Sylvia Plath’s poetic talent should go unquestioned, but as Plath fans will know, she first intended to become a visual artist, and some of her earliest work—illustrated childhood letters like the adorable dog below—remained hidden away in the family attic until 1996. Editor Kathleen Connors included this juvenilia in a 2007 collection of Plath’s work entitled Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual, which also features sketches, photographs, and portraits—such as the brooding 1951 self-portrait above—that represent Plath’s work while an art student at Smith College.
Much of the art-school work is not representative of Plath’s best. While she made the difficult decision at age 20 to abandon aspirations for an art career and focus on her writing, Plath continued to make visual art. For example, at 23, she produced a confidently-rendered series of pen-and-ink drawings—such as the fishing boats below—while she and Ted Hughes honeymooned in Paris and Spain.
The Telegraph has a gallery of thirty of these drawings, which were on display at London’s Mayor Gallery between November and December of 2011. Plath’s writing has always been remarkably visual, her deft handling of sometimes startling imagery giving her work so much of its ability to seduce, enthrall, and unsettle. As in her poetry, the images of herself seem to attract the most interest. There are other pieces of Plath self-portraiture, but none contrasts so much with the youthful painting above, I think, as the accomplished pencil drawing below, with the poet’s fearless sidelong stare and bare shoulders expressing both her vulnerability and considerable personal and creative power.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness