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November 06 2011

Who is this sprightly Sylvia?

Who is the Sylvia Plath we, her readers, think we know? Nearly half a century after her suicide, the great poet is capable of surprising us. A selection of her drawings that have just gone on display at London's Mayor Gallery shows us a new side of her. I found these drawings moving: not because they feed into the legend, but because they sidestep it. They bring us a fresh look at a woman now so barnacled with myth it's hard to see her clearly. And – wow – they're really good.

These drawings are not exact transcriptions of the world: they are, subtly yet boldly, interpretations. They take possession of their subjects. They have a calligraphic, almost cartoonish line that puts me in mind of Alasdair Gray, or even the comic-book work of Pat Mills. What they have above all – which is not the province of the poems and the Plath we think we know – is a sprightliness or, for want of a better word, wit. Look, for instance, at her sketch of a cat peeping out round a corner. Curious French Cat, she's called it. Or look at the unaccountably entrancing drawing of a brolly, titled The Ubiquitous Umbrella. Or look at the two successive pen-and-ink sketches called The Pleasure of Odd (sic) and Ends, showing a scattering of lumber outside a shed, an old stove, a tractor tyre, a trunk with a warped lid.

To see these drawings as in some way complementary to the poems, as some will doubtless try to, seems to me off-beam. Plath did once tell the BBC: "I have a visual imagination." But what's so striking about these drawings is exactly their difference from the visual world of the poems. These are pictures that revel in the thinginess of things: in wine bottles, an old kettle, a pair of shoes, the uneven timbering of beached boats, the architectural curlicues of a Parisian roof.

Both Plath and her husband Ted Hughes wrote fine poems called Wuthering Heights, neither of which exactly played down the bleakness. "Black stone, black stone," wrote Plath. "Iron beliefs, iron necessities," wrote Hughes. But the Plath sketch of a tumbledown bothy included in this exhibition, called Wuthering Heights Today, is bucolic rather than apocalyptic.

While the landscape of Plath's verse is intensely visual, it's not like these drawings. God knows her poems had an observational exactness. In Nick and the Candlestick, she writes: "The candle/ Gulps and recovers its small altitude." In Poem for a Birthday: "And how a god flimsy as a baby's finger/ Shall unhusk himself and steer into the air." But this was also a dream landscape, full of intense colours and annihilating transformations. Ariel, notionally an account of being on a runaway horse, is almost psychedelic in its refusal to alight on an image: transformation gives way to transformation before the whole thing dissolves "into the red/ Eye, the cauldron of morning".

Plath read Freud and Jung, and used them consciously in her poems. You could say she used the unconscious consciously. Symbols recurred and were reworked: all those white moons and black yew trees (fathers/husbands); white feet and black shoes; the black-and-white sea (always furious); the sinister flowers; the awful medical apparatus of bandages and scalpels, the bald doctors; the engulfing reds of blood and flame.

I spent my teens marinated in Plath's poetry (there's a school of thought, not a very honourable one, that this is evidence that I was a slightly morbid teenage girl trapped in the body of a slightly morbid teenage boy). I came to her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar late – and it seemed to me astonishing. It was as if it had been written by a different Sylvia Plath: one who, of course, had also been through electroconvulsive therapy, and who had an uneasy relationship with day-to-day life. But The Bell Jar had a sort of cool jauntiness to it. It looked at the world, whereas her poetry, for the most part, looked inward.

Now cast an eye over these wonderful drawings. You wouldn't connect them with that poetry at all. And you wouldn't connect them, either, with the prose Plath, the psychotic bobbysoxer of The Bell Jar. With these drawings, we get a third Sylvia Plath. You might notice that – at least in the selection on show – human figures are few and far between. Apart from a profile sketch of Hughes there are two, both turned away, one of them with a hand in an anxious clutch. But even these are breezy accounts of things in the world.

When I visited the gallery, all but a couple of the thinnest sketches had red splats on them: sold. The attendant said they expected them all to be gone shortly. I wish I'd been able to afford one. Her pen-and-ink lines are fine, exact and unexpectedly loving towards her subjects. Her blacks neither crackle nor drag.


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June 13 2010

EM Forster's work tailed off once he finally had sex. Better that than a life of despair | Sam Leith

Why didn't EM Forster write much of anything in the second half of his life? According to a new biographer, Wendy Moffat, who has had access to Forster's private papers, what knocked him off song was losing his virginity in his late 30s.

He slept with a wounded soldier in Egypt, in 1917 – "losing R [respectability]" he called it in his private diary. After that, he set about making up for lost time. "I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more," he later explained, "but sex prevented the latter."

Maurice – his one novel to deal head-on with homosexuality – was written some years previously, though it was published only after his death. It wasn't, if you ask me, much good: he was too much invested; the ironic distance of his voice collapsed and it ended up being Lawrentian in the worst way.

The suggestion is that loneliness and frustration were what made Forster productive. Once he had occasion to cheer up – to live, rather than make art out of his misery – he couldn't see the point. Grain of sand removed, in other words, he became a happy oyster.

The poet John Berryman once told an interviewer: "I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business: Beethoven's deafness, Goya's deafness, Milton's blindness, that kind of thing."

For the future of his own poetry, Berryman said he counted on "being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer, and all kinds of other things short of senile dementia. At that point, I'm out, but short of that, I don't know. I hope to be nearly crucified."

This is what Sylvia Plath was getting at, too, more concisely and with less ironic humour, when she wrote: "The blood jet is poetry." It's what Auden was getting at when he wrote of Yeats: "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry." And it's what Yeats was getting at when he said: "The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work/ And if it take the second must refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark."

It rings through the ages, this idea: the old connection between art and torment. It's a poisonous creed. It's also bullshit. It may be true, but it's adolescent bullshit all the same. And yet its grip holds. The miserablists have Milton, Goya, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Hart Crane, Fitzgerald, Pollock, Bishop, Woolf, Plath and on, ad infinitum. The happyists have PG Wodehouse and VS Pritchett. Case, apparently, closed.

But how much of an egomaniac must you be to choose distinction over happiness, fame over love, making your own monument over doing right here? I gave three cheers for the acclaimed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià when he recently announced he'd be closing his restaurant El Bulli; even if it is, by general consensus, the best restaurant on the face of the planet, he'd rather spend some time having a happy life.

Henry Green, author of Loving and Party Going, got it right. Asked what drove him to write, he said his motivation was to make enough money so that he would never have to leave his hometown, then eventually never have to leave his house, except perhaps to go to the pub. Once he was rich enough not to have to leave his bed, he'd give up.

Given a choice – and not all these artists had one – the decision between perfection of life or work should be no decision at all. Only an idiot would choose raging in the dark over, say, pottering around the garden in the light. If you think art is more important than life, you need your head read. The reason the best art is so moving is that its authors had no choice: they went howling to it. Berryman got what he wished for, and then some. He killed himself, jumping from a bridge in Minneapolis on to a frozen lake. He left a young daughter. Witnesses say he waved before he went.

Nobody should have to write, or paint, or sing from the depths of despair, no matter how exhilarating the results. I'm sorry we never got to read Forster's unwritten novels, but I'm much happier he got laid.


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