Most Admired: Sylvia Plath

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Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer. Born in Boston, Massachusetts she studied at Smith College and Newnham College. She married poet Ted Hughes in 1956 and had two children Frieda and Nicholas. After a long struggle with depression she committed suicide in 1963. To this day controversy surrounds both her life and death, as well as her writing and legacy. She along with some of her contemporaries (Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell among others) advanced the genre of confessional poetry. She is best known for her two collections of poetry “The Colossus and Other Poems,” and “Ariel,” as well as her semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar.” In 1982 she became the first poet to win the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for “The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath.”

Growing up in Winthrop, Massachusetts an eight year old Plath published her first poem in the children’s section of the “Boston Herald.” In addition to her writing, she showed a lot of promise as an artist winning an award for her painting from The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in 1947. Her father died when she was eight due to untreated diabetes and led to her having a loss in faith and remained ambivalent about religion for the rest of her life. In 1942 her mother moved the family to Wellesley, Massachusetts.

In 1950 while attending Smith College she wrote to her mother, “The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon.” The summer after her third year of college she spent a month in New York City as a guest editor of “Mademoiselle” magazine. It did not go as well as planned. That summer she was refused admission to the Harvard writing seminar and began an emotional downward spiral. In August 1953 she made her first suicide attempt by crawling under her house and taking her mother’s sleeping pills. She was not found for three days. Later she would write of the experience, “blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion.” She would spend the next six months at McLean Psychiatric Hospital. While under the care of Dr. Ruth Beuscher she would receive insulin and electric shock treatments. She appeared to recover and returned to Smith College.

Plath and English poet Ted Hughes were married on June 16th, 1956. Plath described Hughes as, “a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer with a voice like the thunder of God.” In 1957 they moved to the United States with Plath first teaching at Smith College, and then moving to Boston in 1958 where she worked as a receptionist in the psychiatric unit at Massachusetts General Hospital while in the evening attending a creative writing class by Robert Lowell (Anne Sexton was also in attendance). During this time both Lowell and Sexton encouraged her to write from her own experience. She openly discussed her depression with Lowell, and her suicide attempt with Sexton. At this time she began to see herself as a more serious and focused poet and storyteller. She also began a lifetime friendship with the poet W. S. Merwin. In December she resumed her treatment with Dr. Ruth Beuscher.

In December of 1959 Plath and Ted Hughes moved to London. She remained anxious about writing confessional poetry from her own experience. Around this time she would explain that she learned, “to be true to my own weirdnesses.” In 1960 she released her first book of poetry. In 1961 her second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, severely of her poems address this including, “Parliament Hill Fields.” In January of 1962 her son Nicholas was born. In June she was in a car accident which she would explain as one of her many suicide attempts. That July she would discover Ted Hughes was having an affair and they would separate in September.

Beginning in October of 1962 she would enter into the greatest burst of creativity of her career. It is at this time she would write almost all of the poems for which she is remembered and released posthumously in the collection “Ariel.” Her novel “The Bell Jar” came out in January 1963 to critical indifference. On February 11th, 1963 Plath was found dead having committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in the kitchen with her head in the oven and the gas turned on. Hughes was devastated and in a letter wrote, “That’s the end of my life. The rest is posthumous.”

In the years following her death there were many accusations that Hughes had been abusive to Plath. The feminist poet Robin Morgan published a poem which openly accused Hughes of assault and her murder. In 1989 Hughes wrote an article in “The Guardian,” with this quote, “In the years soon after [Plath’s] death, when scholars approached me, I tried to take their apparently serious concern for the truth about Sylvia Plath seriously. But I learned my lesson early. […] If I tried too hard to tell them exactly how something happened, in the hope of correcting some fantasy, I was quite likely to be accused of trying to suppress Free Speech. In general, my refusal to have anything to do with the Plath Fantasia has been regarded as an attempt to suppress Free Speech […] The Fantasia about Sylvia Plath is more needed than the facts. Where that leaves respect for the truth of her life (and of mine), or for her memory, or for the literary tradition, I do not know.”

Hughes inherited the Plath estate and has been condemned in some circles for burning Plath’s last journal. He lost another journal and an unfinished novel and instructed a collection of her papers and journals should not be released until 2013. In 1998 he would publish a collection of poems called, “Birthday Letters,” which consists of 88 poems about his relationship with Plath. It would go on to win the Forward Poetry Prize, T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry, and the Whitebread Poetry Prize. He would die later that year of cancer.

A couple of quotes :

“If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.”

“Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”

“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

Tulips – By Sylvia Plath

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.
They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.
My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage —-
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.
I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.
I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free —-
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.
Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I hve no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.
The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

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