On Reading Sylvia Plath
Today, Brain Pickings reminded me it was the death-a-versary of one of my favourite writers. I’ve been thinking about Sylvia Plath a lot. In a workshop last week, I played a recording of her reading “Daddy”. It landed in the room like something foul, something rotten. Faces were made, awkward shiftings in fold-down chairs in the lecture hall. Not a one of the students liked it and I wondered why. Perhaps there is something about her voice, arch and brittle, distinctly New England, that put them off? Maybe they’d already had too much of her at A-level or maybe, I thought with horror, they couldn’t relate her anymore, that time had eroded her power or interest, that she was dated, passe’, irrelevant. Could it be so – for them?
Sylvia Plath died before I was born and I cannot get enough of her. We all have triggers, things that will make us pick up a book faster than seems humanly possible. I tell myself I know everything there is to know about Sylvia Plath – poetess and cuckold, doomed wife and mother, misunderstood teen-woman with her oven and her milk and cookies and her tragic rolls of tape – but she is my trigger. Any reference to her on a jacket, in a blurb, and the book is at the till with my debit card out faster than you can say Lady Lazarus – but why? Why does she have such a hold on me, still?
Ariel set me on the road to feminism. A budding playwright, I was a Ted-hater way back, in emotional solidarity with those who repeatedly scratched the Hughes from her tombstone. I have long since repented of this vandalism; I do adore Ted Hughes, though not nearly with the passion I reserve for Sylvia. On a recent residency at Yaddo, whose bedroom did I need to see first? Whose books did I search for at the library? Reader, it was I. At Yaddo, Plath wrote poems for The Colossos, for Ariel was still many dark winters ahead of her, and spent eleven weeks working alongside Hughes in what seems to be a happy time for both of them; she writes often of their stay in Letters Home, the collection of her correspondence from 1950 – 1963. The knowledge that she had stood in the library, running her fingers along the spines, was thrilling. Reading my work aloud in the room where I knew she had nearly undid me.
Many come to Sylvia through The Bell Jar, which seems to have become a YA book since I was a young adult. Were I one now, I might have found my way to Plath through Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, where traumatised teens in a New England boarding school find peace and connection though Special Topics in English and a journal they must fill. Of course, the journal affords them magical adventures of memory, time travel, and redemption, and I loved it. There isn’t a huge amount of Plath in this Belzhar, but I think she’s there in that teenage passion, the wounds that cut and refuse to heal, memories that feel as if the world has ended, before we outgrow such wonderfully painful things.
Recently, I found a young Sylvia in Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. Elizabeth Winder painstakingly reconstructs four weeks in Plath’s life as a guest editor for the Mademoiselle magazine’s annual college issue, inspecting and illuminating events from her point of view, through her journals and letters, as well as interviewing fellow guest editors, some of whom would end up, often only slightly rewritten, in The Bell Jar. There are wonderful photographs, sidebars on period culture and fashion, and kernels of the work to come, as well as a thorough examination of what seems to have been expected of women at the time and how Plath was already balking.
Of course, there are a kabillion biographies of Sylvia Plath, and they’re all good, in their various ways, combing over the wealth of materials and journals and diaries that she produced. Leaving those to one side, I admire works that are inspired by her, that strive to feel like her. Kate Moses’ Wintering is a “novel of Sylvia Plath”, set during the last few months of her life. Chapters are arranged in the order of the Ariel poems as Plath intended, not in the order of the collection as Hughes saw fit to publish after her death. You probably do have to be a hardcore Plath-fan to love Wintering, but there is much to admire. It isn’t easy. The terrain and the language are rich, dense, and evocative. Here and there, Moses does slip under the poet’s skin, right where we want to be.
Often, Sylvia is only a ghost and no more so than in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, published just months prior to his death. A collection of poems that he seems to have written over his long life, they show how he was haunted by her actions and his own. They show him trying to pin her down, to understand what happened and how he was, and was not, responsible. They are love letters and question marks, elegies to who she was and who he was. In last week’s workshop, I also shared a few poem by Ted Hughes – Pike and The Thought Fox – and told them the story of their marriage and its demise, and I thought again, as the students finally sat up with interest, how dogged the two were, and always will be, by the drama of their lives.
A recent addition to the Hughes/Plath canon is the novella/essay/fable/miracle by editor and writer Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, wherein a black crow comes to rescue a man unhinged by the death of his wife and his two motherless boys. Crow, Hughes’ talisman, is billed as “antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter”. He arrives at the door like a dark-winged Mary Poppins and says he will stay until they don’t need him anymore. Throughout the book, Crow teases, soothes, and torments them, inserts himself into poetry and history, and helps them remember how it feels to live. Reading it, having recently lost my own mother, I sobbed like a kitten. I can hardly bear to open the book now, but it went straight onto the shelf of favourite books in the Blue House and sits there now beside Mary Oliver and Louise Erdrich and my battered copy of Ariel, all flanking a faded, curling picture of me as a child, head bent, examining my thumb with pain and wonder – a first splinter or graze, I think, the moment where I seem to understanding something about the world and deciding whether or not I will cry. There is something about pain and wonder in all of these books. Is it any wonder I keep going back to them, sharing them with students, and holding them so close?