Biographical floodgates

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Interpreting context now plays a greater part in Lit Crit. Mervyn Lebor takes Sylvia Plath as an example

What is the difference between teaching Sylvia Plath's poetry according to the criteria of the nearly defunct A-level as compared with the new specifications of Curriculum 2000? Will such nihilistic and fierce texts fit the confines of the new assessment objectives? There are some inherent problems in teaching Plath as an advanced level text, both in terms of the unsettling nature of the material and a marked tendency to focus on the biographical as opposed to the textual. How will these elements fit the new criteria?

Why pick on Plath for all this? Was there not fierceness and bleak tragedy in King Lear? Is not Hamlet the archetypal, though failed suicide? TS Eliot's The Wasteland was hardly cheerful, while Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot also used to appear on many syllabuses. Then, nihilism lived!

One difference between the negativity in the above texts and Ariel, say, is the gender divide, Plath speaking in a fierce woman's voice, unfamiliar in classroom texts. More unsettling, perhaps, is the fact that Plath's poetic creations proved to be a blueprint for carrying out the suicidal logic contained in poems such as Lady Lazarus. Although the above-mentioned texts are death-obsessed, their authors did not actually take that final step of negating life, as Plath did, and commit suicide.

Telling the Plath biography can be shocking for some classes. The violence of lines such as "Daddy, daddy you bastard, I'm through", subverting patriarchy through a series of fatherless fathers, is particularly disturbing because of its child-like language, yet Holocaust context. Some students, however, adulate Plath, or worryingly identify with her as a role model. Others are alienated by such intense emotions.

One initial approach through Plath's terse modernist idiom, countering this angst, is the celebratory poem, You're. Since this works as a puzzle, solving it can be a metaphor for Lit Crit, exploring layers of language to understand meaning. The nine-line stanzas are a clue, alluding to the birth process. There is a riddle of time-scale, July 4 to April 1, which equals nine months. Students can search for sets of images: body parts, animals, birds, fish, and vegetables, all in a state of evolutionary development, ingredients in becoming a human child. Earth, moon and stars are included in this process. It is a witty celebration of the birth of Frieda Hughes, but there begins the discussion of biography. The PlathHughes relationship and its aftermath opens the floodgates of context.

Under the new specs such discussions can be legitimised. If we look at previous criteria the mention of body part imagery in virtually every poem in the Ariel collection could start to pull a student into the E range. If the question was about Plath's imagery, and the student covered maybe a range of flowers, animals, hospitals, the austere polarity of colours, black and white, mentioning again body parts in some sort of list, the candidate might move into the DC category. A student could argue that Plath was trying to reconstruct her own or the female body in each poem. This view might arguably promote Plath as a "feminist" as evidenced in The Applicant. Further evidence for this might again be Plath's use of multiples of nine-line stanzas in Morning Song and Berke Plage, a numerical reference to the birth process or even that, as in Lady Lazarus "like the cat", she has nine lives.The argument moves towards a higher grade by demonstrating Plath's complex attitudes towards a variety of female roles. This could range from self-hating contempt for domestic drudges in some of the Bee poems, paranoid revulsion for the infertile in Munich Mannequins to joy as potential mother in You're and ecstatically charged feelings as female creator, but ultimate suicide in the Ariel poem itself. These points could still be assessed through the new A2 criteria such as "using correct terminology", "demonstrating knowledge" and "understanding texts" (AO1 and AO2ii). A new element involves evaluating different approaches to texts (AO3ii). In other words the views of unnamed critics and readers is now a key element, while judging the way "context and form shape meaning" is also crucial (AO4). A2 is also supposed to provide opportunities for students to contribute to an understanding of "spiritual, moral, ethical, social and cultural issues".

One particularly fierce and nihilistic element within Plath's work that might be explored in more depth due to the new criteria is her use of Holocaust imagery. The Holocaust is a "context that shapes meaning", but is also part of the spiritualcultural ethos Plath inhabited. The use of the Holocaust in literature is also a highly contested issue. Students have often encountered Holocaust material through GCSE history, yet the spelling "holycause" for example, as candidates have written in the past, does not begin to demonstrate "correct use of terminology" (AO1). However, Plath's approach to breaking the silence about the Holocaust was praised by, for example, George Steiner in Language and Silence. Students' awareness of his approach would fulfil AO2ii, but to achieve a higher range students could argue that Plath's use of Holocaust imagery might be powerful, yet exploitative, appropriating as an image of her own suffering the most extreme event of mass industrialised torture in human history. One response might examine Plath's self-aggrandisement in this respect as at least in bad taste or inappropriate. The question becomes more complex if the narrator of Daddy is viewed as a young girl "trapped in the Electra phase" and therefore as a persona who carries the distortions of the modern psyche that resulted from the nihilistic destructiveness of the Holocaust.

The biographical ramifications of Plath's father being a German academic in America, rather than a card-carrying Nazi in the Reich, could be a culturalhistorical context for viewing Plath's poetry. Again the possibility of her mother's Jewishness might lead to speculative interpretations of Sylvia Plath's suicide in a gas oven as enacting the European genocide on her own body.

These sorts of speculation might now fit the new criteria, which demands a discussion of contexts. These contexts provide, however, different interpretations of the work. The problematic aspect is that where biographical, sociological or even historical material was generally eschewed in the old A-level for not being part of literary studies, the new examination of context is looking at speculative evidence outside the text. This, coupled with the new interest in "spiritual and ethical" matters, will predispose students towards a more abstract discussion, not necessarily rooted in textual evidence. New A2 questions, lessons and exam answers might take these concerns into account.

Mervyn Lebor is lecturer in English Literature in FE and HE in West Yorkshire. E-mail:

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