While in college, I was an avid fan of the poet Sylvia Plath. Years later, I made a summer jaunt to a book reading by her biographer, Edward Butscher. I had a dog-eared paperback copy of his book on my desk that I often referred to. That day, Mr. Butscher--a tall slender man with a mostly dark-brown beard--was gracious and cordial. I was, perhaps, the most eager Sylvia Plath fan he’d met in a long time, for I’d read most--if not all--of her poetry, her novel The Bell Jar, and Letters Home--a compilation of Plath’s letters.I vaguely remember first reading about her in a women’s magazine. Her life story struck a chord with me. At the time, I was reading and exploring an assortment of poets and authors with a small group of friends and classmates. We all wrote poetry. Once I discovered Sylvia Plath’s poetry, however, I eschewed sharing her poems with the group. I waded in on my own.
And I was fascinated by her history. She was a young woman haunted by her German ancestry. The famous poem, “Daddy,” however, held no sway with me. She was too angry (like Thor in one of her poems). But the poem explained Sylvia’s need to overachieve: she won prizes and excelled academically, as her father and taskmaster, a biologist, demanded. “I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere/From muses unhired by you, dear mother,” she wrote in ”The Disquieting Muses”--a lesser-known poem about her mother, a Boston University professor. After graduating from Smith College in 1955, Sylvia pursued graduate studies in England at Cambridge University. One night at a party, she met a young man named Ted Hughes. Several weeks later, she wrote to her mother:
“The most shattering thing is that in the last two months I have fallen terribly in love, which can only lead to great hurt. I met the strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet whose work I loved before I met him, a large, hulking, healthy Adam, half-French, half-Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God. . . .”
On June 16, 1956, Sylvia and Ted wed in secret—both convinced that he was a poet-genius fated for greatness. She completed her studies and settled into married life. Soon she had little time to devote to her own writing. She promoted Ted’s writings and she worked odd jobs (with a brief teaching stint at her alma mater, Smith). Nearly four years later, the couple’s baby daughter was born.Ted, now her handsome and brilliant husband, was quite popular on the Cambridge campus. As they sought to sub-let their town apartment, Sylvia and Ted met a young married couple, the Wevills, and invited them to dinner. The young wife, Assia, was a dark-haired beauty Ted no doubt found mesmerizing. Soon afterward, he received a whispering phone call from her. Sylvia yanked the telephone cable from the wall. She made a scene. She demanded fidelity, after all she had sacrificed herself and her talent for the great future together. So she asked him to leave. Almost immediately, Ted went to Assia--who was, as he describes her in a poem, sheathed in “flame-orange silks”—with champagne in hand.
It’s a woeful yet classic story of love gone awry. As in Sade’s song, This was no ordinary love.
Eventually, it all became too much—Sylvia had lost (or thrown out) her soulmate who was now partnered with a woman who, by most accounts, was just like herself—beautiful, bi-polar, a budding young poetess madly in love with a genius and now pregnant with his child. Except that Assia Wevill did not long for fame: she seemed to only want Ted.
In late 1962, during her last winter in Devon, England, Sylvia’s days were dark and grim. She was ill, had lost weight, and was in between nannies. (In previous months, she’d had a miscarriage after an appendectomy, followed by the birth of her son.) In a letter to her mother dated October 18, 1962, she wrote, “I guess my predicament is an astounding one, a deserted wife knocked out by flu with two babies and a full-time job!” Yet, by waking up before dawn to write, she had regained the confidence in her writing--which she had virtually lost during the marriage: “I am a genius of a writer. . . . I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.” She was thirty years old.But for all the emotion in Sylvia Plath‘s real life, and even in her poems, none of it is reflected in her only novel, The Bell Jar. At least once, she referred disparagingly to the novel as a “pot boiler”; for this reason, she’d published it under a pseudonym. Of course, the timespan for The Bell Jar occurs before Ted. And perhaps he had awakened emotion in Sylvia that only emerged in her later work. (In the months leading up to her death in 1963, Sylvia Plath had been writing a second novel that was destroyed.)
Nevertheless, I found The Bell Jar’s lack of emotion disturbing. For most of the novel, Esther, the main character, is depressed. To quote Plath, it was “A time of darkness, despair, disillusion. . . .” and “[Esther’s] warped view of the world around . . . seems the right way of looking at things.”
In contrast, the letters express Sylvia’s true personality and spirit in a more well-rounded way. I've pondered on her fate and what might have prevented it. It's true she had a brash happy side; but a dark mood also pervaded her life. Moreover, although today Sylvia might have been categorized as bi-polar, Ted Hughes bears some responsibility. Stated bluntly, he behaved like a cad. His crass actions sent Sylvia (and later, Assia) into a depression from which she never recovered.Years ago, I read a long article by Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, about her mother. Ms. Hughes bears no rancor toward her father: to her, he was a good dad. (In fact, he became the Poet Laureate of England.) Not surprisingly, the writing gene manifested itself in her, for she is a poet.
Whether Sylvia Plath influenced a generation of young women--for good or ill--is difficult to assess. That said, her best poems are masterfully crafted, beautiful, imagistic. As a wordsmith, she is triumphant. For instance, her superb poem, “Pursuit,” is a personal favorite: “Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,/Haggard through the hot white noon. . . .” And "Tulips," too, is a beautifully crafted poem. Of the poetry books, my favorite is the incandescent Ariel.*
For me, however, Sylvia Plath’s poetic legacy is inseparable from the biography. As a twenty-year-old, I began reading her poems only after I had learned a bit about her life. And since I wrote poetry back then, I must admit to Plath’s influence (among other poets) on my own poems. I learned the merits of the unusual word and the exact word. For instance, in “Channel Crossings,” she uses the word caterwaul—which I like. That taught me how to build a poem as if I were laying bricks.Today, though, I no longer write poems. My reason is that poems demand a laser-like intensity that is unsustainable long-term. Sylvia Plath hinted at this in an interview: “Poetry, I feel, is a tyrannical discipline. . . . You’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space. . . . I find that in a novel I can get more of life. Perhaps not such intense life, but certainly more of life.”
So, many years ago, I switched to writing prose exclusively. I strive to infuse poetry into my prose, and I find it is enough.
*Since I wrote this essay, I've re-read Ariel and decided that I prefer The Colossus and Other Poems--Plath's first poetry volume.