Fifty Years After Sylvia Plath’s Death, Critics Are Just Starting to Understand Her Life

Cultural fascination with the author and poet continues to burn brightly despite - or perhaps because of - Plath’s premature departure from this world

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Fifty years ago today, poet and author Sylvia Plath quietly placed a tray with a couple glasses of milk next to her two sleeping children, then walked to the kitchen, shut the door, sealed the cracks with wet towels and put her head in the oven. If she had not committed suicide at the age of 30, Plath could still be alive today. But cultural fascination with her continues to burn brightly despite—or perhaps because of—her premature departure from this world.

During her short life, Plath wrote prolifically, and her works eventually earned her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. But despite countless scholars dedicating themselves to Plath’s work and our broader obsession with her work and life, the poet’s work still continues to deliver surprises.

Katie Roiphe, a professor at NYU, speculates in Slate that Plath’s famous poem, “Daddy,” is actually about her much-despised mother.

In reading the angry, crashing lines of the poem—“Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you”—one naturally thinks that she must be talking about a male oppressor, about her father. But Plath’s father, a German entomologist who loved bees, and died after a long period of sickness when Sylvia was 8, was a paler figure in her life, a less looming or domineering force than her mother; of course, one can harbor strong, mysterious feelings about a parent who died when one is young, but it is her mother with whom she is locked in a furious lifelong struggle.

Again and again throughout her works, Plath expressed a “total absence of love” from her mother and often directed her violent and murderous literary fantasies towards her mother.

Why, one might ask, would the extremely uninhibited Plath not write a poem called “Mommy” if it was in some deeper way about her mother? We can’t know, of course, but she may have encrypted her feelings about her mother into a poem about her father because it was easier to face them in that form, because even the violently free Plath of the late poems was not violently free enough to put her feelings toward her mother in a more direct form for the world to see. Given how long and deeply she struggled with those feelings, it is not impossible that even at her wildest, most liberated, she was not able to dispense with the comfort of metaphors and codes.

NPR’s Craig Morgan Teicher takes a closer look at a younger, less well known Plath, “an obviously talented writer who is having trouble finding a subject commensurate with her knife-sharp powers of description and emotional clarity.” Take a poem she wrote in 1957 about a big pig, for example:

Shrilling her hulk
To halt for a swig at the pink teats. No. This vast
Brobdingnag bulk
Of a sow lounged belly-bedded on that black compost,
Fat-rutted eyes
Dream-filmed. What a vision of ancient hoghood …

Already Plath can render anything she looks at with stultifying intensity, and she’s gaining the control of where to break her lines — her poet’s timing — that will make the Ariel poems so searing and sinister. But ultimately, this poem adds up to little more than a prolonged exclamation of, “Wow! That’s a really big pig!” The stakes are out of sync: The poem just isn’t as important as it sounds.

In 1959, however, the Plath fans know and love finally emerges in “The Eye-Mote.” In the poem, the narrator is pleasantly riding a horse through the countryside, when suddenly a splinter flies into her eye. Her vision distorted, the world becomes a twisted and unknown place.

A melding of shapes in a hot rain:
Horses warped on the altering green,

Outlandish as double-humped camels or unicorns,
Grazing at the margins of a bad monochrome …

Plath’s extraordinary verbal inventiveness has begun to find a subject equal to it: the shape-shifting the mind exerts on the world, the ways the heart can inflect, even infect, what happens.

As tragic and dark as her end would be, it’s nonetheless thrilling to watch this great artist becoming herself.

For those wishing to engage in a more prolonged anniversary meditation of the poet, two new biographies, “American Isis” and “Mad Girl’s Love Song” attempt to tease out new details and insights into Plath’s life. The former lays claim that ““Sylvia Plath is the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” And as the New York Times says, the latter “makes a convincing case that we can learn more about Plath and the pressures that shaped her by paying attention to her “life before Ted” — the high school and college years.”

The Times concludes:

continuing appeal as a biographical subject suggests that the political and psychological questions her life and work raise are ones we still feel compelled to ask.

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