Books + Comics

Performing Plath

I wanted that kind of force, that kind of power, so I borrowed hers.

Illustration by Esme

Illustration by Esme

All your beauty, all your wit, is a gift, my dear,
From me.

—Sylvia Plath, “Soliloquy of the Solipsist”

Reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel is high on my personal list of rites of passage for moody, introspective, lit-prone teen girls. The way I found this book when I was 13 was pretty simple: I went to the library, headed for the poetry section, and checked out every book with an unfamiliar female name on the spine. I had written poetry since grade school, and thought it was something I might do with my life. I wanted to know what “real” poetry—poetry by grown women—was supposed to sound like.

As far as methods of literary discovery go, this one is highly recommended. I turned up more than one writer that I wouldn’t have otherwise read—Amy Gerstler, Jane Hirshfield, Sandra Cisneros—but I also got to encounter the books themselves in a remarkably direct and equitable way. I had no idea whether the books I picked up were cool or uncool, famous or obscure, fashionable or old-fashioned.

There is probably no writer that benefits more from being encountered this way than Sylvia Plath. Her personality—or people’s idea of her personality—tends to dominate all discussion of her, the fact that she committed suicide so often overshadowing the work itself that it’s almost impossible to read her stuff without being influenced by what you know of her life story. Plath has been fetishized, mythologized, and cast as the lead in a thousand critics’ personal psychodramas: She’s the vindictive, clingy ex-wife who killed herself just to make poor Ted Hughes look bad; the innocent martyr destroyed by Hughes’s male domination; the proto-feminist ’50s girl gone bad, who wrote a novel about birth control and raged at male domination in her poems. Some say that her ambition and her work ethic betrayed a giant ego that alone would have driven her to death; others that her madness was what made her a great poet, as if her only real accomplishment was getting so deeply bummed out that she started writing books. And some people—I am not kidding here—argue that she just had really bad PMS. All of this attention means that most readers will already have an idea of who Sylvia Plath is before she gets the chance to tell them. It’s a shame—Ariel is a powerful and terrifying work without any backstory.

Plath had two children under the age of five in 1962, when she wrote the poems that make up Ariel, and many of those poems are kind of childlike—the moon has feelings, trees talk, and some of the titles even call back to childhood. But all of that little-kid imagery is used in the service of poetry about wounds, blood, death, genocide, and hating your parents. In the poem “Lesbos,” Plath introduces kittens so she can talk about killing them:

You have stuck her kittens outside your window
In a sort of cement well
Where they crap and puke and cry and she can’t hear.
You say you can’t stand her,
The bastard’s a girl.
You who have blown your tubes like a bad radio
Clear of voices and history, the staticky
Noise of the new.
You say I should drown the kittens. Their smell!
You say I should drown my girl.
She’ll cut her throat at ten if she’s mad at two.

Fifty years later, this is still shocking stuff. I can recall my confusion at seeing the words puke and crap in a poem when I first read them; it was worlds away from the decorative, delicate language I thought poets were supposed to use, an eruption of nasty, forbidden, real-world talk in a supposedly highbrow space. The mood of Ariel shifts rapidly and often, from pretty and fragile to rage and terror. This tumult of emotions was, to me, very much what it felt like to be a teenage girl. A few years earlier, I’d been worried about choir recitals and Christmas presents; at 13 I was worried about sexual assault and anorexia. The ugly real-world stuff kept cropping up. There was no way to deny it, no way to avoid being scared or angry. I knew nothing about Plath’s life story, but I instantly recognized this powerful language that redefined what I believed poetry could be. You can imagine my surprise when, five years later, I took my first college course in creative writing and found that Sylvia Plath was a laughingstock.

I had expected her to come up in my college classes; in my mind, she was the greatest poet of the 20th century. This was partly due to my own odd reading habits—picking stuff at random out of the library doesn’t give you a great sense of the canon. I had an admittedly immature adulation of her; I didn’t realize anyone COULD say a negative thing about her. We spent part of one class session on Plath, reading her poem “Daddy” and listening to the marvelously spooky BBC recording of Plath reading it aloud.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you

“She’s widely imitated,” the professor said diplomatically, “but you probably, uh, shouldn’t try to imitate her.” The class erupted into giggles and ironic smirking; we talked about whether Plath had the right to call her father a Nazi (as she does in the poem), or whether it was unfair of her. I tried to come up with an answer, something about how the poem uses political imagery to help us take the personal violence more seriously, even though I had absolutely no ability to verbalize this in a way that sounded intelligent. What I wanted to say was that this poem, when I first read it, was life altering. It resonated with me. My father and I had a bad relationship, but I thought, as his daughter, that it would always be my job to love him and forgive him in spite of that. I believed I wasn’t allowed to get angry at him. Realizing that a woman could say these things, both aloud and in print, and witnessing the primal force of Plath’s rejection of Daddy—slamming the insults down over and over, repeating brute three times in two lines, even calling him Satan—was deeply liberating.

I fumbled while trying to explain this feeling in class, leaving out my personal story, and then we all went back to giggling about how mean and crazy and self-absorbed Sylvia Plath was, and looked down on all those weird girls who tried to imitate her. But I was unsettled. I felt that something had gone very wrong. I’ve since realized that Plath is part of the literary canon, and I think that this class could have been more inspiring, but since this professor didn’t like Plath it wasn’t overwhelmingly useful to my development as a writer. The rest of the class may have known to think that Sylvia Plath, and the girls who tried to write like her, was a well-worn punchline, but it was a shock to my system.

They didn’t know that I was one of those girls who had imitated Sylvia Plath. A lot. For years. I wanted that kind of force, that kind of power, and I wasn’t practiced enough as a writer to find power in my own words instead of hers. My poems from that time are horrible—derivative, melodramatic, full of faux-goth imagery that is often (inadvertently) hilarious. I thought mood could be established simply by using the word blood a lot—much of what I wrote in those years sounds like a pretentious ad for tampons.

Sylvia Plath wasn’t always a great poet. For most of her life, she was just a writer who turned out uneven, and sometimes unfortunate, poems. Even when she was relatively well published, lots of people slammed her for writing “pastiches,” which just means having an artistic style that imitates other artists. Sometimes she sounded like Wallace Stevens or Dylan Thomas, and she wrote short-stories for a ladies’ magazine as a way to try out a different writing style. Before Ariel Sylvia Plath was trying to find her own voice, which she eventually discovered by doing imitations, for better or worse, of writers she admired, much in the way that many young writers now begin their own evolution by imitating her.

It’s possible that people who try to write like Plath are vilified more than imitators of other widely imitated literary figures—Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or even Joan Didion—because the literary canon has been dominated by men. Didion is just as personally revelatory and grim as Plath, but she has a cool, controlled style that tends to make it feel less intense, less “gushy” and more intellectual. That makes her feel safer to people who are uncomfortable with the stronger, “out of control” expressions of female emotion. Plath often sets off something primal for young women. She expresses powerful, taboo emotions—rage, sorrow, the desire for revenge—in a way that often encourages those young women to take their own inner lives seriously, and to spend quite a lot of time working out how to express them. Those emotions can be powerful and liberating. When I read “Daddy” for the first time, what mattered was not was not the circumstances of Plath’s anger at her father, or the “fairness” of her rage, but my circumstances, and my anger.

This is not to say that there aren’t real criticisms to be made when it comes to Plath’s work, and I realize that women and feminists are often the ones to make them. But making fun of “the girl who thinks she’s Sylvia Plath” is making fun of the girl who takes her inner life seriously; seriously enough to write about it in some pretty stark terms, without feeling embarrassed. Since Plath took her own life out of some sense of powerlessness, the only real power she has left rests in her ability to inspire more work.

When I was wandering through the library, grabbing anything with a female name on it, I was really looking for teachers. More important, I was looking for women to tell me that writing was possible. I needed evidence that someone like me, a young girl, could one day be a serious writer, and that female voices matter. Sylvia Plath’s poetry was pretty damn compelling evidence of all that. ♦

30 Comments

  • martaosbourne July 1st, 2013 7:12 PM

    Sylvia was an angel. I really hate when people don’t take her seriously!! :(

    By the way, the ad for tampons thing was hilarious
    http://filthygrrrl.tumblr.com

  • daisyauthority July 1st, 2013 8:06 PM

    Woa that was perfectly written. I read through the whole thing in such a rush. I loved the way you describe Sylvia Plath and other female writers like her as exactly what they are, teachers to the young gals who innocently pick up their books looking for a voice to guide them through their lives.
    I’m guessing that all those people who dismiss Plath’s writing as crazy and self-centered are the same type of people who dismiss women in general as crazy and self-centered whenever we to use art to depict our lives.

    lestylemonster.blogspot.com

  • kendallakwia July 1st, 2013 8:24 PM

    Daddy truly is a life-changing poem.

  • Sophie ❤ July 1st, 2013 8:32 PM

    I kno this is quite random, but I LOVED the illustration! Also, Sylvia sounds like such an amazing person! :)

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • Britney July 1st, 2013 8:38 PM

    SYLVIA PLATH IS A GODDESS.
    I am going to comment again after I read this, but she is one of my idols and one of my favorite people ever and I just love her so much.

  • Meash July 1st, 2013 8:39 PM

    I relate to this so much; Plath was such an important gateway to literature and writing for me, and whilst her life can sometimes overshadow her works, both her journals and ‘The Bell Jar’ were significant for me in somewhat legitimising my confusing (and often dismissed as ‘angsty’) young adult feelings. In my opinion, she is for the older teenager, what Anne Frank is for the preteen. Great stuff!

  • Ladymia69 July 1st, 2013 8:42 PM

    I count myself among the girls who were bowled over by Plath as a youth. I began by reading biographies about her, before I delved into the poetry, and it was an immersive experience. She will always be a patron saint of mine.

  • emeraldruby July 1st, 2013 9:03 PM

    I’m studying Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters in school at the moment, and borrowed Sylvia Plath’s Ariel from the library about a week ago. I have fallen in love. I’m so glad I’m finally reading her poetry, I’ve heard about it so much, heard about her and her life and death. She really is a literary mythological figure.

  • judemiranda July 1st, 2013 9:05 PM

    I loved this. I just read The Bell Jar and have started reading Ariel. When I’d seen one of her poems before, in a poetry workshop at summer camp, the instructor just made fun of how emotional/dark it was, but I wanted to read more because it didn’t seem fair to dismiss it for being emotional.

  • decemberflower July 1st, 2013 9:46 PM

    Rookie, how did you know I am reading Sylvia Plath right now?!?!

  • spudzine July 1st, 2013 10:56 PM

    What disgusts me are the comments the people in your creative writing class made about Plath. We all have our own opinions of others, but to devalue the emotions of a suicidal woman is just cruel. Plath is an amazing woman, and now that I know she had a bad relationship with her father like I had, it certainly DOES feel liberating to know that my anger is justified in a way that no other person had said it was.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

    • shin o July 3rd, 2013 7:42 AM

      I’m reading Sylvia Plath’s biography by Anne Stevennson right now. It’s hard to tell what kind of relationship she had with her dad because he died before she even reached 10.she remembers him as a very sickly guy

  • A Beautiful Tragic July 2nd, 2013 3:26 AM

    Sylvia would be proud to read this.

    PS: The ‘tampon ad’ thing is killing me.

  • LeavesThatAreGreen July 2nd, 2013 3:54 AM

    Applause!

    As I live in Europe and English is not my first language I have not, fortunately, had to listen to people making fun of Plath. In my opinion she is a great poet and as you say, she lets us express our inner emotions. And that, I would say, is very important.

    In “A Room of One’s Own” Virginia Woolf writes about how women must have female role models in order to find their own voices. I do not agree with all the thoughts in the essay (some of them seem outdated today) but I think she has some points. Women have not always been allowed to express their (our) feelings properly — why wouldn’t we sound crude and outraged when we write? Why is it that they call us crazy when we finally try to raise our voices?

    • annakarenina August 26th, 2013 11:12 AM

      You have incredible insight and a masterful grasp of English for it not being your first language. Your point about Virginia Woolf is very true and I couldn’t agree more about females raising their voices. Applause to you too, as well as to Rookie for this piece.

      http://megansbookmark.blogspot.com

  • AliceS July 2nd, 2013 5:54 AM

    Thank you so much for sharing thins.

    http://toomuchlightburnsthenegative.blogspot.it/

  • dragonfly July 2nd, 2013 7:25 AM

    AHHHHH SYLVIA PLATH <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

  • dianabanana July 2nd, 2013 9:04 AM

    i read the bell jar about 5 months ago, and after that i bought a copy of all the poems shes published/written after 1956 (i think?) and lesbos still gets to me oh god
    http://nymphella.tumblr.com

  • mansuit July 2nd, 2013 10:12 AM

    it is sad what you say about people trivializing plath’s work because of its honesty and powerful language. i think the bell jar is the best example of her practicing “restraint” as a writer, and imo the novel suffers because of this. it feels like she censors herself, compared to how she describes it in her journals. i don’t see why anyone would riducule her for not writing in a way that is posed to belittle her emotions and experiences. a pity that you must concern yourself about appearing “cool” even when writing poetry. it’s like, “do you want to know what this writer/poet/whatever really thinks or feels, or do you want to know how well they conform to the expextations heaped upon them by others?”

    i’m really glad you stood by her and your article was excellent <3

  • imogan July 2nd, 2013 2:47 PM

    Today I was talking to someone who looked at my book (The Unabridged Journals) and proceeded to knock Sylvia stating that she was silly for ‘killing herself because her husband cheated on her’, when she had clearly been troubled for so long. Naturally this gained a long reply.
    I don’t know why Plath spices up so much controversy and often dark responses to her work. If she had been a man I doubt so many people would react to her stuff so negatively, right?
    I love her, she has been my top lady since I was eleven and first attempted The Bell Jar. A shelf on my bookcase is entirely dedicated to books by or about her, she’s so wonderful!
    Go Sylvia!

  • glitter riot July 2nd, 2013 7:03 PM

    Wait, what? I thought that even though Sylvia Plath was seen as ‘dark’, she was at least well-respected. Just because her poetry is emotional doesn’t mean it should be written off, she uses very powerful language to convey her emotions, and just because it’s a different style than most doesn’t mean it should be discredited. She has been very influential to many other female poets, and to completely write her off like that is just unfathomable to me.

  • kolumbia July 2nd, 2013 8:51 PM

    “I instantly recognized this powerful language that redefined what I believed poetry could be.” This is exactly how I felt when I read Jenny Zhang’s book. It was amazing and eye-opening, and helped me realize that the goal of poetry is not always to sugarcoat unsavory ideas.

  • Maddy July 2nd, 2013 9:39 PM

    “Reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel is high on my personal list of rites of passage for moody, introspective, lit-prone teen girls”

    oh… adding to my reading list then

  • wissycosh July 2nd, 2013 11:34 PM

    She is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Unfortunately, much of what Plath wrote was not published or recognised, critiqued or praised, until after her death. It is important that you felt that way in class- so removed from the laughter- it’s innate and shocking to you, because you relate. After reading ‘ELLI coming of age in the holocaust’ a teacher walked passed me in the library holding it and said “Doesn’t it remind you of your own mother- isn’t it exactly the cruel truth”. These words were ultimately powerful to me because she was right. Often in the literary business- especially in an established english faculty- professors of a long devoted time will often use strategic ways to side track you from writing about greats that they’ve marked so much of- seen so much done- they think it can’t be rewritten brilliantly because they haven’t had that paper in front of them for so long. BE THAT PAPER. Sometimes this is a genuine way of directing you onto other paths as to focus on other greats. Try not to be fooled- write the most absurd, cruel, depressing and sadistic volatile self abolishing work you can, because it is so important.

  • neenbean July 3rd, 2013 10:07 AM

    “Daddy” is and always will be a fantastic poem. Thanks for the refreshing look at Plath, it’s extremely honest and I think that is what is lacking in a lot of analysis on her. She can be incredible and sometimes is also a mediocre writer, but she is not someone to be completely obsessed with (esp for those who idolize her pain/suicide) nor is she someone to laugh at.

    The older I get, the more I’m attracted to Anne Sexton’s poetry.

    http://greybluedreams.blogspot.ca

  • Britney July 3rd, 2013 2:21 PM

    Okay, so I finally read this piece, and I love it. I hate that your professor didn’t take Sylvia Plath’s work seriously, but I’m glad that you thought of her as a teacher and acknowledged her rightful place in the literary canon. I can relate to much of what you said. Thank you SO MUCH for writing this piece.

  • Monq July 3rd, 2013 6:34 PM

    Thanks for sharing, Rookie! You’re making me want to read Ariel and The Bell Jar…might have to make a trip to my local library.

    xoox

  • sleepyschoolgirl July 7th, 2013 11:48 AM

    I just finished reading Ariel and I read The Bell Jar before that, I finished it and had to change it in my English lesson and my teacher sounded astonished that I actually liked the book and gave me an odd look, but she must’ve been lead to believe Plath wasn’t good when she was at uni for her to react in such a way.

  • thatunicornhigh July 23rd, 2013 5:59 AM

    i havent read Ariel but i will know!!

  • onlyconnect August 11th, 2013 3:51 PM

    I’m not sure how Plath is regarded and taught in schools today, but in the eighties and nineties she was taken very seriously and taught as a feminist poet. (This was at Yale, anyway.) It makes me sad to know that people are laughing at her now. I’m glad you are not. I thought you did a great job explaining how Plath’s expression of taboo emotions can really appeal to young women who are having all sorts of taboo emotions of their own. I certainly remember feeling that. I remember feeling that we all put on these facades to the world of having it together, just like Plath did, and it was powerful to know that all those emotions were under there for most people, hidden away.