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Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark

Cover of Clark, Red Comet
Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. Heather Clark. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. Pp. 1152. $40.00 (cloth); $20.00 (paper).         

When it comes to writers’ lives, what remains is fragmentary and incomplete. In her 1963 novel The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s protagonist Esther Greenwood refers to such remnants as “the tatty wreckage of my life.”[1] The image of Plath in popular culture is linked to her poetry, but often emphasizes her suicide. Red Comet addresses these assumptions as it sheds new light on Plath’s cultural moment and relevance today. Any biography must confront the fact of an incomplete archive. Ultimately, for Heather Clark in her unparalleled Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography, materials—from typescript drafts to recollections in interviews—become anchors for telling a life story. Clark’s expertise as a scholar of poetry and Irish literature also distinguishes her account of Plath’s life from those that precede it and makes Red Comet of particular interest to students and scholars of modernism.

A central feature of Clark’s biography is its readings of Plath’s lesser known and widely anthologized poems. Red Comet draws new attention to the lyrical skill that Plath demonstrated in her juvenilia. Analyzing the early poem, “Snow,” dated 1940--when Plath was eight or nine--in a manuscript book now in the Morgan Library in New York, Clark observes that Plath “likely delighted in her paradoxical imagery—the blanket of cold snow keeping the town warm—as well as her use of repetition to achieve perfect trochaic tetrameter in the first stanza’s last line” (44). By the time Plath published her first book of poems The Colossus in 1960, Clark concludes that “a master draftswoman has begun to paint abstracts” (615).

Clark’s careful work sifting through a wealth of archival resources is inseparable from her treatment of Plath’s poetry and her life. While Red Comet benefits from the Letters of Sylvia Plath published in two volumes in 2017 and 2018, it also devotes considerable attention to the unpublished letters Plath received, a necessary companion to the letters she sent. Plath’s correspondence, as well as her unpublished early diaries, poems, school papers, notebooks, and calendars, are invaluable in Clark’s reading of Plath’s poetic development.[2] Clark’s extensive research in Plath’s archives also informs her reassessments of previous scholarship. For instance, when approaching Plath’s early poem, “I thought that I could not be hurt,” Clark notes that it has been read by “[p]revious biographers . . . as a piece of verse that foreshadows Plath’s future neuroses” (90). Working from Plath’s diaries, Clark reassesses the significance of the moment that inspired this poem. In doing so, she underscores the satisfaction that Plath found in “using ‘experience’ to create poems” (90). As a result, Clark points out, “placed back in its original context and read through the lens of Sylvia’s own diary description, it stands out as a creative experiment and an artistic turning point” (90). In this instance, Clark stresses Plath’s efforts to define her own style, gaining more control over her voice as a visual artist and writer.

Clark chronicles Plath’s development as a writer alongside her development as a reader. The scope of Red Comet enables a new sense of the arc of Plath’s reading over time and the way that influences build and make a gradual impact throughout her career. This is particularly the case with regard to modernism and Irish literature. While the epigraphs that Plath inscribed in her college journal were published in the abridged edition of The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982) and The Unabridged Journals (2000), for instance, Clark is likely the first scholar to point out that each of the quotations that Plath selected are from Irish writers, James Joyce, Louis MacNeice, and W. B. Yeats (138). Red Comet also attends to Plath’s early reading of modernist poetry. In high school, Plath compiled an American Poetry anthology that included the work of “H.D., Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Sara Teasdale (who had the most entries with five poems)” (110). H.D. and Amy Lowell, whose poem “Patterns” was the subject of an essay Plath composed during her first year at Smith College, are among the modernist women writers whom critics have addressed less often in relation to Plath. Clark observes that in her paper, “Plath noted that at first the poem’s ‘patterns’—the ornate garden with its precise paths, the young woman in her ‘stiff, brocaded gown’—seem innocuous” (216). Plath’s essay shifts in tone, becoming increasingly feminist as she considers the limitations that the speaker faces. Plath explains that “as the poem progresses, one senses the growing rebellion which this woman feels against patterns and one realizes that it is really the stiffness of convention which is symbolized throughout the poem by the stiff, correct brocade, the bones and stays, and each button, hook, and lace” (quoted in Clark, 216). 

In the chapters that follow Plath’s graduation from college, readers gain more of a sense of her changing relationship to the poetry landscape at midcentury. One vital resource is a trove of notes and interview recordings that Harriet Rosenstein collected in the seventies for a biography she did not finish. These materials, acquired by the Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University in 2019, include the recollections of those who encountered Plath at various points in her life. Of interest to poetry scholars is Rosenstein’s interview with M. L. Rosenthal, who introduced the term “confessional poetry” in his review of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959). Plath famously audited Lowell’s Boston University poetry workshop with Anne Sexton in the spring of 1959. Rosenthal, we learn, “had recommended that Macmillan publish The Colossus, which he thought ‘very good’” (625). When Plath and Hughes saw him at the home of the poetry critic A. Alvarez in 1961, Rosenthal, “Hughes, and Alvarez initially did most of the talking, but Plath ‘brightened up’ when Rosenthal began speaking about his ideas regarding ‘Confessional’ poetry” (625). He remembered that “[w]hat she was interested in and what she talked about quite a lot was the question of putting yourself right into the poem. And the problem of aestheticizing it, of transcending the material, of getting beyond the personal. We agreed about that: it could be done, it had to be done, it wasn’t worth it unless you get past the personal” (625). This anecdote presents a rare glimpse of Plath inserting herself in a discussion of ideas she may have been contemplating in relation to her own work.

In her later chapters, Clark provides fresh interpretations of Plath’s verse, including the poems she wrote in the final days of her life. Plath dated the poems “Balloons” and “Edge” February 5, 1963, six days before her death on February 11. As Clark observes: “Readers have long expressed amazement that she could have written such dissimilar poems on the same day. One is a cold, expressionist portrait of a dead mother and her dead children, while the other describes Plath’s own happy children in her warm, cheerful living room. However, the poems are more connected than they appear” (870–71). While critics have devoted less attention to “Balloons,” Clark sees it as a poem of foreboding and fear: “Sweetness and light give way to explosion, diminishment, and violence. Plath cannot protect her children from the wounds they will suffer” (871). In this instance, and throughout Red Comet, Clark reconsiders poems that readers may have overlooked. She reminds us of how much more there is to read, underscoring the range and accomplishment of Plath’s career.

Red Comet is a magisterial biography that will undoubtedly inspire future interest in Plath’s poetry, midcentury culture, and the creative process. Clark has sorted the “tatty wreckage,” giving voice to the remains and the state in which they appear. She is consistently attentive to the personal and psychological implications of Plath’s experiences, reconsidering their role in her development as a writer. As a result, Red Comet crafts a story of Plath’s life that possesses the complexity of art.


Notes

[1] Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 169.

[2] These early materials are primarily housed in the Lilly Library at Indiana University and her later manuscripts are held in the Mortimer Rare Book Collection at Smith College (MRBC-MS-00045).