Thursday, March 10, 2011

Your Own, Sylvia

Plot Summary
Hemphill tells a quasi-fictional story of Sylvia Plath's life in verse.  Poems backed up by factual footnotes tell of Sylvia's relationship with her parents, and the impact that her father's death had on her childhood soul.  As years go by, Sylvia's life fills with honors, awards and different men, but she cannot seem to fill the void.  Her diligent strive for perfection consumes her life, and she is eventually torn between the artistic life of writing and dutiful motherhood.  Sylvia's fiery romance with her poet husband fizzles and she is left with two children, a perfect garden, lovely curls and an dark void inside of her heart.  The tragic events leading up to her suicide still resonate with woman up to this day. 

Critical Analysis
The poetry of Hemphill explains Sylvia's life in lovely and fascinating style which can also be heart wrenching.  Many poems are written from perspectives of important people from Sylvia's life.  The background knowledge provided by the footnotes help fill readers who are new to Plath's works.  Hemphill writes certain poems "in the style of" Plath's epic poems.  "The Arrival of Poetry" describes Plath's process during "the kill hours" in the syle of "The Arrival of the Bee Box."  Like a brilliant song, Hemphill describes Plath's process as an organically developing, yet effortless and irrepressible dark wonder. 

"Poetry taps beat after beat.
From her typewriter keys.
She studies the page, astonished
At her maniac poems, buzzing real as an ear.
She cannot send them back."

Hemphill's poetry is descriptive and deep, and it manifests in a fashion which is easily understandable by young adults.  This novel will appeal to poetry lovers as well as readers who are just discovering the art.  The sequential poems tell an engrossing story, while at the same time, each stands alone beautifully.  Hemphill captures the insightful encounters and toils of Sylvia Plath's life, poetry and death.

Booklist Books for Youth Editors' Choice - 2007 winner
Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice Award - 2007
ALA Best Books for Young Adults Top 10 - 2008Michael L. Printz Honor Book - 2008

"Hemphill rises to the challenge of capturing the life of a poet through poetry itself, the end result is a collection of verse worthy of the artist whom it portrays." - Jill Heritage Maza. School Library Journal

"Hemphill's verse possesses the same crystalline clarity as Plath's, the same relentless attempt to get to the heart of the matter—with all the words exactly right." - Lissa Paul. The Horn Book

"Plath's dramatic genius and personal struggles, particularly the difficulties of reconciling the writing life with the roles of wife and mother, have long attracted teen interest, and this accomplished, creative story may ignite new interest in Plath's original works." - Gillian Engberg.  Booklist

  • Students can follow the link below prior to reading;   After reading about Sylvia Plath's life, they can choose from the list of poems to read from the site, and comment on the ones that move them the most.  
  • Young adults can be assigned a poem by Sylvia Plath's to read and analyze.  Afterwards, they can write their own poem or story to capture the mood of the poem they were assigned. 
  • "Women in Poetry" - provides an excellent unit to encourage exploration of various female poets including the following:
  • Sharon Olds, "I Go Back to May 1937" Read Discussion Questions on this poem.
  • Audre Lorde, "Hanging Fire" Read Discussion Questions on this poem.
  • Julia Alvarez, "The Lost and Found Senoritas" Read Vocabulary for this poem.
  • Marilyn Chin, "How I Got That Name" Read Vocabulary for this poem.
  • Elizabeth Bishop, "In the Waiting Room"
  • Sylvia Plath, "Daddy" (I had this poem posted on my site, but it was blocked for hate language.)
  • Ruth Dallas, "In the Giant's Castle" Read Discussion Questions about Plath and Dallas.
I survived the terror and heartbreak of suicide first hand with the loss of my best friend and sister, eleven months and 11 days ago.  The helplessness and guilty feelings of the ones left behind leave scars that will never fully heal.  The Bell Jar was my sister, Megan's, favorite book.  She had a limited edition copy; she recited the plum tree paragraph in Chapter 7 by heart.  She was a gorgeous, talented artist who was loved by every person she encountered.  After she hung herself in her apartment at the age of 29, I discovered her secret blog. "First Love" parallels Plath's poem "Edge" by the connection between mother and child.  
Plath wrote:
"Each dead child coiled, a white serpent, 
One at each little 
Pitcher of milk, now empty."
Plath was aware of the the way her suffering affected her own children.  Megan's poem "First Love," reflects the impact of these "demons" on a child.  She even excuses and forgives her mother, but in the end, blames herself.  
"We want our mothers.
We want their love.
And when that love becomes a game
The only thing we will understand
Is shame.
We have failed. If she doesn't love us
No one will."

Megan was also an illustrator for a few University mascot children books.  

Coping with the suicide of a loved one is different from a death of natural or uncontrollable causes.  A roller coaster ride of despair, fury, guilt and forgiveness.  As time goes on, feelings of forgiveness and understanding become more predominant. 
-  Keeping a journal or diary is helpful for many people to cope with day to day problems.  After reading Your Own, Sylvia, young adults can use this activity to make sense of the stresses and negativities around them.  

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