Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Your Own, Sylvia

I mentioned Stephanie Hemphill’s Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath last week. This biography of poet Sylvia Plath is written in poetry, and each poem is told from a different perspective: Plath’s mother, friends, husband.

At first, I was put off by the book’s style. Reading a biography in poetry felt awkward. In fact, I was more interested in the footnotes that accompany each poem. The footnote explains the biographical context of the poem. In fact, I was tempted to skip the poems altogether and just read the footnotes since they provided the salient information about Plath’s life.

The inconsistency in the poetry also worried me. The speakers’ voices are not unique, and Hemphill does not consistently use the same style of poem to represent an individual.

Like a film with subtitles, though, I soon grew accustomed to the poems. I was no longer distracted by the form and found myself absorbing the content. Some lines feel absolutely spot on. In the poem “Temptation,” the speaker, a poetry editor, describes Plath’s poetry as “smooth and pointed, icicles” (11). Plath’s words “ax and burn” him (10). In “What She Left Behind,” a fictional Ted Hughes says that “[h]er poetry cuts me to the spine” (12). Painfully good.

I thought I was familiar with Plath’s biography, but I learned one interesting/disturbing item from this book. I knew Hughes left Plath for another woman. I did not know, though, that in an ironic twist, this woman eventually killed herself and their daughter—by gas.

No comments: