Sylvia Plath has been my favourite poet for about two years now. I studied her poems in school, and fell in love with the urgency and honesty behind her words.
Until Sylvia Plath, I’d never known any female poets, and I certainly hadn’t read any poetry quite like hers before. Up until then, all I’d ever been exposed to was variations of nature poetry (Wild Swans at Coole, anyone…?) and the odd war poem. Plath’s poetry was a revelation – proof that poetry wasn’t actually boring, like I had been led to believe. Poetry was full of feeling, and life, and passion, and so many other great things.
My favourite poem by Sylvia is The Rival. I don’t really know if I can accurately express my love for this poem, so I’m just going to post it below so you can read it yourself. The poem is from her book Ariel, and it was speculated to be about a woman called Assia Wevill, who had an affair with Plath’s husband. Ultimately though, this has never been proved and the poem is now thought to have been written years before, and is mostly fictitious. (When I first read it, I actually thought it was about Plath’s mother, but this also hasn’t been proved.)
If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.
You leave the same impression
Of something beautiful, but annihilating.
Both of you are great light borrowers.
Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected,
And your first gift is making stone out of everything.
I wake to a mausoleum; you are here,
Ticking your fingers on the marble table, looking for cigarettes,
Spiteful as a woman, but not so nervous,
And dying to say something unanswerable.
The moon, too, abuses her subjects,
But in the daytime she is ridiculous.
Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,
Arrive through the mail slot with loving regularity,
White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide.
No day is safe from news of you,
Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.
The first verse is absolutely beautiful, don’t you think?
Plath had a troubled life, right from the start. She tried to commit suicide three times in her life, being successful on her third attempt. Plath’s struggle with depression and her subsequent suicide often make people lend a certain romanticism to her poetry (not dissimilar to the way people have romanticized Kurt Cobain, for example) but I don’t like looking at Plath’s life with rose tinted glasses.
As someone who has suffered with depression in my life, when I read Plath’s work I see so much of myself in it – so much so that it is painful to read sometimes. But Plath was so much more than her depression. In her own daughter’s words:
“…the point of anguish at which my mother killed herself was taken over by strangers, possessed and reshaped by them.”
“I saw poems such as Lady Lazarus and Daddy dissected over and over, the moment that my mother wrote them being applied to her whole life, to her whole person, as if they were the sum of her experience.”
I think Sylvia Plath is a classic case of how we, as a society, often romanticize suicide victims. All too often, those suffering with or those who have suffered with depression in the past are reduced to nothing but their depression – it becomes their defining feature. It makes me a little angry that although Plath was an amazing literary talent, every mention of her and her work will always be followed by a mention of her mental illness.
After all, she’s the perfect candidate for it – at the time of her death, she was young, beautiful and she left behind her some of the most brilliant poems ever written.
Since her death, Plath has been portrayed as many different things – in the biographies I’ve read, they do their best to make Plath come across as volatile, or strange, or morose. But in my opinion, Plath was just an extremely talented woman who had a flaw that wasn’t her fault. I always try not to let her depression get in the way when I read her poetry, because I know myself that it would break my heart if my depression became the one thing that people saw when they thought of me.
Ultimately, Plath was a human being. An exceptional one, but still a human. She had dark sides to her personality, sure, but doesn’t everyone?
Depression isn’t romantic. Depression is scary, isolating, and damn near impossible to live with, which is why there are so many people in the world who make the choice not to.
Plath wasn’t a great poet because of her illness, she was a great poet in spite of it.
Plath and her husband Ted Hughes