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Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), American poet, novelist and short-story writer

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by Kim Moore, Lavinia Singer and  Sarah Westcott

Kim Moore: I think I carry with me … her use of the poem as a psychological journey

I think I’m slightly unusual in that I didn’t read Sylvia Plath as a teenager, which I think is when many poets encounter her. I can’t remember when I first read a Sylvia Plath poem because it feels like I’ve always known it. I also think influence is a tricky thing to pin down and measure and maybe Plath is the poet who manages to influence the largest amount of young poets – and I know this from working with young writers, that part of the battle is trying to get them to read something else apart from Sylvia Plath. I think the way her poetry still connects with young people is quite remarkable and would probably merit a whole study in itself.

If I had to pick out the one thing that I love about Plath’s poetry though, and which I think I carry with me, it is her use of the poem as a psychological journey. The whole movement of the poem propels itself towards its end, and each poem feels to me, like a search for something, some truth, or realisation. I also feel like Plath was writing blind, she wasn’t planning what she was finding out, she was writing to discover what she wanted to say. Of course the only person who could verify or deny that is Sylvia Plath, but I like to think she probably got the same sense of shock and a slight lurch as the world shifts into a different focus when she wrote something and surprised herself as we do when we read her poems now. The last line of Mirror when the old woman “Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish” still shocks me now.

Lavinia Singer: Her gift for imagery continually surprises, and inspires my own writing.

Last May the Southbank Centre presented a Sylvia Plath celebration: forty female poets and performers each reading a poem from her final manuscript Ariel in its restored order. The hall was filled; Plath’s popularity has never been doubted. Harold Bloom spoke of it rather patronisingly: “But surely what matters about Plath … is the audience. These are poems for people who don’t read poems.” This from the man who opens his introduction to her work with: “Sylvia Plath, who killed herself early in 1963…”

It’s all rather snooty. Such pronouncements, alongside labels of ‘Popular Poet’, ‘Confessional Writer’, ‘Feminist Martyr’, marginalise any artistic achievement. As a literature student, I found Plath positioned as a poet to enjoy but then move on from. Perhaps this is induced by her successful novel The Bell Jar – a ‘coming of age’ narrative. Wryly depicting a young girl with writing aspirations and mental illness, it continues to appeal, and not only to adolescents. I prefer her Journals, which are more scattered and mood-dependent, expressing an identity both being forged and actively shaping itself: “A Life Is Passing!” It also offers helpful ways to approach her poetry:

Why can’t I try on different lives, like dresses, to see which fits best and is most becoming?

Writing makes me a small god: I re-create the flux and smash of the world through the small ordered word patterns I make.

Performance, play, construction: Plath’s work is never simply ‘confessional’, as many critics would have us believe, charting some inexorable spiral to suicide. Her gift for imagery continually surprises, and inspires my own writing. A beehive is a “black mind” (Wintering), birds are “moon-plumaged strangers” (The Shrike), and what depths are expressed in: “My landscape is a hand with no lines” (Childless Woman)! Plath smashes her everyday world and re-creates it with hard-won tools of myth and symbol, picking language to its core: “So words have power to open sesame and reveal liberal piles of golden metallic suns in the dark pit.” (Journal)

In the darkness of the auditorium, the uttered poems shone, and it was clear why audiences of all kinds – including poets! – keep coming back to share in the treasure.

Sarah Westcott: The boldness, the truths, the place she drew from…

At school I was aware of Sylvia Plath but it wasn’t until I went to university (and I was ready for her) that I discovered her poetry on my own terms.

I remember idly flicking through her poems in a bookshop and feeling I had stuck my fingers into a hive of bees – I “sizzled” in her own “blue volts” by the roots of my hair.

As an 18-year-old science student I was ignorant of her poetic craft and control. What I responded to was her fierce truthfulness, her shocking imagery and the intensity and ferocity of emotion. She brought up inner, collective symbols, things I didn’t know I knew, seemingly straight from the subconscious and forged them into poetry.

I felt like I was indulging myself in a sort of emotional expression that I could not in ‘real life’ – her words took me there, drawing on a wellspring of deep, rich imagery.

Plath spoke to me then, and does now, with her directness of perception. She showed you didn’t have to be good, or compliant, or even sane, to write poetry.

Daddy scared me: she voiced the unsayable. But her poetry went beyond self-expression into larger archetypes. She wrote, as she says, of ‘the things of this world’ but also of darker emotions that ‘put on the masks of quite unworldly things’ such as ghosts and gods or monsters.

She was also unashamedly female – and I thought of poppies, and hell flames, and menstruation and blood and my own ‘Daddy’ and she was gothic and terrible and brilliant.

There was an aura of glamorous tragedy around her, but she seemed ‘old’ to me – at thirty. Only now I am older than her do I realise how young she was when she died, and how much more she could have left the world.

As a young mother, I returned to her poetry as it captured the joy and intensity of early motherhood better for me than anyone else. You’re combines the other, almost alien-qualities of a new born, with tenderness. And the sincerity of Child is desperately moving:

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with colour and ducks. The zoo of the new…

I admire and study the way Plath writes about nature without conquering or trapping it. In Mushrooms, for example, she not only describes and inhabits their odd whiteness but takes on their voice herself:

So many of us!
… nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth…

I love this daring, this derring-do, this sly inhabitation of different forms and voices and it has encouraged me in my own experiments.

I continue to go back to Plath’s poems through the prism of my older self. I savour her exquisite rhyme and musicality, and I read her in a new context: how brave her poems are, forged in the autumn before she died.

Plath beat a path by opening up territories and by being vulnerable. She did not hide behind her cleverness or societal expectations. The boldness, the truths, the place she drew from are exposed and exposing. She inspires me to try to venture to the deepest reaches of the self, and to write without (self) censure.

Originally published in ARTEMISpoetry, Issue 13, All rights reserved

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