On Sylvia Plath

Ever since my early twenties I have been inexorably drawn to Sylvia Plath. There is something that haunts me about her life, her poetry and her deep rooted despair and depression and how it came out in her writing.

I remember when I first felt a kinship with Plath, it was reading her diaries (from her early years at Cambridge), around the time when she met Ted Hughes. Reading her diaries it seemed to me that Plath constantly lived on the cusp of a complete and utter nervous breakdown. Her mind was often ravaged by scarred thoughts of the past, oscillating between bouts of severe depression and terrifying anxiety.

I too am more than acquainted with the ‘black dog’ of depression, and I know only too well that the ordinary act of waking up can bring with it a sense of pointlessness, unimaginable panic and feelings of desolation. I can only begin to imagine the additional pressures that weighed in on Plath’s depression: child rearing, marital distress, the unresolved feelings she held towards her father for whom her poetry and prose, was filled with rhythmic, angry, injecting volatile emotion into a myriad of words.

I try to relate Plath’s battle with depression to the generation that influenced her. The early 1960’s was a terrible time for women. Worse still for clever ambitious women. Valium had been on the market for a few years in and by this time was being advertised aggressively by the medical profession at healthy women who felt trapped. Tranquillizers were commonly used to silence the voice of dissatisfaction, descent and unrest of women in society. These desperate and distress women had to be medicated away. Why wouldn’t any woman (or man) go mad in a society like this?

These days depression is the stuff of dinner-party prattle, but Plath explored the condition with no sense of its being a “condition” that others shared, no established therapeutic vocabulary, and no Prozac was on offer. It wasn’t until the early 1990″s that depression entered mainstream social discourse and began to lose its stigma. Ironically, now that we regard it as a standard, hardly shameful diagnosis, routinely treatable with drugs, we may have lost a raw sense of how awful, terrifying, and bleak is the real thing. Plath reminds us sharply of that horror.

I also wonder if Plath would have been better able to cope had she been born in a different time. Would she have found our modernity, a cosy coffee-house environment (complete with wifi internet access) easier to live with. Would she have been less dependent on the approval of viewers and critics and more aware of the positive effect her book was having on young and splintered psyches?

Would she have found a way to connect with people who understood her aesthetic and validated her experience? Would she have been better ‘received’?
Or would that kind of facebook connectedness and access to unmitigated and often misspelled negativity have driven her even madder? I wonder.

Haphazardly one morning, I thought I’d type her name into YouTube. After all these years, for the first time I heard Sylvia’s voice. It’s a beautiful voice with its educated, New England lilt of a kind that barely exists anymore. It’s also lucid, articulate, strong, and witty as she talks of how prose allows you to include more of the detailed experience of life, those “toothbrushes” you can’t put into poety. And there she is reading Daddy!

“Daddy,” it begins, “I have had to kill you.”

The poem’s rhythms, that potent blend of nursery rhyme and ragtime, still thrum through me:

“You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe”

rhyming daringly at the stanza’s end with “Achoo”.

“the brute heart of a brute like you”…

Plath’s narrative voice resides inside my head conscious and unconscious, sometimes fluttery, self-conscious, sometimes melodramatic, sometimes afraid. But which ever it is there a sense of the irrepressible effervescence, amongst the personal hauntings, and the fact that women inflect experiences differently from men. We cannot, it seems, escape that.

By some accident of time and place, I met the feminist poet Doris Lessing whose writing was one of the first to introduce me to feminism. Lessing had known Plath for many years and she told me of Plath’s life and her vivid presence as well as of the tragedy of her suicide, in part occasioned by a toxic cocktail of anti-depressants she was allergic to.

But what Lessing also recalled was a story of a woman, a mother, a daughter, a wife, an artist who still believed not just in the possibility of happiness, but in herself. However brief and fragile her moment of hope, however anguished those last months of her life, Plath recognised the timeless incandescence of her achievement.

The suffering of those who take their own lives seems to me to be unimaginable – a terrifying and heartbreaking thought, how much worse their psychic pain must have been than anything one has oneself experienced. This psychic pain invades us all, at some point in our lives. The floor of some world seems to fall away from under us, and keep falling and falling. It shakes us to the core and renders our deeply held beliefs in kindness, compassion and love into doubting heaps of pain-filled ‘what ifs’.

Plath’s poetry attempted to answer this, though ultimately I suspect nothing ever can, not even poetry. But I will always admire her attempt, with her fierce intelligence, her language, her wit, her consonantal music – her sheer gift, and what must have been her drive, as its guardian, possessor, possessee, to realise it.

Plath’s poems walk with me each day, like inner voices, where even the parts of a rejected self, can find and incorporate a greater whole. Plath’s poems gives me a gentle hand on the shoulder and a quiet place under the Hawthorn tree to find that whole.

It is, as she wrote:

“A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for …”

It is, a star passing from her hand into ours.

Star Clusters

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13 Replies to “On Sylvia Plath”

  1. You bring Sylvia alive in a way nobody has, to me. And yes, I too have been a Sylvia lover and fan since forever.

    I connect with her as a woman, who must create a delicate balance in her day, every day. Every day, she must recreate that balance – between mind, body and soul; between the real and imagined; between wailing babies and home and the yearning to fly away.
    Some days the person wins, some days are lost days.

    Perhaps Sylvia did not live long enough to know that lost days bring a better day on their back. Perhaps, she never intended to take her life – it could not have been easy.
    Perhaps, she just got exhausted and gave in. We will never know.

    As her publisher put it…’perhaps her death was her best career move…’ Frequently, unplanned and unexpected events produce unexpected results.

    I often think what might have been the fate of her work had she stayed alive to the ripe old age of say, seventy. Would she still have got the fame and recognition she has today? We will never know.

    This is a beautiful beautiful tribute to the greatest poet in my life …. please also put in the Youtube links…. then it would be PERFECT! :)

    Have a great week ahead…

  2. Thank you for your immensely wonderful response.

    Actually your feature post on Plath’s work triggered me into writing up my view of her short life and the brilliant gift to love, beauty and progressive feminism, though sadly she didn’t live long enough to see the ‘better day’ of the latter.

    I realise that I cannot respond to Plath in a woman’s world, but I try, as a man, to see what it must have been like to have been her. I relate on a hope that there is enough common ground between the sexes; to listen to one another, without prejudice, without expectation and without indifference. It’s kind of behind the ‘everything’ I find inspiration with.

    Like you say, it wasn’t easy and she suffered deeper than most for her art, message and beliefs. One day, one sublime clear blue sky day, she will have a plaque in Poets Corner up there with the Blakes, Wordsworths of this world.
    Till that day, where ever she is, she lives in our hearts and minds. That’s where she belongs.

    Wish you much mind/body/spirit balance in your day :)

  3. “Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it. I want to become acutely aware of all I’ve taken for granted.”
    ― Sylvia Plath

    Thank you for an amazing post.

  4. In the Diocese of Wakefield
    there is a place
    near a monkey nut tree:
    heavy with gravestones
    most flat
    side by Side
    on the earth.
    Sylvia lays in the overspill bit
    her grave standing trashy –
    testament to strangers.

    I wrote this as part of an assignment when I was at Lumb Bank on an Arvon writing course in Yorkshire.

    I found it a was a very ordinary spot for an extra-ordinary soul to rest.

    I always think of SP as the marilyn Monroe of the literary world….would she have become the person she is today had she lived to 80?
    That is for each of us to decide .

    (Moving piece…Thank uou )

  5. Thanks for sharing a really touching tribute, Andrea, and one which evokes a sense, in me anyhow, to go to her stone, probably read a poem or two and weep. It wouldn’t at all surprise me if strangers do.

    I cannot help think that Sylvia was in many ways an unintentional voice for a lost generation. And if she was still alive today, aged 80, she would have only carried further generations of young angry, disillusioned women with her. Her protest was unmistakably a universal one.

    It occurred to me that is was Plath’s refusal to compromise to the end, that marked her as fearless, authentic and unique. Unique, a word which as far meaning goes, has yet to come to fruition in our culture of individualism. Anyway I’m in the process of writing a essay around uniqueness…

    Thanks again.

  6. …This is now, and now, and now

    I can hear my first Zen teacher laughing, for she could see (in me) the enormous lengths one would go to in avoiding this ‘now’. I was running scared back then…

    Have you every read anything by Monica Furlong? A Christian writer who sharply fought for the emancipation of women, in the church (and outside), and directly observed the truth of living in the now. Like Plath, I would liked to have a coffee with Furlong before she died to ask a hundred and one things about her work and her life. That would be a awful lot of coffee, shareholders in Costa would be pleased :)

  7. I’m a master of typos :) I just checked out Lumb Bank in Arvon, once home to Ted Hughes, and see that it still runs residential retreats…. Did you undertake the 5 day course and how did you find it?

  8. Thanks for the comment Trish, Sylvia Plath (like Ted Hughes) continues to influence my thoughts. Probably always will.

    You’re right there does seem to be an implicit relationship between the artist and the inner restlessness, and sometimes even destructive forces that give rise to immense works of beauty.
    But I also think its a relationship that we have with art, and why it moves us (the audience), some people just see clouds and others see billowing sails of Galleon ships against the sunset…

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