Let’s kick this off with a quick round of word association. I say ‘Sylvia Plath’ – what comes to mind? Here’s a list of possibilities: suicide, Ted Hughes, depression, The Bell Jar, pain, Ariel, fear, Daddy, mental illness, Lady Lazarus, death, oven. These may not have been the first to flicker up for you (and actually I only included the last when it came up as a suggestion for associated search terms on Google images) – but they’re certainly some of the ones that recur frequently, particularly on platforms like Tumblr and Pinterest.
On these sites it feels as though she is sometimes diminished, all-too-often reduced to quotes in faux-vintage typewriter fonts; or a series of faded portraits - all fringe and toothy grin; or numerous book-covers for The Bell Jar (with varying degrees of appropriate-ness); or excerpts from her journals overlaid on angsty modern images. Her work is chopped up into sound bites, her life and the leaving of it passed around as legend. There’s an uneasy sense of veneration, a collapsing of the distinction between Plath the poet and Plath the person - as though the two were one and the same.
I have a complicated relationship with Plath. I adore her work. It is sharp and dark and funny and beautiful. Her poems, her short stories, her novel – I love it all. But this is balanced against a wariness of what ‘Sylvia Plath’ as an entity has become. It’s hard to explain this concisely. The very personal nature of her work makes it a tricky line to tread without upsetting or appearing judgmental and insensitive.
So I’ll begin with some not’s. I am not in any way saying that it’s wrong to write, read, promote or celebrate works that plunge into the dark depths of mental illness. It’s actually key that we do so, and keep up open conversations. I’m not disputing the fact that Plath’s words have resonated and meant a lot to plenty of people, particularly young women who’ve found Plath’s voice to be something of a beacon when no-one else seems to understand. It’s incredible that her thoughts continue to echo and remain relevant so many years after they were first committed to the page.
We all read Plath in our own way. Different parts mean different things to different people. For many, her descriptions of worthlessness, anxiety and struggle to keep going will be familiar - perhaps comforting. A lifeline woven of words.
For me, with my experiences of spinal surgery, there are other aspects I identify with. Stanzas such as this one in ‘Tulips’ feel particularly close and raw: ‘I am nobody. I am nothing to do with these explosions./ I have given up my name and my day clothes to the nurses/ and my history to the anesthetist and my body to the surgeon.’ It summarizes the exact feeling of being in hospital, and so I appreciate it on both individual and artistic levels.
So, I’m also not claiming that my subjective opinion of Plath is more important or valid than anyone else’s. There are so many perspectives and interpretations, and mine is merely a single response - and a not especially academic one, at that. More a collation of various thoughts from the last few years. (As a side note, I'm particularly interested in what Maeve O'Brien is researching at the moment - with her emphasis on silence in Plath's work - see her blog 'The Plath Diaries' here).
But here’s a small list of some the things I do want to try to articulate:
- Appreciating Plath’s candid tone and confessional mode is very different from citing her work in order to glorify depression or suicide. There’s a difference between recognition and elevation.
- Depicting Plath as the sum total of her relationships, worries and mental health reduces her down to something much less than what she was. It’s a disservice to her highly skilled craft(wo)manship and composition. As Anne Stevenson commented, ‘her private experiences would be of no importance had she not, in poem after poem… imaginatively transformed, exaggerated and brilliantly dramatized them.’
- Loving Sylvia Plath does not mean hating Ted Hughes. Both are uniquely brilliant writers. Also, he didn't ‘cause’ anything – he was a shit husband at times (no question about that) – but he isn’t a singular figure to load up with blame. She’d been ill before she knew him.
- The ‘I’ of Plath’s poetry and prose is not the ‘I’ of Plath herself. One can appreciate that Plath mined her own life and suffering to create her art, without viewing her as a straight up autobiographer. She is first and foremost a poet and author intensely focused on rhythms, momentum, sound and image – with access to what Seamus Heaney once called the ‘word-hoard’.
- There’s a long tradition of seeing female writers as mere mouthpieces for their feelings and emotions – as though all that flowed from the pen was a spontaneous expression of self. There are two tricky opposing things here. One is that it’s really, really important that we value these expressions of feeling and emotion as being just as worthy a topic of literature as more traditionally masculine ‘BIG THEMES’ like war or politics. But the other is to acknowledge that feeling and emotion aren’t all that these writers are about. Plath is also great on character commentary, biting social observations and a startling clarity of description. People rarely mention that The Bell Jar is funny, as well as devastating.
There are lots of other strands that could be picked up on, but I’d like to use this now as a forum. What do other people think of Plath? Are you more interested in her life or her work? Why are we so utterly fascinated by autobiography - and how does this affect our perception of a writer's output? I’d love some thoughts.
I'm aware that in posting these pictures, I'm playing into the trope of the young woman reading Plath in a rather idealised or 'pretty' fashion - here accented by the fifties style dress and hairstyle. I'm interested in how we often represent books or authors in contemporary imagery, with certain texts immediately adding a particular mood or message to the shot. Sylvia Plath is a particularly potent choice.
The title of the post is taken from a poem of Plath's from 1960.