Herewith, a sermonette I delivered at the UU Fellowship of Dubuque on August 8, 2010:
Sylvia Plath: Matter and Spirit
If you want to know who Sylvia Plath was and what happened to her, I can tell you in a handful of paragraphs. As her friend, the poet and critic Al Alvarez, once said: “I would love to think that the culture’s fascination is because Plath is a great and major poet, which she is. But it wouldn’t be true. It is because people are wildly interested in scandal and gossip.”
So first, the facts:
Sylvia Plath was born October 27, 1932, the older child of Otto and Aurelia Plath. Her family first lived near the sea in Massachusetts, later moving to Wellesley. Sylvia began writing poems and short stories at a young age, and was first published at __. Her father died of diabetes mellitus when she was eight. She attended Smith College on scholarship, a straight A student. In 1953, she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle, a now defunct magazine for young women much like Glamour, except that it published fiction and poetry as well as features on fashion and beauty. That summer she attempted suicide for the first time by taking a bottle of sleeping pills and hiding in her home’s crawl space for three days; she was discovered and hospitalized.
Sylvia graduated from Smith and then won a Fulbright fellowship to Cambridge, where she met Ted Hughes. They married just three months later, on Bloomsday, June 16, 1956. She and Ted moved to Massachusetts, where she taught English at Smith for one year and hated it. While still in the U.S., they moved to Boston and she attended classes taught by Robert Lowell (the father of confessional poetry).
After their return to London, she gave birth to their daughter Frieda, a poet in her own right today. In October 1960, her first book, The Colossus and Other Poems, was published. The family moved to Devon, where Sylvia suffered a miscarriage and later gave birth to a son, Nicholas, in January 1962. By that December, Ted was having an affair and they separated. Sylvia moved with the children to London and filed for divorce.
In January 1963, her novel The Bell Jar, which could serve as an autobiographical account of her first breakdown and suicide attempt, was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. All of her other books were published after her death.
So now, the source of the scandal and gossip:
On February 11, 1963, when Sylvia was 30, she awoke early, going to the children’s room to leave a plate of bread and butter and two mugs of milk, in case they should wake hungry before the new nanny arrived (she was due by 9). Then she went back down to the kitchen, sealed the door and window with damp towels, opened the oven, turned off the pilot light, laid her head inside, and turned on the gas.
Strong arguments have been made that she did not intend this suicide attempt to be a successful one. Various people were supposed to have shown up early that morning, including the downstairs neighbor and the nanny. She even left a note with instructions to call her doctor. Much has been made of her need to attempt but not complete her own death once a decade, a drive linked both to her sorrow over her father’s death and her apparent clinical depression. Several years before, she had driven her car off the road, an “accident some labeled attempt number two.
Other arguments were lobbed at her husband, for betraying her with another woman, a woman he later married and who, I suppose I must note, killed herself and their young daughter in exactly the same way seven years later: Oven, gas. Sylvia’s gravestone was repeatedly defaced by angry disciples who tried to removed the “Hughes” from her name. They might not have put much stock in the words Ted wrote to a friend after Sylvia’s death: “That’s the end of my life. The rest is posthumous.” He did not live to endure the suicide of their son, Nicholas, in 2009.
But I come here not to psychoanalyze Sylvia Plath, but to praise her. As a fellow poet, I’m in awe of her achievement, and can only wonder what work she might have produced had she lived out a normal lifespan. I know literary critics who actually believe that mental illness – or less clinically, “madness” – or alcoholism, or drug addiction, or just general craziness is necessary to produce great art. I beg to differ. I believe, as do many others with cooler heads, that while mental illness may produce a few zany ideas that can be turned into interesting stories and poems, what it mostly does is get in the way of productive work.
You’ve seen the ads on TV. When you’re clinically depressed, you hurt. You can’t move. You want to hide away in bed, or under your desk, or anywhere but in front of your keyboard or under a green tree with a big fat notebook and six freshly sharpened Ticonderoga pencils. There is even an annual conference in Santa Fe on “Creativity and Madness”! Would anybody go if they held it in Gary, Indiana? I don’t think so.
[Sorry. That’s one of my pet peeves. Mental illness is rife in my family, and I’ll even out myself right here and now and tell you that I’ve been dysthymic – that’s the fancy word for low-level depression – all of my life. And take it from me – it’s easier, it’s better, and it’s a whole lot funner to write poetry when your faculties are hitting on all cylinders.]
Or maybe she was bipolar, suffering from periods of mind-numbing depression as well as bursts of manic productivity. She was, at the end, writing up to one poem a day, one inspired, revised, exquisite poem every 24 hours. Was that mania? Or just exuberant talent? Real mania tips a person over into extreme disorganization, where nothing can be accomplished and you think you’re the queen of Prussia.
So how did Sylvia Plath view religion? An essay about her on the Unitarian Universalist Association’s web site declares that, “on the evidence of her intensely confessional poetry, Plath’s personal theology was humanist, with a leaning toward nature mysticism.” As a child, she attended the Unitarian church with her parents; when the family moved to a town with no Unitarian church, they switched to a Methodist one. After her father died, her mother joined the Wellesley Unitarian church, where she taught Sunday school. Sylvia joined the church youth group and attended a Star Island Unitarian youth conference in 1949, when she was 16.
In one of her many letters to her mother from Smith College, she wrote that she believed in “the impersonal laws of science as a God of sorts,” and in a religion course she wrote a paper on Unitarianism and identified herself as an “agnostic humanist.” This sets her apart from mainstream Unitarians of the time, most of whom did believe in God. After her father died, she told her mother, “I’ll never speak to God again.” She was only eight, though, and in her adult poetry she refers to God not infrequently.
And she was close to some important Unitarians. Following her first suicide attempt, the family was consoled by two Unitarian ministers, Max Gaebler and William Rice. The expense of her subsequent treatment was paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, a Unitarian novelist who had already underwritten her college education and would remain her counselor, correspondent, and “literary mother” for the rest of her life. (Prouty was the author of the novels Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager, among others. She suffered her own breakdown when she become overwhelmed with the difficulty of simultaneously running a household and being a writer – caught up in trying to be what Virginia Woolf called “The Angel in the House” while also having a creative life.
Sylvia once said that she considered herself “a pagan-Unitarian at best,” especially when she and Ted attended the Anglican church in England. She wrote her mother, “I’d really be a church-goer if I was back in Wellesley . . . . The Unitarian Church is my church. How I miss it! There is just no choice here.”
As for what she believed, here is an excerpt from her journal, written late in her 20th year, in a discussion of Christian Science: “. . . I am philosophically at the other end of the pole, a ‘matter worshiper.’ I do believe that ‘thinking makes it so’ and that ‘attitude is everything.’ I believe there is a realm (abstractly, hypothetically, of course) of absolute fact. Something IS. And that, in our poor human lingo, would be the ‘truth.’ (But as far as I am concerned, that truth is matter, not spirit.) However, to each individual, viewing facets, slivers, fragments of this whole truth (which must be) through his own particular grotesque glass of distortion, the truth will be, for him, a mere magnification and personal fallible interpretation of the special facet, sliver or fragment he sees. No man can ever grasp the whole impersonal neutrality of a universe. This is hidden under the mists of subjectivity. We are merely variously constructed sounding boards for the noise of the pine tree falling (proverbially) in the forest. The sound is potential, even if no one is there to hear it. Just as radio programs are all around us, clogging the air, needing only a certain sensitive mechanism to make them a reality, a fact.”
There’s a reason I dragged you through all that. And it’s a simple one. It’s because of what she says about sound. For me, Plath isn’t just about the myth, the tragedy, the life, or even the content of the poems, as compelling as any or all of these components might be. It’s about the sound. I could listen to her poems for hours. I could read them aloud just for the joy of it. And that’s my point. Even when she was writing about death, about Nazis, about deserting fathers, I believe with all my heart that she took great joy in the sound of the words and lines she thought up and put down on the page.
Just listen to the sounds in “Edge,” admittedly a haunting, tragic poem, the last one she ever wrote, as far as we know. You can’t tell me she wasn’t elated at the sound of “flows in the scrolls of her toga,” those long “o”s strung together so perfectly, or the “sweet, deep throats of the night flower” – any poet would be thrilled to have found those internal rhymes, as well as the image of the flower’s throat. So, too, I think she must have loved her penultimate line, when she says that the moon “is used to this sort of thing,” the way that all-important statement manages to sound tossed off, casual, when it is anything but. And then that last line, all those short “a”s – “her blacks crackle and drag.”
Oh, if I were the poet who had written that poem, even if I were in a freezing cold house far from home with no telephone and a fever of 103 and two young children about to wake up, even if my husband had just left me for another woman, I would still feel such glee to have written this. When I was studying Plath a few years ago, I found myself so enraptured by the sounds of words, so hyperaware of them, that one night an idea for a poem came to me and I could not get back to sleep. Like most writers – like most thinkers – I keep a notebook and pen by my bed, so I kept turning the light on, writing down my ideas, turning the light off, trying to go back to sleep, but then the ideas kept coming and coming, and finally I said, Okay, okay, I’m getting up and went down the hall to my computer, where I do my writing. And what came out was as Sylvia Plath-inspired a poem as I’ve ever written.
Do you want to hear it? It’s a poem written to my violent, late first husband.
[I would love to leave the poem here, but I cannot put it on my blog until that glorious day when it’s accepted for publication in a journal . . . any journal. It’s at Sewanee Review right now. Come on, Sewanee Review!]
Now I’d like to read one more poem by Sylvia Plath, called “Balloons.” Someone who is too focused on her suicide might say I’m cheating, since it’s about her children, a happy poem, but look at the date. It was written February 4, 1963 – the day before she wrote “Edge,” her last poem, exactly one week before she turned on the gas. Here it is:
Since Christmas they have lived with us,
guileless and clear,
taking up half the space,
moving and rubbing on the silk
invisible air drifts,
giving a shriek and pop
when attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling.
Yellow cathead, blue fish –
such queer moons we live with
instead of dead furniture!
Straw mats, white walls
and these traveling
globes of thin air, red, green,
the heart like wishes or free
old ground with a feather
beaten in starry metals.
brother is making
his balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
a funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
back, fat jug
contemplating a world clear as water.
shred in his little fist.
Going back to her rather heated explanation of what she believed at the age of 20, that “truth is matter, not spirit,” I can only wonder if her 30-year-old self would have agreed. Because it seems to me that her poems were both matter – words on a page – and spirit – something to transport us, to take us out of our ordinary selves, to make us see life’s elements, even – dare I say it? – its soul.