'Sylvia Plath, The Mirror'
with Gerard Benson
This should, or could, have been one of the Humber Mouth's most interesting events. Given the richness of the subject matter and the promise that Benson was to talk about Plath's work rather than the gossip and speculation which surrounds her life and suicide, I had hoped for something serious and thoughtful. Not only was Benson's presentation very poor, the talk was riddled with misquotes from Plath and others, bungled readings of her poems, lost or mislaid notes, and a headlong descent into exactly the kind of silly (wild) speculation about her personality and motivation that exasperates serious readers of her work.
The low point of the event was when Benson described her as 'the Victoria Beckham of her day'. Clearly Benson knows as much about the Beckhams as he does about Plath.
Following a great deal of amateur (and very outdated) psychology, Benson decided that her work 'wasn't worth reading unless you're interested in her life', and that her 'young' work was 'no good'. This latter comment was particularly confusing given that she died at the age of thirty. All of Plath's work is 'young' work; one of the tragic aspects of her death is that we cannot know how Plath might have developed.
I understand Benson has been commissioned by Bradford Libraries to give a series of talks about poets ('One Thousand Years of Poetry') and that future talks will examine the work of writers such as Donne, Browning and Eliot. Benson said he'd chosen writers who had 'advanced the art of poetry', although he completely failed to explain how he thought Plath had done this. When prompted, he suggested it was through the 'surrealistic thrust...the jamming together of different bits kind of thing...using her inner life'. This was typical of the quality of analysis which he gave.
Benson gave the impression that he'd read no more than a handful of her poems, and that he'd mugged up on her life story by reading press-cuttings. He failed to contextualize her work in relation to other American poets, having decided that she was 'really' British and therefore he didn't need to address the influence of writers such as Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, or Sexton, for example. Far from offering insight, Benson was content to offer comments which were merely fatuous - the poem 'Metaphors' was considered 'smashing'; 'Daddy' was 'very popular among young women'. On her life, he suggested that MacLean Psychiatric Hospital was 'nice'; that Plath's work improved because of 'the sex thing' (?) and also because of her 'perfect marriage'.
It isn't worth repeating all the errors, the needless and eccentric speculations which Benson presented. I can only hope that his future talks are more considered and better researched. At least, I hope next time he at least gets his notes in order.