With all poets I don’t think anyone would claim that there is a single ‘correct reading’ of a poem: poetry works with the reader to help them connect with/to their emotions, to fire the imagination and to help put life in perspective. Below is my musing on Sylvia Plath and some of her poems.
Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating from Smith College she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study at Cambridge University England where she met her husband, the British poet, Ted Hughes whom she married in 1956 and with whom she had a daughter and a son.
In her writing Sylvia reveals her life-long struggle with mental illness and describes her emotional self. Because it is difficult to separate her life from her work – reality confused with imagination and myth – Plath was associated with the Confessional movement in poetry. Even her only novel, “The Bell Jar”, published posthumously in 1963, is semi-autobiographical and deals with a young woman’s mental breakdown.
When Plath was eight years old, her father died of complications due to diabetes. She witnessed her mother, a former student of her father, as a widow with two young children. I use the word “witness” because Plath’s poetry brings to my mind the image of a person stepping outside of him or herself and looking down at their life, sometimes passionately, sometimes objectively.
Plath saw her father’s death as an abandonment and exposed this in her contentious poem Daddy in which she reveals the contradictory love/hate responses of a child left by a parent and in turn the child’s rejection of that parent.
“Daddy, I have to kill you.
You died before I had time – ”
Plath begins the poem with startling imagery to symbolise this rejection:
“You do not do, you do not do,
Any more, black shoe,
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely breathing to breathe or Achoo.”
She continues with allusions to her father’s German American background, his work as a Professor of Biology and German at Boston University and his personality. A child could only learn about these things from other people, including her mother. This leads me to believe the poem is also a slight to Plath’s mother:
“Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute,
Brute heart of a brute like you.”
Plath not only felt abandonment as a child but also as a grown woman, rejected by her husband. Ted Hughes left Sylvia Plath with two young children in 1962 for another woman. In 1963 Plath committed suicide by inhaling gas from her kitchen oven. First she took a note down to her neighbour for him to ring a doctor and then she sealed the kitchen with cloths and wet towels to stop the carbon monoxide from seeping into her children’s bedroom. In her will Plath named Ted Hughes the Executor of her literary works and he became her editor and arranged most of her work to be published posthumously. Perhaps she trusted him the most to do the right thing by her work and children.
Plath didn’t find pregnancy or single motherhood easy. Her poem Metaphors describes being pregnant with all its frustrations including the bodily changes a woman experiences during pregnancy. It has a nine-line structure and nine syllables in each line. What mother can’t relate to the feeling of –
“A melon strolling on two tendrils”
The imagery in this poem is still fresh, the language playful.
“I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.”
And what about losing a baby? Tulips was written after Plath had been hospitalized for an appendectomy not long after she’d miscarried. Plath and her husband already had a daughter and would go on later to have their son.
Tulips explores the complexities of the ideas of:
· not having a child to show as a result of a pregnancy “They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations”;
· feeling in-and-out of sickness “my body is a pebble to them … / They bring me numbness in their bright needles”; and,
· the loss of the trappings of life “I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses / And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to the surgeons.”
And, Plath writes about a woman’s feelings towards domestication. In Blackberrying Plath is a lonely walker, communing with nature, fearful of the restrictions imposed by her surroundings/home environment “slapping its phantom laundry in my face” to her freedom and her art. How many women writers can relate?
Readers more than half a century after Plath’s death will find resonances with their own lives that might differ to the women of Plath’s lifetime but will never-the-less be the same woman’s-life-cycle issues and events women through time have experienced.
What Plath offers us today is relevant because Plath writes about a woman’s search for her identity. The imagery in her poetry describes women’s journeys in a way that is still surprisingly fresh.
Many books have been written about her; and, many of Plath’s poems are on the internet and her collections are in good libraries. See “Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems” Edited by Ted Hughes, Faber & Faber, 1981. This volume contains all her mature poetry from 1956 to 1963 and was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.