Drawing on hitherto unpublished visual material housed in the University of Indiana's Lilly Library and Smith College's Mortimer Rare Book Room, and published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's birth, this handsomely illustrated volume is dedicated to "readers of Sylvia Plath" and claims to be written for a general audience, while maintaining "a scholarly focus".
For the most part (although the general reader might appreciate an explanation of literary terms such as the New Criticism), it succeeds in this aim. Only one of the contributors, co-editor Kathleen Connors, is neither a mainstream academic nor a literature specialist. As visiting scholar at Indiana University, Bloomington, however, she has immersed herself in its Plath holdings and was responsible for the 2002 exhibition of Plath's art and manuscripts held there, on which much of the material contained in the current volume is based.
Connors's essay, though useful in establishing the little-known - and clearly significant - fact that between the ages of eight and 20 Plath took her art as seriously as her poetry, takes up a disproportionately large part of the volume, while its essentially chronological and descriptive approach smacks a little too much of the dutiful, if not outright devotional. The other, much shorter, chapters are more tightly focused on specific aspects of the relationship between the verbal and the visual in Plath's work and are ultimately more rewarding - albeit, on occasion (I am thinking of the essays by Langdon Hammer and Diane Middlebrook) decidedly tenuous in their links with the visual.
Christina Britzolakis's analysis of Plath's relationship with Giorgio de Chirico, as evidenced primarily but not exclusively in the so-called art poems of the late 1950s, makes for an interesting read, as does Sally Bayley's assessment of Plath's profoundly ambivalent attitude to femininity. Most satisfying, to my mind, is Fan Jinghua's sophisticated appraisal of the complex ways in which the visual impulse feeds into the mature poetic oeuvre.
What is conspicuously lacking in this volume, however, is a more professional art-historical perspective that would allow the reader to perceive Plath's early visual efforts as just that - initially, the output of a very young girl, which would be of little aesthetic interest, had that girl not turned into Sylvia Plath the poet. Revealing psychological insights can indeed be gleaned from an examination of these images, but to subject these youthful productions to detailed aesthetic analysis seems heavy-handed, crudely done and inappropriate.
Paradoxically, the book also suffers from a rather cavalier attitude to the visual image: artists' names are too often misspelt; there are no numerical references to the black-and-white illustrations within the main text; and (most frustratingly) the colour plate references in the text are often incorrect.
While Susan Gubar's afterword draws some thought-provoking parallels between Plath and other female artist-writers and writer-artists, it seems an insult to a genuinely multimedia artist such as Charlotte Salomon to suggest that they be viewed in the same light.
Gubar's characterisation of Plath as "a searing and sneering seer" confirms what I suspected from the start: that this book will be meaningful primarily for those who already subscribe to the Sylvia Plath myth.
Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual
Edited by Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley
Oxford University Press
Published 18 October 2007