“Queen of Sorrows, the spokeswoman for our most private, most helpless nightmares.” This is Sylvia Plath, as seen by Joyce Carol Oates. Of nightmares and sorrows, Plath was too well learned. Born in Boston in 1932, she published her first poem at the age of eight, soon after her father’s death. Her collections “The Colossus” and “Ariel” still attract new readers, as does her only novel, “The Bell Jar”, which follows a whip-smart woman’s spiral into depression. Her work has never gone away: in 2017 the Smithsonian will devote an exhibition to her at the National Portrait Gallery.
At 30, Plath took her own life, setting herself up to be seen through the lens of tragedy, but there is tremendous spark in her poems. She did not always deal in despair, and if she did, it was with supreme, and silver-tongued, awareness. “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time,” she said, “then I’m neurotic as hell.”
Key decisions Two educational, one existential. (1) Going to Smith, a private women’s college where Plath was thrilled to be surrounded by “free-thinkers”. (2) Moving on to Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship. There she met Ted Hughes; four months later, they were married. (3) Taking a leaf out of William Ernest Henley’s book. Plath wrote in high school, “I am the one who creates part of my fate, and I’ll fight destiny all the way. So!”
Strong points (1) A dry wit, lending itself to the morbid. “Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well” (“Lady Lazarus”). (2) Subverting the tender, and reclaiming it, against her own intentions. “The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary./Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls./How I would like to believe in tenderness” (“The Moon and the Yew Tree”). (3) The direct address. No other poet uses the second person as well as Plath does – the “you” is dynamic and unresolved. (4) A rhythm of repetition. Echoes become an obsession: “I shall not be accused, I shall not be accused./The clock shall not find me wanting, nor these stars” (“Three Women”). (5) Spotting double standards, and calling them out. Plath could not allow for men “to have a double life, one pure and one not” (“The Bell Jar”).
Golden rule Never be perfect, never be predictable. Not that she found it easy: she doubted her abilities, striving to be faultless. And she often felt a stranger, saying in an early diary entry, “I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will.” But Plath did recognise she could be more than others expected, imperfect or otherwise: “I am too pure for you or anyone./Your body/Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern --” (“Fever 103°”).
Favourite tricks (1) Rhetorical questions, to which she even replied, scathingly. “Is it a penny, a pearl –/Your soul, your soul?/I’ll carry it off like a rich pretty girl” (“Stopped Dead”). (2) Unnerving similes. “He hands her the cut-out heart like a cracked heirloom” (“Two Views of a Cadaver Room”). (3) Going from a shriek to a hush, and back. Plath sears and burns, but she falls quiet in the briefest, and most poignant, of moments. See “Nick and the Candlestick” for a striking balance.
Role models Emily Dickinson, for a strong first-person persona and a love of paradox. Anne Sexton, for sheer guts and a weakness for anaphora. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for fervour and streaks of the macabre.
Starter pack “Ariel” (1965) is a sure-fire introduction. Once you’ve devoured it, try “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices”, a haunting radio play set in a maternity ward.
Typical lines These, from “The Colossus”, for their wave-like rhythms and unapologetic tone. “The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue./My hours are married to shadow./No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel/On the black stones of the landing”.