Leaps and Spirals Travelling the World Forever: On the 50th Anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s Death

Tomorrow will be 50 years to the day that Sylvia Plath died. To some, that death is the locus, the keyword, the short-hand fact that fleshes out the little that they know about the poet. To me, she meant so much more than that, she is more substantial than a romantic suicide fantasy. She has informed my life, both practically and emotionally ever since I first encountered Ariel when I was sixteen years old. For this reason I feel that I should mark the day but it is hard to know how. The difficulty arises initially from the anniversary itself. How do you mark a ‘death-day’? Not with celebration of course, but mourning is equally inappropriate because I didn’t know her. And what to say, when there is so much to say? I am a confirmed Plathite however, and it is a milestone so I really should say something.

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I’ll start at the beginning. I first ‘met’ Plath in my mid-teens. She was sat at the back of my English classroom. Multiple copies of Ariel were stacked in a neat pile surrounded by dusty copies of other forgotten tomes: Wordsworth, Auden, Coleridge. Items of value that had fallen off the syllabus, and therefore out of relevance. I’ll admit that I only picked Plath out because she was female and I wanted to hear what an important one of those sounded like. Who was this rare woman allowed into the pantheon of male greats? Unfortunately, I found her writing profoundly impenetrable at first glance. From the tulips on the red cover, I’d expected verses about love but instead I found strings of words bearing no relationship to the shape of any emotion or intellect I’d ever felt. I didn’t really know what to do about this (I’d always been an A* student in Eng. Lit. and my defeat intrigued me). So I stole the book, which was a little bit naughty, but the volume was so neglected that the thin spine audibly cracked when I opened it. I figured nobody would miss it. I missed the rest of my classes that afternoon, took the book into the fields behind the school and puzzled over its contours a little bit more.

Skipping forwards to my A Levels (exams taken by eighteen year olds in the UK), we studied Othello, Pride and Prejudice and The Bell Jar. Now I know that this remark will cause some consternation amongst Eng. Lit. academics, but why the obsession with Shakespeare? Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet AND THEN Othello – my God, I studied all of these! Is Shakespeare the only playwright in the world? And Pride and Prejudice? In my (eighteen year old) opinion, there was only one saving grace to that story, and that involved Colin Firth and a lake. But The Bell Jar was different. I read it cover to cover without stopping and could still, if pushed, recite the opening paragraph word for word, ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs…’ I think that certain people, especially at the age of eighteen when the road is forking wildly in front of you, connect viscerally to rhythm of The Bell Jar. That undercurrent of ennui and confusion. The distinct feeling that everybody else seems to understand their place in the world, except you. It has that in spades. But it isn’t distilled teenage melancholy at the baseline, nor is it (and I’m hissing this through my teeth) ‘women’s literature’. It is life literature and elegant. It’s affirming and wry and still. It has scope. People accuse it (I love that a book can be accused) of being ‘introverted’ but what is bigger than individual experience? Answer me that. ‘Nothing happens’, critics say. But everything happens, it’s a survey of days burning (and yes Plathites, my phrasing is intentional).

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It’s important to note that at this point I knew little of the infamous St. Botolph’s party, of the tragedy of untreated complications arising from diabetes, of a tall northerner with commitment issues, the miscarriage, a green-eyed seductress, the antidepressants, the snows of 1963, the doorway being taped up, the suicidal stars and hypnosis, the bread, the milk, the oven. I was uninitiated and remained that way until Plath swam back into my field of vision several years later when studying for my MA. I was meandering around a great many topics trying to settle on one for my dissertation. The semiotics of packaging, Keats and seditionary language, the political usage of graffiti. I tried everything on but nothing quite fitted until I remembered Plath. I was going through a difficult patch in my personal life (I’ll level with you, I was heartbroken) and returning to The Bell Jar, I found a confidante. Afterwards I re-opened my contraband copy of Ariel and the hieroglyphs rearranged themselves. My Ariel-dyslexia was cured and here I found a language that was born not of the pale imitation of literary ‘forefathers’ but instead, plucked straight out of high consciousness. Her night-ride on Ariel was the most thrilling thing I’d ever read, I found that it was actually quite possible to fall in love to her words (‘A smile fell in the grass. Irretrievable!’). You can fall apart quite easily to them too, renowned as they are for their nihilistic bent. The pages were a map of the cosmos, a contact sheet of refined human experience at the extreme end of the scale. Our worst moments and the bit that comes after the worst – the pendulating between not giving a damn and becoming ‘Lazarus’, and the acknowledgement of the fact that after a burnt bridge comes a blank canvas and everything is subject to redesign. That wide open door.

The 'fierce flame' flowers that I left for Plath. Copyright JLK 2013

The ‘fierce flame’ flowers that I left for Plath. Copyright JLK 2013

The next few months were characterised by Plath-centric high strangeness but that’s a story for another time, long as it is. All you need to know for now is that against all odds (well, perhaps not against all, but put it this way: it was competitive), I received a scholarship to study for my PhD. and by this point I knew that the focus of my research would obviously be Plath. By now the words of ‘The Priestess’ had become my own eclectic bible. I’d taken my own pilgrimage to her grave, left her a pen from my handbag (if you’ve ever been to Plath’s grave, this will make sense) and left her one of my poems. I was wholly unpublished back then, but sitting here now, I know that the poem that I left will be published in my forthcoming collection. I am now an award winning poet myself, but I feel quite strongly that this achievement would have been unlikely had it not been for my education through the words and experiences of Sylvia Plath. I’ve devoured every poem, story, journal entry, every biography, hell! Even every Ted Hughes biography! I am veritably obsessed. And even as I write all of this, I know that I am just skimming the surface of my connection to Plath. If I were to take you down every detour that my synapses keep flinging themselves down on Sylvia Street, we’d be here all night.  Let’s just say that some people find God, or Buddha or crack cocaine. I found somebody who was on first name terms with the edges of life and as fickle as my character can sometimes be, I know I’ll be a Plathite for life. I’m still not resolved on how I actually feel towards the 50th year anniversary, my bearing towards it is as joined up and as knotty as any good Plath poem. It’s heartening to know that she is remembered, and not just remembered but is as controversial, divisive and demanding as ever. Plath’s bees are perpetually flying towards spring, and that red eye, the cauldron of morning. So let’s just raise a glass (of brandy preferably), she’d approve.

The Production of Children or the Production of Language

Has anybody else noticed how competitive the glossy magazine business has become? It used to be the case that I’d pick up a title in the supermarket, read it, recycle it, whatever. Now I’ve got them ringing my house asking if I’ll buy an annual subscription for half price, nay, quarter price, what about a quid for six issues? How about if we throw in a really expensive pot of face-cream made from mashed fairy wings and pasteurised gold? So of course, I fall for this every time (free stuff, what can I say) and now I’m currently subscribing to a squillion publications that I barely have the time to flick through.  It’s a problem I need to resolve when I’ve got the time (read: never). So anyway, out of guilt, I decided to make a dent in the pile and speed-read my way through a few of them the other night. The article that demanded my attention above and beyond the thousand others was a piece in Marie-Claire about ‘the selective fertility crisis’! I.e. that women are now having careers which is of course, putting the whole human race in jeopardy. Oops us.

Marie-Claire’s approach was to take one 30-something writer who is debating whether or not she should procreate, and have her interview one woman who swapped her career for children and is happy, one who swapped her career for children and isn’t, one woman who didn’t have kids and regrets it and one who didn’t who doesn’t, got that?  Umm anyway, why is this relevant? Well, when I was writing my MA Dissertation on Sylvia Plath I read Susan Van Dyne’s assertion that female writers always have to choose between ‘the production of children or the production of language’. The clarity of the dilemma rang true to me back then and three years on, getting no younger, my imaginary Van Dyne voice has taken on a slightly more urgent tone. Not that I want children now. I’m probably not the best person to put my personal spin on this issue. I have about a billion questions that would need an affirmative answer before I would take the plunge and breed. I have no idea how people just suddenly decide to multiply. But obviously, I’ll soon be in what is officially classified as my ‘late twenties’, so I’d better start thinking about it. Or what? Well I’ll probably just accidentally end up having a career and no kids and society will hate me or something.

Sylvia Plath with her husband, Ted Hughes, and baby Frieda Rebecca Hughes

Sylvia Plath with her husband, Ted Hughes, and baby Frieda Rebecca Hughes

Getting back to the point, the echoes between January’s Marie-Claire and female writers from the middle of the twentieth century patently shows that this debate is really nothing new. There were just less women having to face the problem back then because women generally had less options. If you were lucky enough to have a vocation, the dilemmas of the 21st century probably occurred to you a few decades earlier than to the rest of society. I interpret Van Dyne’s words as focussed on the psychology of motherhood on the writer specifically but I believe the sentiment to have broader application. Motherhood, whether you are a writer, a painter, a lawyer, doctor or sales assistant, involves a heavy degree of sacrifice both in terms of time and of self. In most cases I believe a compromise will be naturally reached. Indeed, for writers like Plath, the production of children actually induced the production of an abundance of words. Whilst nursing, she put her hormones and the wee small hours of the morning to work to produce the honest aubades of ‘You’re’, ‘Morning Song’ and ‘Nick and the Candlestick’. So it isn’t hopeless, and wasn’t back then. And not to be self-promoting, but if anybody wants to tell me that it didn’t exactly work out for Plath, then I’d point them towards my paper on Plath’s poetry in relation to her fertility/maternity: http://www.iun.edu/~nwadmin/plath/vol4/King.pdf I don’t disagree with Van Dyne, I think the conceit is demonstrable in so many ways. Anything, any element of one’s life interferes with writing. Motherhood is guaranteed to throw a stick of dynamite in whatever it is that you consider order. However, from chaos and all that…

But what of us post-millenials who are realising that writer or not, we can’t actually ‘have it all’ (if there was an emoticon for furious, I’d utilise it here). Indeed, the 21st century is not conducive at all to the creation of families. When I was a child, and all this adult hand wringing was light-years away, my parents, aunties, uncles (all in their twenties) had their own homes, they were married, they seemingly always had cash to ‘re-do’ the kitchen or whatever. Our generation isn’t up to much at the moment, let’s be honest. Nobody owns their own property or has a clue how to get onto the property ladder (in the sense that nobody has anywhere near enough money), many of them don’t have regular employment. Most are underemployed or underpaid. Most of them aren’t in a position to own a hamster, let alone an actual newly minted human being. And by the way, I include men in this too. They are no better off. So my conclusion is actually that I’ll just keep the words coming, because frankly, everything else looks a bit bleak. When it comes to the ‘choice’ of having a family these days, most of us don’t really have the option.

Work it is then.