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Mad Girls' Love Songs: Two Women Poets--a Professor and Graduate Student--Discuss Sylvia Plath, Angst, and the Poetics of Female Adolescence.

The legacy of Sylvia Plath's poetry and the received notion of the teenage girl writer wallowing in self-pity are discussed in terms of their significance to adolescent female readers and their ramifications for girlhood culture at large. Plath's legacy endures in part because of the recognition that a fluctuation in moods and personas is often the experience of young women, of writers, of those who struggle with depression or anxiety (and the overlap between these populations), and also because of Plath's ability to craft the fever of her emotions into poems that rely on bold and rich figurative language. This essay uses memoir, a survey of Plath's popular and critical reception, and a close reading of Plath poems that take on more adolescent concerns and themes, then concludes by looking at contemporary women poets whose aesthetics, attitudes and themes are relevant to contemporary teenage girl readers.


Coming from a place of mutual interest in what it means to be a teenage girl, what it means to write about (and avoid writing about) that, experience, and what Sylvia Plath has to do with this, we--poets Arielle Greenberg and Becca Klaver, at the time a professor and graduate student respectively--wrote an essay. We chose collaborative correspondence to promote a cooperative, freewheeling, and inclusive (read: feminist) approach, one that revises more traditional academic modes. Our interests were manifold: the myth of Plath and the legacy of the "suicide girl poet"; our own girlhoods and the poetry that was important to us then; what we think we know about Plath's poems versus what we see when we read them; what makes a poem attractive to a teenage girl reader; the poems teenage girls might want to read now; and what, if anything, these poets have to do with Plath.

Our discussion of girlhood centers on a subject who is white and middle-class, like Plath and like us. We acknowledge the limitations of and problems with this. Also, we are not hoping to offer any solutions to the many difficulties of girlhood described in this essay. Above all, we hope that this conversation might be a jumping-off point for others to think about the ways in which poetry is important in the formation of identity for young women.

The Enduring Legacy of Sylvia Plath for Female Readers

AG: The reason I wanted us to have this conversation about Plath is because of something you wrote in a class paper to me, responding to a prompt to think about your ideal audience. You wanted your poems to reach teenage girl readers, even though the very idea of this seemed kind of suspect to you. Despite the fact that we both admire and value Plath's work, we see her as an icon of this kind of writing. But as feminists we are devoted to--and formed out of the reality of--the idea of the intelligent teenage girl poet-reader, a girl with agency and (burgeoning) tastes. How alarming, then, that even we might find the idea of writing a poem for a teenage girl reader, of being read by a teenage girl, distasteful. Sylvia Plath has a lot to do with this received notion of the teenage girl reader/writer as wallowing in self-pity.

You once told me about how surprised you were to hear me and other faculty members admit to liking Plath during our graduate school orientation.

BK: I remember that you and David Trinidad both claimed Plath as an influence during your self-introductions at MFA orientation, and I remember feeling a bit shocked by this. There's always anxiety in that scenario: Are my tastes okay? Should I mention my guilty pleasures? God, I should have read more. Hearing my new professors say "Plath" (not even "Sylvia Plath," the woman, the myth, but "Plath," the poet) instantly realigned my thinking--about Plath, about grad school itself. In the unwritten handbook for aspiring female writers, it's understood that the chapter on Plath ends with adolescence. Much of my own knowledge of Plath existed on the level of cultural mythology--I had the idea that she wasn't studied, she was talked about. Or she was simply alluded to, a metonym for "crazy girl." (As if to prove it, they decided to reprint Plath's catchy villanelle, "Mad Girl's Love Song," in the afterword of the copy of The Bell Jar (1981) I read in high school.) After we teenage girls had "gotten over" writers like Plath and Sexton, we were supposed to move on to Sharon Olds and Louise Gluck and Jorie Graham.

How can Plath be both one of the most popular poets in the United States and a constant subject for academic criticism, while at the same time be a figure "serious" poets have been taught to look down upon?

AG: Strange indeed. I can't think of any other poets in this particular position, can you? It's been over forty years now since Plath died. Do you think that dichotomy has changed in recent years?

BK: In her article in Poetry, "Subject Sylvia," Meghan O'Rourke calls our moment a "second age of Plath criticism" (2004). She goes on to define it: "Where the first was characterized by stridency, anger, and the impulse to build Plath up, this one is characterized by the impulse to cut down to size and humanize an over-mythified icon." But our goals are a bit different. We want to think about how the culture imagines a teenage girl poet, and how useful or destructive that stereotype has been in our own development as poets. Plath has come to be the "teenage girl poet" icon; what's behind all of that?

Writing in 1978, Sandra M. Gilbert understood the dual nature of the Plath myth. In '"A Fine, White Flying Myth': Confessions of a Plath Addict," she identifies the mythic persona Plath created in the Ariel poems, but also investigates the myth of "Sylvia Plath" (1989, 56). The italics are Gilbert's, and she uses them to note that Sylvia Plath is the text--not the woman, not the poet, not Esther Greenwood, but all of them at once. They are still, as they have been since 1963, too knotted to separate.

AG: Gilbert goes on to encapsulate the Plath myth thusly: take an ambitious, intelligent, middle class young woman; impose the standard cultural expectations of niceness and beauty on her; don't forget the fact that because she is an artist, she's a bit mentally unstable to begin with; throw in some kids and a bad marriage for good measure; wait for the inevitable train wreck.

BK: Again, the biography is inseparable from the art. In Christine Jeffs' 2003 film Sylvia, that title announces its intention to deal with the life, not the work. (Of course, the Plath estate didn't allow Jeffs to include any poem excerpts, but that's a different conversation.) A quick trip to Wikipedia reveals subheadings like "Sylvia's Life" and "Other works on Sylvia."

I wonder--are teenage girls reading her poetry, or just reading The Bell Jar and watching the movie Sylvia? In high school in the 1990s, I knew teachers who assigned The Bell Jar. But no one ever assigned Ariel. Maybe, as O'Rourke suggests, young women are misreading what they've never really read. Perhaps they're only reading the text Sylvia Plath as some kind of shorthand for (and glamorization of) teenage depression and self-destruction.

AG: Participation in that sloppy shorthand is perhaps inescapable when what it stands for is so present; even those of us who do read Plath carefully make the mistake, as you revealed in your anecdote about orientation. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character notes, "Sylvia Plath--interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality." The use of the word "poetess" aside, I think this characterization gets to something important: Plath is an interesting writer, and one who was thwarted, not helped, by her depression and circumstances. And now she is also thwarted by her reputation--and the "mentality" that lives on in the popular imagination.

What does it mean that as young poet girls, our primary role model is Plath, a "romantic" suicide? The riot grrl band Bikini Kill has a song about this on a 1996 album, Reject. All American, called "Bloody Ice Cream": "The Sylvia Plath story is told to girls who write / They want us to think that to be a girl poet / Means you have to die / Who is it / That told me / All girls who write must suicide? / I've another good one for you / We are turning / Cursive letters into knives." Even after many celebrated women poets have had long, strong careers and lived full lives, the model that still gets held up to the light is Sylvia Plath.

Psychologist James C. Kaufman coined the term "Sylvia Plath effect" in 2001 to refer to how "poets--and in particular female poets--were more likely than fiction writers, nonfiction writers and playwrights to have signs of mental illness, such as suicide attempts or psychiatric hospitalizations" (Bailey 2003). Does the culture want teenage girls to see the path of writing poetry as treacherous? Do teenage girls love Plath because they find a temperamental kinship with her? Or is Plath loved by alienated teenage girls because of how her fame and fan base grew after her suicide? ("They'll love me after I'm dead! Then they'll know what a genius I was!") Or is it how she was able to write so cogently and be so ambitious for herself and yet was so deeply troubled that's held up as a fantasy, that one's art can transcend one's dysfunction? Because in some ways, that's true of Plath, too--she won all those awards, appeared to be so together.

BK: To indulge my curiosity about girl culture's Plath obsession, I sent out surveys over MySpace to young women who had Plath listed as a favorite in their "Books" section, and their replies reflect all the varying perspectives you mention above. A girl named Andrea replied with an essay she'd written for a college class that said: "Because of my own bouts with severe depression, I understood, too well, the sort of mindset that is required for such a morbid preoccupation as death. I found salvation in the tangled root of the mad elm tree that said: 'I know the bottom. I know it with my great tap root: It is what you fear. I do not fear it: I have been there:" Darcy, a 34-year-old "writer and aspiring housewife," wrote: "She does NOT have a model life--a deep life lesson maybe, since she would be an example of all the things not to do when you are handed so many gifts." Yazmin, a 17-year-old high school student, admitted: "In some ways I do strive to be like Plath, her academic career is something I have always aspired to follow and the way that she was confident in her own abilities urges me to be that similar person."

And then there are our own stories. How did you first come to Plath?

AG: I'd been reading her poems for as long as I can remember, because my mother named me Ariel (with that spelling), and owned the book Ariel, and since there was a book in my house with my name on the spine, of course I read it. I kept rereading it over the years until it started to make some sense to me. I don't know if my mother was thinking of Plath when she named me, but she may well have been: The Bell Jar was first published in the United States and much in the news in 1971, the year before I was born. In any case, it's been a weird serendipity for me--my birthday is three days before Sylvia's, I had the name of her famous book, and it was clear from a very young age that I was going to be a writer, since it was all I cared about and was good at.

BK: This seems like a good idea in general: always keep a copy of Ariel on your bookshelf, for you never know if you have a little poet on your hands! But beyond that, I'm interested in the way Plath plays into your personal mythology. If Plath helps all teenage girl writers understand themselves on a certain level, your charge to find out what you had to do with Plath held that much more urgency.

AG: While I can't deny that Plath's depression and rage were part of her appeal for me, her suicide was wrapped up with her overall glamour and ambition. Her suicide made her famous, a household name: that, and not the suicide itself, was appealing. The most important thing about Plath's example was that you could be a young woman and a good poet, you could think of yourself as a serious writer, your book could be published and sold: that all this was possible for a girl.

BK: And did that idea of Plath come from reading the poems or her journals?

AG: I read the poems before I read the journals, and even so I knew of that aspect of the myth: of the plans Plath had for herself, of her ego. But yes, the journals are amazing, because in them she is a girt poet. I held Plath's life up as a model for my own, scary model though it was. She was smart, ambitious, talented, strange, highly functional ... like me, I wanted to believe.

BK: I want to make my own poems accessible to teenage girls because as a sixteen-year-old beginning to compose such a narrative of selfhood in my own diaries and poems, I was starving to find versions of myself in literature. My feminist literary interests emerged from this lack. An important turning point came in an American Literature class during my junior year of high school. We spent one day out of 180 on Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich. Only 50 minutes--but still, I'm so grateful to have had "Daddy," "Her Kind," and "Diving into the Wreck" photocopied and set down in front of me at sixteen.

The thing is, Plath's poems didn't do it for me back then. I learned to read Plath in college, but in cafeterias and dorm rooms and college apartments with guitars leaning against the walls and saucers for ashtrays. Spaces surrounding the classroom, but not inside it. The poems have only begun to feel legible and relevant to me in the last two or three years, and only on the level of language. (Surely this was in part due to mal-exposure: why did the AP English exam in high school ask us to discuss "Blackberrying," not "The Applicant"? Because it seemed benign?) In that high school classroom in 1998, instead of being absorbed in "Daddy" (its sounds interested me, but I felt nothing of what the speaker felt), I was entranced by the undersea mythology of women's lives in Rich's "Diving into the Wreck." Like many teenage girls, I valued strong, "relatable" emotional content over linguistic pyrotechnics.

AG: Are you saying that younger readers--or, really, typical readers of all ages--prefer something visceral and aesthetically transparent over something linguistically complex? Because I think the average school-age child is prone to love the latter, but quickly taught to fear what is complicated, cryptic or difficult. As a child, the books that appealed most to me were those with mysterious wordplay, made-up words, absurdist images, the kind you find in nursery rhymes, in Eloise, in any number of good children's books. My daughter is two and her favorite books are a classic Mother Goose, which is full of arcane terms and slant rhymes, and books with repetition and alliteration. And I do think this is why Plath appealed to me more than many other poets I read as a teenager--her words felt emotionally raw, a punch to the gut, but they were also sonically seductive, her lines twisty and incantatory.

BK: If you teach people that they can read poems for more than meaning, it you let them know that every poem is not a puzzle to solve, intimidation fades. Plath would be an ideal poet to demonstrate what a poem can do besides, say, observe nature or create an epiphanic moment about the self. But I don't think most people ever learn how to read poetry that way: the classroom teaches close reading, not pleasure. And if teenagers often read poetry in order to discover themselves reflected back up from the page, then difficult language might hinder the average teenager's ability to connect.

The girl-poet is not the average teenage reader, though. Teenage girls relate to Plath's fiery, mythic, emotionally charged persona--but you were interested in the language, too. All I was looking for as a girl-poet were the lines that described me precisely--and then the desire to describe myself and my world with precision became my creative catalyst. Rich wrote what I felt. But she published Diving into the Wreck in 1973, ten years after Ariel was completed, and a lot happened for women in those years, including the emergence of feminist poetics, and Rich's idea that such a poetics might be clear and accessible to all--presumably including teenagers.

Plus, if I didn't already know that Plath and Sexton were suicides, I quickly learned, and I also learned that Rich was still alive. In a weird way I felt proud of myself for preferring the "sane" one.

AG: You were right to be proud of yourself for this. My experience as a teenage girl poet was definitely that of favoring melodramatic and eccentric over healthy and sane. It took me until my late 20s to figure out how much better it is to be happy than sad.

BK: Isn't it funny how talk about Confessional poetry breeds confession? Many of these reactions are hard to justify without further explaining my girlhood. I was just as concerned with empowering adolescent girls then as I am now. I was constantly monitoring my--and my close female friends'--moods and decisions (probably oppressively so), encouraging everyone to be strong in the face of boys and other teenage girls and wavering senses of self-worth. I only ever wrote "grrrl," a spelling I believe I learned from Ani DiFranco.

AG: I was less vigilant than you were, perhaps because I was operating from a position of privilege: as one of three daughters (no sons) of a Janis Joplin-loving mother who hosted League of Women Voters meetings in our living room, feminism was the norm to me. I was expected to speak up, be smart and bold, and I was. But I was also angry, possessed of an unproductive free-floating rage, which I think helped me connect with Plath.

BK: My family was also female-dominant--four daughters born within four and a half years of each other. But I was born in the wake of, not the midst of, second-wave feminism, so a lot of things were taken for granted and remained unspoken. In other words, my sisters and I were expected to excel, and the idea that we couldn't do something because we were girls would have been ridiculous, but this attitude's relationship to feminism was never made explicit.

The idea of anger drawing you to Plath is fascinating, too, because I was admittedly a mellow, fairly well behaved teenager.

AG: I was well behaved but not mellow. I keep picturing Winona Ryder as Veronica in the movie Heathers, gnashing her teeth and grasping her monocle as she heaps death wishes on her high school friends in her "dear diary": that film character played a role in my life parallel to the one Plath played. I saw the movie when it came out in 1989, and like Veronica, I was a high school girl whose identity as a weirdo artsy type was already in place. I'd read Plath's journals the previous year, but Heathers was the first time I saw a girl who I thought was like me on screen, in popular culture, in public, not just in a book. Veronica was a writer, like Plath--a brooding, funny, mad writer. Teenage girls were not usually portrayed like this in pop culture.

I'm thinking of the cultural studies/queer theory notion of the process of writing yourself into a book or film, of the importance of feeling "called out" or represented by a cultural text. Recognizing yourself, using the text as a mirror. Part of why Plath has had the impact she has had on young women is because of the way we feel mirrored by her, by the way she writes about her life as a disillusioned young middle-class woman. The Bell Jar's Esther, and perhaps Plath's Confessional persona, are types of female Holden Caulfields. But white boys have many such books and texts to choose from; how many do young white women have? We read A Separate Peace and Hamlet in my first year of high school, both stories of young men in existential crisis. Like other literary girls, I glommed on to Ophelia, but poor Ophelia, as we all know. Gone the way of Sylvia.

BK: I'm with you on Ophelia, and I've got the poems-that-I-should-have-burned-by-now to prove it, but I've had a different reaction to the girl-poets of the movies. They always felt somehow insulting to me, and made me feel even less understood: Okay, so the world knows I exist, but this is what they think I'm like? Although my teenage years held their share of tortuous moments, I also met my very best friends during adolescence, and they understood me deeply. Because I was lucky enough to feel understood in real life, I felt distanced from my on-screen surrogates.

AG: I know what you mean, actually. I was also a pretty cheerful little hippie-punk-feminist, for all my temper tantrums. I had great friends, too, a bunch of very smart and progressive boys and girls, all of whom were also clever writers and readers. I was attracted to this, too, in The Bell Jar: the portrayal of a girl with a voice, who could express whatever she was feeling, from despair to giddy elation.

On one Plath fan blog I found (the site's name is "Morbid Visage"), the girl describes herself as "shy ... perpetually heartbroken. Girly Creative. Chronically depressed. Insecure. Lonely." Like a formula for Teenage Girl Poet.

Here's a thought: isn't it possible that young women's poetry is no better or worse than young men's poetry? Wasn't Rimbaud pretty melancholy and pretentious himself at times? Aren't we all? Plath's poems transcend her psychological problems and are often brilliant, witty and poised. So how is it that we've come to see loving Plath as a kind of shameful rite of passage?

BK: "Loving" vs. "shameful"--I think your language here gives away part of the answer. Because what is teenage girlhood if not bound up in love and shame? Adolescent girls are our culture's premier self-torturers, and the culture encourages this through advertising and marketing campaigns. We know the traditional explanation for the self-destructive behavior of adolescent girls: because all girls can't be blonde, beautiful, glamorous, and thin, they punish themselves by starving, binging, purging, or cutting. Plath's appeal must have a lot to do with the fact that her story conflates glamour (beautiful, blonde famous poet ...) with destruction (... kills herself).

The structure of The Bell Jar echoes these two poles. When I reread the novel in preparation for our discussion, I was shocked to find myself uncomplicatedly entertained by the first several chapters: a smart, cynical college girl in the midst of the vapid New York fashion magazine world. Esther raises her eyebrows at everyone, and her behavior is also hilarious and real: she hoards caviar at luncheons, breaks out in sobs during photo shoots, and exits hired limos in the middle of the street in order to find the "authentic" New York.

But the second half of the novel veers into stifling suburbs and sterile mental hospitals. So we get this fissure, this cracked self that has room for both glamour and self-destruction. Middle-class white girls know this intimately, and Plath renders it perfectly. The Ariel poems might not fit this paradigm quite as neatly as The Bell Jar, but it's not hard to see that a poetic speaker who presents herself as mythically powerful and ruthlessly despairing could seduce a teenage girl in a similar way.

AG: She has an "outlaw" mystique, which few women writers do. It's interesting to think about whether the writers beloved by young adults in smoky cafes are the ones we are also supposed to "get over."

BK: The male equivalent would be getting over Charles Bukowski.

AG: Yes, white girls have Plath, and white boys steal copies of Bukowski, Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson. None of these guys were exactly sane, but they outlived Plath, managed to become men, fully men, with powerful careers while they were alive. Even Holden Caulfield was the product of an adult's imagination, filtered through the distance time allows. Plath remains in the thick of her troubles, in suspended adolescence. As Janet Malcolm writes in The Silent Woman, "She will never reach the age when the tumults of young adulthood can be looked back upon with rueful sympathy and without anger and vengefulness" (1995, 7).

BK: And because she was seen as juvenile, we were immature if we still read her. Juvenile, immature, adolescent--Plath is equated with all of these. But sometimes I think it isn't about immaturity at all: maybe it's about danger. The explicit cultural code--that "unwritten handbook for teenage writers"--calls Plath "juvenile" when the implicit script is that she's a woman unregulated, and that's the real reason we're shooed away from her.

The Ariel Poems

AG: The recognition that one could be such a good girl and yet also so dark and dangerous--that in fact this wild fluctuation in moods and personas is often the experience of young women, or of writers, or of those of us who struggle with depression or anxiety, and the overlap between these--was part of what was familiar and needed for me in The Bell Jar, and in Plata's work in general. But when I go back and look at Plath's work as an adult, I am struck not by what seems dangerous but by her ability to craft the fever of her emotions into verse: poems with an incredible ear for the natural cadences of contemporary English, poems that turn on a dime, that employ bold and rich figurative language. So she did have distance, obviously. That's what makes the poems and The Bell Jar great. They are not "vomit on a page," to invoke that lovely adage about confessional narrative, or writing-as-therapy; they are not, in M.D. Uroff's words, "uninformed cries from the heart" (1977). They are "superbly controlled." And more often than not, they do not include any transparent autobiographical detail at all.

This has been pointed out in many critical essays, and the debate around the term "Confessional" is well documented in Uroff's essay "Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration," in which the critic reminds us that no sooner had M.L. Rosenthal lumped Plath in with Robert Lowell than Ted Hughes rebuked the label, pointing out how "emblematic" her work was compared to Lowell's. Marjorie Perloff claims that Plath's poems lack "realistic detail," a necessary quality of a Confessional poem; Uroff calls the characters in her poems "generalized figures." Uroff also makes the argument that Lowell was using his poems to heal himself, and to represent his own weaknesses, but Plath was borrowing from her experiences to create speakers uninterested in personal growth.

BK: I've always had the hunch that Plath was less "confessional" than I was taught to believe. Just because we happen to know an incredible amount about her life doesn't mean all of those "true" details show up in the work! And the poems in Ariel prove it.

AG: In "The Applicant," the poem functions more as an extended metaphor--marriage as a job--than as anything revealing about Plath's life. It's interested in being generic, actually: the whole idea is that marriage, jobs, women are generic, as can be seen in the use of the pronoun "it" instead of "she" or a name (Plath 2004, 11-12). In The Bell Jar, Esther sees two models for womanhood in her world: the tough-talking, unmarried career woman, epitomized by Jay Cee, the editor at the fashion magazine; or a suburban housewife, epitomized by Dodo Conway, the neighbor pushing the baby carriage in front of her mother's home. The speaker in "The Applicant" is the former.

But "The Applicant" is not an entirely clear metaphor. Sometimes, as in the line "My boy, it's your last resort" (Plath 2004, 12) it seems that the speaker/employer is talking to a young bachelor "applying" for a wife, but when the poem asks in the opening stanza if the "you" wears "rubber breasts" (11) it seems that the poem is speaking to the young bride-to-be. "Stop crying," the speaker scolds, and "... your head, excuse me, is empty": these tell me that the "you" is a woman (11). I end up thinking that the poem switches back and forth between speaking to a bride and a groom. This interesting conflation, or confusion, often happens in the Ariel poems. It's a confusion paralleled in the poem's form: "The Applicant," although it plays with true and slant end rhymes throughout, switches between longer, more lyric lines like "To thumb shut your eyes at the end/And dissolve of sorrow" to conversational, prosaic moments like "Stop crying. /Open your hand" (11).

BK: I see the speaker in "The Applicant" as a matchmaker, most likely female, and the applicant as the addressee, a husband-to-be. His potential marriage candidate doesn't actually enter the poem until the line "Come here sweetie, out of the closet," over halfway through the poem (Plath 2004, 12). It is the future bride in the closet, and she is "naked as paper," lacking worth ("But in twenty-five years she'll be silver, / In fifty, gold'') (12). The closet is not a place of fearful hiding (from one's own sexuality or anything else), but of play, hide-and-go-seek. The act of emerging from the closet is an exit from childhood, a threshold moment. No longer "naked," but wearing doll clothes, the garments of convention. There's also a more subversive, funnier interpretation--the matchmaker might have women stored like office products in her supply closet.

AG: This reading makes sense: the speaker is talking both to the male applicant and to the office supply-wife she's keeping in her closet. What about this poem might resonate for a teenage girl reader? Teenage girls, even today, see marriage looming ahead of them in the not-too-distant future, seductive and terrifying. In "The Applicant," a blank woman--an automaton, a la The Stepford Wives, made up from bits of real women but programmed "to bring teacups" and "do whatever you tell it"--is being outfitted for her life as a wife, but the marriage is also her death: the "black and stiff" suit offered will shield one from "fire and bombs through the roof" but the speaker also warns, "believe me, they'll bury you in it" (Plath 2004, 11).

BK: From the first line of "The Applicant," there is insider/outsider rhetoric, an idea central to the adolescent experience. The first three lines of the poem read: "First, are you our sort of person? / Do you wear / A glass eye, false teeth, or a crutch [?]" (Plath 2004, 11). Contrary to what we'd expect--that these defects would keep the applicant out of the club--the fact that he doesn't have any of them frustrates the matchmaker: "No, no? Then / How can we give you a thing?" (11). The organization that the matchmaker administers seems to be a club for freaks. It's as if the applicant has to be defective in order for a wife to please him, mend his wounds, or otherwise change him.

The idea of the defective applicant says a lot about male-female relationships, but it also speaks to the adolescent girl's psyche. She's learning how to interact with boys, trying to figure out where she is on the beautiful/acceptable/freakish continuum. She's trying to figure out if she's "normal." No one tells her it's okay for a teenage girl to be "unfinished"--a body in process, messy, incomplete. No one ever told me that. There's the female makeover fantasy--Cinderella and Clueless. These narratives can be read simultaneously as "makeovers" and coming-of-age stories: the suggestion is that for girls, there is no difference.

AG: Is the line "it can sew, it can cook" still relevant to the teenage girl imagining marriage? While no one I know takes home ec anymore, there's been a huge resurgence of "the domestic arts"--young women knitting and scrapbooking, and "domestic goddesses" like Nigella Lawson and Rachael Ray. While I think--hope--that young women today imagine that cooking and cleaning and keeping a home are options, not requirements, someone does have to clean the house, get food on the dinner table, do the laundry. These tasks have not disappeared, and what I see among women in my community is that even if both husband and wife work equally high-powered jobs that keep them out of the home much of the day, it falls upon the woman to arrange for someone else to clean, cook, raise the children, etc.

As I go back to read Ariel in its restored edition--the edition we're looking at here--now that I'm a wife and mother, I'm amazed at how many of these poems are about marriage, divorce, childbirth, and child-raising. I don't feel like Ariel is usually received as a book about motherhood, but it is. And marriage and motherhood are fraught issues for girls on the cusp of womanhood, but unlike "The Applicant," a lot of the Ariel poems feel written from so deep inside relationships to husband and children that I'd imagine them to be hard for teenage readers to grasp. They were for me. I never really appreciated "Morning Song" until after my daughter was born, and now its first few lines often run through my head as I go about my day.

BK: Sylvia played dutiful wife, mother, cook, and homemaker for years. Of course there are more visible role models for girls these days, but I wonder how much the practical options have changed. Does not accepting the roles of wife and mother mean a girl remains in a state of perpetual adolescence? And suggest that she hasn't matured? Do today's adolescent girls feel Plath's sense of entrapment? Many women don't even consider getting married until the age at which Plath took her own life: at thirty, her adolescence was well over. As you know--and as I've been taught to fear--it's not all that much easier these days for motivated, high-achieving women to have careers and be mothers. In fact, since most households need to have two wage-earners to survive economically, it might be even harder.

AG: In an entry on Plath for Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers (!) by Mary Lowe-Evans, the author writes in regard to The Bell Jar: "Esther's reactions to [being asked to choose between marriage/motherhood and a career] may seem excessive [today], [but] in the 1950s, a gifted, intellectual woman like Esther had to make choices that might have contributed to the 'splitting' of an already tenuous personality" (1994). I'd say, from experience and from all the evidence of books on the subject of the white "mommy wars" recently published, this "split" may have evolved, but it has not gone away for women in cultural positions similar to Esther's and Plath's. Why did I, when thinking about becoming pregnant, think about Plath again and again, in real fear? I have a graduate degree, a tenure-track job, a progressive partner. Why did I spend much of my pregnancy obsessing over news reports of infanticide and other acts of postpartum psychosis?

BK: As much as I want to be a mother one day, I've always been terrified of the idea, equating it with the end of a relatively carefree life that includes room for creative output: the end of my girlhood. So if I push this logic further, girl equals poet, equals artist, because the fear (and sometimes the reality) is that these things cease to exist in a pure sense when a girl-poet becomes a mom-poet. In her girl studies book Future Girl, Anita Harris includes an appendix--"Who Is a Girl?"--which reminds us that definitions of girlhood are constantly changing. About "contemporary Western young womanhood" in particular she writes: "[G]irlhood is not perceived to be entirely completed until the mid- to late twenties, owing to the extension of education, the end of the job for life, and the trend toward later-life motherhood and deferral of long-term relationships" (2004, 191-92). What makes me nervous (and I don't mean nervous intellectually; I mean nervous because I am twenty-five years old) is the fact that Harris is mostly describing a delay of this "split," not a society that has healed it. Her words--extension, later-life, deferral--underscore a deep-rooted anxiety. Just as the living doll in "The Applicant" couldn't have just stayed in the closet, eventually women have to choose something. (And if they don't choose? Is that madness?) Because there is still no good solution to the "How can you be a mother and a wife and have a career and be an artist at the same time?" question, the most popular solution is to postpone the quandary. But then what?

AG: For Plath, suicide.

Let's look at "Lady Lazarus," many people's favorite and one of the best-known poems. Yes, "Lady Lazarus" is a poem about Plath's several brushes with death, and suicide attempts. But the speaker is also very aware of her body as a public freak show, one that "[t]he peanut-crunching crowd/Shoves in to see" (Plath 2004, 15). Suicide attempts are the end of a spectrum of self-destructive ways to make people notice your pain, including eating disorders and cutting, so I can imagine how this poem would appeal to girls struggling with these behaviors. It's also part of the whole romance or glamour of unhappiness, that myth we keep talking about.

I did love this poem as a teenager, perhaps because of how it chronicles the intensity of discovering how your body is public property, open to scrutiny from all sides, with enormous expectations and rules heaped on it. That was terrifying for me then, and it is often what is behind anorexia and other self-destructive behaviors girls enact upon their bodies: this desire to control and punish your contested physical self. In this way, "Lady Lazarus" is a Confessional poem, because Rosenthal uses the term to describe work that, as noted by Caroline King Bernard Hall in Sylvia Plath, Revised, "makes ... the private psychological vulnerability at the poem's center a cultural symbol" (1998, 124). And perhaps this is what makes Plath so enduring a figure to teenage girls--she takes that very personal pain and transforms it into something grand, and something important to the whole culture.

BK: And that transformation is not a clear epiphany that happens in the last quarter of the poem, like you see in many unconvincing Confessional poems. Instead, the change is embodied throughout the entire poem in Plath's charged tone, rhythm, diction, and imagery. The "private psychological vulnerability"--in "Lady Lazarus," references to suicide attempts--is there, and at points we seem to have the "real" Plath speaking to us, not a persona. But more often Plath uses her speakers--the matchmaker, the applicant, the daughter--to transfigure that vulnerability. Not to break free from the emotion, not to see the "use" in it (those seem like more stereotypically Confessional epiphanies), but to truly mold it. I can only imagine how much psychic energy it must have taken to create the marvel that is Ariel--poems that are the product of alchemy that even the most cynical teenager can trust.

In "Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry," Uroff considers this transformative faculty in a different way:"[Plath] is casting out her terrors so that she can control them ... she is projecting her destruction outward" (1977). Plath's use of autobiographical material has a twofold purpose, then: it creates a myth of the self in the poems, and it quells the mad or freakish aspects of her own psyche. For Uroff, all of this adds up to the fact that Plath's poems are not Confessional; she is not merely exploring, not shamefully admitting something--she's defiant.

In a section on Plath scholarship's relationship to feminism, Hall quotes Alicia Ostriker's reflection on Plath, which speaks to this act of transformation: "At the same moment as we are pulling ourselves from martyrdom's shadows to some sort of daylight, we honor her for being among the first to run a flashlight over the cave walls" (1998, 126). This speaks to the metamorphosis from adolescence to adulthood, and it is this sense of transformation that can be empowering to girls and especially girl-poets. Confessional and "you go, girl!" poems serve a purpose, but they can feel static on the page; they don't take the riskier step that Plath does, launching into a mythic persona that absorbs and transfigures the emotion that might have been merely "confessed."

As with most Plath poems, the psychological portrait of "Lady Lazarus" is not tidy. The famous final stanza ("Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air" (2004, 17)) conjures the image of the phoenix, a symbol of rebirth echoed in the title. But rebirth is associated with hope, and it is impossible to read the entire poem as hopeful. The speaker has already told us about her failed suicide attempts, so this autobiographical detail becomes a way for Plath to complicate the ideas of Lazarus and the phoenix: what we thought was miraculous and inspiring has an ominous quality: what returns is a monster who wants to "eat men." This is transformation, but it would be difficult to call it "useful" or "inspiring" for teenage girls: the speaker derives it from turning a masochistic impulse into a sadistic one. Girls can read humor into the final stanza (and teenage poet girls can undoubtedly have pretty dark senses of humor). But if girls feel that they need poetry that empowers them to transcend their unhappiness, then this is no answer.

AG: I'm not convinced that girl readers need empowering poetry. I think Ostriker's metaphor of Plath's "running a flashlight over the cave walls" is what I want: the act of testifying to the experience of girlhood may be all that is required or desired. Poems that hear witness, but do not necessarily offer solace or solutions.

BK: And of course, different girls want different things, as we did.

Lady Lazarus' bearing of her "scars" (and charging for viewing them) and performance of a "big strip tease" also interest me in relation to teenage girls. If we return to Uroff's assertion that Plath's poems externalize her pain, projecting her destruction onto the page, then it seems that of all Plath's personae, Lady Lazarus performs this most explicitly. But teenage writer girls have a gift that other girls don't--they can externalize/transform their strong emotions on the page instead of physically manifesting them. (The relationship between text and the body in women's writing is its own intriguing subject, often connected through metaphor to purging and externalization.) I think of the riot grrrls writing words like "SLUT" and "BITCH" in magic marker on their arms. This behavior is less harmful and more playful than actually hurting oneself, and it's confrontational and empowering in its own way (some of that power comes through humor, as in Plath).

AG: On the other hand, a poem like "The Jailor" might be the kind one imagines appealing to angst-ridden, black-clad teens. "I have been drugged and raped," the speaker says, plainly, although elsewhere in the poem it seems the drugs are sleeping pills the speaker took voluntarily (Plath 2004, 23). By the end, the speaker admits her codependence on her jailor-rapist (who also seems to be her husband, or possibly her mental illness): "What would the dark / Do without fevers to eat? ... what would he / Do, do, do without me" (24). This kind of dramatic martyrdom, this interest in her own pain, feels very adolescent to me.

BK: It feels that way to me, too. Plath's conflations can often complicate in a good way, as in "The Applicant," but this combination of jailor, rapist, husband, and self feels obvious and stale--not transformative.

Like its characters, the tone of "The Jailor" tone is jumbled, too. In some cases we have characteristically shocking declarations ("The fever trickles and stiffens in my hair" [Plath 2004, 23]), but in others we have lines that come off almost sentimentally: "I am myself. That is not enough" (23). "The Jailor" does what many people think a Sylvia Plath poem does all the time--it wallows in its own misery. Although the unrelenting darkness of "The Jailor" might appeal to a teenage girl--or anyone--in a certain self-pitying mood, it ultimately doesn't present an empowered or transformed speaker, nor does it achieve any psychic distance from anger and sadness.

AG: I think its downfall as a poem is precisely this: not its lack of transformation or its inability to cheer on readers, but its absence of distance that makes the metaphors muddy and the tone self-pitying.

What Kind of Poetry Do Adolescent Girls Want and Need?

AG: Who did teenage girls read before they read Plath? Plath herself actually offers some answers in her Unabridged Journals (2000). From the March 29, 1958 entry (she was 26):
 Arrogant, I think I have written lines which qualify me to be The
 Poetess of America. ... Who rivals? Well, in history--Sappho,
 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Amy Lowell, Emily
 Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay--all dead. Now: Edith Sitwell &
 Marianne Moore, the ageing giantesses & poetic godmothers ... May
 Swenson, Isabella Gardner, & most close, Adrienne Cecile Rich--who
 will soon be eclipsed by these eight poems. (Plath and Kukil 2000,

Some of these are not read as widely as Plath is by teenage girls--or by anyone--today. Sitwell and Gardner certainly not. Millay and Browning and especially Dickinson still hold great power and are read, I'd imagine, by young women poets. I read them, and tried to read Rossetti. Rich is, I think, still the "most close"--as you said, Becca, she was an important poet for you as a teenager.

BK: Yes, and a few lines from her "Letters to a Young Poet" speak to our discussion:
 I wanted to go somewhere
 the brain had not yet gone
 I wanted not to be
 there so alone (Rich 1999, 29)

I read the enjambed third line as an existential declaration. Rich lives on, but not without having experienced the pain of wanting "not to be." It's the aloneness that's the source of the dilemma. Plath felt isolated in a more extreme way. Perhaps the greatest thing poetry could do for teenage girls, then, is let them know that they're not alone. This might sound like psychobabble, but it can happen on all sorts of levels--emotional, intellectual, linguistic. Girls can see themselves in a text as recognizable and articulable, readable and writeable; and this, in turn, shows the girl-poet that she can perform all of these things, too.

AG: But what do these girls want from poetry, and what kind of poetry do we want for these girls? In an essay subtitled "A Critical Review of American Girls' Studies" by Beth Cooper Benjamin and Janie Victoria Ward, the authors "map a series of shifts in the study of girls' development in the United States since the 1990s" and point out how girls' studies has shifted from thinking about ways women and feminists in the culture can aid and protect and mentor girls to focusing on the culture produced by the girls themselves (2004, 15). The authors take issue with how, as it has evolved as a scholarly field, girls' studies denies the impact of girls' "psychosocial development" on "issues in adult women's lives" (16).

In other words, if we were to parallel this with our essay, we'd ignore how Plath's work affects girl readers or how it's made us who we are or how it was a product of its own culture and focus instead on the poems and journals girls themselves are writing now. We're not doing this, obviously, but neither are we trying to heed Mary Pipher's call in Reviving Ophelia, one of the landmark books of early girls' studies, "to build a culture that is less complicated and more nurturing, less violent and sexualized and more growth-producing" (1994, 13). I will speak for myself here: I would not characterize my own poetry as helping that cause. Aesthetically, I strive for complication, and do not shy away from violence or sexualization, even--especially?--in my own descriptions of the experience of girlhood.

BK: We're both wary of entering into a therapy-culture discourse as well as hesitant to think that the girls themselves have all the answers stored away in their diaries. Maybe this is the attitude of the teacher, as opposed to the therapist (or doting mother, or "life coach"). It's the idea that you can expose a student to a text and offer insights, but ultimately she'll have to make her own meaning.

AG: In Ward and Benjamin's essay, they point to the American Psychological Association's Task Force on Adolescent Girls: Strengths and Stresses report from 1999 and its argument that "when we focus on 'fixing the girl' to the exclusion of 'fixing the culture,' we lose sight of the systemic problems underlying individual girls' developmental concerns" (2004, 24). And this makes me think that these are the poems we should be identifying for readership by teen girls: those that point out what's wrong with the culture, not necessarily what's wrong with the girl. Or, as the ones Plath wrote so beautifully--and perhaps this is the key to her appeal?!--poems that see what is wrong with the girl as emblematic of or metaphoric for what's wrong with the culture. The way the cause and the effect--the culture and the messed-up girl--is another thing that gets conflated in Plath, so that neither is a clear-cut perpetrator or victim, is what is so moving and lasting about Plath's work.

BK: Anita Harris' argument in Future Girl is that Western society holds up young women as emblems of the future: we are fascinated with girls because they tell us something about where we're going as a culture. Harris writes that "it is becoming increasingly difficult for young women to live outside the spotlight," and that the "regulatory gaze" cast on women's voices and stories "demands an exposure of inferiority that leaves little of young women's lives to themselves" (2004, 132).

I had this idea in mind when I was browsing The NewYork Times online last weekend and noticed that the number-one most-emailed article from the Sunday edition was Sara Rimer's "For Girls, It's Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too." Rimer followed a group of girls at an elite public high school in Newton, MA (a Boston suburb; Plath grew up about 6 miles away) during their senior year. Ostensibly, she was writing an article about the cutthroat college admissions process, but what emerged was a story of "Girls who do everything: Varsity sports. Student government. Theater. Community service. Girls who have grown up learning they can do anything a boy can do, which is anything they want to do" (2007). Rimer dubs them "Amazing Girls," and no doubt Plath would have been one of them, had she lived now.

Although the article critiques the culture that puts pressure on young women to succeed at everything, it stops short of revealing, or even wondering about, the deeper psychic strain the girls might experience. The student who becomes the focus of the piece, Esther (!), has parents who have made cultivating a spiritual life a priority. In Esther's mother's words, Newton parents' primary concern should be that their children don't have "anorexia of the soul." It's a startling phrase, one that conflates a girls' disease with spirituality. Rimes implies that Esther, the one girl in Newton who seems to have her priorities straight, avoids "girl disease" through community service with her local youth group. Meanwhile, Esther's friend Colby has a list of 35 goals scrawled in pink ink in her journal, one of which includes "write a really good poem." Poetry isn't a passion or pastime--it's a goal. (By the end of the article Esther has been rejected by Williams but accepted at Smith, and the Plath parallels become almost absurd.)

But if girls don't need an antidote to angst, if they don't need "girl power," then do they need, as you say, to see themselves in the culture and the culture in them, and to see their own symptoms as cultural symptoms? As I was writing the mission statement for the feminist press I co-founded, Switchback Books, I was thinking of this: we don't need women telling us that we are powerful; we need powerful voices that shock us into realizing that, to use Rich's words, "There is the challenge and promise of a whole new psychic geography to be explored" (1979, 35).

AG: I always eschewed literature that offered clear answers or overt messages in favor of that which was slippery and sly. I wanted to be beguiled, not rescued. In high school I was nuts about James Joyce, Tom Stoppard, and Francesca Lia Block, who have perhaps nothing else in common but an interest in the textures and doubleness of language and the use of humor and literary tricks to represent the human condition. In any case, I wouldn't want to rescue teenage girls via poetry: the idea of such a rescue, or even a "you go, girl!" message, denies them agency and dismisses the depth and complexity of their experiences and feelings. I'd rather see--or create--a poetry that acknowledges the Gothic and wallowing tendencies of white teens while admitting the limits and ridiculousness of all that, examining those self-destructive feelings without trying to cheer or erase them out of existence. Poems that imagine teenage girl readers to be sophisticated and self-aware, and to have a sense of humor about themselves.

BK: So much of what has been written about girls in the last twenty years or so comes out of our Oprah/therapy culture, so in a way it's hard to separate the idea of helping teenage girls by giving them poetry that nourishes them from helping teenage girls build their self-esteem. But beyond real-life reflection, girls also need imaginative ways out. Persona poems, surrealist narratives, fragmented utterances (Plath, Plath, Plath)--all of these can create new worlds for girls to step into. So, I'm promoting two different types of poems: the cultural poem, overtly rooted in this world; and the imaginative poem, which creates a new world. Happily, they're both being written, and with great frequency. The excitement of contemporary poetry is that these things are happening now and happening everywhere.

Contemporary Poetry for Girls: A Sampler

AG: We're lucky to have a wealth of women's poetry in the past few decades: poetry not only by women but about women and women's issues. Poets like Anne Waldman, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, CD. Wright, Kathleen Fraser, Claudia Rankine, Jean Valentine, Sonia Sanchez, Heather McHugh, Rita Dove, Joy Harjo and Lucia Perillo have written adventurous, revelatory poems while also representing the fact that women poets can have long lives, beyond a first book or second book: that a woman poet can mature and come into very different concerns. There is no longer only the Plath model of writing a couple brilliant books and sticking one's head in an oven.

But since we're talking specifically about recent writing that might be suitable for teenagers, let's focus on a bunch of poets who are quite young--in their 30s or early 40s, with just a few books out. To lay the groundwork, let's first take a look at a couple of poets in the generation just before that.

BK: Kim Addonizio is a poet teenage girls may have already heard of. Her poem "Siamese" in Tell Me (2000, 30) describes two best friends watching female Siamese twins on TV. The prose poem begins: "They were teenaged girls, joined, it appeared, just above the right eyebrow of each, so that they faced opposite directions." The speaker is telling the story retrospectively, and we learn that her best friend would later develop a "tumor that turned out to be malignant, inoperable." The rest of the poem's narrative--in which the girls pretend to be the Siamese twins and flail about the room--plays out against the backdrop of this detail. The poem casts a light on the goofy, bizarre, irreverent play that often accompanies female friendship. Sleepovers have never been only about pedicures and prank calls, but few writers choose to capture the stranger side of girls' play and ritual.

AG: Denise Duhamel is another poet some teenage girls come in contact with, if they're lucky. Duhamel writes prolifically about teenage girlhood experiences--eating disorders, for example--with a wry candor that belies the poems' painful subject matter. Her poem "Sometimes the First Boys Don't Count," collected in Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (2001, 4), describes an adolescent sexual experience with someone the speaker doesn't claim to love or "even want to talk to ... the next day in school." Towards the end of the poem, the speaker goes to the "garage in [his] backyard" and sees a pin-up calendar on the wall. The poem continues:
 Your dad looked at me the same way you did,
 but that was how I wanted to be looked at then--that was how
 I thought it should be.

The last lines of the poem are at once funny, sad and brutal:
 A few days later
 I held your penis as though it were a science experiment
 and put it in my mouth when you asked. A kind of aspic squirted out.
 I swallowed it like a brave girl, taking her medicine. (Duhamel
 2001, 4)

This kind of admission--the speaker is neither a victim nor an aggressor, but "a brave girl"--reminds me of The Bell Jar's Esther, who has the self-awareness to understand the absurdity of heterosexual adolescent courting rituals, but not the power to remove herself from them. Duhamel's poem avoids melodrama, and is wonderfully complicated about the teenage girl speaker's attitude and desire. A poem like this, which documents but does not judge any of its characters, seems particularly useful for a teenage reader.

BK: It's also a poem whose speaker is looking back at her teenage years without judgment. This tone of knowing tenderness toward one's past self isn't always present in poems about adolescent escapades (especially those of the sexual variety): more often we get "I was so young--what did I know"--a hint of embarrassment or condescension toward the poet-speaker's younger self. That sort of poem doesn't describe teenage experiences: it describes adult attitudes toward these experiences, and teenagers, sensitive to patronizing tones, can tell the difference. But even when Duhamel is recounting the gaze of her fifteen-year-old boyfriend and her dad in their garage, it's we readers, not Duhamel, who infuse a sense of pathos or vulnerability. She presents the events with a perfectly matter-of-fact, clinical tone (exactly the way Esther Greenwood's sexual encounters with Buddy conjure images of beakers and formaldehyde for her).

In that prompt response I wrote for your poetry workshop, I admitted that I hoped my poems could be appealing to non-poet readers in general, and to teenage girls in particular, without being "dumbed down." I listed certain poets--among them Olena Kalytiak Davis, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Gate Marvin--who seemed to be able to achieve just that: complexity and accessibility. In the margin, you wrote: "Plath!" I hadn't been thinking of her, but as soon as you made the connection, I saw that poets like Davis, Shaughnessy, and Marvin were at once the poetic descendents of Plath and poets whose language, tone, and subject matter might appeal to teenage girls.

In Davis's "Resolutions in a Parked Gar," from her first book, And Her Soul Out of Nothing (1997, 23-24), we find a woman stewing in her own melodrama, describing how she is "pleading," "screaming," "howling," and "spitting," supplicating her unnamed auditor (most likely the reader):
 Please, I beg you,
 perform some crazy rite over me so things can either
 finally dissolve or finally become solid. (Davis 1997, 23)

Like Plath's speakers in Ariel, Davis's speaker is in a desperate state, and chooses not to recollect such a moment in tranquility, but to speak directly from the core of her heartache. As in Plath, Davis's speaker succumbs to melodrama, but the poem doesn't.

AG: Yes, the poem is able to be about "crying in rental cars" and "feeling like throwing up" at the same time that it feels like it's in the midst of that emotional state. It has perspective, as they say, without losing any of the power of the moment lived: it knows that "Sweetheart, Death is the least of it" (Davis 1997,23).

BK: This seems to be the challenge particular to writing poems for/about teenage girls: how do you write about melodrama or write drama into your poem without letting it all dissolve into treacle?

AG: In our poetry program, Davis's work has a huge fan following among students of all backgrounds. Part of the reason for this, I'm sure, is her ability to write in the midst of that state, the glamour of that kind of intensity. I'm glad you picked a car poem to talk about for Davis, because I've said that Davis's work chronicles emotional car wrecks, very Confessional ones, narrated in first person, and the raw nakedness of autobiographical emotion and situation--as well as the ability to write beautifully, playfully, lyrically, innovatively about it--are a huge part of her appeal. Again, so much like Plath's.

But it's completely unlike Plath's appeal in one very significant way, because Davis and all these other young poets are, of course, still alive. I think, for example, of Rachel Zucker's latest poems, which document some of the same struggles Plath was documenting: the difficulties of marriage, the transition to motherhood, anxiety and depression. But although Zucker's poems don't claim any of it is easy (and in fact sometimes reference pharmaceutical assistance), they persevere. Zucker's and Davis's poems do not shout "you go, girl," but they--the poems, the poets--are not choosing suicide, either.

BK: And it's still true that the choices in poem-making are more varied than the choices in life, even if this fact can't ultimately save everyone. Cate Marvin has another answer to the question of how you deal with strong emotional content: You let the speaker's rage become so palpable that the reader gets caught up in it. Out of those that we'll discuss here, Marvin is the poet who most recalls Plath's dark, angry humor. Consider the first stanza of her "Weather to Reel For":
 You could have wasted someone
 else's time, but you chose mine, darling,
 and I'll never regret those nights lying
 like an organ separate and packed in ice, on a flight
 to the failing patient who needed me most. (Marvin 2001, 22)

Acrid, spiteful, incensed--and hilarious. The poem, which works with an extended metaphor that compares a past relationship with a town destroyed by a tornado, is aware of its obsession with drama and disaster. As the initially symmetrical stanzas grow into a jagged twister of their own, and the speaker walks around "wanting / but not knowing what," Marvin writes: "O, drama. /Your red sun which never / sets but has kept / my hide burnt with wakefulness" (2001, 23). This self-reflexive moment tells us that however rage-enveloped the speaker may be, she can still craft her feelings into careful stanzas. Like Plath, Marvin achieves a crucial distance from her speaker, the former funneling what the latter fuels.

AG: We live in a time when many young women poets have that crucial distance, by writing and living past their adolescence, documenting both that moment and the moments that follow, something Plath could not do.

Beth Ann Fennelly, a narrative poet whose work is both accessible and searing, has a poem called "Turning Twenty-Nine," in which she writes, "Time nicks us all / sooner or later; that's democracy" (2001, 425). The poem is about how the girl we are when we are young can feel remarkably, uncomfortably like the person we are when we are no longer young. "Don't you hate it / when high school's right?" she asks. The poem is very hard on the self, in a healthy, good-humored, Esther Greenwood way. This witty self-effacement rarely showed up in Plath's poetry, though.

BK: It's almost as if the language wouldn't let it--the difference between narrative forms and experimental or lyric modes. In some ways it's hard to make a case for narrative poets being good for girls in the same way that Plath is. I suppose several of the bee poems at the end of Ariel have a narrative structure, as does "Lesbos" (interestingly, some of these are poems that were shuffled in and out of the manuscript when Ted Hughes published the first editions of Ariel in the U.S. and U.K.). But mostly Plath seeks that mythic consciousness, something that is attractive to young women in a completely different way than a poem that seeks to confess what the speaker did in the woods on her first date. Plath's poems, however "Confessional," don't give this type of detail. So, although many different aesthetics may be attractive to teenage girls, not all of these poems descend directly from the Ariel work. Instead they descend from the public misconception of those poems as raw narrative confession. As you've said, Arielle, what people mistakenly think Plath did in her work is actually what Sharon Olds did two decades later.

AG: Yes, I'm sorry we don't have more room here to talk about Olds, because I do think she is, in a chronological as well as topical sense, the most direct descendent of Plath, and someone who is often vital for the teenage girl readers who discover her work. Although there are huge dissimilarities, Olds seems to pick up on one strand in Plath--the brazen attitude towards writing about familial issues, and the narrative lure of that--and take it to its next step. Another gift contemporary women poets have to offer teenage girl readers--frank sexuality--can be credited in part to Olds. Although Plath's poems are entrenched in the female body, and the voice is often brazen and carnal ("I eat men like air," etc.), she was writing in the 1950s and 60s, and there was so much left unsaid in the poetry of her circles. (I'd be interested to read carefully to see if things were radically different in the women of the more marginalized, non-academic worlds of the Beats, the Black Arts Movement and the New York School and others of the time.)

But Olds came along, and now poets like Catie Rosemurgy revel in what they can say, and in ownership of both their sexuality and their candor. Rosemurgy, whose first book My Favorite Apocalypse was called "Plathy" in one of its back cover blurbs, has a poem called "Twelve and Listening to the Stones" (2001, 5) in which its prepubescent speaker is discovering her kegel muscles, a fact which she "might not tell" to her "best friend." The poem is linear and narrative and clear--"I can also clench / right in front of the paperboy's face until I feel a fist / loosening its grip on the largeness inside me"--until the very last lines of the poem, which read:
 I've worn the snow into ice.
 How quiet I can be.
 I close my eyes and change the size of things.
 My house disappears below me.
 The dark moves inside me like hands. (Rosemurgy 2001, 5)

It is this turn towards something like magical realism, towards a Plathy, mythic self, that makes the poem work, I think. The poem is sassy and dirty and tough-eyed and then wanders into mystery.

BK: Like Addonizio showing us the private girl-sleepover play that rarely gets chronicled, Rosemurgy presents a type of female sexual power that doesn't get talked about. Not because our culture's too prudish, but because what she's describing is subtle and strange and probably truly untrodden poetic subject matter.

AG: I would argue that despite our culture's blatant interest in sex, women's orgasm is still a topic we are prudish about ... or perhaps just uninterested in, since it's not male-centered.

BK: But this poem has nothing to do with boys--besides that paperboy, who is simply the story's clueless pawn. This poem makes me want to shout from the rooftops: "Everything has NOT already been written!" At least not for women and girls--that's what's so exciting.

Another great example of girls' untold sexual rituals appears in Danielle Pafunda's poem "Saltbox Brothel" (2005, 36). A familiar matter-of-fact, clinical (yet tongue-in-cheek) tone appears in the opening line: "I was a body. I was a laboratory. I was okay with that." Although Pafunda never explicitly describes the activity, we know it's something transgressive from phrases like "we told my mother / we were meditating," "my dress was big and my bed even bigger," "Be quiet / at regular intervals" and "Watched my own hand go down." I like Pafunda's choice to keep the ritual itself shrouded in mystery. It reminds me of Rosemurgy's speaker's pleasure at contemplating not telling her hypothetical best friend (and who is a poem's reader except its hypothetical best friend?) about her newfound talent. Pafunda is a more experimental poet than many of those we're discussing here, but the figurative ellipses in this poem don't feel like a postmodern stylistic tic--instead, the subject matter demands that the speaker peek out of the curtain and then duck behind it again.

AG: Pafunda and others like her are picking up on another strand in Plath, a very different one than Olds and Rosemurgy chose: that sense of mystery, of blanks left open in the poem, of prizing slipperiness and symbology over sense.

I want to note the parallel titles between Rosemurgy and Marvin, and how they both seem to call back to Plath: World's Tallest Disaster, My Favorite Apocalypse. Titles that conflate the self with the world, personal trauma with global decay, working the same way The Bell Jar's, opening reference to the execution of the Rosenbergs does. They are also both titles that have a smirking or jaunty nod to morbidity, as do "The Applicant" and "Daddy."

BK: Sound and rhythm are other Plath inheritances that show up in many of these poems by contemporary female poets. Marvin's internal rhyme in "Weather to Reel For" is a great example: phrases like "Forest of feeling, bell within my body reeling" and "lift your name, caw it to fame" sing with fervor (2001, 22). Davis picks up similar sounds and rhythms in her second book, shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities (2003), a volume that an reviewer not-so-lovingly describes as "Somewhere between a teen girl's love diary and a madwoman-in-the-attic's antics and a transcript of an autistic's mental music." Davis echoes Plath in "dis-spelt":
 My freaked heart. With me I bring
 My prosthetic soul. Under the newly dis-astering
 Stars I dis-limn, dis-orb, dis-robe. O new disaster!
 I will need new breasts, new legs, electric shock.
 A clock, a clock. ... (Davis 2003, 27)

Here is Plath's Applicant, Lady Lazarus-ed for the twenty-first century. (The poem later mentions "sylvia's leaves" (2003, 28).) But this is not the poem of longing that "Resolutions in a Parked Car" was: it's a break-up poem, and the speaker is the one ending the relationship. The teenage girl reader could see Plath anew through Davis, to read a different sort of drama--a woman smartly, playfully, musically (if somewhat maniacally) saying "no" to love.

AG: So contemporary poets can be "Plathy" in any number of ways: through a dark, witty, mythic approach to experiences of womanhood; through powerful and self-possessed narrative; through a nursery-rhyme-inflected attention to creepy and powerful sonics; or any combination thereof. Davis evokes all of these in turns.

Larissa Szporluk is poet who I think gets at both the mythic and sonic aspects of Plath's voice, though not the Confessionalism. In the poem "Libido" (1998, 8-9), the protagonist is sexually assaulted in the woods, "leaving her dazed by the waste // of that kind of love" (8). In the poem's next moments, the protagonist finds not exactly comfort, but kinship, in flowers and bees--two images that frequent Plath's poems. Everything about the last three stanzas of this poem--the metaphors of flora and fauna, the careful internal rhymes and assonance, the clipped Germanic diction, the short lines and tercets, the last line at once defiant and terrifying--reminds me of an Ariel poem:
[she] watches some poppies freeze
in an orgy of plants,
their cold red gaze grown sideways.

She listens to parrots,
true inner birds, never at rest,
into whose breasts the world

blows pleasure,
shaking like nests full of Indian bees--
To scream is to sing. (Szporluk 1998, 9)

BK: The title poem of Brenda Shaughnessy's first book Interior with Sudden Joy (1999) is written in jagged tercets, too. And like Addonizio's "Siamese," it takes on the subject matter of twinning, though in a very different way. As she seeks to give voice to the nightgown-clad twins in the Dorothea Tanning painting adorning the book cover (the original Interior with Sudden Joy), Shaughnessy writes a version of female identity based on the idea of the double:
Be my other sister, we'll share a mouth.
We'll split the dress
down the middle, our home, our Caesarian. (Shaughnessy 1999, 79)

Like the Addonizio poem, "Interior with Sudden Joy" focuses mostly on women's relationships. But Shaughnessy writes a different sort of poem here, one that has the potential to be very appealing to young women writers. She examines how girls see themselves in each other, and how these relationships turn mythic, just as relationships do in Ariel. However, Shaughnessy's poems remind us of what's missing in Ariel--female companionship. Plath's speaker seems incapable of identifying with other women; if Shaughnessy's speaker over-identifies, there is at least a sense of communion in this.

AG: And again, the images and sound in Shaughnessy are so reminiscent of Plath: sing-songy rhymes; tight, lush images of violence; in this title poem, a threatening male figure in the form of a "Bishop" who "is a lie" (like Plath's Jailor?) (1999, 79). For example, in the middle of the poem:
 Not softly a rub with loincloth
 & linseed. More of a beating,
 with heart up the sleeve.

 He says, The air in here is tight & sore
 but punctured, sudden, by a string quartet.
 We are! In these light-years we've wrung a star.
 (Shaughnessy 1999, 80)

A more recent Shaughnessy poem called "I'm Over the Moon" is perhaps even more overtly Plathy:
 What do you have? You're a tool, moon.
 Now, noon. There's a hero. (Shaughnessy 2008, 6)

I can't hear that line without thinking of a poem like "Daddy."

BK: Neither can I. Taking the moon as her subject matter also seems like a vigorous nod to Plath. And how wonderful that she wants to revise Plath's too-powerful moon, to deflate it a bit, but does so using decidedly Plathy sarcasm, sounds, and rhythms--an homage and an update. These poems give me great hope not only for poetry for teenage girls, but for contemporary poetry in general.

AG: And this hope is one rooted in the work of Sylvia Plath, who did not let pain get in the way of making some of the most precisely piercing poems we have. We might not find great hope in her life, but in her work--in the face of all that brilliance and fire--there are the sparks that are igniting all of this poetry by the women who have come after her.

Works Cited

Addonizio, Kim. 2000. Tell Me. Rochester: BOA Editions.

Bailey, Deborah Smith. 2003. "The 'Sylvia Plath' effect: Questions swirl around a supposed link between creativity and mental illness." Monitor on Psychology 34.10. <>

Benjamin, Beth Cooper, and Janie Victoria Ward. 2004. "A Critical Review of American Girls' Studies." In All About the Girl, ed. Anita Harris. New York: Routledge.

Davis, Olena Kalytiak. 1997. And Her Soul Out of Nothing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

--. 2003. Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities. New York: Bloomsbury USA.

Duhamel, Denise. 2001. Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Fennelly, Beth Ann. 2001. "Turning Twenty-Nine." The Gettysburg Review 14: 425.

--. 2002. Open House. Omaha: Zoo Press.

Gilbert, Sandra M. 1989. "A Fine, White Flying Myth: Confessions of a Plath Addict." In Modern Critical Views: Sylvia Plath, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. 1998. Sylvia Plath, Revised. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Harris, Anita. 2004. Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge.

Lowe-Evans, Mary. 1994. "Sylvia Plath: Overview." In Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, 1st edition, ed. Laura Standley Berger. Farmington Hills, MI: St. James Press. Literature Resource Center (accessed February 15, 2007).

Malcolm, Janet. 1995. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. New York: Random House.

Marvin, Cate. 2001. World's Tallest Disaster. Louisville: Sarabande Books.

Middlebrook, Diane. 2003. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath--A Marriage. New York: Viking Penguin.

O'Rourke, Meghan. 2004. "Subject Sylvia." Poetry 183.6: 335-344. Humanities International Complete, EBSCO host (accessed February 2, 2007).

Pafunda, Danielle. 2005. Pretty Young Thing. New York: Soft Skull Press. Pipher, Mary. 1994. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Ballantine Books.

Plath, Sylvia. 1981. The Bell Jar. 1963. Reprint. New York: Harper & Row.

--. 2004. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Collins.

Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil, eds. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. New York: Anchor.

Quart, Alissa. 2003. "Dying for melodrama: why does Sylvia Plath still seduce the adolescent psyche?" Psychology Today 36.6: 66-72. <>.

Rich, Adrienne. 1979. On Lies, Secrets, and Silences: Selected Prose. New York: Norton.

--. 1999. Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998. New York: Norton.

Rimer, Sara. 2007. "For Girls, It's Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too." New York Times 01 April 2007. <>.

Rose, Jacqueline. 1993. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rosemurgy, Catie. 2001. My Favorite Apocalypse. St. Paul: Graywolf Press.

Shaughnessy, Brenda. 1999. Interior with Sudden Joy. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

--. 2008. Human Dark with Sugar. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.

Szporluk, Larissa. 1998. Dark Sky Question. Boston: Beacon.

Uroff, M.D. 1977. "Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration." Iowa Review 8.1: 104-15. Literature Resource Center (accessed February 2, 2007).

Wagner, Linda W. 1986. "Plath's The Bell Jar as female 'Bildungsroman.'" Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12.1-6: 55-68.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. 2006. "Plath and Contemporary American Poetry." In Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath, ed. Jo Gill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arielle Greenberg is an associate professor in the poetry program at Columbia College, Chicago. Becca Klaver is a founding editor of the feminist poetry press Switchback Books and a PhD candidate in literatures in English at Rutgers University.
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Title Annotation:Essays
Author:Greenberg, Arielle; Klaver, Becca
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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