Friday, 18 July 2014

'A Life' (On Sylvia Plath)

Let’s kick this off with a quick round of word association. I say ‘Sylvia Plath’ – what comes to mind? Here’s a list of possibilities: suicide, Ted Hughes, depression, The Bell Jar, pain, Ariel, fear, Daddy, mental illness, Lady Lazarus, death, oven. These may not have been the first to flicker up for you (and actually I only included the last when it came up as a suggestion for associated search terms on Google images) – but they’re certainly some of the ones that recur frequently, particularly on platforms like Tumblr and Pinterest.

On these sites it feels as though she is sometimes diminished, all-too-often reduced to quotes in faux-vintage typewriter fonts; or a series of faded portraits - all fringe and toothy grin; or numerous book-covers for The Bell Jar (with varying degrees of appropriate-ness); or excerpts from her journals overlaid on angsty modern images. Her work is chopped up into sound bites, her life and the leaving of it passed around as legend. There’s an uneasy sense of veneration, a collapsing of the distinction between Plath the poet and Plath the person - as though the two were one and the same.

I have a complicated relationship with Plath. I adore her work. It is sharp and dark and funny and beautiful. Her poems, her short stories, her novel – I love it all. But this is balanced against a wariness of what ‘Sylvia Plath’ as an entity has become. It’s hard to explain this concisely. The very personal nature of her work makes it a tricky line to tread without upsetting or appearing judgmental and insensitive.

So I’ll begin with some not’s. I am not in any way saying that it’s wrong to write, read, promote or celebrate works that plunge into the dark depths of mental illness. It’s actually key that we do so, and keep up open conversations. I’m not disputing the fact that Plath’s words have resonated and meant a lot to plenty of people, particularly young women who’ve found Plath’s voice to be something of a beacon when no-one else seems to understand. It’s incredible that her thoughts continue to echo and remain relevant so many years after they were first committed to the page.

We all read Plath in our own way. Different parts mean different things to different people. For many, her descriptions of worthlessness, anxiety and struggle to keep going will be familiar - perhaps comforting. A lifeline woven of words. 

For me, with my experiences of spinal surgery, there are other aspects I identify with. Stanzas such as this one in ‘Tulips’ feel particularly close and raw: ‘I am nobody. I am nothing to do with these explosions./ I have given up my name and my day clothes to the nurses/ and my history to the anesthetist and my body to the surgeon.’ It summarizes the exact feeling of being in hospital, and so I appreciate it on both individual and artistic levels.

So, I’m also not claiming that my subjective opinion of Plath is more important or valid than anyone else’s. There are so many perspectives and interpretations, and mine is merely a single response - and a not especially academic one, at that. More a collation of various thoughts from the last few years. (As a side note, I'm particularly interested in what Maeve O'Brien is researching at the moment - with her emphasis on silence in Plath's work - see her blog 'The Plath Diaries' here). 

But here’s a small list of some the things I do want to try to articulate:
  • Appreciating Plath’s candid tone and confessional mode is very different from citing her work in order to glorify depression or suicide. There’s a difference between recognition and elevation.
  • Depicting Plath as the sum total of her relationships, worries and mental health reduces her down to something much less than what she was. It’s a disservice to her highly skilled craft(wo)manship and composition. As Anne Stevenson commented, ‘her private experiences would be of no importance had she not, in poem after poem… imaginatively transformed, exaggerated and brilliantly dramatized them.’
  • Loving Sylvia Plath does not mean hating Ted Hughes. Both are uniquely brilliant writers. Also, he didn't ‘cause’ anything – he was a shit husband at times (no question about that) – but he isn’t a singular figure to load up with blame. She’d been ill before she knew him.  
  •  The ‘I’ of Plath’s poetry and prose is not the ‘I’ of Plath herself. One can appreciate that Plath mined her own life and suffering to create her art, without viewing her as a straight up autobiographer. She is first and foremost a poet and author intensely focused on rhythms, momentum, sound and image – with access to what Seamus Heaney once called the ‘word-hoard’.
  • There’s a long tradition of seeing female writers as mere mouthpieces for their feelings and emotions – as though all that flowed from the pen was a spontaneous expression of self. There are two tricky opposing things here. One is that it’s really, really important that we value these expressions of feeling and emotion as being just as worthy a topic of literature as more traditionally masculine ‘BIG THEMES’ like war or politics. But the other is to acknowledge that feeling and emotion aren’t all that these writers are about. Plath is also great on character commentary, biting social observations and a startling clarity of description. People rarely mention that The Bell Jar is funny, as well as devastating.

There are lots of other strands that could be picked up on, but I’d like to use this now as a forum. What do other people think of Plath? Are you more interested in her life or her work? Why are we so utterly fascinated by autobiography - and how does this affect our perception of a writer's output? I’d love some thoughts.

I'm aware that in posting these pictures, I'm playing into the trope of the young woman reading Plath in a rather idealised or 'pretty' fashion - here accented by the fifties style dress and hairstyle. I'm interested in how we often represent books or authors in contemporary imagery, with certain texts immediately adding a particular mood or message to the shot. Sylvia Plath is a particularly potent choice. 
The title of the post is taken from a poem of Plath's from 1960. 


The Plath Diaries said...

I loved this post Rosalind! You really hit the nail on the head about how difficult it is to write about Plath. Her work and her cultural image is enmeshed with so many connotations, it is so tricky.

I think a major problem is that whether Plath is being talked about as a writer or as a figure in contemporary culture, people tend to write about her in absolute terms. I think this has in part been brought on by Ted Hughes and his assertion that Plath's writing went through phases until she became her "real self", and so whether it's an academic study or a Ryan Adams song, people are driven to try and define Plath's "real self" - whether she is a confessional writer; as a depressive maniac; actually her speaker's I, etc.

My dissertation (thank you for the mention!) reads the silence in Plath's work. That is the original contribution of the work. But I also strive to say that Plath's silences are just one part of her poetic process. Sometimes her use of/relationship with silence takes central stage, and sometimes it occupies a backseat in her poetry and fiction. By stating from the outset of my thesis that silence is just one aspect of the many influences, ideas and inspirations bubbling away in S.P.'s mind, I hope that my dissertation will say that it is ok to just look at a small aspect of Plath's creative process. We don't have to define her "real" self. That's impossible to do anyway, for anyone! :-)

Really it all boils down to whether Plath interests readers/social observers as a writer or as an image/icon. And I have no problem with that because anything that disunifies the notion of Plath as having one set "real self" will generate conversation and sustain interest in her work and life.

However it's when Plath's image spills over into her work and causes people to think "oh she wrote Daddy because of her Nazi father" for example (factually incorrect), that problems start occurring. Hopefully though good criticism and discussion - with a pinch of maturity - as girls (like me, 15 and goth-y) grow up, the poems and fiction will start speaking for themselves, transcending the image. That's the good thing about Plath, her work is good enough, strong enough to speak for itself!

Ivana Split said...

I think in her case it is very hard to distinguish her literary life from her fictional one and not just because of the autobiographical tone of her writing.

Even those of us that usually tend to respect the writer's privacy (or try to do so and not assume we know everything about someone just because we have read every single things they had written) feel somehow compelled to connect her words with her private life...perhaps in search of answers...answers to what? the suicide probably plays a large part in that...especially a suicide of a young mother. In her life, it always come down to that.

I do agree with many of things you wrote down and I have thought about/and argued about some of them myself a few times.

I think that opposite a need for commodity and conformist attitude there is also this need for those who stand out to be in some ways fundamentally different (somehow an excuse for all those who don't?).

In the oldest of texts (Gilgamesh etc) the heroes are always different, usually semi-divine...or semi- demonic...perhaps we both idolize and demonize the artist in this age of ours.

I see no point in idolizing mental depression or claiming that brilliant painters/writers etc must be in some way mad.

I remember what Van Gogh said about his own he was aware of it, how he waited for those dark days to come to pass so he could paint...and the way people talk about it makes it sound like he would never had been a painter if there weren't for mental problems. Like it is all it takes, not work or dedication or even gift and talent but contracting syphilis and going crazy once in a while.

I think it's true that we can draw things from dark moods but if we give in to dark moods completely there is no way we can have the energy to do something of value.

Idealization of depression is just as silly as idealization of happiness and false empty smiles.

That all being said, I still personally find it hard not to connect Plath the writer with the person suffering from mental depression and I admit that it is not very fair.

While I do think her poems are outstanding, visually and emotionally powerful and in all ways wonderful, I was quite disappointed by her novel.

I couldn't believe how self-centered that character was and consequently find it quite hard to feel sympathy for her. Every women/ girl that character describes in that novel she trashes openly...and while I was trying to remind myself that this is a person who suffers from mental depression...deep inside I was judgmental and kept thinking something along the lines 'Anyone can just give up and hate everything and everyone.' Naturally, I analyzed my own emotions...and I must admit this novel inspired a lot of thinking on my part...I understand she is criticizing the society but how does it happen that there is not a single person she has a kind world for or cares for in any way?

Perhaps I had too high expectations for this novel, perhaps I didn't manage to separate it from the things I know about her, perhaps it is not fair to compare it with her unique poetry...but it really didn't live up to my expectations. It is candid but I don't see much more in it. I see how it can be a portrait of society and of a person losing herself to a mental illness...but I feel there is just too much missing in it to make it a really great novel. Still, it is one of those books I would recommend reading maybe just because it is a subject we should not shy from and it is seldom someone writes about depression in such a candid way.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Ros. Whilst life & experience dictates Plath's legacy & perspective it by no means should define it. Had she been 'he' I doubt so much significance would be placed on the emotive sources.
Fortunately I discovered her pure poetry before knowing anything of her story but it's one that has many striking parallels to my own, so I am deeply fascinated by this. Even for me though, it is secondary to her body of work. I discovered at the Hearst 'Empowering Women' event that her grave is almost impossible to find. This saddens me greatly. S x ps: Have you read 'Pain, Parties, Work' by Elizabeth Winder?

Yasumi in Worshipblues said...

Thank you so much for this post.

I must admit that I have only read one of her works and that was the Bell Jar. Perhaps it was unfortunate for me that I read it at what was probably the least stable and most troubled point in my life. She struck the nail on the head at almost every turn of a page, bringing things so close to the bone, and reflecting my mental state in so many ways that it was absurd in my young mind. I laughed through parts of the book when I probably should not have. This may seem perverse but in my laughter was a reverberation of how relevant the Bell Jar was to me at the time.

Having read your post. I feel like I have missed out and hope to rectify this soon by reading more of her work.

Thank you.

Jess said...

I think Plath is often dismissed as a writer that only adolescent girls can appreciate, and although I first read her aged around 16, The Bell Jar is something I know I'll always go back to because it is so beautifully written and so honest (and darkly funny, like you say!).

There is so much more to Plath than the usual lazy stereotypes that surround her. I was recently given a book of her drawings (I think it's published by Faber) and they give another glimpse into her creative life.

Melanie said...

I liked your photo disclaimer at the bottom, the Plath book as angsty prop. It's so difficult to separate a work from the image of the creator these days. Photos of news reporters are featured prominently with their newspaper columns and the writers even appear on TV news talking about what they wrote in the paper. Were she still with us, Ms. Plath's work would have been optioned for a weekly TV sitcom. Gasp! We'd be more interested in what she wore on the red carpet than her latest serious book of poetry.

Damianne Langedijk said...

oh this is so so beautifull!

Kerry Gauthier said...

What a thoughtful and thought - provoking article on an amazing writer!

I think one of the things that attracts people to Sylvia's writing is how intensely personal and vulnerable she allows herself to be in her writing. As a woman who has struggled with infertility, it is her poem, Barren Woman, that has always resonated with me.

But to assume that this level of intimacy and raw honesty implies any less skill as a writer because it comes from a real life foundation does a huge disservice to an extremely talented artist.

And I completely agree that we need to give Sylvia credit for more than just her (admittedly brilliant) confessional style of writing. She was capable of doing so much more in an equally brilliant way and that should be acknowledged.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Lovely post. I think you'll be very interested in my forthcoming book, Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath (sorry, it's been delayed a couple weeks). What you have addressed as the first thoughts around Plath are exactly what I hope to change and/or explain. For more visit or see the trailer on YouTube.

OrigamiGirl said...

When we studied Plath at university we had an introductory lecture that was along similar lines to your blog post. The main line was 'Plath is more than her suicide.' but then went even further, pushing (perhaps a little tasteless her) the 'death of the author' concept. The idea that we should read her poems outside of who she was, or at least what we know of her. To be honest, it was a bit like 'don't think of the elephant'. By telling us all what not to think of when we studied her, it was hard not to. And so I do agree, ultimately even when we try to disassociate ourselves, all reading of her poetry is very subjective.

I haven't actually read the Bell Jar, although I have read the collection of poems titled Ariel. I love that you love it. I never really felt a connection or emotion from her poetry, just not quite right for me, but I love reading your sense of passion for her.

Sofie Marie said...

Really interesting post!
I've often thought a lot of these things about Plath, and on the one hand I do consider it a shame that she's often not viewed very "wholly" or quite mythically. At the same time I also don't really think there's a true Plath, just like there isn't a true anyone- each person is going to interpret and make their own 'image' of her.It's great to read all these responses though, just adding my two pence on it. :)Its funny that I've just written a post that sort of covers similar points about idols.

another little thing though, I'm not sure about making statements about Ted Hughes as a husband? Sure I don't know much about the matter, but I don't know if anyone can really definitively judge him as a husband or their relationship, they can only really say their opinion based on different information sources.


It's true, a lot of Plath admirers/readers like to give a summation of Plath the artist or icon but only in parts, I agree with some of the comments on how she's generally viewed. I remember reading Plath's works as a teen, the tonality in the way she wrote is what still sticks with me today ... whether partly dark, funny, emotional, or tenderly exposed in style.
Your photo shoot is lovely, I really like the dress and your vintage styling.

Maxine Alice said...

Such a nice post. I find her life and her work equally interesting. Of course I am completely against romanticising mental illness in anyway or implying that in some way her talent for writing and her depression are in any way linked, but I do think she was immensely talented at tapping into a very particular, even gendered, experience and making the reader (at least me) feel 'not alone'.

I really dislike the idea that Plath has become something of a token to imply something about a person? Like Woody Allen's (ugh) quote about her suicide being romanticised by the 'college girl mentality'. I think there's a tendency to dismiss work by women as flimsy or unimportant when similar male writers come to be unanimously renowned as literary classics.

Anyway, one of my friends is actually making a zine on Plath based on this idea, called The College Girl Mentality, you can check it out here

Your hair looks perfect in these pictures also.


Leah said...

This is a really great post. I confess I haven't read a lot of Plath, except for school. I've always meant to read more poetry, but I've avoided Plath, not because her work isn't fantastic, but I particularly dislike the cult made around her and the typical reading scene that tends to cite her literature. I agree with so much of what you wrote. An artist is present in their art. but their art does not encompass all that they are. Really good thoughts.

Izzy DM said...

I don't have time to reread this right now, but it stuck vividly in my mind after my first read, and I'll definitely come back to read it again. So based on what I remember reading:

I also have a complicated relationship with Plath's work, and I think you perfectly, perfectly articulated that in your piece here. Sometimes, as I was reading "The Bell Jar", I just wanted to shake her and shout, "Snap out of it! You're so brilliant, why do you have to be so grim!" But at others I was simply blown away by her facility with language and her wit. I will never forget her hilarious, graphic and awful description of a man's private parts, although I wish I could forget it frankly.

As far as her poetry goes, I've always felt there was this odd mix of a magical talent with mental illness, so that certain passages came through crystal clear and perfect and beautiful and impossibly good and others were muddled with too much bitterness and pain, a pain that I couldn't share because it didn't make any sense, it was just her own personal madness, but I don't know if you can separate the best and worst of an artist. I also agree it's silly to judge her relationship with Ted or blame him; no one can really know what's going on with a couple, and her poetry and writing clearly reveal she had a morbid fascination with suicide from the get-go. I wonder if she'd lived nowadays whether current thinking on mental illness and medication and current therapy could have helped her and whether that might not have ruined her talent or whether it might have helped clear up the muddled parts? How do you feel about her poetry? For example, at the end of this one okay poem, there are these five or so magical lines. Something like, "I'll sit on a rock off Cornwall and comb my hair. I'll wear tiger pants; I'll have an affair. We'll meet in another life, we 'll meet in air, me and you." And it's the best thing I've ever read, yet preceded by utterly forgettable words... Maybe I need to sit and think about this some more, not quite sure of my point here, but overall, as far as your point goes, I love how you humanized Plath.

And oh my God, those photos! One of them popped up on my Tumblr feed right after I read your essay the first time, someone had reposted it with some kind of very complimentary tag, I can't remember exactly. Anyway, they're just magical. You really capture a sense of intelligence, melancholy, and sensitivity here. I love how you use fashion as costume and dressup and self-expression. So much fun and so much inspiration!

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