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.