Rejoinder to “’Black Phones’: Postmodern Poetics in the Holocaust Poetry of Sylvia Plath”

Lauren Jackson
Matthew Boswell’s article “’Black Phones’: Postmodern Poetics in the Holocaust Poetry of Sylvia Plath” delves deep into not only the text of Plath’s poetry, but the resonance it holds inside her readers. Her “readers” is not meant possessively due to the offensive nature such poetry has oftentimes been labeled, but rather her readers as a collective generalization of the audience Plath garnered be it hostile or not. Boswell’s article quotes Sue Vice as dubbing Holocaust writing “scandalous” and as a thing that “provokes controversy”. The ramifications of talking about the Holocaust in a flippant nature are such that readers are repulsed without always grasping the meaning within the work. Boswell delves deep into the social constructs that have built Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” and both understands and misunderstands the poetry.
Boswell explains that critics first viewed “Lady Lazarus” as a transgression, something that marred or distorted what the Holocaust really was. They viewed her poetry as something illegitimate, like a misbegotten child that would wreak havoc on the lives of those who had come before. This flagrant misunderstanding and subsequent conviction of Plath’s poetry is almost as disgraceful as the very crime with which they are attempting to convict Plath. Plath is not distorting history or private viewpoints by using a cultural phenomenon to relate her life to. This is personalizing the Holocaust not depersonalizing or making any of the victims subhuman. I will in fact argue against Boswell saying “Lady Lazarus” is not confessional poetry, as I see nothing but Plath’s life embodied in the words of her poetry.
Boswell quoted Irving Howe who seemed to view Plath as nothing more than selfish. He claimed of Plath’s writing: “To condone such a confusion is to delude ourselves as to the nature of our personal miseries and their relationship to – or relative magnitude when placed against – the most dreadful event in the history of mankind” (Black Phones, 2008). I find it selfish and not a bit pompous for one man to conclude definitively what the most dreadful event in the history of mankind is. That is not an objectionable statement. It relegates all Irving says to a plane of untrustworthy remarks, though I will not denigrate it to ramblings. Plath can be dubbed selfish only in that she reuses others’ history to present her own.
Another critic Boswell quotes is Seamus Heaney who believed Plath’s Holocaustic poetry “simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy” (Black Phones, 2008). How Heaney believes our sympathy should be regulated is a matter that has yet to be concluded. But I believe Heaney making a collective statement about the sympathy of a populous is again quite missing the mark. Plath’s critics take personally every statement that her poetry makes, although her words seem targeted inwardly rather than outwardly. The violation of such sacred writing and such private confessions should not be translated into an attack on the genocide of a people! What is most interesting are Boswell’s words as a conclusion to Plath’s critics: “As a result, Plath was widely accused of indulging in a form of emotional plagiarism that revealed much about her own pathology, but very little about the condition of those who actually lived in camps” (Black Phones, 2008). I don’t believe emotions can be plagiarized; emotions are felt individually and cannot be stolen from a person, let alone a people. I must reiterate that this poetry is not meant to be about those who actually lived in camps, but rather about Plath and the confusion within her own person.
Boswell explains that “straightforward biographical readings tend to iron out the complexity of Plath’s representation of, among other things, psychology, history and femininity, while also devaluing her skill as a writer” (Black Phones, 2008). My question to this statement is how? How does a straightforward reading destroy or devalue Plath’s writing capabilities? To quote Plath from her own journals: “I do not love; I do not love anybody except myself. That is a rather shocking thing to admit. I have none of the selfless love of my mother. I have none of the plodding, practical love. . . . . I am, to be blunt and concise, in love only with myself, my puny being with its small inadequate breasts and meager, thin talents. I am capable of affection for those who reflect my own world” (Good Reads, n.d.). Plath is self-admittedly blunt, and always to the point. She may be artful and descriptive, she may use metaphors and similes, she may not always state specifically what she means, but her meaning is always clear. There is no need to peel back layer after layer to attempt to discover a hidden subtly that Plath hid purposefully for readers to dig for and find many years later. Instead one should believe Plath and accept her words as truth. Trying to interpret the words to fit a specific theory truly does distort what Plath laid out plainly in her ink. Therefore to say that one cannot read Plath plainly is devaluing her work as a writer. Plath is not a cryptographer and this should be remembered throughout diving into her works.
In fact critics seem to contradict themselves by then saying that “…are thinly disguised representations of Plath herself” (Black Phones, 2008). Indeed they are! Her works are pale forms of Plath herself that are emulated again and again through the written word. Critics seem to have a problem with poetry being blatant, most especially Plath’s, though the reasoning for this seems to be hypersensitivity, merely because a rendering of the Holocaust is believed to take place on the pages of Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus”. I disagree entirely with Boswell when he states that “…there is nothing particularly ‘real’ about the speaker of ‘Lady Lazarus’: a suicidal strip artist who performs a kind of Holocaust themed cabaret” (Black Phones, 2008). On one token we are dubbing Plath’s poetry as too real because of the Holocaust ramifications implied and on the other we are dubbing Plath’s poetry as having nothing real? It is nothing more than a strip artist? And the final thrust that serves the deathblow is by being as flippant as you are condemning the poem of being by saying a “Holocaust themed cabaret”. This is as disrespectful as anything yet flung at the feet of Plath.
“Lady Lazarus” is what Boswell titles “self-destructive” on Plath’s part and in some ways is reinforced when he says “The poem operates knowingly as an example of, and a warning against, poetry after Auschwitz, in particular by highlighting the threat posed to memory by the incipient ‘Holocaust industry’ of the early 1960s” (Black Phones, 2008). Indeed, it seems nothing more than self-destruction that is wrought on Plath’s mind throughout the composition of this poem. Boswell takes as his example the following lines from Plath’s work:
“Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.”
But Boswell asserts that Plath means just the opposite of what she says in those two stanzas. He claims that Plath actually means that when it “feels like hell” that it does not at all, that it is not a reflection of reality. Although I think it not meet to make assumptions, I will allow myself to make suppositions concerning these lines in Plath’s poem. I believe these lines to very much be of a self drawn nature – this is a portrait or an autobiography. Plath had in fact, attempted multiple times in her life to commit suicide. She had performed “dying” so often that she had refined it into an art form. And in some ways, being that life is a form of living, breathing art – the human and the human experience, then why would life’s opposite – death – be any different? The taking of a human life, though gruesome, may not be artless. Therefore Plath’s determination that she “perform” is not necessarily for a crowd or money as Boswell seems to imply, but for her own pleasure and again, self-destruction. Maybe these words are Plath’s way of justifying her existence, or rather her continued existence. When Boswell claims she does not “feel”, not truly feel what she claims to be feeling, it seems there is a misunderstanding of Plath’s intentions. She is feeling, but in all technicalities she is feeling sorrow, not death. Rather she is feeling the absence of death which in turn leads to this sorrow. For her many failed attempts leave her distraught, and once more alone with her thoughts and therefore words. She constructs them into “Lady Lazarus” and is instantly deemed a scandalous emotional plagiarizer. I agree with Boswell when he claims “…she conveys a clear sense of distinction between art and reality, and with it the sort of self-awareness and accompanying concern with artistic exploitation and representative ethics that were to become defining features of postmodernism…” (Black Phones, 2008). There is a distinct difference between art and reality, though I do not perceive it in the same manner as Boswell. I understand Plath’s lines as being quite different; the words “dying” and “art” are separated by physical lines within the stanza themselves, giving them a spatial separation that implies this is true in real life as well. However, Plath is making a point to draw them together into a single sentence that is a statement and holds no question. Plath is quite certain of what she means. Life and therefore also death can be mere imitations of art, and vice versa. Should we instantly dub Plath a postmodernist due to her alluding to so many other pieces in her work? For again and again Boswell claims pieces of literature and poetry that have wormed their way into Plath’s written word. We may assume so, but at the same time we can take Plath literally without including the subjectivity of instability that seems to accompany postmodernism inherently.
Boswell calls Plath’s work “rational” which seems a departure from calling dying an art form. Maybe in fact Plath is being rational. But in what way are we looking to Plath to rationalize? Suicide and the Holocaust are not rational subjects; they are in fact psychologically and recognizably irrational to the majority of people.
Boswell believes Plath’s poem to hold a “sexual charge” which I also palpably feel throughout the piece, but feel he crosses the line when he claims that “…as a tawdry kind of entertainment that borders on prostitution” (Black Phones, 2008). The crowd delights in watching Plath destroy herself; they are not watching her prostitute herself. The “charge” for the “eyeing of her scars” is buying her work, not believing Plath to be a prostitute.
The next lines that Boswell quotes from “Lady Lazarus” are these:
“…my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen. “
Boswell states that “…suggests both her return from the dead and also the revival of her career, indicating that her performance is both an art form for which she has a ‘call’ and a commercial enterprise” (Black Phones, 2008). The glaring question I have here is why are these stanzas a self-portrait of Plath but the rest of the poem is not? Where is Boswell making the distinctions in the writing? I feel the entire poem is fluid and continues in the same strain without deviating, therefore this conviction that bits and pieces of the poem reflect Plath and others do not seems to me a bit far-fetched.
There is yet another German/Jewish/Holocaust reference that is pulled out of the poem in the following stanza:
“Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.”
Boswell says of these blunt words: “Just as her earlier assault on God and Lucifer parodies identifiably Nazi aspirations, in her overreaching Lady Lazarus is positioned as the victimizer not the victimized” (Black Phones, 2008). Is Plath really assaulting God and the devil? Or is she addressing her selves – one where she is fiery and the evil in her overpowers – she will live to die again. Her own words in her poem: “I turn and burn”. The mention of “a wedding ring” towards the end of the poem provides me with nothing but an image of her married to death, her constant companion through life. It is possible Plath is referring nothing more than to an imagined self or indeed God and Lucifer, or representations of them she has constructed, as Boswell believes – Nazi aspirations. Within the poem Plath says “Her Enemy” which seems to be nothing more than herself, for she also says “Nevertheless I am the same identical woman” – identical to who she once was or identical to a Jew? Boswell in turn once more seeks to designate Plath as an emotional wrecker: “…that turning the Holocaust into a spectacle procures a forgetting that is part of the extermination’” (Black Phones, 2008). But Plath is not asking anyone to forget, nor even implying that she should. In fact Plath is emphasizing the terror, the destruction, the emotional damage that the Holocaust caused; there is nothing disrespectful in Plath’s references.
There is a theme of feminism that seems to run strongly through Plath’s text and Boswell warmly acknowledges this: “…the aggressive feminist position that Lady Lazarus assumes in the final stanzas is not a total distortion of the concerns of Holocaust verse, and could be justified by the insight that the Holocaust was an event which was, for the most part, conceived and perpetrated by men” (Black Phones, 2008). Indeed, the Holocaust as much as nearly every aspect of World War II was the nurtured child of men. Women had been relegated to mere spectators and were not expected to be involved. Some women broke the barriers by going into nursing, clerical work, and factory work. But the initial barriers were not transcended in this time period, and possibly Plath’s poetry was an outlet to this pent up emotion and feeling that the post-war women were feeling. Boswell quotes Britzolaki saying: “’Lady Lazarus is an allegorical figure constructed from past and present images of femininity…She is a pastiche of the numerous deathly or demonic women of poetic tradition’” (Black Phones, 2008). There is an element of the deathly in “Lady Lazarus”, from Plath saying in her poem “Will vanish in a day” seems to refer to the fact that Plath believes she will soon be dead. She in her poem takes the words out of the mouths of the dead who can no longer speak, according to Boswell’s article. This seems to be supported, but vicariously. Lady Lazarus is one who has risen from the dead, but only to return to it, if the murdered Jews of the Holocaust live through Lady Lazarus it is but for a short period of time.
Lady Lazarus as a figure is the embodiment of Plath’s post-modernist, feminist, suicidal self. It is a clear construction of all that is truly and artistically her. Boswell argues that the poem is not a portrait of Sylvia Plath, but I disagree wholeheartedly. The images invoked in “Lady Lazarus” are ones that are too strikingly similar to the reality of Plath, rather than the art. She was a blunt individual, who ultimately committed the fatal act, that final culmination of death and art meeting to blossom into the prophecy she laid out for herself in this poem: “Dying is an art”. Posthumously speaking, we can readily see the fatefulness in “Lady Lazarus”. To disregard the “obvious” in the poem and dubbing it an insult to Plath’s writing seems to be to miss the thesis of the entire work. “Lady Lazarus” not only raises the Holocaustic Jews from the dead, but it raises Plath’s spirit and she lives again through these words. Thus she rises with her red hair, and the truth belongs to her alone.

Works Cited:
Boswell, Matthew. “‘Black Phones’: Postmodern Poetics in the Holocaust Poetry.” Critical Survey 20.2 (2008): 53-64. Print.
“Sylvia Plath Quotes.” Good Reads. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. .

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