Poets on Paper
The drawings of Sylvia Plath and the envelope scrawlings of Emily Dickinson afford rare glimpses into the minds of two great poets.
In the odyssey of 20th-century English literature, large looms the myth of Sylvia Plath—talented, tortured, fame-hungry and ferocious. The feminists claimed her as their own modern-day Sappho, a doomed Iphigenia sacrificed on the altar of genius by her philandering husband, Ted Hughes. Her fellow lyrists, meanwhile, declared her “hardly a woman at all, certainly not another ‘poetess’” but—in the words of Robert Lowell—a great classical heroine, “a Dido, a Phaedra or Medea” whose poems played “Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder.” She saw herself in madder, more irredeemable terms—in her lines, she became the damned Electra, the “Lady Lazarus,” a worm-husbanded Persephone gone to seek the narcotic song of the dead. She was the poet of Maenads and mausoleums, hanging men and thalidomide, whose verses teemed with all those ruins and rooks, dark houses, cadavered rooms, “white-jacketed assassins” and ravaged things. Ravens and graves wreathed her writing desk.
Some might find it strange, then, to leaf through the new book of her personal sketches—named, aptly, Sylvia Plath: Drawings—and find a world of stolidly quotidian odds and ends. Gone are the barren women and beasts, the mangled nerve-ends and the “flesh laid waste”; instead, we find Beaujolais bottles and horse chestnuts, “curious cats “and sleepy Spanish towns. This is the stuff of Cézanne—bourgeois, burghered still-life’s—not an asylumed Van Gogh. There are busy streets, Baudelairean in their bustle; the graceful curves of Catholic cathedrals; sensible umbrellas and downy thistles; teakettles, women’s shoes, tabacs and jaunty kiosks; cooking stoves and seagoing sardiniers; and a fine study of maunching bulls lounging in the grass of some elysian English field. No wild furies here, thank you very much.