This is not
a review of Plath’s poems, since that has been covered so many
times now in minute detail that I am reluctant to add to the myriad
of views. Rather, this is a look at how this century sees the work
of Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963 – and it starts
with a warning. There is a part of society’s collective consciousness
that cannot leave alone those who die young and beautiful. A bright
star is a bigger draw than a faded one, and few shone brighter,
if briefly, than Sylvia Plath. Nearly forty-one years after her
there is still a great deal of interest in her work, and particularly
in her life, which sometimes sadly obscures her poetry. The recent
film, Sylvia created something of a stir when
it was announced, with the Hughes family clearly displeased. Frieda
and Hughes’ daughter comments on the film in a poem entitled My Mother:
by the sea.
I should give them my mother's words
To fill the mouth of their monster
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll….
The peanut eaters, entertained
At my mother's death, will go home,
Each carrying their memory of her,
Lifeless - a souvenir.
Maybe they'll buy the video.
eerily echoes her mother’s poem Lady Lazarus:
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot--
The big strip tease.
There is a
curious intertextuality in the poetry and myths surrounding Plath
and her family. Ted Hughes even warned
his children of the
interest their mother’s death would cause, in a poem, The
Dogs are Eating Your Mother in the revelatory Birthday Letters:
I went to see
the film and was uncomfortably aware of those lines; but I’m
glad I went anyway. The film is the story of Plath and Hughes’ relationship,
from when they met in Cambridge until Sylvia’s death in 1962.
The press has given it differing reviews, but it was a reasonably
balanced picture, not apportioning blame or criticising too much.
The views that Hughes gave voice to in Birthday Letters were
more or less absent though and I felt that Hughes was given a rather
more unrelenting role in the relationship. I was also concerned by
the general lack of interest Sylvia appeared to show towards her
children in the film, which anyone reading You’re or Morning
Song would instantly know to be untrue. The visual representations
in the film were uncannily like the photos of Sylvia, Ted and Assia,
and the landscapes and the bleakness of the winter in which Sylvia
died are haunting. There is a lot about poetry in this film – unusually;
the recent film Iris barely considered the author’s
work at all, but here the characters talk about their writing and
about poetry in general quite a lot, and most of the time it is both
convincing and interesting. However there are no quotations from
either Hughes’ or Plath’s poems due to the restrictions
of the estate of the poets.
That is not
your mother but her body….
Now they batten
On the cornucopia
Of her body. Even
Bite the face off her gravestone,
Gulp down the grave ornaments,
Swallow the very soil.
So leave her.
Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia plays it well; she has the deadened,
drowned eyes of Ophelia towards the end when the suicide is becoming
the final scene with such conviction that it seems that there really
was no other way out for Plath. Sometimes the tendency to halt
questioning is a fault in Hollywood
films, but here perhaps it works at its best. The film both starts
and ends with Sylvia lying down and staring ahead, like a passive
her as active, positive, in control even in her own death. The
conundrums are endless but the speculation will continue.
like the photos of Sylvia, Ted and Assia..."
Kate Moses book Wintering will further feed the minds and imaginations
of those who like to get under the skin and into the shoes of the
She looks closely at the psyche of Plath in a novel based on the
poems in Ariel, Plath’s most famous collection, published
by Hughes after her death. It concentrates on the period after
the collapse of her marriage to Hughes, and
looks at a young mother struggling with depression and the difficulties
of writing whilst looking after two small children.
In many ways the
novel seeks to interpret Plath’s poems in a very concrete way, but the stream-of-consciousness
style prose combined with rich, textured language make it a delight
to read. It is
what might be termed interpretative biography; without largely
changing the facts of Plath’s life, and whilst remaining
true to what we can perceive of her personality, it builds a novel
around the poems. The reader cannot fail to feel
involved as Plath veers from poetic triumph to catastrophe in the
last and coldest winter of her life. I have just discovered that
Kate Moses has also written about
a new theory of Sylvia Plath’s life: that PMS drove her to
suicide. This theory has been knocking about since the publication
of her unexpurgated diaries
and the pattern of her moods can apparently be traced throughout.
This theory has been reinforced by examination of her poems and
their recurring themes,
including blood, female fertility and metaphors for ovulation.
If you want to find out
more, you can read Kate Moses' article on Salon.com.
novelist's vision of a poet.
Theories seem to collect around Plath, just as they have around
other beautiful and interesting high-profile women who have died
Diana and Marilyn Monroe. These include that Ted Hughes murdered
her – directly
and deliberately, or indirectly with his infidelity. In fact Plath was appropriated
by feminists in the Sixties and Seventies, as an example of what could happen
to a woman’s creative and productive side if she married
and had children. Since her poems tend to have a female/feminine
slant and fitted in with what
angry feminists had to say at that time, her life was therefore
also used as a metaphor for the evil that men could do. Hughes
was reviled and blamed entirely
for her death in some circles. I have to say that this theory has
by now been largely discounted. This is partly because feminism
has moved on and no longer
relies so much on scapegoats and examples, but also because it
is easy to see that, in marrying and having children, Plath was
doing what she wanted and
what, at least for a while, made her happiest. Hughes, however,
kept his silence until
1998 when he published his own version of events, in Birthday
a cover designed by Frieda, an artist and poet in her own right.
Ted Hughes was an enormously successful poet whose success was
just beginning when he met Plath, winning a prize for his first
The Hawk in the Rain. Before becoming poet laureate in 1984, he
powerful poems about life and death often represented by nature,
the landscape, animals and other natural images. The lowering landscape
of his Yorkshire
roots never left his writing, despite his time spent studying in
he started a degree in English Literature but, finding this increasingly
stifling, he switched to study archaeology and anthropology, which
clearly suited his creative
His poetry seems magical, concentrating on and evoking dark, mysterious,
powerful forces in the world and examining what we don’t
understand rather than what we do. Later in life he turned to the
classics, producing his own versions
of Tales from Ovid, Alcestis and a number of similar
Letters was one of the fastest selling books of
poetry of all time, though this may have been related to it’s
subject matter. Nonetheless it is as masterful and evocative as
all his other work and set the seal on his lifetime’s achievement
shortly before he died of colonic cancer. There is a mine of information
about Hughes and his work at Earth|Moon:
A Ted Hughes Website.
Frieda Hughes has now published two volumes of poetry, Worraloo and Waxworks.
The latter is a fascinating collection of poems based on
a range of characters,
from Medusa to Cinderella, and her writing owes a lot to her artistic
talents, as well as to her poetic heritage. There is more interesting
on Frieda Hughes’ work at Smith
College's Poetry Center Frieda Hughes biography.
If this has sparked your interest in Plath’s poetry (and
we should be concentrating on her writing) then you can listen
to recordings of her reading her poems, recorded
by the BBC and broadcasters in the US from 1958 to 1962. There
is something guttural and haunting about her voice, as though foreshadowing
the events of her life,
but hearing her read her own poetry is an unmissable experience.
I found it slightly spooky to be sitting here in 2004 listening
to a poet reading about suicide (Lady
Lazarus) forty years after her death. If you’re in for spooky
experiences though I would thoroughly recommend you go to the
BBC Out Loud Lady Lazarus reading.
If you are interested in reading what she says about her poetry
then have a look at Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,
a collection of her short
non-fiction prose edited and introduced by Ted Hughes. This includes,
among many other fascinating pieces, a short piece entitled A
compares the work of the novelist with the work of the poet:
a poem is concentrated, a closed fist, then a novel is relaxed
and expansive, an open hand: it has roads, detours, destinations;
line, a head line;
morals and money come into it. Where the fist excludes and stuns,
the open hand can touch and encompass a great deal in its travels."
are also a number of other excellent on-line resources I would recommend,
including: Anja Beckmann's
Sylvia Plath page,
PlathOnline.com and The
Sylvia Plath Forum.