Biographical Poetry posted September 24, 2023

This work has reached the exceptional level
Is there no way out of my mind?

Sylvia Plath

by Debbie D'Arcy

A poet of such mystery
with brilliance at her core.
Depression marked her history,
a cumbrous weight she bore.
Her father died when she was eight,
a stage of life had flown.
Her faith would lapse, her life filtrate
the carefree child she'd known.
Her poetry would start to flow
throughout her teenage years.
Ambition too would clearly grow
and outshine all her peers.
But mental ills would blight her path,
torment her dazzling mind.
Her married life fused woes with wrath;
in life she felt confined.
So death would lure her to the brink
of that deep, dark domain;
'twould pay, the flight of fate, she'd think,
than fight the foes of pain.
She'd pen her private thoughts with ease,
confess with wit and steel.
She revelled in an age to seize
the right to flaunt, 'unpeel.'*
Then in that modern muse she saw
a hushed and lifeless view
of coldest, wintry, nuclear war
where nought but silence grew.
And venom t'ward her father fired
an outlet that she versed.
His German roots, she wrote, were mired
in suff'ring that she cursed.
She'd float on many plains, it seems,
merge nature with her past.
In imagistic art, her themes
would resonate and last.
In pregnancy, with conflicts rife,
she struggled hard to glean
this "travelled prawn" with budding life
and jumpy as a bean!
But ever more, dreams shaped her mind -
the ultimate, the "fig."*
Estranged and tortured, in a bind,
escape she sought to rig.
With caution for her children dear,
she crossed that last divide -
no coming back, no gaslit* fear,
she breached the other side.
And, though in life she'd battled long,
she spoke with heart and drive -
a golden lotus midst the throng
with words that richly thrive.



I've tried to capture a tiny sense of the complex, diverse and multi-layered imagination of this superb artist. I hope I've done her some justice.

Sylvia Plath - born 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts; died 1963 in London UK

Stanza 1 - A poet of great intellect and complexity whose background was deeply troubled by episodes of manic depression which involved hospitalisation, counselling and treatment. She made many suicide attempts: the first more experimental but later becoming increasingly determined. Although widely known for her writings (journals, stories as well as verse) on death, she was much more than this, producing works on fear, love, life, nature etc while also addressing subjects, considered taboo at the time, such as mental illness and sexuality. She fought against the perception of woman as "a living doll" and cemented confidence in this respect for the feminist movement. ("A living doll everywhere you look/ It can sew, it can talk/It can talk, talk, talk")

Stanza 2 - She commented in one of her final works ( Ocean - 1212-W" - written 1962 ) that those early years "sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle - beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth")

Stanza 3 - She attended Smith College, Massachussetts where she excelled academically, becoming editor of The Smith Review. Her drive and commitment to the arts resulted in her fury when she missed the opportunity to meet Dylan Thomas. This would mark her first experimental suicide attempt.

Stanza 4 - This path of instability had been set before she met her husband-to-be, Ted Hughes. But this was a whirlwind romance, bringing her to London. She described her first night with him as a "sleepless holocaust." The relationship was to become dangerously volatile and abusive.

Stanza 5 - Her interest in death seemed to gather force. In Lady Lazarus written in 1962, she comments "dying is an art." It resonated with many themes for her of resurrection but also annihilation and extinction. Her suicide attempts were "to annihilate each decade of her life." In the verse "Edge" ( written in 1963, her last poem) she refers to the ideal of the spectacle of death: "The woman is perfected/ Her dead/ Body wears the smile of accomplishment."

Stanza 6 - But, at the same time she oozed a great sense of life and spoke with force and freedom. A "Confessional" poet ( a movement away from the de-personalised work of, for example, TS Eliot) who wrote about deeply intimate and controversial issues from her private life. In the verse "Ariel" ( written in 1962) she rides her horse at breakneck speed through the fields and becomes as one with the horse, casting off/unpeeling the old and being reborn - achieving transcendence. It is rich in layers of significance and suggestibility: "White/Godiva, I unpeel*" (comparing herself to the legendary 11th century noblewoman who defiantly rode naked on horseback).

Stanza 7 - More evidence here of her seeing through different lenses. "Waking in Winter" ( written in 1960) is a natural scene of nature but also evokes for her a bleak post-war nuclear scene as well as reflecting her times spent in a mental hospital.

Stanza 8 - And, continuing the confessional approach, she wrote with brutal/witty honesty her thoughts about her late father with whom she had a love-hate relationship. In the verse "Daddy," (written in 1962), she talks about having to kill him - "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through." The holocaust is a recurring theme in her work. Her ambivalence towards her father is evidenced in her contrasting and more respectful "Colossus" (published in a collection in 1960, her only volume of poetry published before her death). In this she compares her father to a huge statue, a remnant of a fallen god. But it's the loss of her psychological security that she mourns rather than the loss of his body.

Stanza 9 - In "The Moon and the Yew Tree" (written in 1961) we see a scene of nature being subsumed in her imagination as the moon is metaphorised as her melancholy and mother, the tree as her father, dominance and death.

Stanza 10 - The poem "You're" (written in 1960 when she was expecting her first child, Frieda) is among her more buoyant and hopeful works, reflecting her thoughts on pregnancy. Once again her imagination seemingly knows no bounds as she dreams her unborn baby into being through a variety of unusual and arresting comparisons. Her conflicted attitude to childbirth and motherhood is reflected in her allusion to her "sprat in a pickle jug" being "farther off than Australia."

Stanza 11 - In her semi-autobiographical story "The Bell Jar" (published in 1963) the fig tree represents a life of opportunities. Selecting a fig* or path is often a dilemma for women, even in the present day, enforcing a pressure that there is only one. In the book, Esther is caught up in a struggle of indecision which foreshadows her later suicide attempt. Death is the ultimate decision.

Stanza 12 - After a wave of prolific creativity but in a deep depression following her husband's affair with Assia Wevill and their expected child (subsequently aborted), she selected her final 'fig' and resolved to kill herself by gassing in an oven.* She taped up all the doors and windows to ensure that her children, sleeping in an adjoining room, would be safe and crossed into "the silence of astounded souls" (from "Crossing the Water" - published posthumously in a 1971 collection).

Stanza 13 - Inscription on her tombstone: "Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted."

After her death which severely shocked her husband who claimed that his life thereafter would be "posthumous," he inherited her works, edited them and took control over their publishing. Six years later, Assia Wevill committed suicide in a similar gassing incident with their daughter. In 2009, Plath's son, Nicholas Hughes, killed himself by hanging after a history of depression.

Plath was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2006.

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