Two of the three new Sylvia Plath books arrived today. I’m so freaking excited, I can barely stand myself right now.
Fifty years ago today, Sylvia Plath’s iconic novel, The Bell Jar, was published under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. It was not until 1973 that the book saw the light of day in the US (her mother had attempted to block it from US shores).
Sylvia killed herself less than one month later.
Sylvia’s novel is difficult for me because it lacks the immediacy of her poetry. But taking it on its own terms, it is a terrifying look at madness. The listlessness. The boredom. The braying, nagging feeling of disappointment as if the question had been asked: this is all there is? It was answered in Sylvia’s book, which posited that there was no real reason for all that anxiety and sadness. Most madness memoirs today focus on depression or drug addiction or sexual abuse. But Plath’s – or Easter Greenwood’s?- problem was none of those things. It was simply that it was damn hard to be a girl in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
She desperately wanted to write novels, and I think if she’d lived, she would have done just that. But her poetry is so much more vivid, more alive, more emotional. It is worth noting that the message and imagery of The Bell Jar is identical to the poetry. But somehow, the condensed form put the thoughts under pressure, and made them explode in your face.
The Bell Jar became a feminist manifesto for the reason described above – it was hard to be a girl, and want sex and be scared of it, and to know that if anyone found out you were having it, it would be the end of you. The men had none of these struggles. The Bell Jar was an attempt to describe the repercussions of that oppression, and to document the madness that was galloping after her, and would soon overtake her.
To an extraordinary degree, modern suicide-writing takes its point of departure from the death of Sylvia Plath. When I myself first read The Bell Jar, the phrase of hers that most arrested me was the one with which she described her father’s hometown. Otto Plath had originated in Grabow, a dull spot in what used to be called “the Polish corridor.” His angst-infected daughter had described this place as “some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia.” Her poem “Daddy” must be the strictest verdict passed by a daughter on a male parent since the last reunion of the House of Atreus, with its especially unsettling opinion that, as a result of paternal ill-use: “Every woman loves a fascist… the boot in the face.”*
[...] I myself don’t think, striking though the image may be, that an entire “hamlet” can be manic-depressive. However, I can forgive la Plath her possibly subconscious metaphor because most of what I know about manic depression I first learned from Hamlet.
*The feminist school has often looked in a manner of marked disapproval at her husband, Ted Hughes. I find it difficult to imagine him actually maltreating Sylvia physically, but there’s no doubt that he could be quite stupendously wanting in sensitivity. I once went for some drinks with him at the apartment of my friend and editor Ben Sonnenberg, who was by then almost completely immobilized by multiple sclerosis. Hughes droned on for an agonizingly long time about the powers of a faith-healer in the (perhaps somewhat manic-depressive) Devonshire hamlet where he lived. This shaman, it seemed, was beyond praise for his ability with crippled people. On and on went the encomium. I could not meet Ben’s eye but from his wheelchair he eventually asked with commendable lightness: “How is he with sufferers from MS?” “Oh, not bad at all,” replied Hughes, before blithely resuming with an account of how this quack could cure disabled farm-animals as well.
Excerpted from Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens.
If you’re a Sylvia Plath fan, you do not want to miss this epic post by Sheila about Plath’s beautiful volume, Ariel. Sheila has a way of writing about Plath that knocks me to my knees. Check it out!
The line comes from Sylvia Plath’s poem, The Birthday Present, which is apt today because it is Sylvia Plath’s birthday. Please see Sheila’s epic Sylvia Plath round up of Plath posts; I think you’ll be as delighted as I am.
I have posted a frame grab of the first question I ever asked her about Plath, which was the spark that lit the flame that will burn forever. [Updated to add frame grab]:
It began one of the truly great love affairs of my life. And I’m just so happy to have someone to share my Plath love with.
Thank you, Sheila. And thank you, Sylvia. Love you both.
One of the most affecting, and popular, of Plath’s poems, Daddy, read by Sylvia herself for BBC:
Various sources report that Julia Stiles is producing and starring in an adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”. Anyone who knows me knows I have a massive girl-crush on Julia Stiles. But I just can not picture her as Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of Plath’s novel.
Still, I will see it if for no other reason than to see someone else’s interpretation of Sylvia’s work.
I think it would be interesting to make a movie of the Ariel poems.
As part of the launch for their book, A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill, authors Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev serialized excerpts for the UK Telegraph. I own the book but haven’t read it; I simply don’t think I’m ready to learn more about Ted Hughes’ side of the story. And any story about Assia Wevill, his lover, is going to illuminate Hughes. So I’ve avoided it, but for reasons I can’t fathom, today I read this final installment of the series.
It appears that Assia Wevill used to sleep in Sylvia Plath’s bed. The horror of that keeps thundering through my soul as I struggle to make sense of it. That wasn’t her worst transgression, but it seems one of the most intimate – something specifically sexual. I secretly believe that Assia was not just obsessed with Sylvia, she wanted Sylvia. I have no reason to believe either woman had any interest in women, but I think if she couldn’t have had Ted, Assia would have tried to seduce him via Sylvia – basically, a three-way. I believed that long before I read that she slept in Sylvia’s bed. There’s something strange going on there, almost like wearing someone else’s underwear, like you’re absorbing their sexual energy.
In any case, Assia freely picked over Sylvia’s belongings after Sylvia killed herself. She lived in Sylvia’s London flat for a while. She read her journals, she played with her children, and she slept in her bed.
Assia confessed frustration after Sylvia died because Hughes would not commit; he would not join households, and he resisted marriage. He had at least two other women on the side. It must be pointed out that even during this time, he wrote her a letter from Court Green in which he called her his “true wife”, a term I find almost painfully endearing.
I believe Ted Hughes threw himself into every relationship he had, whether or not he was faithful. His personality demanded the constant thrill of love, infatuation and romance. So in this (rare) instance, I do believe he loved Assia, but couldn’t be with her just then because she really was all tied up with Sylvia. She was the reason Sylvia and Ted were divorcing and the excuse Sylvia used to murder herself.
Assia’s suicide, which so closely mocks Sylvia (except Sylvia did not choose to kill her children too) was, I believe, a final admission that she could never replace Sylvia. She knew she was extremely inferior in her poetic pursuits, and she would never replace Sylvia in Ted’s life – though this might have been a misjudgment on her part, expressed in a moment of despair.
When I think of all that Sylvia left behind, I feel despair at the illumination of what is now gone: the mountains of productive work, her children, the beautiful love affair with Ted Hughes, the unspent years of her youth. It is heartbreaking because of the yield.
And Assia’s suicide is heartbreaking for the opposite reason: the darkness she left behind.
I’ve recently bought Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems. I have had the poems themselves in other books, but I wanted this version, which collects everything from her juvenilia through the great Ariel poems. This book was edited by Ted Hughes, with a rich appendix of notations. The downside is that the Ariel poems are in Hughes’ chosen order, not Sylvia’s. Thus “they taste the spring” happens in the middle of the series, which jolted me. I very strongly prefer her order of poems.
Interestingly there were several poems or fragments which never made it into any manuscript. Ted Hughes writes:
She had made a somewhat earlier (but undated) attempt to break through to the substance of this poem. [He is referring to"Fever 103"]. After several pages of what looks like feverish exploration of the theme, her earlier controls took over and reduced the confusion to the following, which she left in manuscript, unfinalized:
Four o’clock and the fever soaks from me like honey
O ignorant heart!
All night I have heard
The meaningless cry of babies. Such a sea
Broods in the newsprint!
Fish-grease, fish-bones, refuse of atrocities
Bleached and finished, I surface
Among the blanched, boiled instruments, the virginal curtains.
Here is a white sky. Here is the beauty
Of cool mouths and hands opening as natural as roses.
My glass of water refracts the morning.
My baby is sleeping
This is fascinating because, as a writer, I love to see how things evolve. The “fish-grease, fish-bones, atrocities of refuse” became:
Lemon water, chicken
Water, water make me retch
You can hear it in the cadence.
And “all night I have heard” became:
Darling, all night
I have been flickering off, on, off, on
The mention of “virginal” curtains and roses became:
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses
This one was a forerunner to the beautiful “Elm” which strikes me as an incredibly dignified and noble poem. This was her first attempt at that iconic poem:
She is not easy, she is not peaceful,
She pulses like a heart on my hill.
The moon snags in her intricate nervous system.
I am excited, seeing it there.
It’s like something she has caught for me.
The night is a blue pool; she is very still.
At the center she is still, very still with wisdom.
The moon is let go, like a dead thing.
Now she herself is darkening.
Into a dark world I can not see at all.
First, that line “the night is a dark pool” sounds a lot like the early cadence of 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.”
“A premature crystallization,” Ted Hughes calls this attempt at her early “Elm”.
As a writer, this is precious. To see the evolution of her cramped thoughts to the booming, thundering authority of the final Elm:
I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root;
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.
Is it the sea you hear in me,
Or the voice of nothing, that was you madness?
Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it.
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.
All night I shall gallup thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
This is rain now, the big hush.
And this is the fruit of it: tin white, like arsenic.
I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand,a hand of wires.
Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.
The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren.
Her radience scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.
I let her go. I let her go
Diminshed and flat, as after radical surgery.
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.
I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.
I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.
Clouds pass and disperse.
Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrevables?
Is it for such I agitate my heart?
I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?–
Its snaky acids kiss.
It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.
Good lord in heaven. If that doesn’t knock you back on your heels, blinking, searching for equilibrium. She got that from the polite little scrap above.
Stings is another whose ancient drafts survive. But before I explore that, I noticed something in the final version.
This is a phrase from the final version of Stings, written October 6, 1962
I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair
That sounds a lot like the final lines of Lady Lazarus, written later that month, October 23-26, 1962:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
They both mention eating. They both mention hair. And dust and ash are very similar. So it’s possible to see that she was cannibalizing ideas and imagery across all her poems. (This makes me feel less guilty for stealing a phrase from another of my books for my work in progress.) She does this numerous times. In her first version of Stings, written August 2, 1962, is the line” It has set them zinging”. Earlier, on February 19, 1961, she wrote a poem for her daughter, Morning Song. It begins:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch
The “set them” and “set you” sounds very similar and very deliberate to me.
Then there is another image borrowed from a poem written for her son on October 29, 1962; the last lines read:
You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.
Compare that to this earlier fragment:
It has set them zinging
On envious strings, and you are the center.
This is the first version of Stings:
What honey summons these animalcules?
What fear? It has set them zinging
On envious strings, and you are the center.
They are assailing your brain like numerals,
They contort your hair
Beneath the flat handkerchief you wear instead of a hat.
They are making a cat’s cradle, they are suicidal.
Their death-pegs stud your gloves, it is no use running.
The black veils mold to your lips:
They are fools.
After, they swagger and weave, under no banner.
After, they crawl
Dispatched, into trenches of grass.
Ossifying like junked statues –
Gelded and wingless. Not heroes. Not heroes.
The published and final version is:
Bare-handed, I hand the combs.
The man in white smiles, bare-handed,
Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet,
The throats of our wrists brave lilies.
He and I
Have a thousand clean cells between us,
Eight combs of yellow cups,
And the hive itself a teacup,
White with pink flowers on it,
With excessive love I enameled it
Thinking ‘Sweetness, sweetness.’
Brood cells gray as the fossils of shells
Terrify me, they seem so old.
What am I buying, wormy mahogany?
Is there any queen at all in it?
If there is, she is old,
Her wings torn shawls, her long body
Rubbed of its plush —-
Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.
I stand in a column
Of winged, unmiraculous women,
I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair.
And seen my strangeness evaporate,
Blue dew from dangerous skin.
Will they hate me,
These women who only scurry,
Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover?
It is almost over.
I am in control.
Here is my honey-machine,
It will work without thinking,
Opening, in spring, like an industrious virgin
To scour the creaming crests
As the moon, for its ivory powders, scours the sea.
A third person is watching.
He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or with me.
Now he is gone
In eight great bounds, a great scapegoat.
Here is his slipper, here is another,
And here the square of white linen
He wore instead of a hat.
He was sweet,
The sweat of his efforts a rain
Tugging the world to fruit.
The bees found him out,
Molding onto his lips like lies,
Complicating his features.
They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.
Is she dead, is she sleeping?
Where has she been,
With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?
Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her —-
The mausoleum, the wax house.
As I find new drafts, new notations, my knowledge and love of Sylvia Plath grows ever deeper. At times I think I’m just like her.. with those awkward first drafts, the cramped phrasing… but she leaves me and everyone behind when she bursts out with those dazzling, world-changing poems. There is no-one like her, and never will be.
Sylvia Plath had a week to live. London was blanketed with snow; it had never been so bad in living memory. Every morning she would trudge with her two children to the phone box, and leave them freezing in the car, while she made her phone calls. One of those calls was to the telephone service. At the time, the English would distribute phones. She had just moved into the new house, and the workers had not yet had time to install her phone. So like everything that comes from the state, there was a massive waiting list. The lack of phone, the fact she was freezing and feeling quite alone were weighing heavily on her mind. There was more, of course. She was organically ill. She’d attempted suicide before. She was certainly sinking fast. In retrospect, it looks to me like she was perhaps manic in those last fatal months. The furious move from Court Green, her lovely estate in Devon, to Yeat’s old house in London, her unpredictable behavior around her friends… and lastly, her work, the beautiful Ariel poems, which I believe are the finest poems ever crafted in the entire history of mankind. She wrote those quickly, writing four or five or seven of those massive poems per day, in the dark hours before the children awoke. All this has a manic frenzy to it. Even if I am wrong and she was not manic, she was certainly extremely ill. And she knew it. She needed hospital badly. Dr. Horner, her psychiatrist, was trying to get her into a hospital, but the NHS kept turning him down. There was simply no room for a woman with two children. She would just have to wait. Her depression, of course, was not waiting. She attempted to push it back. She took primitive anti-depressants and tried to hang on.
She died before a bed could become available.
Since this happened in 1963, there is a good argument that I’m being facetious by using Sylvia Plath as an example of how awful collective medicine is. So I shall use the modern era, and Madonna.
When Madonna was pregnant with her second child she was living in London with Guy Ritchie. She told a UK paper that she would never have a child in England because the hospitals were all built in the Victorian era, were cold, filthy, horrifying places. The English went crazy defending their precious National Health Service, but Madonna ultimately returned to Los Angeles for the birth of her son. I mention this only because soon there will not even be a place for someone like Madonna, who can afford the best medical care in the world, to go.
There are millions of stories like this from Canada and England, and other places that have attempted socialized medicine. I say “attempted” because it’s never been successful. Never. Anywhere. And tonight, that’s what we’ve signed up for.
If Sylvia Plath were alive today, she would be overweight. Even in those teenage photographs of her in a white bikini at Nauset Beach, you can see the sturdiness in her thighs and the tendency to gain weight in her hips. She was a big girl – five feet nine inches tall – and various people tell stories of her eating enormous amounts of food. One occasion, she ate a whole meal that was meant for four people. She would have collected firm fat in her hips, her buttocks and her belly. Her bosom would overflow the cups of her bras. Today, she would not care about the extra seventy pounds. She would still be attractive in the way that very intellectual women can appear interesting and thus acceptably attractive to others. But to herself, she would have long since given up caring about something as ridiculous as her weight.
She would have long gray hair, worn in a braid, tied with a rubber band found on her desk drawer. It would not be neat; strands of hair would float around her face. It would look like worn nautical rope.
Sylvia would be writing poems and novels, and teaching at Oxford. She would have begun to detest her students and the same tallow ground that she hoed year after year. But at some point, perhaps when she married her second husband and had more realistic expectations of her students, she would have come to love teaching. She would have needed the interaction and the respect of her peers. She would be a frenetic, busy, unkempt figure around campus, her glasses on a chain over her breasts, her knee-grazing skirts and dowdy shirts, and long gray braid instantly recognizable among the prim, coiffed English.
She would still be the American at an English university, the oddity. But she would be accepted a little better these days. She would have friends from the university who loved her. She would have salons at her home, a large home near Oxford. She would argue with Camile Paglia.
She would be a crazy, radical liberal. She would have written angry op-eds for Vanity Fair denouncing the Iraq war. She would have sneered at every statement made by George W. Bush. She would have returned to her native Massachusetts to campaign for John Kerry. She would write a novel about an American girl coming to terms with living in George Bush’s America. She would have been celebrated, and she would know her work was valued. She would appear on best seller lists all over the world. She would have realized the recognition is nice but not relevant to the act of writing.
When Obama won the presidency, she would have written an op-ed for the New York Times, praising America’s changing preferences for intelligence over cowboyism. She would have said, “I breathe a sigh of relief. The entire world is safer today.”
Sylvia would have married once more – to a fellow Oxford teacher. He would have died in 2003 and she would have explored Christianity. She would have written a novel based on a woman’s journey into Christianity, and a non-fiction book about the history of Satan.
One lonely evening in her large home in Oxford, Sylvia Plath might have poured herself a sherry and picked up an ancient book on her shelf. The Ariel poems. Substantial poems, even now, but they would have seemed to have been written by someone else. She would not recognize that tattered woman who forced them into life those many years ago. A wry smile would tug the wicks of her mouth. “Cauldron of morning….” she would mutter, and sit at her desk.
She would write.