The life of Sylvia Plath should fascinate us much more than her death

By thinking differently about Sylvia Plath's legacy, we'll find dangers along the way (Shutterstock)

By thinking differently about Sylvia Plath’s legacy, we’ll find dangers along the way (Shutterstock)

Has Sylvia Plath planned everything? That’s what we’d like to think. In his work, we are always looking for prophecies about his life – and when I say his life, I especially mean his death. In her poem “Lady Lazarus”, she imagined her corpse, surrounded by a filthy spectacle. “The peanut-crunching crowd / Rushes in to see / They unwrap my hands and feet – / The fat striptease.” As prodigious as it may sound, it really is a poem about rebirth, full of irony. And yet we are still obsessed with his suicide at age 30 in 1963, and the search for signifiers continues. She is, as Heather Clark wrote in her biography red comet“a paradoxical symbol of female power and powerlessness… caught in limbo between icon and cliché”.

But how to solve this problem? Perhaps this week – 90 years after its birth – holds the key, for it is far more powerful to reflect on a creative force coming into the world, blazing so violently that we still feel the burn marks of it, than to leave it. prematurely in such pain. Plath didn’t let herself be thought lazily, and neither were we. Why can’t we challenge ourselves to wrestle with what she created while she was alive, rather than playing her death on repeat? As a writer, she was looking for new ways to describe the human experience, but we want to trap her in the same moment forever.

By thinking differently about his legacy, we will find dangers along the way. There is a fundamental problem with how we read the work of artists who have committed suicide. Plath is part of a long line of creators who took their own lives, from Virginia Woolf to Kurt Cobain and Sarah Kane, whose production is now seen as merely a prelude to their deaths. In many ways, this is a fundamentally human response. Suicide is so painful and shocking – how can you not feel compelled to look for the signs? But too often – and harder to excuse – this death is fetishized. at Andrew Dominick Blond did this to Marilyn Monroe, portraying her life as a solitary predetermined tragedy; in the final scene, her dead feet dangled from the bed like a doll’s. (Clark draws a notable parallel, noting “the popular and clichéd image of Plath as the literati’s Marilyn Monroe.”) Euphoriaa novel by Swedish writer Elin Cullhed, published in the UK this month, imagines the year before Plath’s death and begins with a chapter titled ‘7 reasons not to die’.

The other problem is that Plath may have been claimed as a feminist icon, but we still struggle to understand women writers on their own terms – especially those who write about pain. “When we see a female character reading The glass bell in a movie, you know she’s going to cause problems,” Clark comments. (I respect you, Kat Stratford in 10 things i hate about you.) My own early reading journey with Plath was beset by this societal baggage: at first I backed away from her, before seeing others do the same. During an English lesson at school, I found his poem “Dad” uncomfortable: too ugly, too difficult. Like that same teenage reader, I rejected The glass bell. Too whiny! A few years later I read Andrew Wilson’s biography Mad Girl’s Love Song, which traces Plath’s life to her meeting Ted Hughes, and was struck by her tirelessness – fighting for scholarships, usually the smartest person in the room, and always, always trying to to write. The more I read, the more I was ashamed of having underestimated her so badly.

Because Plath had the highest standards for herself, so now I have them for her too. I avoid Gwyneth Paltrow’s melodramatic 2003 film, which prompted Plath’s own daughter, Freida, to write a poem condemning the “Sylvia Suicide Doll,” and view cosplay novels with suspicion. Instead, I turn to her work or think about the creativity she inspired. by Janet Malcolm The silent woman, for example, which takes the Plath/Hughes biography industry as its subject and offers much fuller portraits of the two as a result. Or After Sylvia, a new anthology of poetry from writers inspired by Plath. And then there are the drawings of Plath, recently published by Faber, which reveal a more playful creative side to him, and pay a fitting tribute to his 90s.e anniversary. Or, of course, Clark’s weighty, Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography.

Or I go back to The glass bell, or spending time with the poems. There are always new things to find, and there are lines I just want to read again and again. Like the end of her poem “Tulipes”, written after a hospital operation, in which she appreciates the daily simplicity of well-being: “The water I taste is warm and salty, like the sea / And comes from a country as distant as health.” Prophecies, schmophecies. I just want to know: how did she do this?

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