Sylvia Plath's life is the domestic colliding with the artistic, with no emotion left unexplored. The hallmarking Ariel voice of Plath's genius is fully alive in her poetry, relating the emotional experience of life, with its ups and downs, joys and tears: the voice of Ariel is one that knows all sides of the spectrum, having journeyed to and through hell to know the experience on the other side. This voice, so distinctly her own and so brazenly unconstrained, germinates throughout the life of her writing. The depth of experience at the core of the Ariel voice is one that already knows the worst and has emerged triumphant, has already endured the journey and knows the path, and has already lived so that she may be reborn. Through the depth of self-discovery at the root of Plath's creative process, she endures ritualistic processes of rebirths and resurrections. The brilliant poetry of Sylvia Plath is thus a journey of the true self: a journey to find her own voice, to reclaim her true self, and to find her final, triumphant resolution.
(Written by Kevin Wheatley '09)
Hometown: Maryville, TN
Major: Literature in English
Senior Study Title: The Journey of Sylvia Plath: Discovering the True Self in the Voice of Ariel
Advisor: Dr. Susan Schneibel
When most people think of literary analysis, they think mostly of text itself, whether it is analysis of character, setting or plot. Sometimes the author's voice and style are analyzed, but primarily on a brief timeline concerning either the work in question or several of the author's more prominent works.
But can an author's voice be traced back far enough to see if it existed before he or she became famous?
English major Andrea May '07 wanted to find out. Through her Senior Study, she analyzed more than 20 selected works of Sylvia Plath in order to see if Plath's poetry and short stories contained the distinct voice found in her famous and groundbreaking collection of poems entitled Ariel.
“There is so much that has been written about Plath, and her works that have been included in the canon are iconoclastic,” said May. “I wanted to look at the poetry that came before the most popular poems, which are often looked at as a trail to suicide, and look at the poems that highlighted her brilliant voice.”
May's introduction to Plath dates back to high school, when she wrote a speech on the poet's work and tumultuous life, which ended in suicide at age 30.
“Ever since that English class in high school, I've had a great desire to write about her work. This process allowed me to do that alongside a faculty member such as [Professor of Comparative Literature] Dr. Schneibel,” May said. “I would share my thoughts, and she would allow me to find my documentation as proof in the work. I've also learned how to define and articulate my own opinions and how to find that in the work.”
A strongly held opinion of the MC student was that Plath's poetry and life were not completely intertwined, as most literary critics argue.
“Much of her work is autobiographical, and she is a confessional poet, but I believe that her poetry had a life of its own – it wasn't completely intertwined with her life.”
May delved deep, examining the writings in Plath's journals and works (even her work in high school), which critics have largely ignored. Much of the verses were depressing, May admitted, but analyzing them line by line, picking out the symbols and discussing interpretations, was an exciting journey.
“Her journals were a cornerstone for me,” May said. “I spent hours and hours pouring over her words, tracing her writing style, her creative goals, her personal struggles with writer's block and confidence in her work. Much of her earlier work masked her true creative spirit because it was so trained and studied. It was in her journals that she expressed herself without the weight of the critical eye so heavily on her.”
The student – and her advisor – concluded that Plath's genius – her voice – was evident in very early writings.
“The poetry didn't just appear,” Schneibel agreed. “Plath's voice had been evolving all along. I thought to myself, �We're actually doing original research here.'”
And May also was able to build the argument that some critics may have incorrectly interpreted Plath's work. At first, the MC student was more than reticent to disagree with distinguished literary scholars, but Schneibel supported her advisee's hypotheses and encouraged her quest.
“I had an understanding of the critics, of the icon of Plath out there,” said Schneibel. “I had bought into that, and what fascinates me was Andrea's journey through the journals.”
Analyzing several poems and comparing subjects and symbols, advisor and advisee came to realize that the meaning Plath assigned in one work could not be transferred to others. For example, May said, the poet included the moon and nighttime imagery in several of her poems; in some, the moon is something to fear, but in later poems, it actually is a comfort.
“Andrea didn't realize how good she was, but she really was producing the kind of work that was original and something very exciting,” Schneibel continued. “Having those ideas disputed made a visible difference, and I could witness this growth – her peer criticism and her voice – throughout classes and the Study.”
The Senior Study process is fulfilling and educational for the faculty member as well, as Schneibel was quick to point out.
“Any time I feel stretched and learn something new, I enjoy it greatly, and the Maryville College Senior Study comes the closest to the graduate-school experience in collegiality,” she said. “It's also a lot about letting go and allowing the student to go where they want to go. You should never close the door on improving one's own critical theory. If the students take you somewhere you haven't been, you should follow through the door and learn something too.”
May graduated in 2007 and is now an event coordinator at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn. Working in the marketing department, she writes and edits for the intimate luxury hotel, which is considered one of the top resort destinations in the world.