In the 50 years since Sylvia Plath’s death, her story has been used and abused to prove any number of points. But, says Kate Fox, it’s still her words that really matter.
The poet Sylvia Plath is an icon who can be read in conflicting ways, similar to how Katie Price/Jordan can either be a symbol of tough women going their own way in a harsh commercial world or of vulnerable women exploited by men’s need to get their rocks off, depending on whether it’s the Sun or the Guardian doing the writing.
I’m not saying that Jordan is the Sylvia Plath of modern glamour. I don’t imagine reams of biographies, analyses, films and novels will be being churned out on the subject of Katie Price more than 50 years after her death. But, why is Sylvia Plath so deeply fascinating?
Since her suicide, which fellow American poet Anne Sexton cynically called “a good career move”, the “I” of her poems has often been confused with the “I” of her true self. The tragic, confessional artist who gave her life for her work, the betrayed woman who could not go on, the mother who abandoned her children, the depressive young woman destroyed by madness and it’s attempted treatments, the ultimate victim of a patriarchal society or the ultimate victor, using the dark, glittering power of her words to compel our attention. Substitute “words” with “breasts” in that last sentence and we’re still a bit closer to Jordan than we really should be. It just shows these projections are what happen to any woman in the public eye to some degree or another.
I didn’t know about the soap operatic tragedy of the Plath’s biographical details when I encountered her poetry as an angst-ridden 15-year-old who conducted school assemblies about concentration camps and wore black T-shirts and a cross on a black rubber necklace. Only my music tastes prevented me properly being on the Goth/Emo spectrum. My friends were into the Pixies and Nirvana, I was buying my fifth Billy Joel album and taping Gershwin and Cole Porter documentaries off Radio 2. At breaktime, I took refuge from West Yorkshire’s arctic winds in the Head of English’s classroom.
One day, flicking casually through decades of yellowing books on Room 13’s shelves, I came across one of Plath’s most famous poems Daddy. It was like being punched in the stomach by words. I sat bolt upright and read it again. I didn’t know poems could do this. It didn’t happen with the John Donne sonnets we’d been surgically dissecting in GCSE English. I’d quite enjoyed the intellectual challenge of figuring out why he used a flea bite as a metaphor for bonking, but Plath’s words and images set off lightning flashes in my brain and jolted my gut.
From the direct address to the shoe the poem’s speaker imagines being trapped in (“You do not do, you do not do / Any more black shoe”) to the bald, dramatic statement of “Daddy I have had to kill you”. From the Holocaust references (“I thought every German was you”) to the escalating darkness related in an intimate, almost childish voice (“At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you…But they pulled me out of the sack / And they stuck me together with glue). Then ending by claiming the devastating power of telling him to “lie back now” because “Daddy, Daddy you bastard, I’m through”.
In Plath’s real life, her German-born father had died when she was eight. She interpreted a suicide attempt when she was 20 as an attempt to get back to, or get back, at him. No wonder it’s tempting for people to read biography into her work. However, both she and husband Ted Hughes said her poems were more exaggerated, mythical versions of her life than realistic, biographical accounts.
Her grave even popped up in the background of gritty recent BBC thriller Happy Valley. It was at the edge of the shot as Sarah Lancashire’s tough PC laid flowers on the grave of her 18-year-old daughter who’d killed herself after being raped. Plath also committed suicide. Happy Valley’s biggest theme was the mental and physical violence inflicted on women. Presumably the glimpse wasn’t a coincidence.
Plath’s grave in Heptonstall Churchyard in West Yorkshire is both a site of pilgrimage for fans from around the world who leave flowers, coins, poems and handmade trinkets, and a site of anger for feminist activists who’ve defaced the headstone many times. The object of their anger is her husband, who arranged for the American poet to be buried near his birthplace, with the name Sylvia Plath Hughes. The women blame him for Sylvia’s suicide and repeatedly scrub out his surname on the stone.
The couple were separated at the time of her death as he’d been having an affair with a woman who would go on to kill herself and their four-year-old daughter in 1969. In the cold London winter of 1963, Sylvia had feverishly written the 30 poems that she said would “make her name” over an intense three-week period, then laid two bowls of milk out for her two young children and put her head in the gas oven of their freezing rented flat.
After her death came literary and critical biographies contested by her family, then her co-option by feminists and psychoanalysis in the ‘70s, the publication of her own letters and journals. Then came the biographies about the biographies, such as Janet Malcolm’s Silent Woman in the ‘90s, and Marianne Egeland’s recent Claiming Sylvia, and Ted Hughes bestselling poems about their relationship Birthday Letters.
She has now firmly entered the realm of popular consciousness. Somewhere Carol Rollyson, the author of American Isis who called her The Marilyn Monroe of modern literature, claims she deeply aspired to be.
For me, the 2009 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia and Daniel Craig as Ted, epitomised the worst of that. Plath’s work was barely mentioned and, as a review on Hollywood.com noted: “The love story takes a front seat to Sylvia’s writing career and opinions on gender differences and family, reducing Sylvia to a weepy, morose soul whose overriding concern is where her husband is at all hours”.
Maybe it’s hypocritical coming from someone who has devoured most biographies about her, but I will always return to the poems. She spoke for herself in them, but could still speak to me, a 15-year-old in the classroom of a comprehensive school in Bradford, 40 years after she’d died. Despite the hysterical battles over what she symbolises, it is her own clear, clever, ironic and honest voice which still lives on.
Standup poet who's been poet in residence for Radio 4's Saturday Live, Glastonbury Festival and the Great North Run.