Sylvia Plath on writing, and the complexities of life

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It is It is fifty five years since Sylvia Plath killed herself, in her flat in London, near Primrose Hill, in a house where William Butler Yeats once lived. She was thirty-one. Her two children, Frieda, age three, and Nicholas, barely one, slept in the next room. The details of her suicide are known most likely by everyone with a tangential connection to poetry – the rags and towels blocking the doorway; the oven; the two young children sleeping next door; the glasses of milk she left for them on the kitchen table.

In the months leading up to her death, she had published her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, and completed a manuscript of her influential poetry collection, Ariel.

Both works have rightly contributed to the widely shared view of Plath as a creative genius. Robert Lowell, who contributed a forward, is said to have exclaimed, when he opened and read the manuscript, “Something amazing has happened.”

The feeling that Plath’s work has the capacity to be revelatory to both new and returning readers has never really faded. Yet the near mythicism that is attached to her death – and the frenzied period of creativity that seemed to lead up to it – have contributed to the almost stereotypical belief that all the greatest writers and artists must also be tortured souls who carry their demons with them.

This is an unhelpful view to hold, primarily because it risks diminishing the complexity of other human beings. In the case of Sylvia Plath, it risks simplifying her existence to a simple Wikipedia footnote – the idea that she is simply a tragic figure of creative genius and inner turmoil. But, as with all human beings; Plath is so much more.

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While it’s impossible to forget or ignore how Plath died, the question that today has fresh urgency is how she wrote – and how she lived.

In 1975, nearly a decade before Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize, Aurelia Plath, the poet’s mother, edited a loving selection of Sylvia’s letters to her family, published as Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963. Tucked between their lines is the enormity of emotion that animated the poet’s restless spirit.

Within these pages are glimpses of a character and a life so much more than a simplified summary that suits our inclination toward drama and tragedy. And they also show Sylvia as entirely human. For instance, at 17, she expresses such a feeling of invincibility instantly recognisable as that of a teenager:

“Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.

In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative — all unimportant now — fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.

I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free — unbound by responsibility.”

In other letters, the young Plath speaks of the fears of growing older that also grip so many on the cusp of adulthood:

“At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

[…]

I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote.”

In other letters, she does express some sentiments of inner turmoil – of not knowing what she wants or if she ever will. But again, here, who has not felt such things? Read on:

“I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own. I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself “The girl who wanted to be God.” Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be — perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it. I am I — I am powerful — but to what extent? I am I.

Sometimes I try to put myself in another’s place, and I am frightened when I find I am almost succeeding. How awful to be anyone but I. I have a terrible egotism. I love my flesh, my face, my limbs with overwhelming devotion. I know that I am “too tall” and have a fat nose, and yet I pose and prink before the mirror, seeing more and more how lovely I am… I have erected in my mind an image of myself — idealistic and beautiful. Is not that image, free from blemish, the true self — the true perfection? Am I wrong when this image insinuates itself between me and the merciless mirror. (Oh, even now I glance back on what I have just written — how foolish it sounds, how overdramatic.)”

Nonetheless, in her fears of the future, she also harbours a clear vision of hope in herself, as well as joy in the knowledge that the future is still hers – is still anyone’s – and that no individual must be entirely bound to any defined destiny:

“There will come a time when I must face myself at last. Even now I dread the big choices which loom up in my life — what college? What career? I am afraid. I feel uncertain. What is best for me? What do I want? I do not know. I love freedom. I deplore constrictions and limitations… I am not as wise as I have thought. I can now see, as from a valley, the roads lying open for me, but I cannot see the end — the consequences…

Oh, I love now, with all my fears and forebodings, for now I still am not completely molded. My life is still just beginning. I am strong. I long for a cause to devote my energies to…”

Even the way she signs off some of her letters to her mother speak volumes of her hope and love, as well as her happiness:

“Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness. I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively… The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.

Your happy girl,

Sivvy”

In other letters, the subject of Plath’s writing is more mundane and perfunctory. At aged fourteen, she writes to her mother from summer camp:

“I am very busy, but not too much to write regularly to you,” she writes. “Last night I had three big helpings of potatoes (mashed) and carrots for supper and a scant helping of meatloaf as well as 2 pieces of bread and butter, 2 apricots & a glass of milk.”

And in others, she speaks intimately of her innate calling to the written word. In July of 1956, twenty-three year old Plath writes:

“Dearest Mother,

… Both of us are just slowly coming out of our great fatigue from the whirlwind plans and events of last month; and after meandering about Paris, sitting, writing and reading in the Tuileries, have produced a good poem apiece, which is a necessity to our personal self-esteem — not so much a good poem or story, but at least several hours work of solid writing a day. Something in both of us needs to write for a large period daily, or we get cold on paper, cross, or down… We are really happiest keeping to ourselves, and writing, writing, writing. I never thought I should grow so fast so far in my life; the whole secret for both of us, I think, is being utterly in love with each other, which frees our writing from being a merely egoistic mirror, but rather a powerful canvas on which other people live and move…”

What these letters clearly demonstrate is that there is heartbreaking tragedy and despair, it’s true: but there is also wholehearted exuberance. There is the hum drum of daily life and meals and eating; there is the excitement of life changing events; there is fear and there is hope; there is, simply, life.

 

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