Sylvia Plath is a name well known in the world of poetry. One of the most celebrated and controversial 20th century poets, her poems often were autobiographical, exploring her own anguish and unresolved conflicts. I admire her writing for its raw and unapologetic feel. With the beauty of words, this literary genius captured all kinds of emotions in its most primeval form. Joyce Carol Oates once said of Sylvia Plath’s writing that,
“Many of them written during the final, turbulent weeks of her life, read as if they’ve been chiseled, with a fine surgical instrument, out of arctic ice.”
Sylvia published her first poem at the age of 8 and in an IQ test at the age of 12 she scored 160, where genius level scores begin at 140- making her one of the brightest minds of her age. She was ambitious, hardworking and won a scholarship at a prestigious college, excelling in her studies. In her first year she wrote to her mother,
“The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon.”
Her battle with bipolar disorder for which there was no effective medication during her lifetime is well known. At the age of 20 she had her first breakdown and after a failed attempt at taking her own life, she turned the experiences of her breakdown into a book, The Bell Jar, the only novel she wrote. That and her poetry volume The Colossus were warmly received. Hardly known outside poetry circles during her lifetime, she became in death more than she might have imagined.
She left us a rich collection of articles, journals, art work in addition to her poetry. She wrote once,
“It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,”
Her poetry has seeped into all forms of culture and you just cannot talk poetry without mentioning Sylvia Plath. We grew up learning her poems in school, we see excerpts from her collection celebrated around the world. But there’s a darker side to it as well.
Inappropriate references to her life and work
The circumstances of her death opened doors to misinterpretation of her life- making her artistic genius almost inseparable from her mental illness. In her daughter Frieda Hughes own words,
“…the point of anguish at which my mother killed herself was taken over by strangers, possessed and reshaped by them.”
What is heartbreaking about how the public perceived Sylvia after her death is that every body of her work was taken and brought apart only to be put back together as a sum total of the tragic experiences she had. The life of Sylvia is a classic example of how we as a society romanticize mental illness and suicide. She has become a cultural stand in for suicide and women’s emotions in the form of parodies around the way she died, insensitive humor around depression and her writing. Some examples that you may find in popular shows:
- The Mindy Project, Season 3, Episode 9. “I feel Bell Jar as Hell Right Now”
- The Bold Type, Season 2, Episode 3.”Writing alone is real lonely.” “Why do you think Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven?”
- Roseanne, Season 2, Episode 10. “How you doing there Sylvia Plath? “Who’s Sylvia Plath?” “Oh, she was a brilliant poet. Full of passion, angst, whatever”
Such remarks brings up the question, do we really understand mental health? Mental illness is isolating, dark, and an everyday struggle to live with if not treated. The least we can do is create a harmonious atmosphere around us, be willing to learn and speak with sensitivity. Sylvia is one such voice of many people who lost their lives to mental illness or are still battling with it. She was a genius in spite of the struggle she went through and we should remember her for the vibrant, confident and exceptional personality she was, without distorting her story and erasing the line between her battle and her genius.
One step towards becoming more responsible would be to educate ourselves on mental health. The words we use, the way we address someone, all speak volumes of who we are as humans. Let’s take a step to choose kindness above all?