POETRY CHOICE: BIOGRAPHICAL POETRY—Post a Poetry BREAK with a biographical poem of your choice OR a Poetry BOOK REVIEW on a biographical poetry book of your choice
Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath, written by Stephanie Hemphill, was published in 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf in New York. Hemphill carries the reader on a biographical journey from Plath’s birth in October 27, 1932 to events that occurred after Plath’s suicide in 1963. To appreciate the verse novel fully, one must read Hemphill’s letter to her readers in the back. She writes about discovering a love for Sylvia Plath when she first heard “Edge” as a young girl of fifteen. To rediscover Plath, Hemphill chose a line a day of Plath’s poetry and wrote a response to the line in her journal in poetic form. Hemphill recounts this activity, “I tried to channel Sylvia, as well as the younger me reacting to Plath for the first time” (Hemphill 2007, p. 247). The remembrance of her reaction to Plath’s poetry as an influential teen of fifteen solidifies this verse novel as one for young adults today.
The YA verse novel lends itself to high school and mature junior high students. Hemphill does not hold back in describing Plath’s many relationships with family, friends, and lovers, particularly the death of Plath’s father when she was eight and the doomed marriage to fellow poet, Ted Hughes. Hemphill emphasizes her verse poetry is a work of fiction, her imagination channeling Plath. Through this endeavor, she creates a haunting work that breathes as much angst as many of Plath’s poems. She not only channels Plath, but she also, through her poetry, gives voice to those in Plath’s life, such as Plath’s mother, Aurelia.
Students will appreciate the creative venue for reading a biography. Instead of a dry, many-paged account of Plath’s live, they receive first-person conjecture in verse form of the various people who touched Plath’s lives, for good and bad. Found at the bottom of the page, at the end of each poem, is commentary of the true events reflected in the verse. An example is the second poem in the book. It encloses Hemphill’s musings of the thoughts of Plath’s mother, Aurelia, at the advent of Plath’s birth.
Dearest Darling, First Born
Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother
October 27, 1932
Child of sea and sand,
your face is mine
but you will be tall
with the dark eyes of your father.
When you cry
I will rock you and rhyme you,
feed you milk of my breast,
give you my diligence, my contract of love.
Big beautiful Sivvy,
we are alone in this hospital.
to the antiseptic white.
My baby, my duty,
I will rear you right.
Give you everything, buttons off my shirt.
You will be what I cannot. (p. 2)
The phrasing in this poem foreshadows the rest. Phrases such as “antiseptic white” and “contract of love” preview the verses that follow. By no means though, does Hemphill “copy” Plath; she honors Plath’s life and talent. She delivers the verse using her own unique style, sometimes abstract, sometimes straightforward. Furthermore, each poem is a biographical reflection of an individual or event in Plath’s life.
Hemphill uses poetic devices throughout. For example, she pens these metaphoric lines to describe the Hughes’s version of meeting Plath: I may be black panther / but she draws blood / swirls whiskey-headed / around the dance floor / dizzy on my poetry (p. 114). Many of the events in Plath’s life, depicted through Hemphill’s verse, are heartrending; some are humorous, others controversial. Hemphill includes poems that focus on Plath’s preoccupation with her father’s death, which occurred when she was eight, and verse that presumes Plath’s mindset before committing suicide. The verse is presented realistically, but tastefully. Students gain a strong grasp of who Plath was through Hemphill’s poetic verse, maybe even more so than through Plath’s poetry, which might prove difficult to follow for some young adults.
Hemphill, Stephanie. 2007. Your own, Sylvia: A verse portrait of Sylvia Plath. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2, 114, 247.