The storm beneath "the calm": It's not news to Sylvia Plath scholars or serious fans that after her suicide her husband, Ted Hughes, altered her manuscript for Ariel (Faber and Faber, 1965), removing a dozen angry poems about his desertion of her and adding poems that express Plath's chronic unhappiness about events long past. So Lynda K. Bundtzen can't figure out why the executors of the two poets' estates objected to her book about the original manuscript.
On behalf of the estates, Faber and Faber flatly denied Ms. Bundtzen permission to use either Plath's or Hughes's works in her book The Other Ariel (University of Massachusetts Press, December). "I was stunned," says the English professor at Williams College. "It is, of course, impossible to publish a critical study of works without quoting them." When she pressed for an explanation, the publisher's permissions manager wrote, "If we agreed to the quotations being published then we would be seen as giving our seal of approval to the comments you make." Faber and Faber and the estates "only grant permission when their material is used in a strictly literary context."
"With biographical poems, it's hard not to write about the biographical context in which they were written," says Ms. Bundtzen. She asked the publisher to specify objectionable passages, and offered to print a disclaimer stating that her opinions were not endorsed by Faber and Faber or the estates. The publisher said neither was possible, and asked Ms. Bundtzen to "cut down your quotations to fall under the remit of 'fair dealing'" -- or fair use.
Those rules are vague in both Britain and the United States, but by cutting and paraphasing here and there, and ensuring that her commentary on individual Plath poems far exceeded the number of lines she quoted, Ms. Bundtzen managed to publish the book, albeit a year late.
The irony is that her study is not as damning of Hughes as those of earlier scholars who have tried to reconstruct Plath's original plan for Ariel and to demonstrate that her suicide was not inevitable. First, she shows that there is "little evidence to suggest that [Plath] worried excessively (or at all) about her artistic intentions being violated when it came to getting published and, even more, getting paid." She also challenges an argument made in 1984 by Marjorie Perloff, a professor emerita of English at Stanford University, that Plath's plan to conclude the volume with a series of poems about beekeeping (ending Ariel with the word "spring") indicated her hope for rebirth and renewal. Looking at the original typescript housed at Smith College, Ms. Bundtzen discovered that several of the poems Hughes deleted had been written on the backs of pages of an unpublished play of his called "The Calm." Plath was in deliberate dialogue with him there, Ms. Bundtzen argues, "conjuring a vengeful tempest on the reverse side" and expressing "not the unambiguous rebirth that Perloff wants to celebrate" but both a longing for and dread of life without Hughes.
"There has been an appropriation of Plath as a feminist that is not entirely in accord with how she saw herself," says Ms. Bundtzen. Her own earlier study of the poet, Plath's Incarnations: Women and the Creative Process (University of Michigan Press, 1983), was both psychoanalytic and feminist. The Other Ariel is neither. "I don't know why it infuriated them so," she says.
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