“Sylvia Plath’s voice comes down to us like the will of Hera.”


Anwen Crawford‘s article in New Yorker, “The Letters of Sylvia Plath and the Transformation of the Poet’s Voice,” will be reassuring to many. Like the rest of us, Plath’s early work was “awful.” Moreover, her letters were boring. Now we know that for sure, thanks to the 1,300 or so pages of unexpurgated correspondence recently published in The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1, 1940–1956, There’s lots about boys and studies and food, and much of it is dull.  To wit: “Last night I had three big helpings of potatoes (mashed) and carrots for supper and a scant helping of meatloaf as well as 2 pieces of bread and butter, 2 apricots & a glass of milk.”

As the editors of the collection, Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, note in their foreword: “Plath wrote and typed to the very edges of her paper.” As for the awful early work, it is clear that it wasn’t just talent, or even primarily talent, that made Plath an innovative poet, but discipline, will, application, and an indefatigable  refusal to give in to limitation.

And a couple powerful paragraphs from the piece may reframe our discussion of Plath forever:

The belief among many of Plath’s devotees seems to be that if we can get clear of other people’s fingerprints on her texts, allowing Plath to “fully narrate her own autobiography,” as the editors here describe it, we will at last solve the riddle of her. The extremities of her poetry will balance against the circumstances of her life; the latter will equal the former.

But her griefs were ordinary; it is what she did with them that wasn’t. Plath turned her common sorrows—dead father, mental illness, cheating husband—into something like an origin story for pain itself, as if her own pain preceded the world. The moon was her witness, an elm tree spoke to her, or through her. Her poetry speeds beyond the facts of her life and becomes Olympian in its fury. “I am too pure for you or anyone,” she writes in “Fever 103,” from 1962, “Your body / Hurts me as the world hurts God.” What a thrill, to have honed within oneself such contempt for the living world, and then to unleash it. Plath’s voice comes down to us like the will of Hera.

And, amid the imperiousness, a tenderness, too, just as worked at, and as breathtaking. It was directed at her children, also turned into archetypes, as if they were the first children who had ever been. “Love set you going like a fat gold watch,” she writes in “Morning Song,” the poem that opens “Ariel.” “The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry / Took its place among the elements.” Few poets before Plath wrote of motherhood with such attention, or, rather, few that we know of; who can guess how many other mothers wrote but were never read? Plath’s work survives, which is why we have needed her. If only she had, too.

Read the whole thing here.

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