Culling the Poetry Classics: Sylvia Plath

Where do I even begin with this one...

The Poet

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963); Anglicized American; born in Boston, Massachusetts. One of the most widely read poets of the 20th century, known especially for her intensely personal poems, but also for her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Considered by many to be an inspiring force behind the feminist movements of the second half of the 20th century. Posthumous winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The Collected Poems. Died in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, England, at the age of 30 by her own hand.

The Books

Sylvia Plath didn't give a shit about the struggles of women or the intricacies of depression...She could not see beyond herself.

Sylvia Plath wrote poetry from a very young age, and she often submitted to and was published in various publications, but during her lifetime she only published two complete works: the poetry collection The Colossus and Other Poems (William Heinemann, 1960), and the novel The Bell Jar (Heinemann, 1963). As such, complete consumption of Plath's poetical works is a relatively straightforward affair. Her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, organized and collected all of her poems into one volume, The Collected Poems (Goodreads rating of 4.19), the divisions of which I've included below:

  • Poems 1956-1963
    • 1956 (#1-44)
    • 1957 (#45-65)
    • 1958 (#66-91)
    • 1959 (#92-121)
    • 1960 (#122-133)
    • 1961 (#134-155)
    • 1962 (#156-212)
    • 1963 (#213-224)*
  • Juvenilia
    • A Selection of Fifty Early Poems
    • Uncollected Juvenilia: A complete list of poems composed before 1956**

*Sylvia Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963, less than a month after the publication of The Bell Jar.
**This is a list of the poem titles, not the poems themselves.

Many of these poems were published in various collections, most posthumously. For a list of the poems as they appear in Plath's four major collections, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960), Ariel (1965),*** Crossing the Water (1971), and Winter Trees (1971), see the Notes section of The Collected Poems.

***Ariel was originally published as arranged by Ted Hughes; it was not published according to Sylvia Plath's own ordering until the 2004 edition. This is but one of the many, many reasons that Sylvia Plath fans hate Ted Hughes, whom they blame for her suicide, and have a history of erasing his name from her tombstone.

The Highlights

As is true with any poet, several of Sylvia Plath's poems are much better/more recognizable/more accessible than the rest. I've picked out a few of the best, favoring year of composition over date of publication:

The 1956 poems genuinely suck, while the 1962 poems are almost all fantastic. If for no other reason, you should read The Collected Poems just to witness Plath's visible creative growth.

You'll Love Her

I don't want to talk about it.

You'll Loathe Her

It's really hard to be glib right now.

Read It or Leave It

This was a very strange and enlightening experience.

Prior to my reading of The Collected Poems, I had only ever witnessed two reactions to the mention of Sylvia Plath's name: 1) "OMG SHE IS AMAZING"; 2) "Ugh, isn't that the poet who teenaged girls think is amazing?" Sure, there's tons of scholarly critique of Plath's work floating around out there, but I had never read Plath's work, so why would I go around seeking out scholarly critique? The closest I'd come was a fairly useless and unpoetic John Green video on the writer's life and general themes. In the author's usual "It's educational, but cool!" shtick, he paints a broad picture of a poet writing about depression and about being a woman, a powerful statement for her time: real Literary Stuff.

It's all fucking bullshit.

Nothing I had heard or read before prepared me for these poems, on several levels. That isn't to say that they're all amazing, because they're not. The poems get steadily better as the years progress, from a solid attempt or two in the 1950s to a veritable avalanche of quality emotional power and imagery in 1962. It's one of the really interesting things about reading these poems chronologically: watching Sylvia Plath grow and evolve as a poet. Some of the other poets we've covered in this column have grown and changed over the years, absolutely, but none so quickly and so drastically as Plath. The 1956 poems genuinely suck, while the 1962 poems are almost all fantastic. If for no other reason, you should read The Collected Poems just to witness Plath's visible creative growth.

Anyway, the bullshit: Sylvia Plath and (her relationship to) her poetry are way, way, WAY more complicated than I had been led to believe. She's counted among the "Confessional Poets," poets like Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell who sparked a trend of highly personal poetry that's lasted pretty much to this day in America. (Sexton, another Pulitzer Prize winner and arguably the better poet, was my first choice for this column, but having died in 1974 [also by suicide], she doesn't meet the 50-year rule.) At the same time, though, Plath is very, very different from her confessional contemporaries. Where other poets have written from a place of exploration of the self, Sylvia Plath seemed to write from a near-monomaniacal obsession with the self. It was as if no other thing existed, no other being could possibly live and breathe and feel pain the way that she did, a notion that Joyce Carol Oates summed up best in her 1973 essay "The Death Throes of Romanticism: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath" (okay, so I've looked up some scholarly critique finally):

...Plath exhibits only the most remote (and rhetorical) sympathy with other people. If she tells us she may be a bit of a "Jew,"**** it is only to define herself, her sorrows, and not to involve our sympathies for the Jews of recent European history.

Of course, the answer is that Plath did not like other people; like many who are persecuted, she identified in a perverse way with her own persecutors, and not with those who, along with her, were victims. But she did not "like" other people because she did not essentially believe that they existed; she knew intellectually that they existed, of course, since they had the power to injure her, but she did not believe they existed in the way she did, as pulsating, breathing, suffering individuals. Even her own children are objects of her perception, there for the restless scrutiny of her image-making mind, and not there as human beings with a potentiality that would someday take them beyond their immediate dependency upon her, which she sometimes enjoys and sometimes dreads.

****Plath actually mentions Jews in several poems, most notably "Daddy," but Nazis are referenced in other poems, too, like "Lady Lazarus."

The essay goes on at length analyzing the ego and various other psychological, philosophical, and artistic concepts as they relate to Sylvia Plath's writing, but the main point is that the poet never truly writes about anything other than herself. Perhaps this could be said about all poets, or even all writers, that they only truly write what they know, as the saying goes, but often these analyses of self are disguised in some way. Not so for Plath. Everything she sees is a mirror reflecting self—even literal mirrors. Her poem "Mirror":

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

What most surprised and affected me while reading The Collected Poems was the consistency of Plath's obsession with herself. I don't say that to be funny or judgmental, either; it's genuinely astounding that her work maintains such intense focus over the course of years, no matter the tone, content, style, or form. On top of all this, though, and even more emotionally resonant, is the weight that comes from reading these poems with full knowledge that on February 11, 1963, she laid her head in an oven and killed herself. Each poem becomes a clock tick in a morbid countdown to despair. Each line becomes evidence left at the crime scene that was her life. There is an inevitability to her work, an anticipation, a premonition that of course the poems are going to get better, of course the style is going to evolve and the emotional power is going to deepen, because—of course—in the end she kills herself. While things are getting better for the reader, things are getting worse for Sylvia. There is an impending dread to the entire experience. That's why all of these hot-take feminist interpretations, these "look at the way she gets to the emotional core of this object!" readings are such bullshit: Sylvia Plath didn't give a shit about the struggles of women or the intricacies of depression or even the everyday items and situations that surrounded her and occupy her poems. She could not see beyond herself, which is likely why she could not survive her own life.

The Final Verdict

Yes, read The Collected Poems. If you want to read the individual collections, go ahead. If you want to read The Bell Jar, go ahead. If you want to start a book club solely for the purpose of analyzing the patriarchal implications of Ted Hughes tampering with Sylvia's intended organization of Ariel, go ahead. I support all of these, but only if you take the time to read The Collected Poems, from start to finish, and experience Sylvia Plath's creative life as she lived it. There are plenty of other poets who offer incredible intellectual and emotional vistas in their poems, who invite readers in to see the world how they see it, but there is no other poet that I've ever read who invites readers in to see herself so vividly (again, except maybe Sexton, but she seemed to know the world existed). This isn't some superficial celebrity memoir type of access: this is the barest, boldest, most complete type of emotional invitation, because Sylvia Plath wrote of no other subject than the world in which she locked her mind, a world populated solely by one tortured entity.

Next Time!

::long exhale::

That was intense. I'm drained. It took me a while to get through The Collected Poems because of how heavy they were, so I've been sitting with this for a while. Sylvia's emotional heft threw off the schedule a bit, too, so to say "next month" might not be entirely accurate. Next time, though, we'll be reading The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. I've never read anything beyond his most famous poems, so I'm excited. Yes, it's another American, but the last two spent significant time abroad, so we're bringing it back stateside. If you're unhappy with the picks, feel free to make suggestions in the comments. The only "Culling the Poetry Classics" rule is that the poet must be at least 50 years dead and have a collected edition of their work in print. Happy reading!

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Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast June 4, 2015 - 10:25am

Excellent discussion Brian. I always hated Plath's work with a vengeance and your observation about her self-obsession (although even that phrase probably doesn't capture the true singularity of Plath's world view) means I now understand why.

One thought: would the poems read differently if she had died, for example, in a car crash and not at her own hand?

I think they would.



Brian McGackin's picture
Brian McGackin from NJ/LA is reading Between the World and Me June 5, 2015 - 9:01am

I don't think we would be reading her today at all if she had died in a car crash, although with Ted Hughes's push to make money off of her work, one never knows.