Sylvia Plath: Poems

Works

Plath wrote poetry from the age of eight, her first poem appearing in the Boston Traveller.[3] By the time she arrived at Smith College she had written over 50 short stories and published in a raft of magazines.[46] At Smith she majored in English and won all the major prizes in writing and scholarship. Additionally, she won a summer guest editor position at the college magazine Mademoiselle, and, on her graduation in 1955, she won the Glascock Prize for Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea. Later at Cambridge, she wrote for the University publication, Varsity. By the time Heinemann published her first collection, The Colossus and other poems in the UK in late 1960, Plath had been short-listed several times in the Yale Younger Poets book competition and had had work printed in Harper's, The Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement. All the poems in The Colossus had already been printed in major US and British journals and she had a contract with The New Yorker.[47] It was, however, her 1965 collection Ariel, published posthumously, on which Plath's reputation essentially rests.

In 1971, the volumes Winter Trees and Crossing the Water were published in the UK, including nine previously unseen poems from the original manuscript of Ariel.[28] Writing in New Statesman, fellow poet Peter Porter wrote:

"Crossing the Water is full of perfectly realised works. Its most striking impression is of a front-rank artist in the process of discovering her true power. Such is Plath's control that the book possesses a singularity and certainty which should make it as celebrated as The Colossus or Ariel.[48]

The Collected Poems, published in 1981, edited and introduced by Ted Hughes, contained poetry written from 1956 until her death. Plath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, posthumously.[28] In 2006 Anna Journey, then a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, discovered a previously unpublished sonnet written by Plath entitled Ennui. The poem, composed during Plath's early years at Smith College, is published in Blackbird, the online journal.[Notes 1]

And I Am the arrow, The dew that flies Suicidal, at one with the drive Into the red Eye, the cauldron of morning.

“ ” from the poem Ariel, October 12, 1962[49]

According to Hughes, Plath left behind "some one hundred thirty [typed] pages of another novel, provisionally titled Double Exposure. That manuscript disappeared somewhere around 1970."[50]

Reception

The Colossus received largely positive UK reviews, highlighting her voice as new and strong, individual and American in tone. Peter Dickinson at Punch called the collection "a real find" and "exhilarating to read", full of "clean, easy verse".[47] Bernard Bergonzi at the Manchester Guardian said the book was an "outstanding technical accomplishment" with a "virtuoso quality".[47] From the point of publication she became a presence on the poetry scene. The book went on to be published in America in 1962 to less glowing reviews. Whilst her craft was generally praised, her writing was viewed as more derivative of other poets.[47] Some later critics have described the first book as somewhat young, staid or conventional in comparison to the more free-flowing imagery and intensity of her later work.

It was Hughes' publication of Ariel in 1965 that precipitated Plath's rise to fame. As soon as it was published critics began to see the collection as the charting of Plath's increasing desperation or death wish. Her dramatic death became her most famous aspect, and remains so.[3] Time and Life both reviewed the slim volume of Ariel in the wake of her death.[30] The critic at Time said: "Within a week of her death, intellectual London was hunched over copies of a strange and terrible poem she had written during her last sick slide toward suicide. 'Daddy' was its title; its subject was her morbid love-hatred of her father; its style was as brutal as a truncheon. What is more, 'Daddy' was merely the first jet of flame from a literary dragon who in the last months of her life breathed a burning river of bile across the literary landscape. [...] In her most ferocious poems, 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus,' fear, hate, love, death and the poet's own identity become fused at black heat with the figure of her father, and through him, with the guilt of the German exterminators and the suffering of their Jewish victims. They are poems, as Robert Lowell says in his preface to Ariel, that 'play Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder.'"[51][Notes 2]

Some in the feminist movement saw Plath as speaking for their experience, as a "symbol of blighted female genius."[30] Writer Honor Moore describes Ariel as marking the beginning of a movement, Plath suddenly visible as "a woman on paper", certain and audacious. Moore says: "When Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was published in the United States in 1966, American women noticed. Not only women who ordinarily read poems, but housewives and mothers whose ambitions had awakened [...] Here was a woman, superbly trained in her craft, whose final poems uncompromisingly charted female rage, ambivalence, and grief, in a voice with which many women identified."[52]

The United States Postal Service introduced a postage stamp featuring Sylvia Plath in 2012.[53]

Themes

Sylvia Plath's early poems exhibit what became her typical imagery, using personal and nature-based depictions featuring, for example, the moon, blood, hospitals, fetuses, and skulls. They were mostly imitation exercises of poets she admired such as Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats and Marianne Moore.[46] Late in 1959, when she and Hughes were at the Yaddo writers' colony in New York State, she wrote the seven-part "Poem for a Birthday", echoing Theodore Roethke's Lost Son sequence, though its theme is her own traumatic breakdown and suicide attempt at 21. After 1960 her work moved into a more surreal landscape darkened by a sense of imprisonment and looming death, overshadowed by her father. The Colossus is shot through with themes of death, redemption and resurrection. After Hughes left, Plath produced, in less than two months, the forty poems of rage, despair, love, and vengeance on which her reputation mostly rests.[46]

Plath's landscape poetry, which she wrote throughout her life, has been described as "a rich and important area of her work that is often overlooked ... some of the best of which was written about the Yorkshire moors." Her September 1961 poem "Wuthering Heights"[54] takes its title from the Emily Bronte novel, but its content and style is Plath's own particular vision of the Pennine landscape.[55]

The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more personal arena of poetry. Robert Lowell's poetry may have played a part in this shift as she cited Lowell's 1959 book Life Studies as a significant influence, in an interview just before her death.[56] Posthumously published in 1966, the impact of Ariel was dramatic, with its dark and potentially autobiographical descriptions of mental illness in poems such as '"Tulips", "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus".[56] Plath's work is often held within the genre of confessional poetry and the style of her work compared to other contemporaries, such as Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass. Plath's close friend Al Alvarez, who has written about her extensively, said of her later work: "Plath's case is complicated by the fact that, in her mature work, she deliberately used the details of her everyday life as raw material for her art. A casual visitor or unexpected telephone call, a cut, a bruise, a kitchen bowl, a candlestick—everything became usable, charged with meaning, transformed. Her poems are full of references and images that seem impenetrable at this distance, but which could mostly be explained in footnotes by a scholar with full access to the details of her life."[57] Many of Plath's later poems deal with what one critic calls the "domestic surreal" in which Plath takes every day elements of life and twists the images, giving them an almost nightmarish quality. Plath's poem Morning Song from Ariel is regarded as one of the best poems in the world on freedom of expression of an artist.[58]

Plath's fellow confessional poet and friend Anne Sexton commented: "Sylvia and I would talk at length about our first suicide, in detail and in depth—between the free potato chips. Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem. Sylvia and I often talked opposites. We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric lightbulb, sucking on it. She told the story of her first suicide in sweet and loving detail, and her description in The Bell Jar is just that same story."[59] The confessional interpretation of Plath's work has led to some dismissing certain aspects of her work as an exposition of sentimentalist melodrama; in 2010, for example, Theodore Dalrymple asserted that Plath had been the "patron saint of self-dramatization" and of self-pity.[60] Revisionist critics such as Tracy Brain have, however, argued against a tightly autobiographical interpretation of Plath's material.[61][62][63]

Love set you going like a fat gold watch. The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry Took its place among the elements.

“ ” from Morning Song, Ariel, 1965[64]

Journals and letters

Plath's letters were published in 1975, edited and selected by her mother Aurelia Plath. The collection, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963, came out partly in response to the strong public reaction to the publication of The Bell Jar in America.[28] Plath had kept a diary from the age of 11 until her death, doing so until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her first year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1982 as The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough, with Ted Hughes as consulting editor. In 1982, when Smith College acquired Plath's remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2013, the 50th anniversary of Plath's death.[65]

During the last years of his life, Hughes began working on a fuller publication of Plath's journals. In 1998, shortly before his death, he unsealed the two journals, and passed the project onto his children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to Karen V. Kukil. Kukil finished her editing in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. More than half of the new volume contained newly released material;[65] The American author Joyce Carol Oates hailed the publication as a "genuine literary event". Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he claims to have destroyed Plath's last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. In the foreword of the 1982 version, he writes, "I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)."[3][66]

The Bell Jar

Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, which her mother wished to block, was published in 1963 and in the US in 1971.[28] Describing the compilation of the book to her mother, she wrote, "What I've done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour - it's a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown.... I've tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar".[67] She described her novel as "an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past".[68] She dated a Yale senior named Dick Norton during her junior year. Norton, upon whom the character of Buddy in The Bell Jar is based, contracted tuberculosis and was treated at the Ray Brook Sanatorium near Saranac Lake. While visiting Norton, Plath broke her leg skiing, an incident that was fictionalized in the novel.[69]


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