hiii could you elaborate on your thoughts re Sylvia plath’s poetry and antisemitism? or don’t if you don’t feel like it up to you
Hi anon, thanks for the question. I'll definitely elaborate, because most people blindly read on social media that Plath is some 'rabid antisemite' (I'm quoting directly from a 2020 article written by a university student about 'problematic authors' that doesn't feature a single quotation or source to backup its astonishing claims) and accept it as gospel with no further reading, and I'd like to challenge that conception.
Note: I am both a Jewish woman and an enormous admirer of Plath. This is likely the perspective from which I'll be answering. However, that doesn't mean I can't give criticism where it is due, and also, doesn't mean I can speak for all Jews. I will be talking about my personal feelings towards antisemitism.
The main reason that Plath is often accused on antisemitism is due to the Holocaust imagery found in some of her poems (namely those found in the posthumous collection 'Ariel', like Daddy or Lady Lazarus). The imagery is graphic and gutwrenching. This is, however, not the reason that people take issue with her: she is largely criticised for adopting a Jewish 'I' in her poetry, and appropriating an experience for which she has not, and could never, experience. Because Plath is not Jewish, critics say, her writing is inauthentic, and therefore offensive and antisemetic in nature.
The only people who should be able to write about the Holocaust in this manner, they say, are actual survivors (literary critic George Steiner once noted: 'does any writer, does any human being other than an actual survivor, have the right to put on this death rig?'). The argument at hand here, then, is about the use of the 'I' in poetry; if we should only write from first-hand experience, and avoid writing about topics that we have not oursleves encountered, survived, etc.
However, it is incredibly reductive to view Plath's poetry as appropriating the Jewish identity for herself just because the poem has a Jewish speaker, a Jewish 'I'. While 'Daddy' is often interpreted in online spaces as a poem about paternal abuse, it is also very easy to interpret the poem as a narrative about the relationship between European fascism and its victims, explored through the metaphor of the father/daughter relationship. Similarly, Lady Lazarus can be read as a metaphor for Europe in the 20th century, and particularly in the 1940s. It shows incredibly poor comprehension skills to automatically assume that because a poem has a speaker, that speaker is the poet - and that, therefore, if the identity of the speaker and the poet don't align, the poet is appropriating and causing offence.
Additionally, even if Plath were directly and overtly taking on the identity of a Holocaust survivor in her poems (which I would say she isn't), I don't believe that that in itself is antisemetic. Plath's poetry was interested in the central political concern of her generation: that of nuclear war. The idea of a mass-murder of millions of citizens in one fell swoop has obvious links to the Holocaust: Elie Weisel, a Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor, wrote of the topic that '...once upon a time it happened to my people, and now it happens to all people. And suddenly I said to myself, maybe the whole world, strangely, has turned Jewish.' Plath's poem 'Mary's Song', also widely criticised, makes this direct comparison between the European Holocaust, and potential nuclear Holocaust. Personally, I think this is a very apt connection, and I do not think at all that connecting the two in literature should brand a person as an antisemite.
One could present the argument, as Cynthia Ozick did, that 'Jews are not metaphors - not for poets, not for novelists...' and I certainly believe that this is a genuine concern. However, it doesn't take into account the link between history and subjectivity - i.e., which events enter the public conscience on a mass scale. Where Plath's poems mention the Holocaust (which is, might I add, infrequently) the graphic nature, I believe, allows a contemporary reader to cut through the doublespeak and the softened language that is often used to describe the Holocaust in a way that does not disgust, OR arouse anger. While Plath is vivid in her descriptions, she does so in a way that provokes anger in the reader towards the Nazi regime. It is, in many ways, incredibly sympathtic to Holocaust victims, despite the stark nature of the images. The 'Jewish metaphor' allows space to accurately describe the horrors of the Holocaust, and to incorporate other political fears. It is impossible to 'own' history in a way that makes even the mention of it by the Other forbidden. Writing off topics in literature in this way is limiting in the upmost degree.
I could write reams and reams more on this topic, but I think I've said enough for now (I need to get back to actually doing my uni work on this topic). You're free to disagree with me, but I think, for the reasons I've mentioned above and more, that calling Sylvia Plath antisemetic to be genuinely digusting and anti-intellectual.
Off that landspit of stony mouth-plugs,
Eyes rolled by white sticks,
Ears cupping the sea's incoherences,
You house your unnerving head—God-ball,
Lens of mercies,
Plying their wild cells in my keel's shadow,
Pushing by like hearts,
Red stigmata at the very center,
Riding the rip tide to the nearest point of
Dragging their Jesus hair.
Did I escape, I wonder?
My mind winds to you
Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable,
Keeping itself, it seems, in a state of miraculous
In any case, you are always there,
Tremulous breath at the end of my line,
Curve of water upleaping
To my water rod, dazzling and grateful,
Touching and sucking.
I didn't call you.
I didn't call you at all.
You steamed to me over the sea,
Fat and red, a placenta
Paralyzing the kicking lovers.
Squeezing the breath from the blood bells
Of the fuchsia. I could draw no breath,
Dead and moneyless,
Overexposed, like an X-ray.
Who do you think you are?
A Communion wafer? Blubbery Mary?
I shall take no bite of your body,
Bottle in which I live,
I am sick to death of hot salt.
Green as eunuchs, your wishes
Hiss at my sins.
Off, off, eely tentacle!
There is nothing between us.
Syliva Plath 1932-1963
Graphic - Jilipollo / Javier Medellin Puyou (B.1977)