Monday, 11 February 2013

Sylvia Plath: The Poetry’s The Thing

by Mark Richardson

Fifty years ago, at around 11.00 in the morning of Monday 11th February 1963, a workman broke into a flat in Fitzroy Road in London. A nurse, who had expected to get into the flat at 9.00 in the morning, had been unable to get any answer, and she was so concerned that she persuaded him to break in. Her concerns proved very real indeed. The children were safe, but the kitchen had been sealed and the body of their mother, Mrs Hughes, lay beside the gas oven. It was a cold winter, and London was in the grip of icy conditions, so the death of a young mother, regrettable in itself, might not be expected to create much in the way of headlines. Only two years earlier, the act of attempting suicide had still been an offence, but that time had long gone, and here was, seemingly, just another addition to the grim statistics. However, that suicide in particular proved to be the birth of an entire literary industry, provoking numerous controversial biographies, deep distrust and anger amongst many friends, family members and commentators, together with innumerable letters, articles, newspaper reports, TV programmes, even a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

Why? Well, change her surname to her maiden name, Plath, and everything else changes too. From “just” a statistic, that death has become the defining moment in a life, the life and work of Sylvia Plath, American poet and novelist and, significantly as it turned out, wife of up and coming poet Ted Hughes (later Poet Laureate until his death in 1998).

Plath’s poetry has become entwined with that death. Her suicide has inevitably been connected with her poetry, and has become the way for many of labelling, even defining her poetry. When she writes in ‘Lady Lazarus’ that ‘dying /Is an art. / Like everything else / I do it exceptionally well’, what a gift that is to anyone wanting to “make sense” of her work. Here is someone dramatising her own earlier attempts at suicide, a hubristic moment that would later be horribly tested. With her suicide in mind, any earlier poem can then be immediately read as being by someone for whom the riddle of existence is connected with her ability to close her eyes, invoking the word ‘dead’, and thus stopping the world (in ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ she writes ‘I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead’).

But her poetry has also been promoted as evidence, as if it were needed, of the continuous and continued repression of women by men, and thus becomes essential material for courses that deal with the feminine voice. By only a decade after her death, Plath’s work was an expected element in modern literary studies in universities in both the US and the UK. With feminism forming a crucial part of the political and intellectual life of many in the 1970s, Plath’s poetry could readily be made centre stage, her death symbolising both the battleground and the principles for social change.

But for me, with fifty years having passed, it is the poetry that should shine through. It is the poetry, not her gender or her mental turmoil, that should be central to its own meaning. I adore her drama, her courage, her passion, and indeed the ‘masculine’ qualities of her voice, where her spirit and energy are demonstrated on a page in phrases that might more readily be seen, perhaps still, as actions more commonly expected amongst male behaviour: confidence, assertiveness, arrogance, power. But I also adore her ability to produce combinations of words that are extraordinary in their own right. They are not valuable because they are written by a woman, or because they are vital clues to an individual’s mental state, but because of their inherent fire, their power to provide a frisson in a reader when read for the first, second or hundredth time. In ‘Lady Lazarus’ I choose to celebrate an earlier section to the previously-quoted familiar lines, being a much more disturbing and troubled quatrain:
 I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.

I can’t quite pinion that effect of that quatrain in any comforting and definitive way: for me, it hints at William Blake, it is somehow reminiscent of the chants of the Witches in Macbeth, it is a charm that casts a spell. But it is moments like that, and concluding lines of her poem ‘Wuthering Heights’ when she describes looking down at a Yorkshire valley at night and describes it thus:

Now, in valleys narrow
And black as purses, the house lights
Gleam like small change.

So, you don’t have to be female, or a budding psychologist, to find the power of her work. It’s the poetry that’s the thing.

Read Fay Davies' Approaching Death in 'The Bell Jar'

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