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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What is literature for?

In the hurly burly world of our Post-Fordist society, it is increasingly becoming difficult to sit and concentrate for thirty seconds – let alone thirty minutes – as the digital background babble drills into our consciousness, and we are met in the world outside the office by TV in waiting rooms and the backseats of cars; by music in supermarkets, retail stores, gyms and buses; by advertisements everywhere you look.

Each of these things distract us from our thoughts, and from real life. They consume us to such an extent that people sometimes even ask questions like “why do we even need books?” “Why should we spend our times reading novels and poems, when so much is happening?”

Well, fortunately, to answer these questions the wonderful folk at The School of Life have created a marvellous animated essay, which extols the value of books and literature in expanding our circle of empathy, validating and ennobling our inner life, and fortifying us against the paralyzing fear of failure.

The creators note that we tend to treat literature as a distraction, an entertainment – something for the beach. But it’s far more than that, it’s really therapy, in the broad sense. Indeed, they suggest books could be used as a cure for many of the afflictions that ail us:

“We should learn to treat literature as doctors treat their medicines, something we prescribe in response to a range of ailments and classify according to the problems it might be best suited to addressing.”

The essay notes key rewards found in reading, which are detailed here below:

It saves you time

It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness: it lets you – safely: that’s crucial – see what it’s like to get divorced. Or kill someone and feel remorseful. Or chuck in your job and take off to the desert. […] it lets you speed up time.

It turns us into citizens of the world

Literature introduces you to fascinating people: a Roman general, an 11th century French Princess, a Russian upper class mother just embarking on an affair…it takes you across continents and centuries. Literature cures you of provincialism and, at almost no extra cost, turns us into citizens of the world.

It makes you nicer

Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.

Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.

It’s a cure for loneliness

We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…As the writer Emerson remarked: “In the works of great writers, we find our own neglected thoughts.”

It prepares you for failure

All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media. They evoke pity for the hero and fear for ourselves based on a new sense of how near we all are to destroying our own lives.

Sylvia Plath, reading.

Sylvia Plath, reading.

The essay concludes with a fitting tribute to literature, and perhaps the most salient answer to that damnable question we first started with – “what is literature for?”

The creators say: “Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.”

We here at Nothing in the Rulebook couldn’t agree more. Why not complement this video essay with musings on the ecstasy of reading, and then peruse some of essential summer and autumnal reading lists.

About the School of Life

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand, and where necessary change, the world.