Sylvia Plath: Contribution as American Poet

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      Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), was born in Boston and educated at Smith College. She won the Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge and received her M.A. in 1957. In the same year, she met Ted Hughes, the English poet. She studied with Robert Lowell and her poetic work has clear affinities with the ‘Confessional Poetry’. In her poetry, she often distances herself from her subject by assuming a sharply ironic tone. There is always an undercurrent of terror whether writing about tulips, or elm trees or her experiences as a daughter or wife, or suicide attempts, The Colossus and Other Poems was published in 1960 which only one of her books to be published before her suicide. Her more important collection is Ariel (1966). Her poems compel the reader to participate in the poet’s despair. The suffering of her heart has received ample attention. However, the craft that draws us into that suffering is sometimes ignored. Her later poetry is a poetry of the edge, certainly, but it is also the poetry that depends for its success on the mastery of her craftsmanship, her ability to fabricate larger, historical meanings and imaginative myth out of personal horror. And it is a poetry as well that draws knowingly on honored traditions: the Puritan habit of meditation upon last things, the American compulsion to confront the abyss of the Self-above all, the burning of conviction felt by the poets as otherwise different as Poe and Dickinson that imagining of death is the determining, definitive experience of life.

      She is the most important representative of the Confessional” school of poetry. She lived an outwardly exemplary life, She married her charismatic husband - to be, poet Ted Hughes, with whom she had two children and settled in a country house in England. Beneath the fairytale success, festered unresolved psychological problems were evoked in her highly readable novel The Bell Jar (1963). Some of these problems were personal, while others arose from repressive 1950s attitudes toward women. Among these were the beliefs - shared by most women themselves that women should not show anger or ambitiously pursue a career, and instead find fulfillment in tending their husbands and children, successful women poets like Plath lived a contradiction.

      Plath’s storybook life crumbled when she and Hughes separated and she cared for the young children in a London apartment during a winter of extreme cold, isolated, and in despair, Plath worked against the clock to produce a series of stunning poems before she committed suicide by gassing herself in her kitchen. These poems were collected in the volume Ariel (1965), two years after her death, Robert Lowell, who wrote the introduction, noted her poetry’s rapid development from the time. She and Anne Sexton had attended his poetry classes in 1958. Plath’s early poetry is well-crafted and traditional, but her late poems exhibit a desperate bravura and proto-feminist cry of anguish. In “The Applicant” (1966) Plath exposes the emptiness in the current role of wife (who is reduced to an inanimate “it”):

“A living, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook.
It can talk, talk...It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.”

      Plath dares to use a nursery rhyme language, a brutal directness. She has a knack for using bold images from popular culture. Of a baby, she writes, “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” In “Daddy,” she imagines her father as the Dracula of cinema:

“There’s a stake in your hi black heart
And the villagers never liked you.”

      In their poetry, there is art of reconciliation and resistance. There are confessional poets who discover peace therapeutic release to the disciplines of writing and those equally disciplined, whose writing only pushes them further toward the edge. If Lowell is the example of the former, Plath is the illustration of the latter in the interests of her poetic art, she ventured to the point where there was nothing left but the precipice and little chance of returning.

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