Some years ago, amidst my own college education, I first ran into the legacy of Sylvia Plath. It was complicated. Myself a fledgling writer, I was humbled when a friend of mine compared me to the late poet. We share a birthday, and that was where I thought the similarities ended. It was not until I did further research (…late-night Wikipedia) that I discovered her tale was as touching as it was troubling. For this month, we choose to delve deeper into the woman who was.
Her life is more explored and noted than her writing, possibly because her “self” was so woven into her work. Further, the most notable aspect of her life is how it ended, it seems, so it is important to note the content of her work, as well as the less-explored aspects of her life. Conversations about Plath tend to “focus on death,” but her suicide is not the only story (Broe 124).
Things You Might Not Have Known About Sylvia Plath:
- At eight years old, she published her first poem; this same year, her father died of complications from diabetes (McGill).
- In her childhood, Plath spent her time “where the land ended,” and enjoyed swimming (Rollyson 9).
- She was fond of Superman and the radio dramas about him (Rollyson 10).
- Plath scored near a 160 on an IQ test when she was twelve, “well into genius territory” (Rollyson 16).
- Appearances “mattered to Sylvia” (Rollyson 19). She preferred proper grammar, well-groomed clothing and habits, and good manners.
- She was intensely invested in having an audience, to the extent that “an audience has to witness the spectacle of what it meant to be Sylvia Plath” (Rollyson 3). She modeled for magazines, wrote pieces in multiple journals and for multiple prizes; always to stay in the public’s eye.
- In her later works, specifically the collections Ariel and Winter Trees, Plath “creates a literary value out of poetic ambivalence;” that is, she contrasts the virtues of languishing with the virtues of performance (Broe 126). There is a desire to keep herself to herself, diminish, become smaller, but there is also a pull towards showcasing what she has to offer.
Through delving into these books (listed below) I realized that the woman who ended her life on February 11, 1963 was so much more than a statistic. She had a vibrant childhood – if strict and tragic at times – and achieved as much as was possible. She lost her father at a young age and remembered him as an almost larger-than-life figure for the rest of her life. She loved swimming; she loved attention; she loved expressing herself through poetry, though she had several novels in the works. And in the end, the result of her mental illness perhaps became one last act of claiming her identity as her own (Rollyson 231).
Aside from the definitive end of her life at 30, there aren’t many dissimilarities between Plath and I in the above paragraph. I took to the water as a child, preferring water to land most summers. My own father’s death when I was thirteen will always affect my life and my writing, and I find more meaning out of life when I’m chronicling it in prose or verse. I have many unfinished manuscripts, and one day they will be finished. Mental health services have expanded greatly since the sixties, and even though they still have further to go, I don’t see my story ending the same way as Sylvia’s. I can’t. I have been intensely lucky and privileged throughout my life; because of the bravery of women like Plath, we are free to express ourselves in quiet explosions of catharsis.
In honor of National Poetry Month, and in honor of one of my literary inspirations, let’s raise a glass – behave here, please – to life, and to art.
If you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, you can find help with the Suicide Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255). For a more local option, you can contact the Richmond Behavorial Health Advisory at 804-819-4100. Thank you.
Broe, Mary Lynn. Protean Poetic: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. University of Missouri Press, 1980.
McGill, Sarah Ann. Sylvia Plath. 2005.
Rollyson, Carl E. American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath. 1st ed., St. Martin’s Press, 2013.