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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Sylvia Plath and me: negotiating and teaching Ariel

Today marks fifty years since Plath's death. I've seen lots of pieces in newspapers: interviews with people who knew her, extracts from books exploring her life and works, links to interpretations of her poems and plenty of discussion of the new cover image for The Bell Jar. Personally, I think there's a strong possibility the new cover will attract new readers to the novel; hard to see how that could be a bad thing, even though at first glance the cover looks like it trivialises Plath's themes. This Telegraph piece explains rather nicely how the cover fits the book.


But anyway, I came here today to write about my own experiences of working with Plath's poems, having taught Ariel as an A Level text many times.

More than any other writer whose work I've had the pleasure of teaching, Plath herself gets in the way. It's nigh on impossible to get students past their fascination with her life. There are no absolute answers, and therefore we want to know, damnit! But then, isn't that a large part of what A Level English is about: the lack of immediately reachable answers?

What fascinates me is that my opinion of her life and her problems has changed, and not just once. Don't forget also that this is in the middle of my attempts to get students past her biography and into the poems for their own sake. I can't have students continuing to claim, as some will at the start of the course, that Lady Lazarus "proves" that Plath didn't intend to kill herself fifty years ago (believing herself able to rise again), or that Daddy tells us that she was a Jew and her father was a Nazi. It's very difficult to teach Ariel as a collection without any reference to biography (she says, never actually having tried it). And even her most clearly fantasised poems - like Lady Lazarus which she told us was about "a woman who has a great and terrible gift of being reborn" - intertwine with her own life so much that it's difficult to discourage students from looking for bits about Hughes or her father.

And yet. For all the frustration, I'd still choose Ariel any chance I had. Yes it explores dark emotions that some suggest it's immoral to 'expose' teenagers to, but I'd argue that many teens are exposed to those emotions anyway, and a safe distance to discuss and explore them might be just what they need. And yes, some teens will almost worship Plath and practically make a cult out of her perceived suffering, but again, those who react so strongly to her would have found something else to ritualise (and again, discussing those feelings in class at a safe third party distance may be helpful). When there's time to go there, it's also interesting to discuss the phenomenon of this fascination with her and what she's come to represent. Frieda Hughes' poem, My Mother, published when the Gwyneth Paltrow/Daniel Craig film Sylvia came out is great for stimulating this.

In many ways, for all its extremity of emotion, Plath's work offers us something that everyone can relate to on some level. Who hasn't had frustrating relationships with their parents, been jealous or had thoughts which they know are destructive?

Lastly but absolutely not least, the poems have such a savage beauty. I love her use of sound - she clearly enjoyed the performance aspect of poetry - and some of her imagery is strikingly original and just gorgeous.

1 comment:

  1. Sylvia Plath is a talented writer. I'm looking forward to reading The Bell Jar this year. I will still have check on her poems, though. Thanks for sharing about your experience with her work.

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