Thursday, March 24, 2011

Biographical Poetry: Your Own Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill

Bibliography –

Hemphill, Stephanie. 2007. Your Own Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN – 9780440239680.

Critical Review –

Hemphill captivates the reader with her verse portrait of Sylvia Plath. “The book, although based on real events and real people, is first and foremost a work of fiction” (p. 247). While it is fiction, it is well researched with source notes and a bibliography. Hemphill through her verse poems intimately reveals Sylvia Plath to the reader. Hemphill draws from the poems, letters, journals of Sylvia Plath as well as writings and interviews from those who knew Miss Plath to create a work that is very personal and inviting. For those who might think that Sylvia Plath was an eccentric poetry living outside the real world, Hemphill exposes the real person who had everyday struggles. At the bottom of each poem is a reference note adding biographical details, background information, or poetry notes to help the reader make the full connection.

Hemphill engages the reader through the use of various points of view. Very few of the poems are from Sylvia’s point of view; whereas, most of the poems are from the point of view of those who knew her best, such as, parents, friends, brother, husband, lovers, etc. This technique helps the reader to become intimately involved in Sylvia’s life. Hemphill starts off with poems from Sylvia’s mother and father’s point of view. Then, she moves chronologically through the life of Sylvia from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to death using powerful imagery, poignant figurative language, and foreboding foreshadowing. In several of the poems, Hemphill mimics the style of poems written by Miss Plath. Her careful attention to details emanating from factual events and her emotional appeal with powerful language help the reader to make a lasting personal connection to Sylvia Plath.

Hemphill masterfully portrays the two sides of Sylvia Plath. On the hand, she is an intellectual success and gifted poet; while on the other hand, she is an extremely troubled young lady. This shows up very early in and continues throughout her life. Hemphill has Ted Hughes, Sylvia’s husband, sum this dueling characteristic in the poem, “What She Left Behind,” (p. 238) when he says, “Her poetry cuts me to the spine,/beautiful and brutal.” In so many ways, Sylvia was beautiful but at the same time emotional brutal. After reading this brilliant work, Sylvia Plath will become the reader’s “Own Sylvia.” Below is a poem from this masterful work.

August 1953

Imagining Sylvia Plath

In the style of “The Fearful”

Her summer is a winter--
Frostbite, gangrene that devours her inside out.

Her wintering is a glass bell--
Frozen crystal tongue without tingle, without chime.

Her glass bell suffocates fireflies, honeybees
Jars them in heat, turns off their little minds.

Her fireflies must be shocked, relit.
Depression oozes from her fingers, softens her brain.

Her brain quiets under the cupboard.
She presses herself inside a wooden cellar box.

The cupboard is a faulty coffin--too many
Breathing holes won't let her be snuffed out.

She broke her mother's locked box
Of pills and swallowed them all.

Broke her mother's heart, but her stomach
Saves her, betrays her, won't keep death down.

More dead than alive, they found her
Blue-tipped but breathing, three days later.

Kid Connection –

To introduce this poem, have the students brainstorm a list of words and images that they associate with depression. Next, have student volunteers read the poem by having a different student read each stanza. Then, have the students share which words and/or images they found the most striking and why. As a follow-up, read the poem, “The Fearful” by Sylvia Plath. Call to their attention that Stephanie Hemphill notes that she is using the style of Miss Plath’s poem. Ask them what stylistic elements are common in both poems.

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