Sylvia Plath

On February 11 1963, exactly 48 years ago today, the American poet Sylvia Plath took her own life at a flat on Fitzroy Road in London where W.B. Yeats had once lived, following her separation from Ted Hughes, a spectacularly harsh winter and the return of the depressive illness that had periodically affected her throughout her life. At the time, she had completed most of the poems that made up her second book, and was still only 30 years old (had she survived the suicide attempt – widely considered to be her intention – she would now be 78 years old). 

Quite apart from the anniversary of this event falling during the Anne Collier and Jack Goldstein exhibitions, the mythology surrounding Plath and her work casts a kind of shadow over some of the material included in both these shows. Anne Collier, most obviously, refers directly to Plath in her photograph Sylvia Plath (2008) which shows the monochrome sleeve, with an image of a shoreline on its cover, of a vinyl recording of the poet reading her own works – possibly material recorded at a BBC session in the early 1960s, which seems to have circulated widely.

In Collier’s photograph (one of a series that also includes Double Marilyn and This Charming Man) the record seems to hover on a visually flat horizon, where a cracked concrete floor meets a white wall, with only a small area of shadow behind the record giving physical substance to the space in which the image of the record sits.

The cracking in the floor is likely intended to suggest the mental state of the poet herself, at least as far as her public mythology goes: works like her memoir of a breakdown as a college student in the 1950s, The Bell Jar (1963)  and poems like ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Edge’  in her posthumously published second collection Ariel (1965) have fed the legend of a tortured poetic ingenue, writing direct self-expression out of her personal psychological traumas: what one commentator called Plath’s coming to symbolise “blighted female genius” in the aftermath of her death.

Yet while there’s often a feminist angle placed on this, it’s a view also frequently taken of some of her male contemporaries and immediate predecessors: Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell and John Berryman are just as often viewed through the prisms of their alcoholism and struggles with mental illness as Plath and her fellow ‘confessional poet’ and friend Anne Sexton (who took her own life in 1970). 

As Allen Ginsberg’s Howl had suggested in 1955, the destruction of “the best minds of my generation” might be read as the entirely comprehensible product of a wider cultural sickness, and the response of madness became mythologised after 1945 – in the shadow of nuclear weapons, the Cold War and increasing conservatism in the United States – as the only sane response to a society that had begun to lose its moorings: would it not be a kind of psychopathy to function ‘normally’ in a world that was itself insane? This was not a merely intellectual idea on Ginsberg’s part, as he too had depressive episodes to deal with, no doubt exacerbated by attitudes towards sexuality and permitted ways of living that directly and negatively affected his own day to day existence during his early years.

Which also, of course, brings us to the question of Jack Goldstein’s suicide in 2003, and whether this, too, might colour our views of his work. I’m fairly sure it doesn’t, largely because – where many mid-century artists dealt with the idea and experience of madness in a more expressionistic way (alluded to obliquely in Anne Collier’s photograph of Jackson Pollock’s Convergence as a jigsaw, fragmented in its box against a white ground) it seems any traces of these personal issues were erased and muted rather than heightened in Goldstein’s work.

Even where hints at entrapment or threat occur, as in films like Bone China and The Knife, or such sound works as The Lost Ocean Liner, they are filtered through Hollywood film motifs: detached from the immediate experience of their supposed author. The apocalyptic images in the paintings, with their lightning strikes and suggestions of wartime bombings (even the innocent sky-decorations of Fireworks Exploding were made alongside images of second world war aircraft and burning cities during the early 1980s) are denied psychological resonance by being rendered in the flatly neutral medium of airbrush, and further distanced by being painted by assistants under Goldstein’s supervision.

This ‘coolness’ is also what ultimately distinguishes Plath’s writing, and grants her poetry much of its power: only a small number of poems (among her most famous, but in many respects also her weakest – or at least most limited – works) directly invoke the death and self-destructive urges that would come to define her. Reading her more widely, even the late pieces focus on small incidents, rendered as the focal points of complex, often contradictory meaning: a child’s burst balloon, a cut finger, a vase of tulips, sheep in a fog encountered while out walking.

The craft in Plath is every bit as ‘cool’ and focusing as Goldstein’s isolation of symbolic details from the lexicon of Hollywood, or Collier’s minimal framings of emotionally loaded images. The lesson may be that what appears to be direct and personal usually appears that way because the artists rendering the impression have put plenty of distance between themselves and the experiences they describe. In Plath’s case, to read her authenticity in terms of her suicide is to miss the entire sum of what makes her, in the end, a genuine artist.

Besides, it seems from reading her letters and journals that her ultimate aspiration was to pursue the writing of fiction, and had she survived in 1963 it’s at least plausible that rather than the intensity of the Ariel poems defining her, that early poetic intensity might well have been left behind as she built a reputation as a novelist.

Imagining a parallel reality in which Plath is 78 years old, looking back on Ariel and the failed suicide attempt of 1963 across a string of novels set in 1950s suburban America, about sunlit local characters in Malaga and where gently acerbic tales from Devon villages are gathered (all these subjects appear regularly in her stories and journals) might be just enough to shift perceptions and ask how far the power of the poems themselves would be changed.

My suspicion is not at all, but whether they’d be so widely read without the myth is another question.

2 Responses to “Sylvia Plath”
  1. Alison Lloyd says:

    ‘Crossing the Water’ and the first poem in the collection – ‘Wuthering Heights’ reminds me first of the experience of walking across the moors and down the deep valleys around Halifax, places like Stoodley Pike, Hardcastle Craggs, Walshaw Dean, Mankinholes, Luddenden Foot and Jerusalem Farm, High Withens, – then I can think about mine and the poets changing states of mind. I love the extract – I can see cotton grass, twisted heather and the peat and see the lights coming on in Mytholmroyd.

    There is no life higher than the grasstops
    Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
    Pours by like destiny, bending
    Everything in one direction
    I can feel it trying
    To funnel my heat away
    If I pay the roots of the heather
    Too close attention, they will invite me
    To whiten my bones among them.

    The sky leans on me, me, the one upright
    Among the horizontals.
    The grass is beating its head distractedly.
    It is too delicate
    For a life in such company;
    Darkness terrifies it.
    Now, in valley narrow
    And black as purses, the house lights
    Gleam like small change.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Above: Ariel, from religion to soap powder. Left: The archangel Ariel from a series the studio of Francisco de Zurbarán made in 1645-50 for the Monasterio de la Concepción, Lima, Peru – Ariel’s a bigger deal in Latin America than in Europe. Above right: Shakespeare’s Ariel in “Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety“, a 1930s sculpture by old perv Eric Gill on the facade of BBC Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London W1. Below middle: Ariel in his guise as a pioneering biological washing powder from the 1960s. Below right: Also from the 1960s, Sylvia Plath’s posthumously-published hit poetry collection “Ariel”, a vintage cover from a recent writers’ residency at Nottingham Contemporary gallery by Wayne Burrows. […]

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