing. So, I contacted Boston newspapers. Nothing. Then I threw my net wider and contacted Magnum, Getty, Associated Press, and a company that claimed (quite wildly) to be able to find all photos used in American newspapers. Nothing. Other images that seemed to be taken from the same era were found but there was no photographer’s name attached to them.

After months, and many transatlantic twists and turns, I did not find the photographer. I could not clear copyright. I could not use the image. I am posting it here because it is too good an image not to be seen. And the thing about posting on a blog (as opposed to in a book) is that if the photographer does recognise the image, I can either credit them or remove the post.  

The details in this image make me smile: Sexton’s ever-present cigarette with a convenient ashtray built into her chair. The shoe half-dangling off her foot. Not enough seats for everyone so students have to sit on the floor. The room temperature clearly low as many are huddled in coats, apart from the brace girl in sandals. Sexton is in the middle of explaining something, her hands flaring, papers balanced on her checked-trousered legs. The floor is the same floor that I walked across. This photo from the late 1960s helps us visualise how crowded that room must have been ten years earlier with 18 students jammed into Lowell’s workshop, the fug of Sexton’s cigarettes, and the awkward silences in so small a space. A tiny space housing what now feels like the giants of Plath and Sexton.

I wish that this photograph could have been in my book, but I am glad that it is here, for now.  

Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz can be ordered from here

(All photographs, other than Sexton, copyright Gail Crowther)

“Hysterical, shrill, and self-dramatizing”: The Gendered Nature of Book Reviews

Having dipped my toe into exploring the gendered nature of book reviews, it seems to me to be a topic worthy of a book in its own right. One comparison that stood out in particular while I was writing Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz was the different ways in which Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were reviewed.

When Lowell published Life Studies in 1959, critics hailed it a brave book full of personal, serious experiences such as the suffering of mental illness and the frailty of recovery. John Thompson in the Kenyon Review wrote, “For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a conquest. What they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry.”[i] In contrast, with the publication of her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back in 1960, Sexton already began to get the type of reception that would dog her career. James Dickey opened his review with the words “Anne Sexton’s poems so obviously come out of deep, painful sections of the author’s life that one’s literary opinions scarcely seem to matter; one feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of so much naked suffering.”[ii] The rest of the piece dismisses Sexton’s work as that of a superficial A-student writing contrived and artificial poetry. Sexton was stunned by this review and she carried a copy of it around with her for the rest of her life.

Lowell got praise pretty much across the board, to the extent that twenty-six years after the publication of Life Studies, Stanley Kunitz described the collection as “the most influential book of modern verse since T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.” Sexton’s reviewers were so very obviously gendered. May Swenson regarded To Bedlam and Part Way Back as containing poetic mastery, a “courageous” book which was followed by the “remarkable” All My Pretty Ones containing solidity of form and expertness. Swenson also is one of the first reviewers to identify and point out Sexton’s humour. Yet in reviewing the same book, Thom Gunn claims Sexton’s poems contain “facile” symbols and rely too heavily on the influence of Lowell. Furthermore, he’s sniffy about Sexton’s first volume claiming, “What is most encouraging about this collection is that she is getting rid of the faults of rhetoric and self-dramatization of her first book, in spite of all her admirers.”[iii] Louise Bogan regards All My Pretty Ones as a courageous, highly controlled volume telling women’s secrets in a way that do not normally get told. Sexton, she claims, “writes from the center of feminine experience, with the direct and open feeling that women, always vulnerable, have been shy of expressing in recent years.”[iv] Ian Hamilton appeared to share Thom Gunn’s concern about the number of people reading Sexton claiming the real danger is she will be “translated into yet another cult-figure of neurotic breakdown, valued not for what she has written but for what her suffering seems to symptomize.” Apparently according to Hamilton this sort of reading doesn’t matter if the poet is dead, but since “Mrs Sexton” was still alive, “it is likely to encourage exactly the kind of facile exhibitionism which is even now a constant worry in her work.”[v]

So, for Lowell, the question of propriety when it came to the subject matter of his poetry no longer existed. Sexton was not afforded this honor. When Lowell wrote about mental breakdown and suffering, he was serious and brave. When Sexton wrote about it, she was self-dramatizing and inappropriate. While female reviewers seemed to appreciate what Sexton was trying to do, many male critics simply could not cope.

All of this played out years before Plath’s Ariel was published posthumously. Then, on its release, as my book explores, her male reviewers starting throwing words around like “shrill” and “hysterical”…

For more on this read Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz available to order here


[i] Thompson, ‘Two Poets’ in Kenyon Review 21, 1959, pp. 482-290.

[ii] Dickey, Anne Sexton The Artists and Her Critics, p. 117

[iii] Gunn, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.125.

[iv] Bogan, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.126-7.

[v] Hamilton, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.127.

The Stories That Don’t Make The Cut

Sometimes what gets edited out of a book can be just as interesting as what gets left in. There are many reasons why certain stories or lines of thought get removed. Sometimes it can be to do with word length, or that it takes things off at a slight tangent, or that it simply doesn’t quite fit at that moment in the narrative. I am lucky to have a superb editor, Alison Callahan at Gallery Books, whose judgment is always spot-on, because sometimes as writers we get so lost in our own texts that it becomes difficult to see when we are wandering off and losing ourselves.

One story in my new book Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz that ended up being cut was a story about Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Ted Hughes. It is a story not without humour, because it encompasses a classic literary spat – about associations, reputations, and perceived slights.

It all began when Ted Hughes wrote a piece for the fall issue of Tri-Quarterly in 1966. In his essay he made the claim that Plath was different to Lowell and Sexton. Plath, he wrote, certainly shared characteristics with them, such as “shattering the self” and their “East Massachusetts homeland”. But beyond this, Hughes claimed that Plath’s poems were completely different to Lowell’s and Sexton’s whose work was “truly autobiographical and personal, and their final world is a torture cell walled with family portraits, with the daily newspaper coming under the door.” According to Hughes, Plath used autobiographical details in her poetry quite differently, “She sets them out like masks, which are then lifted up by a dramatis personae of nearly supernatural qualities.” (p. 81)

This claim enraged Lowell who appeared to have an active aversion to being what he regarded as “lumped into” the same category of writing as Sexton (this attitude of Lowell’s alone is worthy of study – but that’s another story). A furious Lowell wrote to Hughes accusing him of “tasteless vulgarity.” He felt that Hughes belittled his and Sexton’s work by comparing it unfavourably to Plath’s and no amount of “uxoriousness” excused this. Having agreed to appear at a London poetry festival organised by Hughes in 1967, Lowell said “of course” he would no longer be attending unless Hughes apologised to both him and Sexton. The drama!

A contrite Hughes wrote to both immediately, though he may not quite have anticipated Anne Sexton’s brilliantly defiant “acceptance” of his apology. In his letter to Sexton, held at the Harry Ransom Center, what he actually meant, Hughes wrote, was that he was trying to show how Plath’s poems operated in the “dimension of the spirit”, whereas Lowell and Sexton’s operated in the “dimension of nature and society.”

In a wonderfully grudging response, the fiery Sexton replied that she would accept his apology (although I have to say her letter implies the exact opposite). And in what must be one of the best uses of underlining ever she finished her paragraph with the devastating retort that she was “not sure what your terms ‘spirit or nature or society’ mean…but if you say so.”

In the end, the waters got smoothed over, they all became friends again, and Sexton at least appeared at Ted Hughes’ Poetry Festival in 1967. It was there that she then got into a tussle with W.H. Auden, but that story did make it into the book…

Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz can be ordered here

The essay referred to in this piece is Ted Hughes, ‘Notes on the chronological order of Sylvia Plath’s poems’, Tri-Quarterly, No. 7, Fall 1966, p. 81-88.

(My thanks to Amanda Golden for clarifying that Lowell did not attend the 1967 Poetry Festival in London)

The Extension of a Portrait

On the day that we arrive in Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain, Boston, snow is blanketing everywhere with a silent white. The sky is a deep, cloudless blue, and the sun is bouncing leaving us slightly dazzled and snowblind. We are looking for Anne Sexton’s grave, but the cemetery is enormous and I can’t quite read the map and many roads are hidden by pristine drifts. We drive around and around. We take in the laden trees, the lake, the grand mausoleums. When we eventually find Sexton’s grave, it is in the family plot, a large, beautiful granite tomb etched with the names of all the people I have been writing about for the last year.

I am curious how you photograph a grave, I mean really professionally photograph a grave. How is it different to photographing a person? How do you set a mood? What do you look for? What do you need to do? I am doubly fascinated because the person that I am with, photographer Kevin Cummins, is much more well-known for photographing musicians. How does photographing a grave differ from a living breathing singing person?

Photographing a grave he tells me is like “the extension of a portrait”. You have to turn up, spend some time in the place, get a feel for the environment and how to portray it. Just like photographing a person, you have to spend time with them, understand how they see themselves and how you see them as a photographer. It can’t be rushed. It takes time.

But isn’t there an inherent melancholy of photographing a grave, I ask? The person is gone and absent. How do you deal with that loss, visually? He replies that the one thing about photographing a grave is the “absolute stillness” of it. There is the architecture, the style, the inscription, the objects left behind. But one way to capture that stillness is to place it in context, to show a depth of field. Alternatively, you can isolate it off and focus in on just the grave itself, some sort of detail that captures you (I guess this is a version of Barthes’ punctum?) These pictures of Sexton’s and Plath’s grave show both of these techniques. Plath’s headstone sits forefront in a sea of other graves jumbling back to the edge of the shot. Sexton’s tomb is tight, up close, with a rosary dangling over the edge.

The day we are there, I brush snow off the top of the grave and unearth love letters that have been left for Sexton. One is signed “All your pretty ones”. There are acorns beneath the snow covered in tiny ice crystals. The photographs take time. The light is not quite right. We need to wait so we drive across the cemetery to visit e.e.cummings’ grave and walk by the lake. By the time we return, the light is in the right place and the photographs begin. I am surprised how long it takes. Hours to get the right conditions, the right atmosphere. It’s like re-phrasing Plath: “Photography / Is an art, like everything else.”

The final pictures perfectly capture the dignity of Sexton’s resting place. Just as the photographs of Plath’s grave taken a couple of years earlier capture the wild beauty of her setting in Heptonstall. I am lucky to have photographs from these shoots in my book. There is a true stillness about them. But there is something about the poets captured there too. Gone but not gone. Immortalised and remembered, or as Roland Barthes says, much more elegantly than I ever could: “What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”

That unique, rare one-offness of Plath and Sexton. 

Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton can be ordered here

You can see more photography by Kevin Cummins here

The Poetics of a Book Cover

“A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” Chip Kidd, graphic designer.

While I’m a firm believer that the content of a book is the most important part, I do like a good book jacket. I love designs that set a mood, or capture certain times, places, moments. Even an abstract jacket through shapes and swirls can project the feel or tone of a book. In other words, the “haiku of the story”.

I think probably any author is nervous about what their book will look like. I know I am. So it is always a thrillingly terrifying moment when the pdf of your book cover appears in your inbox. With my latest book, Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz, I was sent three potential designs. I liked all of them, but one in particular stood out because for me it captured a very definite cultural moment. Both the front and the back of the jacket have visual prompts to the contents of the book and certain objects that appear in it. The hardback, in monochrome, conjures a particular feel and time.

Both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were discriminating about their book covers. Sexton obviously got to see more of her own than Plath and loved some more than others. Plath delighted in the green blockiness of The Colossus (but was less delighted with the dreaded typos that slipped through).  

Book covers tell their own stories. They set visual expectations. They create the wraparound environment of the book. Here is the book jacket for Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz.

(The book can be pre-ordered here: https://uk.bookshop.org/books/three-martini-afternoons-at-the-ritz-the-rebellion-of-sylvia-plath-and-anne-sexton/9781982138394)