Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sylvia Plath

"I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited." -Sylvia Plath

Well-spoken and eloquent was the woman. Tragedy and passion filled her life. Enticing, captivating, and haunting are her works. Sylvia Plath, the American-born poet, short story author, and novelist, is renown for the advancement of confessional poetry through her raw, dark, and beautiful language. Her most famous poem being Daddy --


You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time--
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one grey toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich , ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat moustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue. Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You--

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through.

If I've killed one man, I've killed two--
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

"Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one's head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace." -Sylvia Plath

It seemed most appropriate to introduce you to her work, her words before delving into her tragic tale. But as it is written on her gravestone - 'Even Amidst Fierce Flames The Golden Lotus Can Be Planted'. The term 'suffering artist' is true to so many greats because it is in pain and hurt and sadness that beauty and strength can spring forth. It makes sense because the suffering would want to have those things the most.

Sylvia was born during the Great Depression on October 27th, 1932 - there is a joke there somewhere, but I'll leave it to you, gentle reader - in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Her parents were Austrian-decented, Aurelia Schobert Plath, and German immigrant, Otto Emile Plath. Aurelia was twenty one years younger than her husband who she met while taking one of his courses - Otto was a professor of biology and German at Boston University which played the background for their romance. Their union not only brought forth Sylvia, but also her brother Warren in 1935.

"Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing." -Sylvia Plath

It was in 1936 that the family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts where Sylvia would grow up. She was a Unitarian Christian but lost her faith a week and a half after her eighth birthday - the day her father died. His foot had to be amputated due to his untreated diabetes and complications took his life. Sylvia would remain ambivalent towards the religion for the rest of her life. She attended Smith College in 1950 and would receive the great presumably great offer to word as a guest editor at Madamoiselle magazine which included staying in New York for a month. Unfortunately, this was the experience that soured Sylvia's outlook on herself and the world. The events of which were inspiration for her book, The Belle Jar.

"Kiss me and you'll know how important I am." -Sylvia Plath

It was after this scarring experience was the first time Sylvia tried to kill herself. She took an overdose of sleeping pills and crawled under her house. She survived the overdose and was committed to a mental institution - McLean Hospital. There she received electroconvulsive therapy.

electroconvulsive theapy: [ih-lek-troh-kuhn-vuhl-siv, ih-lek-]

–noun (Psychiatry)

a treatment for serious mental illnesses, as severe depressive disorders, involving the application to the head of electric current in order to induce a seizure: usually administered after sedatives and muscle relaxants. Abbreviation: ECT

Also called electroshock.

Sylvia reacted well to the treatment and seemed to have made a full recovery. In 1955, she submitted her thesis The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky’s Novels and would go onto graduate from Smith with full honors. She also received a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge where she would continue to grow as an artist with her poetry. It would often be printed in the student newspaper Varsity.

"I left Cambridge in 1954, but I still had friends there that I used to go back and see now and again. And one of these friends produced a poetry magazine, it just sold one issue. Anyway, I had some poems in this and we had a celebration the day it came out."

"To which I came. I happened to be at Cambridge. I was sent there by the government on a government grant. And I'd read some of Ted's poems in this magazine and I was very impressed and I wanted to meet him. I went to this little celebration and that's actually where we met. I think we saw each other again on Friday the 13th, or something, in London, somehow, after this. Then we saw a great deal of each other. Ted came back to Cambridge and suddenly we found ourselves getting married a few months later."

"I'd saved some cash. I'd been working for about 3 months and everything I'd saved, I blew it on a courtship."

"We kept writing poems to each other. Then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on."

***excerpt from famous 1961 BBC interview describing how they met.***

Sylvia and Ted were married in London at St George the Martyr Holborn on June 16th, 1956. In 1957, the couple moved to the United States where Sylvia would now teach at Smith College. The combination of teaching and writing exhausted the poet, causing her to leave her job and move to Boston in 1958. There, Sylvia would work as a receptionist in the psychiatric unit of Massachusetts General Hospital. She would also attend evening creative writing seminars - taught by the poet, Robert Lowell. The couple would continue to travel the US, returning to the UK in 1960, and having their first child, daughter Frieda, April 1, 1960.

In October of 1960, Sylvia would publish her first book of poems, The Colossus. She would become pregnant again but would tragically miscarry. She would write about this event in many of her poems and in the August of the following year, she publisher her autobiographical, The Belle Jar. In January of 1962, the couple would welcome their first son, Nicholas.

'We didn't find her - she found us.
She sniffed us out.
She sat there
Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.
I saw the dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her, and I soon knew it

-Ted Hughes (poem written about Assia Wevill)

Assia Wevill, born May 15th, 1927, was a German-born woman who famously escaped the Nazis. She also famously murdered her own daughter, and took her own life in a way very similar to Plath's own suicide which happened six years earlier.

Assia was the other woman that ended Sylvia and Ted's marriage. Some say guilt drove her to her end, others say it was abuse from Ted. This poem from Ted suggests the latter -

'When her grave opened its ugly mouth
why didn't you just fly,
Why did you kneel down at the grave's edge
to be identified
accused and convicted?'

In June, 1962, Sylvia was in a car accident. One of many admitted suicide attempts after the end of the marriage. Things would momentarily seem optimistic in October when she would feel greatly creative. Sylvia would go on to write twenty six poems of her new collection, Ariel. She would return to the UK in December of 1962, with her two children. That winter was the coldest in a hundred years and the weather and frozen pipes would cause the young children to be constantly ill. So, returned Sylvia's depression. She would continue to finish her work and her novel, The Belle Jar, would be published in 1963 under the pen name, Victoria Lucas.

'And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.' -Sylvia Plath

February 11, 1963.

A nurse had been appointed to help Sylvia look after her two children. Her doctor, Dr. Horder, had attempted to have her hospitalized to help treat her depression but was unable. He prescribed anti-depressants and would visit her daily. In the early morning, Sylvia would put wet towels under the doors between the kitchen the room where her children were sleeping. At approximately 4:30am, she would turn on the gas and put her head in the oven. She was thirty years old.

'That's the end of my life. The rest is posthumous.'
-Ted Hughes in a letter to a friend regarding Sylvia's suicide

Sylvia Plath enthusiasts did not empathize with Hughes. Instead her grave is constantly vandalized to remove the 'Hughes' from the end of Sylvia's name. This onslaught only intensified after Assia's murder suicide which again Hughes was the scapegoat. Ted Hughes would take the headstone and have it repaired, leaving the grave unmarked, much to the anger of the mourners and fans.

'Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I've a call.' -Sylvia Plath

He would go on to inherit her estate and belongings as they were still technically married at the time of her death. He burned her last journal in claims that he 'didn't want her children to have to read it.' Other work had been misplaced - he controversially lost an unfinished novel. He has had a great number of her work on hold to not be released until 2013. He has been constantly scrutinized for trying to control Sylvia's work, although all proceeds go to an account to her children.

He released eight eight poems about his and Sylvia's relationship in 1998 called Birthday Letters. Ted had not spoken about the relationship, so the work caused a huge stir in the public. Little did anyone know that he was stricken with terminal cancer which he would succumb to later that year.

In 2003, a film was made about Sylvia's life which would star Gwyneth Paltrow. Now 32, Frieda was furious that they were making entertainment out of her family's tragedy. She expressed her distaste in a poem.

"Now they want to make a film
For anyone lacking the ability
To imagine the body, head in oven,
Orphaning children

[...] they think
I should give them my mother's words
To fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll

-Frieda Hughes, from My Mother, in The Book of Mirrors

On March 16th, 2009, Nicholas Hughes hung himself. He had suffered from life-long depression. Frieda Hughes remains the last surviving member of the family.

Despite her tragic life and death. Her work and her art lives on inspiring many future generations of artists. We don't have to be sugar-coated and smiling to have good work. Sometimes good work comes from a darker place. A favorite band of mine - The Antlers' song Sylvia was inspired by the poet and being a fellow 'Sylvia' it isn't often you get your name in a song and even less likely that it would be as awesome as this one.

I hope that Sylvia has found that peace that escaped her in life. Her story is beautiful and there are unpublished works now in her daughter's very capable hands. Considering the fact that this young woman has yet to get the privacy that she seeked, perhaps these works will remain private for some time still. Maybe not?

'Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.' -Sylvia Plath



  1. I read quite a bit of her work in my teen years, when emotions are stirring and womanhood was just over the next milestone. I've spent much of my own life seeing similarities that could cause me the same demise as Ms. Plath, only that I like life...She was a beautiful artist and did with words what (for me) few others can accomplish. Thanks for giving props to such an artist. You guys are wonderful!

  2. this is amazing! she was so important to me growing up!

  3. The Journals of Sylvia Plath is also a fascinating read, if you haven't checked it out yet.