In an article reflecting on the election of Sylvia Plath to the Poets Corner at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York last year, a Boston columnist called Plath a ‘mixed up girl from Wellesley’ who WH Auden warned to watch out for her verbs.
Scoffing that the American poets’ corner at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York was only created because the ‘real’ Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey in England refused to induct Washington Irving, he noted acerbically that Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, will be inducted in the REAL poets corner in 2011.
While there seems to be some truth in the history, the characterization of Plath is at best, uncharitable. More measured, perhaps, were the comments of Carol Muske-Dukes, read for the ailing California poet at the induction by cathedral poet in residence Marilyn Nelson.
Noting the irony of Plath’s words being ‘etched in stone,’ when they are already ‘etched in our hearts,’ Muske-Dukes argued forcefully that Plath was “not always dark.” The posthumous volume of Plath’s poems, Arial, she said, was deliberately edited by her late husband Hughes to emphasize the context for her suicide – and in fact, the author’s original manuscript not only contained more affirmative poetry in it, but concluded with a series of bee poems that have a fundamental appreciation for life.
In Plath’s depiction of the struggle and survival of bees, one finds a model for endurance through pain and violent struggle, said Muske-Dukes.
Readers in the twenty first century may judge for themselves the importance of mid-twentieth century confessionalist poet Sylvia Plath to literary America. For the electors at the Cathedral of St John the Divine – who have previously chosen to honor 43 of America’s greatest writers, including the previous year’s Tennessee Williams – the choice was clear.
They decided that Sylvia Plath -- whose searingly honest confrontation with the trauma of life produced not only angry, original poems but also a series of gestures at, and ultimately a successful suicide – deserves a plaque alongside the likes of Langston Hughes, Tennessee Williams, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Washington Irving, Phyllis Wheatley, Emma Lazarus, Gertrude Stein and Mark Twain.
Why? The potential for a transformative reading of the work of Sylvia Plath, suggests Muske-Dukes, is what makes the election of a confessionalist poet of her talents something more than just a tip of the hat to morbid fascination with an artist’s focus on herself and her rage.
A measurable way of noting what it is the electors recognized is as close at hand as the words on the plaque placed in Plath’s name at the Poets Corner itself in the cathedral. They are aptly chosen, and suggest the duality the duality of her work -- frugal coldness and potential for visionary moment.
It reads “This it the light of the mind, cold and planetary.”