Plath. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams

Short review: A few decent stories and essays, but really only for the Plath aficionado or completist.

I became interested in this book of stories, essays and excerpts from Plath’s notebooks, due to the several references I came across to the title story while looking into Plath’s background as an aid in understanding her poetry for my Madwomen Poets class last fall.

I got a copy via ILL but it was in such bad shape that the book was received rubber banded together.  Also, the pages were highly yellowed and brittle and my allergies were not excited about even attempting reading the primary story for which I ordered it.  Noticing it was quite affordable brand new from amazon I added it to my wish list and my son got it for me for Christmas.  I read it in December 2010.

My first issue with this collection comes from its ordering.  In the Introduction, Ted Hughes (her husband) writes “All items have approximate dates of composition and are roughly in reverse chronological order, insofar as that is possible” (7) [see the table of contents below].  No justification or reasoning is presented for this decision at all.  What is it with this kind of arrangement?  We have several works of collected poems by assorted single authors that are organized like this.  It seems to me that if one wants to watch the development of an author as a writer then reverse chronological order is assbackwards.  This upset me, so I resolved to read this collection in reverse order.

Thus I began with “P.S. Insights, Interviews & More …” which contains a very short biography of Plath, “Poet’s Prose” an essay by Margaret Atwood, and some marketing materials for Plath’s other works.

Atwood ends her essay with the following:

“The stories are arranged chronologically but in reverse order. This creates an archeological effect: the reader is made to dig backward in time, downward into remarkable mind, so that the last, earliest story, “Among the Bumble-bees” (a wistful story about a little girl’s worship of her father who dies mysteriously), emerges like the final gold-crowned skeleton at the bottom of the tomb—the king all those others were killed to protect. Which it is” ([11]).

While I found Atwood’s explanation overly artsy, I did decide to accept it as an explanation and read the book normally.

A perhaps larger issue is that many of these had been rejected by Plath herself (7).  Another is that, while “her reputation rests on the poems of her last six months,” most of the contents of this collection predates the poems of The Colossus which was completed 3 years before her death (9).  The only parts contemporary with Ariel are “three brief journalistic pieces, “America! America!” “Snow Blitz,” and “Ocean 1212-W”" (9).

Some of these stories serve as the material for several of the Ariel poems.  “The Bee Meeting,” “Berck Plage,” “Among the Narcissi,” and “The Moon and the Yew Tree” are all presaged or mentioned.

Seeing as I don’t have a lot to say about most of these, I think I’ll just add my comments behind each entry in the TOC and maybe a few slightly longer excerpts at the end.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Ted Hughes
  • Mothers (Story, 1962) – highly autobiographical.
  • Ocean 1212-W (Essay, 1962) – her grandmother’s phone number, autobiographical.
  • Snow blitz (Essay, 1963) – Jeebus! The last few months of her life; some of her last written words. The ending is terrifyingly ironic considering how she killed herself.
  • The Smiths: George, Marjorie (50), Claire (16) (From Notebooks, Spring 1962)
  • America! America! (Essay, 1963)
  • Charlie Pollard and the beekeepers (From Notebooks, June 1962) – Bees are one of Sylvia’s major thematic images.
  • A comparison (Essay, 1962) – compares novels to poems; mentions the yew tree of “The Moon and the Yew Tree.”
  • “Context” (Essay, 1962) – about the context for her poems. Mentions the yew tree again, and other poems by image.
  • Rose and Percy B. (From Notebooks, 1961/62)
  • Day of success (Story, 1960)
  • The fifteen-dollar eagle (Story, November 1959)
  • The fifty-ninth bear (Story, September 1959)
  • The daughters of Blossom Street (Story, 1959)
  • Sweetie pie and the gutter men (Story, May 1959)
  • The shadow (Story, January 1959)
  • Johnny Panic and the Bible of dreams (Story, December 1958) – the poetic element of dreams; electroshock.
  • Above the oxbow (Story, 1958)
  • Stone boy with dolphin (Story, 1957/58) – the Cambridge party where Sylvia meets and bites Ted; brushing snow from the stone boy; “And asteroids innumerable, a buzz of gilded bees” (189) [drunk].
  • All the dead dears (Story, 1957/58)
  • The wishing box (Story, 1956)
  • The day Mr. Prescott died (Story, 1956)
  • Widow Mangada (From Notebooks, Summer 1956)
  • That widow Mangada (Story, Autumn 1956) – this was a bit redundant after reading the previous notebook entries on which it is based, although I preferred the ending in the story.
  • Cambridge notes (From Notebooks, February 1956) – “With masks down, I walk, talking to the moon, to the neutral impersonal force that does not hear, but merely accepts my being” (261). The moon is a major image, especially in her later poetry. The moon is declared neutral here, and the surrounding writing supports that view, but her view will shift more to the negative in her later poetry.
  • Tongues of stone (Story, 1955)
  • Superman and Paula Brown’s new snowsuit (Story, 1955)
  • In the mountains (Story, 1954)
  • Initiation (Story, July 1952)
  • Sunday at the Mintons’ (Story, Spring 1952)
  • Among the bumblebees (Story, Early 1950s)
  • P.S. Insights, Interviews & More …

Taken out of context, I love the quote about the moon from “Cambridge notes.” “With masks down,” defenseless, naked, exposed, one is implacably accepted, but not judged, by an all-seeing, but non-hearing, moon that “merely accepts my being.”

Several of these pieces were quite good and a few of the stories have twisted, yet delightful (good and bad) endings. How well any of them stand up outside of the context of Sylvia’s internally tortured life, though, is hard to say.