Thursday, July 22, 2010

Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):  On a bleak February day in 1963 a young American poet died by her own hand, and passed into a myth that has since imprinted itself on the hearts and minds of millions. She was and is Sylvia Plath and Your Own, Sylvia is a portrait of her life, told in poems.
            With photos and an extensive list of facts and sources to round out the reading experience, Your Own, Sylvia is a great curriculum companion to Plath's The Bell Jar and Ariel, a welcoming introduction for newcomers, and an unflinching valentine for the devoted.

And here's what I thought:   Let me begin by saying that I didn't really mean to pick up this book at first.  I had actually started Stephanie Hemphill's new book, Wicked Girls.   However, I had only gotten part way through the book and although I liked it, it was due back to the library (I could have renewed it, but I wanted to give other readers a chance at the book).   Wicked Girls is a story set in the time of the Salem witch trials, and is written in verse, a style that I don't always warm to right away.   However, I had been enjoying Wicked Girls until I had to return it.   I saw that our library had another book by Stephanie Hemphill, about Sylvia Plath, so I thought I'd give it a try.   After all, I have always enjoyed Plath's poetry (I took a number of poetry & poetry writing classes in college), and since Your Own, Sylvia was a book about Sylvia Plath, I didn't see how I could go wrong.

There are a number of very well-written reviews on other blogs about this book, some much better written that I would most likely produce.   I really enjoyed that Stephanie Hemphill had such an affection and passion for her subject.  It's obvious, even if you don't go right away to the notes at the back of the book, that she did a lot of research, and spent a lot of time thinking about Sylvia Plath's life.    This entire book is written in poems written in a similar style to Plath's, that tell Sylvia's life through the voices of other people around her.  Does that make sense?   For example, there are poems like "A Room of Her Own" by Warren Plath, and "Heartbreaker" by "John Hall, a college boy Sylvia dated in high school...."    In addition to the poems, on most pages, there are small footnotes that give bits of information and explanation into the real life of Sylvia.  This is helpful, because it tells you a little more about what's going on in a particular poem.   It's an interesting way to write a nonfiction book; the poems here are in the voices of real people, but of course, they didn't really write the poems.   And, if they all happened to write poetry, they wouldn't have all written in the same style of Sylvia, herself.  But what I found happening as I read the book was that I learned a little more about Sylvia's life, and also enjoyed reading the poems.  In fact, a few times, I made little notes to myself about a particular line -- and then went back and read through some of Plath's own poetry, just because reading Hemphill's book was an inspiration to re-visit those poems.    Stephanie Hemphill's own poems are so strongly written, that even if you didn't know anything about Sylvia Plath and you read one of these poems, on its own, it would stand alone as art.   They make me remember what I used to love about reading poetry, and attempting to write my own, as well.

I'll leave you with an example (one of the many that I liked).  (p. 196) from "The Arrival of Poetry"  ---

"Pretty on the outside, blue-bowed
And wrapped in the crisp paper of autumn,
Her words resonate danger.
Her poems are like a box of apples,
Sour and tart in her mouth,
They predict a fall."

And here are a few other reviews:


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