Ode to Sylvia Plath: 50 Years After Her Death

Sylvia Plath birthday, Sylvia Plath death anniversary, The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath poetry, Sylvia Plath and FeminismI once told my dad in high school that I planned to become a Sylvia Plath scholar.

“And how exactly will that make you a living?” he asked.

Good question, but I had a plan. I would teach Plath Studies at a university, write books about Plath and travel to far away places to lecture about the girl poet who committed suicide at 30.

In high school, I spent sunny Saturdays in subterranean aisles of the local university library, pulling dusty volumes of ancient magazines that contained Plath’s writings and stories about her. I read “The Bell Jar” too many times to count along with Plath biographies and wrote term papers on the importance of Plath’s poetry collection, “Ariel.” Did my parents wonder if I would end up a tortured soul?

Like many teenage girls, I grew out of my Plath obsession ever so slightly, but she still haunts me especially this year as it is the 50th anniversary of her suicide.

I conjured up her poem “Daddy” when my father died in 2009. The other day at an art show, Plath popped up in conversation, forcing me to remember that she led me years ago to another poet I love but had forgotten – Anne Sexton. One of the most heated debates I ever engaged in was in a book club years after high school regarding the logistics of whether Plath actually stuck her head inside the oven during her suicide.

Like many Plath fanatics, I never liked Ted Hughes, Plath’s estranged British husband at the time of her death, who was the British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. I believe he was her downfall.

She married Hughes when she was young, perhaps searching for a father figure since her own died when she was eight. After she had two children, she discovered Hughes was having an affair, and the couple separated. Plath, who had a long history of depression, fell into despair during the long, cold British winter. Then, she ended it all.

Feminists hated Hughes. In 1970, Robin Morgan published “Arraignment,” a feminist poem in which she openly accused Hughes of the Plath’s “murder.” Other feminists tried repeatedly to chisel the name “Hughes” off of Plath’s gravestone. If only she had lived a few more years, Plath may have been embraced by the 1970s women’s movement, finding kindred spirits and discovering a respite from the demons that plagued her.

Years after my initial introduction to Plath, I realized that her story ironically correlated with one of my aunt’s.

Aunt Pebble, who was born 20 years before Plath, was a brilliant poet and mathematician. According to family lore, she wanted a career as a school teacher but instead married and had five daughters in less than seven years. Her husband was abusive and denied her hormone medication after a hysterectomy. As a result, she was placed in the state hospital, receiving electroshock treatments that fried her brain, and her poetry was burned.

Thankfully, through her poetry, Plath became mythical. Her early death, like rock stars that die way too early, catapulted her to icon status for women trapped in expectations. But a woman can lose her independence in any era. In that regard, Plath is a cautionary tale for women of any era.

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt” and “1000 Best Bartender’s Recipes.” She writes frequently for Reuters, TakePart, and numerous other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.

Image via All the night-tide tumblr

  • Suzi, I loved this piece. I too had a near obsession with Sylvia Plath. It drove my mother smooth up the wall. I can’t tell you how many times I read The Bell Jar and when the movie came out the UA theatres in Little Rock had $1 movies on Tuesdays. I skipped class every Tuesday the The Bell Jar was showing and watched every screening of the movie for the day. The theatre staff knew and liked me so I watched all day for just a buck. The movie still haunts me. I can feel the pain.

    I hate to hear about Aunt Pebble. I can relate there too. You are right “a woman can lose her independence in any era,” even when it looks like she is living an independent life. I was trapped in those expectations. ECT fried my brain too. Maybe there was some foreshadowing in my preoccupation with Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar. I wish I had seen the oncoming train and avoided it but I didn’t. I hope that other women who read your article and the story of Sylvia Plath avoid the pitfalls of being bound by the presumption of others and society in what they should and should not do with their lives.

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