COLUMN: Do not put Plath on blast

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By Roxanne Timan, Managing Editor

Follow her at @Roxlobster

This past week marked EC’s 28th Annual Holocaust Education Project. The schedule was full of events to memorialize the tragedy, including a guest lecture by Jill Peláez Baumgaertner to begin the week. 

The lecture, ‘Can Poetry Be Written After the Holocaust?’ never seemed to answer the question in the title, but instead told the audience what literature is okay to read and what is not. As the introduction to a remembrance of a historical event, I felt disappointed and somewhat betrayed at the College’s choice of this speaker.

Baumgaertner began the presentation with examples of what she felt were poor literature written about the Holocaust, putting writers like Sylvia Plath, Martin Amis, and Paul Celan under the bus for exploiting this tragedy for their own gain.

Specifically, she went in on Plath’s poem, ‘Daddy,’ which compares her volatile relationship with her late father to the acts of Adolf Hitler. Baumgaertner expressed to the crowd that the work was an act of privilege, stating “one girl could never feel the pain of the death of so many innocent people, this is never okay to do.” 

I was under the impression I was in an academic lecture, and it came off mostly as her opinions on writers without explicitly letting the audience know that these were, in fact, just opinions without a counter argument or even thinking of the situation from other sides.

I am not a Sylvia Plath aficionado, but I recognize her contribution to the poetry world as a poetry writer myself. The poem ‘Daddy’ is a tragic story of abuse, not making a mockery of the Holocaust. She was doing what writers do, comparing her own experience to something she knew about and with an accurate voice. 

 Everyone has felt like the “other” in some situations. People feel ostracized and targeted, most definitely in our angsty teenager days. Writing, especially poetry, is meant to put these ideas of anguish to life even if they are not completely politically correct. 

No one can be sure of the sure intention of Plath’s work, but it is in charge of the reader to make their own perceptions on writing. It isn’t very shocking that the lecture did not include a reading of the poem in full, but two clips strategically placed on a powerpoint to make the poet look bad.

This was just the beginning of the lecture, and I already felt my blood rush to my cheeks out off anger and lack of options on what to do. The preface of this week was to “ask the hard questions” about the Holocaust, however, I felt more silenced than anything. I felt that I would be targeted instead of welcomed for my inquisitiveness about her feelings towards other writers.

I understand criticism is a part of our culture, and I welcome it, but there is a difference between criticizing a work with academic reasoning and standing in front of a room of students with blossoming minds sternly repeating “the holocaust should never be used as a metaphor.”