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Sylvia Plath: Living in her Poetry

Article by Eva Katinic

The Colossus, The Bell Jar and Ariel. Three books were left behind by Sylvia Plath, through which she documented a new approach to environmental and historical figurative language. She was Sylvia, the mother and wife, but she was also Sylvia the Poet. These two identities overlapped each other. It is fair to say she is imbued in every line of poetry.

Marriage was the highlight of her 1961 interview alongside Ted Hughes, as it took three months for the two to enter marital waters. They recall meeting in 1954, Ted held a party due to his poetry being published in a magazine; Plath came. “I happened to be at Cambridge, I was sent there by the government on a government grant and I had read some of Ted`s poems in this magazine, I was very impressed and I wanted to meet him” explained Plath in a tender voice. She recalls, “We saw each other again on a Friday the 13th”, the month left unknown adding a dash of gothic suspense. Next came a masculine voice, “I`d saved some cash and had been working for about three months and everything I`d saved I blew it on a courtship”, remarked Ted, causing Sylvia to laugh.

These sweet and tender moments were contrasted in her personal letters which are published but also described in an article in the New Yorker titled ‘Sylvia Plath`s Last Letters’ (2018). In some of these letters “she alleges that Hughes ‘beat me up physically a couple of days before a miscarriage, he ‘seems to want to kill me,’ and ‘told me openly he wished me dead’”  The dark and depressing metaphors regarding these moments constructed her identity as a poet, who is unafraid to portray the darkness.  It would make sense now, that a year 11 student would pick up Sylvia`s poetry and instantly assume there was pain in her marriage.

I sat in contrast to her. For Plath, Ted`s presence seemed to push her out of the writer’s block. But for me, I did not require their presence but instead their absence in order to pursue poetic magic.

She found motivation in the relationships she formed with others, explaining, “I think that all the poems that we wrote to each other and about each other were really before our marriage and then something happened, I don’t know what it was.” It was the life of a living doll,

            It can sew, it can cook,

            It can talk, talk, talk. (The Applicant)

 “I feel that I`d never be writing as I am and as much as I am without Ted, so understanding and cooperative.” There was a juxtaposition between the man she speaks of now and the man in her poems. Or was she lying behind the rolling camera?

The 60s was a tumultuous time for women, as the man was the breadwinner, women were not eligible for credit cards. Their thoughts and opinions were kept off the jury board. The birth control pill was seen as medicine for only serious cases and was not easily accessible. There was an absence of gender equality.

Her experiences accentuated the seamless and simultaneous flow of creativity. “Well apart from the experiences of your own life and my experiences of my life, I also have in a way some of Sylvia`s experiences of hers and all the experiences that she`s had in the past”, expanded Ted. His poetry, in a way, seemed to encapsulate both femininity and masculinity. Though, Sylvia focused on femininity.

Throughout her poems, there was one main inspiration. Childhood. For example, her poem Daddy constructs an image of the fatherly presence she remembers. Was this presence more like a dictator?

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 brought up on the northern coast of Massachusetts and my whole childhood was spent on the ocean, I remember the very spectacular hurricanes we used to have where my grandmother`s cellar would be flooded and there would be sharks washed up in the garden and so forth the image of the sea has been with me ever since.” The sea was something that appears in most of her poetry and enforces her presence as a female environmental poet.

“I was happy up to the age of about nine, very carefree and I believed in magic which influenced me a good bit and then at nine I was rather disillusioned. I stopped believing in elves and Santa Claus and all these little beneficent powers and became more realistic and depressed,” explained Plath. She emphasised the importance of being a poet, as writing was her escape, “I certainly didn't have a happy adolescence and perhaps that's partly why I turned especially to writing as if I wrote diaries, stories and so forth”

She used the sea to captivate her readers, I chose to use the daisies sprouting in the field. Poetry seems to flow better when you compare something as tormented as heartache to something as beautiful as a flower. To her, the waves crashing mirrored the turbulence of her emotional vulnerability. To me, writing about the little green sprouts meant that there was something beyond my watering eyes, that it would nurture something better.

Ted seemed to grow up in a similar way, I find it so strange how they both turned to poetry. He explained one particular memory in: “when I was about 8 and all that then was sealed off, we moved to Mexico which was industrial and depressing.”  And like Plath, he turned to poetry to find solace. This, he explained through the following reminiscence of his time at school: “I was writing and the teachers seemed interested in my writing so I gradually concentrated absolutely everything on writing.” Then why did the reception they receive differ so much?

Like today, women were and are entrenched in societal expectations in various aspects of their life. One in particular, is their image and the way they physically appear to the world. The 60s pressed hard on this topic with advertisements popping up everywhere, almost acting as didactic texts that were once written for children, and instructing women on how they should appear. For example, the cigarette company Silva Thins had an advertisement with the words in bold: ‘Cigarettes are like women. The best ones are thin and rich.’

As a female poet and a mother, the story of a housewife becomes present in her poetry. She accepts herself as both, “I wouldn't say I am even a very practical and domestic housewife as I am, I think the advantages are too great to want to change.” Her life as a mother amazed her in the sense that it was easy. “I had wondered if I'd be swallowed up in motherhood and never feel any time to myself but somehow, she's fitted in beautifully” denoted Plath. To both her and Ted, their daughter ignited their poetic minds. “I think both of us who have written a good many poems to her”, she explained.

Her poem Tulips presents a different side to being a housewife and accentuates the impact of the expectations placed on her by the 1960s society. She was the housewife. Ted the breadwinner. This all has an excruciating effect on one’s image.

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 have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.   

The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

In many ways, Sylvia Plath lives on through her poetry. In every line, there is a remnant of a moment in her life, included either subtly or explicitly. Her approach to poetry, suggests the art of writing as a way to escape reality. No wonder some of us trap ourselves in fantasy books and are disappointed when we put them down.


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