What I Wish Everyone Knew About Sylvia Plath

28 Oct

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.

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81 Responses to “What I Wish Everyone Knew About Sylvia Plath”

  1. listentothebabe October 28, 2015 at 2:33 am #

    I wrote this poem a while back but it’s dedicated to her and her impatience with mediocrity. http://listentothebabe.com/2015/09/11/socality/ And you’re right, she just got tired. We get so tired…

  2. martin dufresne (@martindufresne) October 28, 2015 at 2:43 am #

    Thank you. Every writer deserves as thoughtful a fan as you are.

  3. Bridgesburning Chris October 28, 2015 at 3:00 am #

    Powerful post! Thank you!

  4. M.A. October 28, 2015 at 3:06 am #

    Thank you so much for this meditation on Plath, and especially for pushing back against the cult of death that often shrouds so many writers and creative people. Good writer–good artists–work their asses off, much more so than people who don’t produce art seem to want to admit. I’m going to reread some Plath tonight, as well as one of other favorites who also took her life, Anne Sexton. Peace.

  5. Ginyar Aknoton Ejiofor October 28, 2015 at 3:08 am #

    Beautiful work…

  6. Poet Dressed In Black October 28, 2015 at 3:11 am #

    I love Plath also. I wonder if any scholars have explored her mother as NPD (narcissistic personality disorder). I had always felt Plath’s rage was more at her mother, but everyone said it was toward her father. (Years back.) NPD mothers do so much damage. Been a long time since I read them, but as I recall the contrast between Letters Home and her Journals is striking. Pollyanna perky in letters to her mother, dark, angry, brilliant in her private journals. I actually love that Ryan Adams song. He says “a Sylvia Plath” which I take to mean some brilliant, sensitive, amazing woman, less than Plath herself. I’m a fan of both Ryan Adams as well as Sylvia Plath. Anyway, this is just my point of view. I agree, though, her suicide is romanticized more often than her brilliance admired. Good wishes to you.

    • Bruce Byfield October 28, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

      I once did a directed studies on Sylvia Plath, and I learned a lot about poetry and emotional toughness as a result.

      I think everyone who sees her in terms of her death should listen to her reading of “Daddy.” Her voice really brings out the emotional complexity, especially the self-mockery, the sarcasm, and the comic exaggeration. This complexity is what makes her work memorable, and I maintain that any view that does not take it into account is a distortion and does her a dis-service.

  7. careleblanc October 28, 2015 at 3:17 am #

    Beautifully written. Thank you for defending her legacy. She was a survivor.

  8. Everyday Voices October 28, 2015 at 3:23 am #

    Thank you for writing this lovely tribute to her. I am also a huge Sylvia Plath fan. I have the book Ariel. I read her journals. I wish I met her. I do not view her story as tragic at all, like you said, society failed her, being a woman in a sexist society failed her.

  9. careleblanc October 28, 2015 at 3:25 am #

    Beautifully written. She was a survivor.

  10. emtag2 October 28, 2015 at 3:51 am #

    Thank-you for sharing this. Sylvia’s poem ‘Mirror’ was my first venture into the world of poetry. I remember reading it during an English lesson at school and falling in love – was it with Sylvia, or with poetry, or with writing? I’m not sure. It’s about time I read her novel, I think. I’ve been meaning to for years but I suppose I’ve been psyching myself up for it as I know it will be a challenge – albeit a beautiful one.

  11. Everyday Voices October 28, 2015 at 4:09 am #

    Reblogged this on Everyday Voices and commented:
    Oct. 28th is Sylvia Plath’s birthday, she would have been 83 years old. Another fellow blogger wrote a loving tribute to Sylvia Plath and focused on the triumphs of her life, her writing and her work, not the tragedies and misfortunes.
    I studied Plath in my college poetry class, I was blown away, especially by her collection ‘Ariel’. To get to know her better I read her unabridged journals. She was an amazing and resilient woman. Her husband, who failed her in life, at least, didn’t fail her in death. Though it does slightly make me sick that he got to reap the financial rewards of her work while her last days were spent in near penury, in an icy flat with two tiny children who were constantly ill, during the coldest winter England has ever seen in 100 years. It brings to light the gross unfairness of life. It makes me sad that she never got to see the impact she made on literature and she never got to enjoy the rewards of her hard work. For a woman who only lived for 33 years, her volumes of work was extraordinary. If one reads her journal, one will know just how hard she worked at her craft. Despite her battle with mental illness and depression that just won’t leave her, having a husband who won’t keep his pants up, and taking care of two tiny children on her own (while her estranged husband was about to jet off to sunny Spain for a holiday with his girlfriend), she wrote her best work ‘Ariel’.
    The professor who lectured Sylvia Plath to us, thankfully didn’t focus on her suicide and he didn’t paint her to be a tragic figure. And no, she didn’t kill herself because her husband had run off with someone else. She always knew he was going to do that, it was just a matter of when. It would have been nice if at least left enough money for her and the children to live on and kept her flat heated. But, alas, men, especially these egotistical poet types who have women throwing themselves at him, what can you do?

  12. MindfulUrbanist October 28, 2015 at 4:17 am #

    This was really nice. Thank you for drawing attention to how strong she was. I think that she would be honoured by your consideration.

  13. peaceof8 October 28, 2015 at 4:38 am #

    Beautifully written. A great tribute. Thank you. Don’t you just wish you could have a cup of coffee with her? I do!

  14. Marcy Adams October 28, 2015 at 4:56 am #

    You’ve done an excellent job of making me want to know more about Sylvia Plath … thank you ..

  15. NextInLine October 28, 2015 at 5:04 am #

    This is stunningly written. Beautiful and sad and heartbreaking; your words brought me to tears. I am a fellow Plath lover (well, that sounds weird as shit but ok) and sufferer of my shade of mental illness against which I constantly struggle, I find this is bracingly honest and elegant in its candor and thought. Thank you tonight for this. Just that.

  16. Amanda Martin October 28, 2015 at 5:56 am #

    Reblogged this on writermummy and commented:
    Beautiful and fascinating piece

  17. daisywillows October 28, 2015 at 7:42 am #

    I’ve never been a massive fan of her works maybe because I haven’t read much of it. I do love how you have not painted her as the usual victim of a raging depression but as a fighter of a system and culture that et her down. I do have a favourite poem of hers:Nick and the Candlestick
    BY SYLVIA PLATH
    I am a miner. The light burns blue.
    Waxy stalactites
    Drip and thicken, tears

    The earthen womb
    Exudes from its dead boredom.
    Black bat airs

    Wrap me, raggy shawls,
    Cold homicides.
    They weld to me like plums.

    Old cave of calcium
    Icicles, old echoer.
    Even the newts are white,

    Those holy Joes.
    And the fish, the fish—
    Christ! they are panes of ice,

    A vice of knives,
    A piranha
    Religion, drinking

    Its first communion out of my live toes.
    The candle
    Gulps and recovers its small altitude,

    Its yellows hearten.
    O love, how did you get here?
    O embryo

    Remembering, even in sleep,
    Your crossed position.
    The blood blooms clean

    In you, ruby.
    The pain
    You wake to is not yours.

    Love, love,
    I have hung our cave with roses,
    With soft rugs—

    The last of Victoriana.
    Let the stars
    Plummet to their dark address,

    Let the mercuric
    Atoms that cripple drip
    Into the terrible well,

    You are the one
    Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
    You are the baby in the barn.

    I think she did have a miscarriage and that this poem was in some ways about that but people disagree. Thanks for the post.

  18. michaelrectenwald October 28, 2015 at 8:51 am #

    Beautiful essay, marred only by a few miscarried sentences and missing words.

  19. Athena October 28, 2015 at 8:53 am #

    A deeply touching tribute to one of the legendary poets of history and a brilliant woman, so glad you removed her from the darkness of the final moments of her life she’s so enormous and deserves your treatment

  20. The Hedgeblog October 28, 2015 at 10:41 am #

    Wonderful post!

    I knew of Sylvia’s work, but not much about her life. Fascinating article. Thanks for sharing this! I shall look up at the moon tonight, and think of Sylvia.

    The Hedgehog x

    • dee October 28, 2015 at 2:36 pm #

      Thank you for this post!

  21. Sandra Gibson October 28, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

    Thank you for the warmth of your feelings about Plath and for your even-handedness in this account.

  22. spanishwoods October 28, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

    Love this post. Wonderful.

  23. bloggeretterized October 28, 2015 at 2:44 pm #

    Thanks for giving me a new perspective from where to look at Sylvia Plath and her work.

  24. Katherine Shirley October 28, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

    I confess, I have never been a fan of Sylvia Plath’s writing, but it is clear from this piece that you are. It is a fine article and a lovely tribute.

  25. thomasricken35 October 28, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

    An excellent piece on Sylvia – thanks very much for sharing

  26. Ann Decter October 28, 2015 at 6:18 pm #

    “This is the silence of astounded souls” Amazing piece. Thank you.

  27. shannon October 28, 2015 at 8:31 pm #

    Touched me deeply today. I didn’t realize Sylvia and I had so much in common.

  28. runningnekkid October 28, 2015 at 9:22 pm #

    Fuck. I put off reading this until I was in a place where I could really let all of it in, and dammit I am glad I did, and sad that I had to wait. This is a fabulous tribute. I’m so glad you had the space to write it.

  29. whollyword October 28, 2015 at 9:26 pm #

    Thank you for writing this! When I taught verse writing, I used the facsimile of Ariel to talk about revision. Most of my students had some familiarity with the version Hughes published after her death and were astounded at what the facsimile showed them– not just at the more hopeful narrative the facsimile suggested, but at the very fact that Plath was revising into shape poems that they’d taken for lightning strikes. They’d been so dazzled by her rage that they’d missed the craft. They’d had no idea how hard she’d worked, so they’d had no idea they had anything to learn from her.

  30. lizeden October 28, 2015 at 10:00 pm #

    “You could even argue that Sylvia didn’t die from suicide; she died from the deeply broken infrastructure of mental health care that failed her when her when her need was greatest.”

    I don’t see how her death is any different from someone dying of a chronic physical illness due to improper/inadequate care.

    I’ve loved Plath’s work ever since I found it and I greive for the loss of her. Even if she didn’t believe in it, I hope she’s in an afterlife too, with proper care or healing, the ocean and the full moon.

  31. sarahfitzgerald1984 October 28, 2015 at 10:07 pm #

    Reblogged this on sarahfitz1984 and commented:
    This is the most beautiful blog I’ve read in a long time.

  32. illyamclellan October 28, 2015 at 11:12 pm #

    Love the blog. Nice to get more info on such a notable literary figure. I’m part of the moody humans club, it certainly makes life more interesting. I like the way you write of her optimism. It’s a crying shame the order of her works was changed, I almost think you brushed over that too easily. If someone did that to me I would be inconsolable. But I’d be dead as well so would probably get over it. Love the blog, look forward to reading more.

  33. smartypants196 October 29, 2015 at 5:00 am #

    What a beautiful tribute, and this last full moon had a ring around it, caused by the colder air high up in the atmosphere, where Silvia, I am sure saw it all,

  34. smartypants196 October 29, 2015 at 5:02 am #

    What a beautiful tribute, and this last full moon had a ring around it, caused by the colder air high up in the atmosphere, where Sylvia, I am sure saw it all,

  35. Ever Dundas October 29, 2015 at 10:53 am #

    This is such a beautiful ode to Plath. Thank you.

  36. Fatemeh October 29, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    I just wanted to thank you for writing such a moving piece about one of my favourite authors. I could relate to every single word. Maybe because I am both a poet and a mental health patient. Maybe because I was left in one way or another by those I loved and cared for most. Maybe because I live in creepy cold London. I don’t know. I adore her words, her world, her attempt to be cured, her humour and her frown. I admire her verse and wish she lived longer… Thank you for writing.

  37. tlfk October 29, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

    I’ve never really known much about Ms. Plath beyond the pop culture identity of her. This makes me want to learn more and read her work. Thank you.

  38. Kai Lovegood October 29, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

    So beautiful ❤

  39. A. October 29, 2015 at 9:06 pm #

    Why are you not including the source for the picture >> http://lovingsylvia.tumblr.com/post/81507364977/full-moon-and-little-frieda-a-cool-small

    • bellejarblog October 30, 2015 at 2:20 am #

      I actually scanned it from one of the biographies I have!

  40. alyssabethancourt October 30, 2015 at 12:33 am #

    Reblogged this on ramblings of an autistic wordsmith and commented:
    “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?'”

  41. genevievecatherinecallaghan October 30, 2015 at 9:30 am #

    I am sitting in my apartment in Paris, crying with all the love in my heart at this full-hearted tribute to Sylvia. I woke this morning feeling numbed, overwhelmed by the steps I have to take to honour my own writing today. Now I will shower, eat my breakfast, have my coffee, and rise to the work with a renewed sense of purpose, and duty. Thank you for this.

  42. Stephanie Burgis (@stephanieburgis) October 30, 2015 at 11:04 am #

    This is such a beautiful, powerful post, and it makes me want to read Plath’s journals. Thank you!

  43. OpheliaCross October 30, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    Thank you… I truly needed to read this today.

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