Today is Sylvia Plath’s birthday. She would have been 83 years old today. Maybe in an alternate reality she’s living in a cottage somewhere at the edge of the cold, grey Atlantic where she paints and writes and keeps a hive or two full of bees. Or maybe that’s what the afterlife looks like for her, not that she believed in an afterlife. Is it wrong to wish something on someone if they don’t believe in it? Probably.
You don’t have to be much of a detective to figure out that I love Sylvia Plath. My blog is named after her only novel. I have an embroidered portrait of her on my dining room wall. I even have a necklace with a tiny gold inscription of that old brag of her heart: I am. I am. I am. I’m obviously a pretty big fan.
But I’m a fan for different reasons than you might think.
I write a lot about mental health, and I think sometimes people assume that I love Sylvia because we’re both part of the Depressed Ladiez club. And we are! And I do love her in part because I see my own struggles reflected in in writing and in her life. But that this is not the sum total of my relationship with La Plath.
I love her because she was fierce and unabashed and so fucking ambitious and hard-working. I often hear an argument among writers about whether good writing comes down to talent or hard work; Sylvia drew on both. She had an unarguable natural gift for language – she published her first poem when she was eight, after all – but my god that woman worked so hard to hone her talent. If you’ve ever read her journals, you know that she spent most of the pages alternately giving herself pep talks about writing and berating herself for not doing enough. She was determined to create great works, and she was willing to put in the time and energy necessary to do so.
For Sylvia, writing a poem was like solving a puzzle – it meant turning it this way and that way, trying to fit the words together just right. She was dogged about it. Once a project was started, she wouldn’t or couldn’t give up on it. One thing that Ted Hughes wrote about her has always stuck with me:
“To my knowledge, [Plath] never scrapped any of her poetic efforts. With one or two exceptions, she brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her, rejecting at most the odd verse, or a false head or a false tail. Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity.”
I think about this quote a lot. Whenever I am in the middle of working on something and I am angry and frustrated because it’s not going the way I want, I stop and ask myself, “If this is not going to be a table, can it be a chair instead?” Usually it can.
Sylvia was funny – darkly, brilliantly funny. Even when things were terrible she still often managed to be funny. One of my favourite lines from her journal comes from a moment when she was pretty sure Ted was cheating on her with one of his Smith students. She wrote, “Who knows who Ted’s next book will be dedicated to? His navel. His penis.” From one dick joke lover to another – I salute you, Sylvia.
And she was angry. So fucking beautifully angry. She was angry because her father was dead. She was angry because she felt her mother was a “walking vampire,” feeding off her emotions. She was angry because she felt that she wasn’t allowed to hate her only living parent; in her journals she wrote that “in a smarmy matriarchy of togetherness, it is hard to get a sanction to hate one’s mother.” She was angry because Ted left her for another woman, just like she’d known he would all along. She was angry because she was a woman, a woman who was not supposed to sleep around or hold her own or walk home alone at night.
She had the frantic anger of an animal throwing itself against the bars of its cage, determined to free itself at any cost.
Her rage is what shines most clearly in her last poems – her huge, perfect, unfeminine rage. As her marriage shuddered and jolted towards its end, she had to reevaluate who she was – not the adoring wife, the sweet daughter, the earth mother. She shed her good-girl self, the self craved everyone’s approval, and was reborn a fury. Like Shakespeare’s Ariel, for whom she named her final book, she had finally burst out of her prison and was soaring, winged and lethal, towards the sun.
And the poems she wrote then. My god, those bright, hard poems that cut with the precision of a scalpel. She knew it, too. In a letter to her mother dated just a few months before her death, she wrote, “I am writing the best poems of my life. They will make my name.” And they did, though not in the way that she’d imagined. Ariel was published posthumously, and the poems were reordered by Hughes to match the idea of a tortured writer driven to suicide. I don’t blame him for that; I’m sure it was a necessary sort of therapy at that time, a way of making sense of what had happened. But Hughes’ arrangement Ariel wasn’t what Plath wanted. Hughes’ order ended with three poems about death and obsession, whereas Plath’s preferred sequence had the book ending with the line: “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Her version saw a hopeful future; his saw the obliteration of all hope.
But just as her darker poems obscured everything else in the published version of Ariel, so are Sylvia Plath’s life and work overshadowed by her suicide. When people think of her, they picture her in her last awful hour, her head in the oven, her face dark with the stove’s grime. Her death is romanticized; men like Ryan Adams write songs about how they want to fuck her and love her and maybe save her. She’s seen as a martyr to something, although none of us are really clear on what that something is.
But she wasn’t a martyr. She was someone who was exhausted and worn down and in a moment of despair took her own life. It wasn’t meant to be a gesture or a call to action or anything like that. She was tired, and felt that all of the people around her had failed her by one measure or another, and on one particular bad night she could no longer see her way out. That’s it.
Here’s the thing I want people to know about Sylvia Plath: she was a survivor. She survived years of debilitating mental illnesses, she survived a suicide attempt, and right up to the end she was trying her damnedest to survive.
Sylvia Plath died on February 11th, 1963, in the middle of the coldest winter London had seen in 100 years. She had moved to the city hoping to find a better support system there and more writing opportunities, but things weren’t working out as she had hoped. The pipes in the flat she had rented kept freezing and bursting, her two small children were often sick, and she didn’t even have a telephone. She was isolated because of the people who had been her friends were, in truth, Ted’s friends. The Bell Jar, which had come out the previous month, was met with critical indifference. Meanwhile, Ted was becoming increasingly well-known in the literary world and, while Sylvia cared for their children in her icy flat, was planning on taking his mistress for a holiday in Spain.
Sylvia fought hard to live. She was seeing her doctor on a daily basis and had just started taking antidepressants. Recognizing that she might be a danger to herself, she took the children and went to stay with a family friend. Meanwhile, her doctor was frantically trying to find her a hospital bed, but none were available. She was trying. You could even argue that Sylvia didn’t die from suicide; she died from the deeply broken infrastructure of mental health care. She died from a system that failed her when her when she needed it the most.
Sylvia Plath was a fighter, and she went down fighting. She did not lose the battle or give in to depression or whatever weird euphemism you want to use. She did not die because she was weak or had a moral failing. She died because she was very sick and did not have proper care. There is nothing more to than that, not that there should be. Dying because there is no room for you in the hospital is tragedy enough without embroidering it.
It’s a full moon tonight. Sylvia would have loved it. She was obsessed with the moon; it featured heavily in her poems, and she mentioned it literally hundreds of times in her journal, dissecting its colour, shape and size. It had a sort of elemental pull on her, just as her writing tugs indescribably at something in me. I keep returning to her, reading her, writing about her. No matter how much I dig up and sort through, I’m never done. I don’t want to ever be done.
I hope there’s a moon wherever she is.