Saturday

Oct. 27, 2012

The Bull of Bendylaw

by Sylvia Plath

The black bull bellowed before the sea.
The sea, till that day orderly,
Hove up against Bendylaw.
The queen in the mulberry arbor stared
Stiff as a queen on a playing card.
The king fingered his beard.

A blue sea, four horny bull-feet,
A bull-snouted sea that wouldn't stay put,
Bucked at the garden gate.

Along box-lined walks in the florid sun
Toward the rowdy bellow and back again
The lords and ladies ran.

The great bronze gate began to crack,
The sea broke in at every crack,
Pellmell, blueblack.

The bull surged up, the bull surged down,
Not to be stayed by a daisy chain
Nor by any learned man.

O the king's tidy acre is under the sea,
And the royal rose in the bull's belly,
And the bull on the king's highway.

"The Bull of Bendylaw" by Sylvia Plath, from The Collected Poems. © Harper Perennial, 1981. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Sylvia Plath (books by this author), born in Boston (1932). She was an excellent student, and she went to Smith College with the help of a scholarship endowed by the writer Olive Higgins Prouty. One summer during college, she was chosen to be a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine. She was only 20 years old, and she had already been published in Seventeen, Mademoiselle, The Christian Science Monitor, and other newspapers. Her summer started off well. She went to lots of parties and discovered that she loved vodka. But she was having trouble writing poetry and short stories, and she worried that she was a failure as a writer. Then she got notice that she had not been accepted for an advanced creative writing course at Harvard, taught by the writer Frank O'Connor. She was so depressed that she attempted suicide. Her benefactress, Olive Prouty, paid for her stay in a mental hospital and psychiatric care.

Plath returned to Smith and graduated with highest honors in 1955. She won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge University, and there she met and married the poet Ted Hughes. In 1960, she gave birth to a daughter and published The Colossus, the only book of her poems to be published during her lifetime. It got minor reviews in various British publications. In 1961, she was excited to find an American publisher; she wrote: "After all the fiddlings and discouragements from the little publishers, it is an immense joy to have what I consider THE publisher accept my book for America with such enthusiasm. They 'sincerely doubt a better first volume will be published this year.'" And on the date of its publication in 1962, Plath wrote to her mother: "My book officially comes out in America today. Do clip and send any reviews you see, however bad. Criticism encourages me as much as praise." But The Colossus was even less noticed in America than in England; there were only a handful of reviews, many of them just a paragraph long.

Plath decided to write a novel based on her experience during the summer when she worked at Mademoiselle. She referred to the novel as "a pot-boiler" to family and friends, but she had high hopes for it. She won a fellowship to work on the novel, and the fellowship was connected to the publishers Harper and Row; but once she finished it, the editors there rejected it — they thought it was overwritten and immature. The Bell Jar was published in England in January of 1961 under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. It got good reviews, but not great. A month later, Plath committed suicide.

Many people learned about Plath only after her death, reading her poems in obituaries and news stories. In the next couple of years, her poems appeared regularly in magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. In 1965, a collection of poems called Ariel was published posthumously, and received major reviews in all the big papers and magazines. In Britain, Ariel sold 15,000 copies in its first 10 months, and Plath's popularity continued to rise. The Bell Jar was finally published in the United States and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for six months.

Sylvia Plath wrote: "Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."

It's the birthday of novelist Zadie Smith (books by this author), born in London (1975). She was raised in a working-class neighborhood in North West London by her Jamaican mother and British father. She dreamed of tap dancing with Gene Kelly or Vincent Minnelli, and she read constantly. She said: "If the sun was out, I stayed in; if there was a barbecue, I was in the library; while the rest of my generation embraced the sociality of Ecstacy, I was encased in marijuana, the drug of the solitary. [...] By the time I arrived at college I had been in no countries, had no jobs, participated in no political groups, had no lovers. In short, I was perfectly equipped to write the kind of fiction I did write: saturated by other books; touched by the world, but only vicariously."

During college, she wrote a handful of short stories, but they always ended up too long, and she didn't like the idea of writing a novella. So she decided to expand one into a full novel. She said: "I wanted to write a book about a man who gets through the century in a good way. He lives a good life by accident." She wrote about 100 pages of the book and decided to send it off to a publisher; a friend suggested she find herself an agent first, and before long, she had a huge advance for the novel — reportedly $400,000. She graduated from college and published White Teeth in 2000. It was a sensation: a best-seller, a critical success, and an award-winner. Smith was just 24 years old. One of the few negative reviews of it was written anonymously by Smith herself, who wrote in the literary magazine Butterfly: "This kind of precocity in so young a writer has one half of the audience standing to applaud and the other half wishing, as with child performers of the past (Shirley Temple, Bonnie Langford, et al.), she would just stay still and shut up. White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old."

She has published three novels since then, including her most recent, NW (2012).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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