The Poetry of Sylvia Plath
Published 28 Dec 2016
Confessional poetry experiences popularity in mid-twentieth century America. Included in the list of poets is the tragic talent, Sylvia Plath. Plath’s brand of confessional poetry is pushing the genre to the extreme as she relates her innermost pain. Though some critics, like Langdon Hammer of the American journal “Representations”, think that Plath’s poems are not “autobiographical in the usual way”(Hammer, Summer 2001, p. 68), her life itself shows that leading to her suicide, her final poems depict the increased appeal of death, and demonstrate more of her “psychic pain”(Sylvia Plath Homepage). It can be said that Sylvia Plath may have initially written poetry to become famous but her own poetry is the one that influences her life to the point that it intensifies her grief, ultimately leading to her suicide.
Sylvia Plath, born in Massachusetts to a middle class family in 1932, has written her earliest poetry at age eight, near the time when her father dies. Everything in her life has seemed so perfect and she herself is a perfectionist: an achiever and a model daughter. Plath “insists on having it all”, an idea that makes her “ahead of her time”(Hammer, Summer 2001, p. 66). This may be what feminists first find attractive about Plath. Nevertheless, her life is plagued by depression which some attribute to her father’s death and her family’s financial insecurities.
She constantly has had to worry about money and self-image. Her first suicide attempt occurs during her college years after a mental breakdown caused by over-fatigue; sleeping pills have almost finished her life right then and the world may not have known her darker poems and her autobiographical novel, “The Bell Jar” which is published in 1963(Sylvia Plath Homepage).
Plath’s earlier writings are described as studied and somewhat contrived. When still in school, money she gets for poetry is not considered “earned the old fashioned way” but “won” as “competitive performance”(Hammer, Summer 2001, p. 73). The money buys her opportunity to improve herself, most importantly the opportunity to go to Smith College. In college, Plath goes on to reconstruct her image into her idealized self which is also revealed through her poems. She is also very afraid of failing and “jokes about killing herself” if she does fail(Hammer, Summer 2001, p. 74), a sign of her continuous quest for perfection. During a time when other adolescents are discovering their place in the world by discovering themselves, Plath is constructing a new self through her poetry. She is not only a perfectionist, but she is also striving to perfect herself as she sees fit:
“…Plath always writes about herself – she thought so to, with dissatisfaction – but this is a half-truth that misses the aim of Plath’s writing, and her relation to it. Her writing was a mode of self-construction that employed, was not reducible to autobiography; she didn’t want to record a self, but to bring one into being”(Hammer, Summer 2001, p. 67).
Sylvia Plath is known for “the extremes of personal experience to which she pushed the lyric”(Dickie, March 1993, p. 132). If that is the view in which Plath is seen by Margaret Dickie of the journal, American Literature, Hammer still argues that Plath has “many lives”, although he also believes that her 1965 published work, “Ariel” shows the real Sylvia Plath. On the other hand, she is capable of inventing several selves, selves that she wants people to see her as. This may have been because of her frustrations as a woman who is trying to be taken seriously.
Later on, after having married the English poet, Ted Hughes and having given birth to two children, Sylvia Plath has to balance life as an academic, a poet, a mother and a wife. She gives up academics. There are other women who go through the same sense of wanting to go forward in a self-fulfilling career, but society’s expectations on them as wives and mothers leave them frustrated. Anne Sexton, who is inspired by Sylvia’s poetry writes her own death-preoccupied poem and later on also commits suicide(Sylvia Plath Homepage). Being a frustrated housewife, she must have found a kindred spirit in Plath.
The suicides are interpreted by feminists as Plath’s “response to the oppression of women” while her critics “denounces her as a shrew”(Martin, 1973). Critics, such as Elizabeth Hardwick and Irving Howe, condemn her writings as “self-indulgent” and “fascinated with hurt and damage and fury”(Martin, 1973). They picture Plath as a spoiled brat who wants to be noticed and affirmed, consoled and pitied. Even Hammer describes her writing as “histrionic” like that of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe(Hammer, Summer 2001). Moreover, the critics believe that Plath should have not continued feeding her anger years after her father’s death.
Meanwhile, since feminists recognize her work and death as a form of martyrdom, they believe that her death is a wakeup call to all of those who oppress women, whether physically or emotionally. However, continuing the train of thought that Plath is creating several lives for herself and that she has created these images of herself from her poetry, her preoccupation with the subject of death and the importance of self-image have lead to her suicide. Therefore, her suicide cannot be considered martyrdom.
Plath is a prolific writer, whose brand of confessional poetry is different from other poets’ because she begins as a method writer who follows the rules of poetry writing and learns from the writings of other poets(Hammer, Summer 2001, pp. 76-77). She discovers her voice later in life, but tragically the topic of death has led to her own suicide in 1963. The pressures of reinventing herself and the lasting effects of her strained childhood and earlier mental breakdown have taken a toll on Sylvia Plath.
Her sense of perfection has been tainted by marital problems, the recurring problem of poverty, limitation of women and not being able to achieve everything she has aimed for. She begins her poetic life with identities she wants to be attributed to her, but ends up revealing a glimpse of who she really is. It is unfortunate that not long after producing works that can be accurately described as confessional poetry, she ends her own life.
- Dickie, Margaret. “Seeing is Re-Seeing: Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop.” American Literature (March 1993): 131-146.
- Hammer, Langdon. “Plath’s Lives.” Representations, No. 75. (Summer 2001): 61-88.
- Martin, Wendy. “‘God’s Lioness’–Sylvia Plath, Her Prose and Poetry.” Women’s Studies, Vol. 1 (1973): 191-198.
- Sylvia Plath Homepage. 11 December 2007 <http://www.sylviaplath.de/>.