A Poet and Her Myths

Sylvia Plath belongs to that curious band of poets—it includes Chatterton, Keats, Rimbaud—whose fame is inextricably bound up with their lives. Rimbaud apart, they died prematurely, in the full flower of their talent, “just as he really promised something great, if not intelligible,” as Byron said of Keats. But Plath’s case is more extreme than that of the others. Chatterton committed suicide when he was starving to death and became, as a result, the Romantic symbol of the rejected artist. But at least he didn’t write about the act. Neither did Hart Crane or Hemingway or even, in so many words, Virginia Woolf. For Plath, death, and the rage and despair that attend it, were her subject, and she followed the logic of her art to its desolate end. Her last poem, “Edge,” is literally her own epitaph. Her life and work are not just inextricable, they seem at times virtually indistinguishable.

Although Plath began writing in the 1950s and never relinquished the discipline and detachment she acquired in her apprenticeship, her work has been overtaken by more contemporary, less choosy attitudes: by the Warhol concept of art as news, as a form of celebrity, of art for gossip’s sake. It is as good a way as any of avoiding the full effect of what she wrote. Most people know about her broken marriage, her outrage, her suicide, but I wonder how many of the thousands who fervently identify with the intensely autobiographical heroine of The Bell Jar have ever bothered with the difficult, unforgiving, oddly detached late poems.

Plath’s case is complicated by the fact that, in her mature work, she deliberately used the details of her everyday life as raw material for her art. A casual visitor or unexpected telephone call, a cut, a bruise, a kitchen bowl, a candlestick, everything became usable, charged with meaning, transformed. Her poems are full of references and images which seem impenetrable at this distance but which could mostly be explained in footnotes by a scholar with full access to the details of her life. Her extraordinary last poems are concentrated and fast-moving; the images develop one from the other, eliding and expanding with the authority and directness of a peculiarly dazzling dream. I think she was able to take these aesthetic risks because the stuff she was transmuting was made up of the commonplaces of her everyday life, glassily clear and obvious to her. Her poetry was a kind of alchemy, turning dross into gold.

Unfortunately, the mundane details of Plath’s life are hard to come by. She died in February 1963, having published one volume of poetry, The Colossus, and her novel, which was written under a pseudonym and not much noticed at the time. Ariel, a modified version of a selection she had made of her late poems, appeared in 1965 to great acclaim. In 1971, The Bell Jar was published in the US and became a best seller. In the same year, two further selections of her…

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