Why Should We Read Sylvia Plath? An Animated Video Makes the Case

In “Morn­ing Song,” from Sylvia Plath’s posthu­mous 1965 col­lec­tion Ariel, pub­lished two years after her sui­cide, a new­born infant is a “fat gold watch.” Among the inces­sant lists of adjec­tives in both her work, “fat” is one that stands out, appear­ing often, in sev­er­al syn­onyms, as a cel­e­bra­tion of abun­dance and real anx­i­ety over weight gain and a gen­er­al too-much­ness. In the same poem, the baby is a work of art, a “new stat­ue.” Its moth­er, on the oth­er hand, is in one stan­za a cloud effaced by the wind in a mir­ror, and a clum­sy ani­mal, “cow-heavy and flo­ral / In my Vic­to­ri­an night­gown. / Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s.”

Plath’s images are brac­ing and unex­pect­ed, awed and strick­en, usu­al­ly at once. She deploys them so quick­ly and adroit­ly that even when one fails to land, the oth­ers imme­di­ate­ly take up the slack, mak­ing even her less-great poems impres­sive for a line or stan­za that takes hold in the mind for days. This abil­i­ty was not the result of either divine inspi­ra­tion or men­tal ill­ness, but tal­ent honed through hard work and com­mit­ment. Plath “chose the artist’s way. Poet­ry was her call­ing,” the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed video by Iseult Gille­spie tells us above. As such, she per­se­vered even through severe bouts with depres­sion and many sui­cide attempts before she final­ly suc­cumbed at age 30.

Plath’s semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el, The Bell Jar, which dra­ma­tizes these themes, as well as a hand­ful of her dark­est poems, have come to pop­u­lar­ly sym­bol­ize her lega­cy. You’ve heard of them even if you’ve nev­er read them. Yet she com­posed a “large bulk of poet­ry,” her hus­band, poet Ted Hugh­es, wrote in the intro­duc­tion to her Col­lect­ed Works, pub­lished and unpub­lished, nev­er throw­ing any­thing out. “She brought every piece she worked on to some final form accept­able to her, reject­ing at most the odd verse…. Her atti­tude to her verse was arti­san-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the mate­r­i­al, she was quite hap­py to get a chair, or even a toy.”

His char­ac­ter­i­za­tion may not sound like the most char­i­ta­ble, and as her lit­er­ary execu­tor, Hugh­es was accused of refus­ing to pub­lish some of her work. But he was also a fel­low poet who watched her tire­less­ly write and revise. Quot­ing from her jour­nals, Hugh­es shows how her first col­lec­tion, 1960’s The Colos­sus and Oth­er Poems, came togeth­er over a peri­od of many years, its title chang­ing every few months, new poems appear­ing and old ones falling away. The result is a debut whose “breath­tak­ing per­spec­tives on emo­tion, nature, and art con­tin­ue to cap­ti­vate and res­onate,” notes the video’s nar­ra­tor.

Despite her major pres­ence in the lit­er­ary mag­a­zines and the respect she won espe­cial­ly in the UK, The Colos­sus and Oth­er Poems would be Plath’s only pub­lished col­lec­tion in her life­time. It made her a well-respect­ed poet, but did not make her the celebri­ty she became after the pub­li­ca­tion of The Bell Jar three years lat­er and her sui­cide the fol­low­ing month. “With­in a week of her death,” writes Time mag­a­zine in its review of Ariel in 1966, “intel­lec­tu­al Lon­don was hunched over copies of a strange and ter­ri­ble poem she had writ­ten dur­ing her last sick slide toward sui­cide. ‘Dad­dy’ was its title.”

After the pub­li­ca­tion of Ariel, read­ers fixed on “Dad­dy” and “Lady Lazarus,” sen­sa­tion­al poems in which “fear, hate, love, death and the poet’s own iden­ti­ty become fused at bleak heat with the fig­ure of her father, and through him, with the guilt of the Ger­man exter­mi­na­tors and the suf­fer­ing of their Jew­ish vic­tims.” These are poems, wrote Robert Low­ell in his pref­ace, that “play Russ­ian roulette with six car­tridges in the cylin­der.” As fem­i­nist schol­ars embraced her work in the 1970s, a mor­bid fas­ci­na­tion with her image only grew. This is the Plath many peo­ple know by word of mouth. But those who haven’t read more of her will miss out.

Plath doesn’t shy away from star­ing at sui­cide, abuse, and mass mur­der. She helped to “break the silence sur­round­ing issues of trau­ma, frus­tra­tion, and sex­u­al­i­ty.” Ariel and her dozens of uncol­lect­ed poems are also “filled with mov­ing med­i­ta­tions on heart­break and cre­ativ­i­ty,” includ­ing the heart­break and cre­ativ­i­ty of moth­er­hood, a theme always fraught with fears of love and death. Plath’s work can be dark, and it can be at once lumi­nous in its imag­i­na­tive can­dor. In writ­ing about life with depres­sion and the domes­tic mis­ery vis­it­ed on her in her mar­riage to Hugh­es, she cel­e­brates life’s sub­lime plea­sures and mourns its depths of suf­fer­ing, in poem ofter poem, with near-con­stant inge­nu­ity, wit, and courage.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Sylvia Plath Read 50+ of Her Dark, Com­pelling Poems

Sylvia Plath, Ted Hugh­es & Peter Porter Read Their Poet­ry: Free Audio 

Sylvia Plath, Girl Detec­tive Offers a Hilar­i­ous­ly Cheery Take on the Poet’s Col­lege Years

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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