The legacy of Sylvia Plath

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (23/06/13)

The American poet Sylvia Plath was just 30 when she took her own life in February 1963. On the surface, she had much to be happy about. Her first novel, The Bell Jar, had been published a month earlier. She had two small children, whom she adored, and she was becoming well known as a poet. But Plath also had a history of depression and had attempted suicide twice before. And her life was in turmoil, following the breakdown of her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes.


This year marks the 50th anniversary of her suicide and the publication of The Bell Jar. But she didn't become famous until after her death. Her best-known book of poetry, Ariel, written in the final months of her life, was published in 1965, two years after her death. And in 1982 her book Collected Works won the Pulitzer Prize.

Recently, The Sunday Edition brought together three women writers to talk about Plath and her legacy: Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia, who wrote a PhD thesis on Plath and is the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe; poet Elizabeth Winder, author of Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953; and Lorna Crozier, who has published 14 books of poetry and teaches in the creative writing department at the University of Victoria.

When asked what first drew her to Plath's work, Lorna Crozier said she found it "exhilarating" to read Plath's Ariel because of "the lucidity of vision that was in that book, the intensity. You felt that she turned this amazing eye on absolutely everything fearlessly. She poured light into corners that many people would have preferred to remain dark."

At the time, Crozier was in her early 20s, and just beginning her own career in poetry. "I was thrilled, too, by the anger. There was a lot for women to be angry about at the time, and she dared to put that anger into her book, but she made it into art."

Elizabeth Winder was just 14 when she first read The Bell Jar. "I was so captivated by everything about it. For me, it was a very fun book. And I loved the mixture of glamour and complete degradation. I thought that was just so compelling," she said.

Plath came of age during the 1950s, before the emergence of feminism. Sarah Churchwell noted that although The Bell Jar is rightly regarded as being about mental illness, "it's also a novel about the impossibility of conforming to 1950s expectations of young women... It's a novel about the double standard, and about how enraged she is and distraught about the sense that there are these two opposing possibilities." Plath's heroine feels she can either be a wife and mother, or she can be a writer. But choosing to be a writer risks making her "unfeminine and unattractive," Churchwell said, adding that this type of insult is still aimed at feminists and women of today who are too powerful.

Elizabeth Winder commented that Plath's journals reveals "an obsessive theme: do I write or do I date and get married?"

Feminism was coming to the fore in 1963, when The Bell Jar was published. Though Plath didn't consider herself as feminist, Winder disputed the notion that she was "contemptuous" of feminism. She cited Plath's "subject matter, pertaining to the lives of women. In that way she is absolutely a feminist."

What is Ted Hughes's role in all of this? Even if the poems shouldn't be interpreted as directly autobiographical, he seems to be implicated in many of the angry poems in Ariel. Churchwell believes that their relationship has often been seen as epitomizing the battle of the sexes.

"My own hope is that as a culture we can move beyond polarizing and demonizing one or the other, and saying that she was his victim or she ruined his life, or oh, he was a monster," she said. "They were human beings who had great genius for poetry, who were both very, very ambitious in different ways. And they both had terrific failings."

Churchwell emphasized that Plath should not be regarded as a victim. "Our culture has a tendency to talk about the suicide and to leave out the degree to which all of her imagery comes back again and again to images like the phoenix, of rising out of the ashes, to starting over again, to rebirth and renewal."

"And turning her depression of those last days, even, into magnificent poems," Crozier added. "That is not what a victim does."

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