Why should you read Sylvia Plath? – Iseult Gillespie
Why should you read Sylvia Plath? by Iseult Gillespie (TED ed Transcript). “From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked… but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
In this passage from Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” a young woman imagines an uncertain future– and speaks to the universal fear of becoming paralyzed by the prospect of making the wrong choice. Although she considered other careers, Plath chose the artist’s way. Poetry was her calling.
Under her shrewd eye and pen, everyday objects became haunting images: a “new statue in a drafty museum,” a shadow in a mirror, a slab of soap. Fiercely intelligent, penetrating and witty, Plath was also diagnosed with clinical depression.
She used poetry to explore her own states of mind in the most intimate terms, and her breathtaking perspectives on emotion, nature and art continue to captivate and resonate. In her first collection of poems, “The Colossus,” she wrote of a feeling of nothingness: “white: it is a complexion of the mind.”
At the same time, she found solace in nature, from “a blue mist” “dragging the lake,” to white flowers that “tower and topple,” to blue mussels “clumped like bulbs.” After “The Colossus” she published “The Bell Jar,” her only novel, which fictionalizes the time she spent working for Mademoiselle magazine in New York during college.
The novel follows its heroine, Esther, as she slides into a severe depressive episode, but also includes wickedly funny and shrewd depictions of snobby fashion parties and dates with dull men. Shortly after the publication of “The Bell Jar,” Plath died by suicide at age 30.
Two years later, the collection of poems she wrote in a burst of creative energy during the months before her death was published under the title “Ariel.” Widely considered her masterpiece, Ariel exemplifies the honesty and imagination Plath harnessed to capture her pain. In one of “Ariel’s” most forceful poems, “Lady Lazarus,” she explores her attempts to take her own life through Lazarus, the biblical figure who rose from the dead.
She writes, “and I a smiling woman/ I am only thirty/ And like the cat I have nine times to die.” But the poem is also a testament to survival: “I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.” This unflinching language has made Plath an important touchstone for countless other readers and writers who sought to break the silence surrounding issues of trauma, frustration, and sexuality. “Ariel” is also filled with moving meditations on heartbreak and creativity.
The title poem begins “Stasis in darkness/ Then the substanceless blue/ Pour of tor and distances.” This sets the scene for a naked ride on horseback in the early morning— one of Plath’s most memorable expressions of the elation of creative freedom. But it is also full of foreboding imagery, such as “a child’s cry” that “melts in the wall” and a “red/eye, the cauldron of morning.”
This darkness is echoed throughout the collection, which includes controversial references to the holocaust and the Kamikazes. Even the relics of seemingly happier times are described as crucifying the author: “My husband and child smiling out of the family photo; Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.”
Her domestic dissatisfaction and her husband’s mistreatment of her are constant themes in her later poetry. After her death, he inherited her estate, and has been accused of excluding some of her work from publication. Despite these possible omissions and her untimely death, what survives is one of the most extraordinary bodies of work by a twentieth century poet.
While her work can be shocking in its rage and trauma, Plath casts her readers as witnesses– not only to the truth of her psychological life, but to her astounding ability to express what often remains inexpressible.
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Credit: Iseult Gillespie – TED ed