”If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.” – Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), U.S. poet. The narrator, in The Bell Jar, ch. 8 (1963).
How many of us today can relate our writing to intensely personal trials? We first set pen to paper to discover an outlet. We find our voices through the arrangement of words. Writing is our therapy. We scour every line to see if there might be a more accurate way to present emotion through poetic device and even after a poem is posted on our blogs or published for the world to critique, it is never finished.
Precision is as elusive as happiness and contentment, but one poet managed to define the moment when a gasp can no longer be restrained, Sylvia Plath. Even in death, her voice cries out from the depths, bottomless and potentially overwhelming.
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1932 to Otto and Aurelia Plath. Two and a half years later, her brother was born. Her father, Otto, taught at Boston University and was an expert on bees, so much so that he published a book titled Bumblebees and Their Ways. When Plath was eight years old, her father died of diabetes mellitus, a curable disease that he failed to recognize and address. For several years, Otto thought that he had cancer only because his health was precarious. He had lost a close friend to lung cancer and his pessimistic self-diagnosis led him to believe that nothing could be done about his health. Otto’s death, the first major tragedy in Plath’s life, would haunt her.
Plath’s first published poem appeared in the Boston Herald when she was eight years old. She was an honor student and following high school, she was accepted into Smith College on scholarship where she first experienced the pressures of academics and social interactions.
Plath began writing journals at age twelve, highly descriptive entries that became a source of inspiration for her poetry. Perhaps her most memorable passage is one in which she writes of the joys of picking her nose which to me seems an odd place to dig for inspiration. Journaling was only one side of her literary outlet. She also wrote structured poems, expertly-crafted but without the depth of her later works. She was well-read and tried very hard to emulate influential poets of her time. Years later, she abandoned the structure as she gave her personal turmoil permission to grace the page. Once that happened, she became a poet that will be remembered.
She submitted poems and articles regularly for publication although rejection letters far outweighed acceptance. In 1950, her work started appearing in national periodicals and local newspapers. She won first prize in a Madamoiselle contest for her short story, “Sunday at the Mintons,” and following this success, hoped to receive admittance to a Harvard summer class on writing. Unfortunately, Harvard rejected her application, an event that marked the end of Plath’s journals as if in an abrupt turn, her confessional writing needed to take a back seat to personal privacy. She exposed some of her emotional journey through letters to close friends and in her novel, The Bell Jar, but the daily outpouring ceased.
In 1953, Plath wrote a short note, “Have gone for a long walk. Will be home tomorrow.”, took a blanket, a bottle of sedatives and a glass of water to the space under the screened in porch and attempted suicide. She did not fear death and years later, succeeded in taking her own life.
In 1956, Plath married Ted Hughes, an event that likely became the catalyst for her poetic freedom. They had two children together. Following six years of turbulence, they agreed to separate and suddenly, like a dam had burst, Sylvia wrote dark and biting poem after poem, twenty-five over a period of one month. These poems were collected and published in 1965 in her book Ariel.
The Moon and the Yew Tree, perhaps one of her most elegant poems, was written during this period of Plath’s life.
The Moon and the Yew Tree
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.
The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
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 face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.
I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.
In December of 1962, Plath was living in a London apartment with her two children. The winter was incredibly cold, an atmospheric anchor to her already fragile psyche. She wasn’t writing poetry over these months, rather she spend time writing fictional prose. Her book, The Bell Jar, was published under a pseudonym in January, 1963. The Bell Jar, extremely personal and candid, had been rejected by her American publishers, yet once published, met with positive reviews.
No one knows exactly what happened in the last six days of her life. It is believed that the following poem, “Edge,” was her final poem. “Edge” is so personal, so dark, that even the most hardened soul shivers at its reading. I believe that what she doesn’t say may be the most unsettling element.
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
© the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Faber and Faber Ltd and the Estate of Sylvia Plath from Collected Poems published by Faber and Faber at £17.99.
On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath took her own life. She stuffed rags under the doors to protect the children, left a note by the phone for someone to call her doctor, then put her head inside of the gas oven. Most believe that she did not mean to succeed in this attempt. She had timed the attempt to her neighbor’s schedule and left a note requesting help. The gas odor should have lowered into the apartment below her and signaled an emergency to her neighbor who would have found her in time. It didn’t happen that way.
“I don’t believe there is life after death in the literal sense,” she wrote in her journal in 1954. “I don’t believe my individual ego or spirit is unique and important enough to wake up after burial and soar to bliss … If we leave the body behind as we must, we are nothing.” But at the end of that same entry, an uncertainty appears: “Is that life after death—mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?” she asks. “Maybe. I do not know.” – Sylvia Plath
Thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights. I wish we could sit around a fire with a glass of wine and actually have a conversation about Sylvia Plath and her works. I don’t feel I can do her justice in a short blog article. I hope I piqued your curiosity or brought to mind a Plath line or two that leads you back to her work.
And Happy Thanksgiving, friends 🙂