October 27, 2017

Sylvia Plath would have turned eighty-five today


By the time she took her life in 1963, Sylvia Plath had written enough poetry for five collections, a novel, a short story collection, and four children’s books. She was thirty years old.

(You, on the other hand, probably slept in this morning.)

When someone’s been gone so long, it can jolting to remember they could still be around; but today would be Plath’s eighty-fifth birthday—one we might have celebrated with her, in another world—and it’s a good time to look back on some of her legacy.

We’ve written a lot about Plath. Most recently, we spent some time with a reading of her iconic poem “Daddy” in light of Donald Trump’s relationship with his daughter, revealing some “strange, horrifying correlations between our current leader and the poetry that made us goth in high school.”

Last year, we checked in with ongoing efforts to adapt Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, published shortly before her death, into a movie. It was to be Kirsten Dunst’s directorial debut. (Is this still happening? Kirsten, let’s hear from you.)

We’ve covered Plath’s work and legacy in other contexts, too, like the forty-voice fiftieth-anniversary celebration of her book Ariel at London’s Southbank Centre, the auctioning of a rare galley of The Bell Jar, the time concern over her abusive relationship with husband Ted Hughes appeared to underlie a decision by Hughes’s second wife (and widow) to rescind permission she had granted a biographer to consult his journals.

Other Plathitudes worth revisiting include this sobering conversation in the Atlantic between Plath biographer Peter K. Steinberg and writer Ashley FettersEmily Gould’s meditations on the fortieth anniversary of The Bell JarJames Parker’s observations on how Plath continues to haunt American culture, and upsetting but urgent reports from earlier this year on long-unseen letters Plath wrote to her therapist, in which she details domestic abuse by Hughes.

But you’re not likely to find any writing on Plath with more insight, context, or power than Sady Doyle’s indellible take in Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… And Why. Plath is one of the key case studies the book considers, and Sady comes out swinging:

The story of Sylvia Plath begins with her death. She committed suicide in the winter of 1963, shortly after writing the best work of her life. By the time those books were published—Ariel, in 1965; The Bell Jar, first released under her own name in 1971—she had been gone for years. She couldn’t speak for the work, or explain it, or defend it. Perhaps most crucially, she could not make any decisions as to where, how, or in what form it was published. This was where the fight began.

The eruption of Plath into the American public consciousness can most likely be traced to the publication of “Daddy” in Time magazine, in 1966. She was already a well-­regarded literary figure, especially after Ariel, but Time made her a star. Next to the poem, and a selection of photos, they described how “a pretty young mother of two children was found in a London at with her head in the oven.” Then, in heavy-breathing prose, Time promised “a strange and terrible poem she had written in her last sick slide toward suicide,” calling Plath a “dragon who in her last months of life breathed a river of bile across the literary landscape.”

Within the space of a few paragraphs, Time magazine had managed to transform Sylvia Plath from Betty Crocker into Godzilla. But then there was the poem itself. The rough beast that stomped its way toward Tokyo to be born: “Daddy, I have had to kill you,” it declaimed, in lurching, inexorable rhythm, and racked up the body count from there: “A man in black with a Meinkampf look / and a love of the rack and the screw / and I said, I do, I do… If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two.”

She didn’t sound like a pretty young homemaker. “Daddy” was like an electrical line that snapped and landed on the family driveway. It hissed and writhed and gave off beautiful sparks, and trying to grab it with bare hands would end you. “Daddy” seethed; it threatened. It was decisively not a delicate, feminine utterance of melancholy, not the work of some ower­garlanded Ophelia oating passively downstream. Plath sounded angry enough to kill somebody, to be certain, but—in “Daddy,” anyway—she wasn’t on that list.

It goes on from there. If you haven’t read Trainwreck yet, permit us to suggest Sylvia Plath’s eighty-fifth birthday is as good a time to start as any?