Perhaps the most telling passages in Sylvia Plath's journals from 1957 revolve around her deep need to write. Plath writes “the central need of my nature [is] to be articulate” ... “if I am not writing ... my imagination stops, blocks up, chokes me” “I will write until I begin to speak my deep self” (p. 286)
Plath, who is best-known for her poetry and short novel, The Bell Jar, and for her suicide, which was followed by attempts by her husband, Ted Hughes, to suppress the publication of some work, rearrange others. Long vilified by her admirers as the true cause of Plath’s suicide, one finds a different story in her journals.
In the voluminous writings, one gains insight into a maddeningly perfectionistic soul, whose conflicts with her mother and ideas about the father who died when she was young, are dealt with in agonizing detail. One sees first that Plath is brilliant and her ways of thinking are unconventional.
Her life and times make her very existence problematic – what is she to do as a young woman, locked by societal constraints into profound conflicts of interest? She writes herself alive. Perhaps that is what is most valuable in the journals – the absolute affirmation that it is, in fact, possible to “write oneself alive.”
My Life & My Work – a fictive imagining of what Sylvia might say if we could speak with her beyond the grave…
I’m not sure that I expected everything to be so final when I stuffed towels in the gap between the door and the floor, sealed the windows, and then opened the gas from the oven. It was a cold, winter day in 1963. London was dreary. My husband, Ted Hughes, had left me, and I had expressed the fear I would starve. I felt destitute – emotionally, financially, intellectually. There seemed to be no other solution. If you ask me, that is my answer to why I committed suicide when it seemed I had everything in the world to live for – two young children, a finely honed intelligence, extremely compelling fiction and poetry. True enough, no one had read the most powerful of my poems – they were to be published in a collection entitled Ariel, which would appear in 1965, two years after my death. My novel, The Bell Jar, which would later be a best-seller, was still published under a pseudonym.
Part of me probably expected to be rescued. After all, that is what happened in my first suicide attempt one strange, terrible summer when I was found unconscious in the crawl space in my mother’s home. And, coming back from the almost-dead is what I chronicled in my despairing, rage-filled poem, “Lady Lazarus.”
I certainly did not expect my final days to be analyzed, and I did not think I’d become the patron saint of a whole cross-section of young girls and women – usually highly intelligent, yet insecure, artistic perfectionists and honor students whose mothers never dreamed their darling good little girls were suffering so much inside.
Further, I became the iconic standard-bearer for feminists who claimed my work exemplified what it meant to be an intelligent, ambitious, and creative woman in the 1950s. Yet others focused on my depression, and suggested that I could have lived longer if Prozac had been available in 1963.
And yet, those were not my preoccupations. My life has been animated and illuminated by a deep-seated need to write, and to makes sense of my world by writing.
Instead of focusing on the subtle craft of my work, or the gallows humor that percolates through The Bell Jar, readers tend to focus on family dynamics, sexual politics, and ideology. How uninteresting. They get it wrong. I think it’s quite ironic that literary critics have made much of my father, and the fact that he was a German immigrant and a keeper of bees. In a way, I don’t blame them. After all, I did use him as the subject of my poems.
But, to say that I really thought my father was a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer seems really simplistic and reductive. My poem, “Daddy,” is not autobiographical. Some say I exploited the Holocaust to create poetry. I do not agree with them.
My poem is autobiographical in an emotional sense. I was seeking to capture the horror of Nazis, and of harsh, rigid mindsets. I state that men dominate women in society. But, more than simply stating that fact, I communicate the rage, the reactive anger, the despair, that accompanies the feeling of being cut off, psychologically annihilated, nullified. My poem is a painful excursion into a mindset and an emotional place. Sadly, it has been appropriated by others who use it in the service of their personal ideology.
Actually, the intensity of my writing makes it attractive for many people to use me to express their own inarticulated griefs, fears, and desires.
My father, his German heritage, the bees, and his early death (his abandonment of me) became a very convenient metaphor for the way our society treats women.
It hurts when men abandon me. I know, intellectually, that my father did not choose to abandon me. After all, he died. But my husband, who abandoned me for another woman, did make that choice. He actively chose to abandon me. I can’t make sense of it. No, not true -- I can make sense of it – but only if I write.
One could say many of my poems are about patriarchy, or male dominance. However, I think that we really need to look more closely. Our oppressors are often ourselves. My poem is also about how I respond to all the structures of society that make me fearful.
This is a fictive imagining of the voice, vision, and message of Sylvia Plath, if she were to send a message today...