Say the name Sylvia Plath these days, and you’re likely to get an eye roll: Forty years after her death, her work is synonymous with humorless, father-hating feminists and blinkered adolescent angst. And although Christine Jeff’s new biopic Sylvia purports to be interested in Plath as an artist, it tends to reinforce the old clichés about her work: Much like The Hours and Virginia Woolf, the film is preoccupied by its protagonist’s art only insofar as it tremulously foreshadows her suicide. Many of the film’s critics have seemed even less interested in Plath’s accomplishments: One dismissed the poems as “carping,”another noted their “self-absorption” and hoped, semi-jokingly, that viewers would “find better and saner things to do” than to read them.
Despite her popular image as a death-obsessed neurotic, Plath was among the most disciplined, driven, publicly ambitious American poets of the 20th century, and it’s a shame that her work is so cavalierly dismissed. When she died, at age 30, she had only begun to come into her gifts as a writer. For the most part, Plath’s poems are decidedly unadolescent; her true subject is the scorched landscape of post-religious feeling, of a mind menaced by the absence of God. (This last, I suppose, could be called “adolescent,” but then so is the work of Rimbaud and even T.S. Eliot.) Famously, her posthumously published collection of poems, Ariel, depicts the failure of a troubled marriage. But Ariel is equally the portrait of spiritual attenuations: Of the confusion of the self with the elemental forces that surround it (the Not-Me, as Ralph Waldo Emerson called it), as well as its palpable attraction to the violence of all this. In such a world, the human scale of tolerance is not often to be found, and it is true that for Plath even the most mundane misunderstandings and betrayals become a signpost: Everything is wrong.
But this wrongness isn’t the wounded cry of a poet for whom all signs point back to herself, as it were. The poems in Ariel are mythical, elemental, terrain that Plath had been assiduously working from the start; her speakers have the uncompromising intensity of Electra, whom she wrote an early poem about. Unfortunately, it’s the most unyielding of her lines that have been repeated ad nauseam (and are again in Sylvia): “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else” or “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” or “I rise with my red hair/ and I eat men like air.” Taken on their own, these declarative, singsong lines easily seem crudely self-involved. Read through Ariel,though, and you will find that plenty of the poems are not literally about Plath; they are trickily rhetorical monologues, visual puns, poems about the invention of a self—see “Poppies in October,” or even the deathly “Edge.” And they are not all keyed at a high pitch. There is tenderness in them, sometimes directed toward the poet herself, in “Tulips,” at other times toward her children, whom she wrote eloquently about in “Morning Song.”
Sylvia fails to explore the fact that Plath was one of the first major American poets to be a mother and to take the pleasure of motherhood as her subject. Nor does it give viewers any lasting sense of her goofy, self-lacerating wit or of the Hughes’ social and literary milieu. (They met or knew numerous important poets, including T.S. Eliot.) Most important, it fails to convey that the emotional disclosures in Ariel are anything but baldly confessional. Although Plath has been associated with confessional poets like Anne Sexton, and the therapeutic revelations of their heirs, she is not in any true sense like them. Her poems are actually hard to parse; they take place in an abstract, symbolic world, and the “plot” of each is purposefully left ambiguous. I wonder how many readers, like me, had no idea what “Ariel” was about the first time they read it:
Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.
How one we grow
Pivot of heels and knees! The furrow
Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch …
This was written after Plath took a horseback ride during which the horse bolted; but the horse has been almost entirely excised, rendered with a kind of Cubist abstraction—here a neck, there a berry-colored eye—reducing the poem to a dislocated portrait of losing control. In the end, Plath is most interesting for her volatile ambiguities, not the urge to spill her guts. But early on, feminists approached Plath’s opaque poems as codes to be cracked with biography, teaching us to think of her as a woman whose art was entirely bound up in her personal grievances. In fact, the poems that Plath selected for Ariel are the least confessional of those she wrote during her last year of life; and, as scholars have pointed out, we can see from Plath’s papers that she assiduously removed the most personal details, draft after draft.
Ariel is not a perfect book—there are too many helpings of “stars” and “moons,” even for someone with the excuse of being under the influence of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. Her attempts to write about the Holocaust and Hiroshima were an apprentice’s, clumsy and self-regarding (as Irving Howe and George Steiner have rightly pointed out). But Plath had a firm grasp of her own weaknesses; in her mid-20s she noted in her journal that it was time to do “away with blue moony soup-fogs” and to work harder to transform herself from a “bright published adolescent” into a mature poet. Later, in “Stillborn,” a satiric poem about her own work, she neatly skewered her affinity for the grotesque, indicting her poems for having a “piggy and a fishy air” and for being “dead” on the page.
Plath’s reading of her predecessors was prodigious, intense, personal; the poems she liked of Thomas Hardy’s seem, when you read them, Plathian—a sign of original artistic vision. It is, then, a secondary tragedy of Plath’s suicide that her achievement has been overwhelmed by unimaginative appropriations of her life, resulting in today’s knee-jerk distaste for her. Plath worked hard to get as far as she got as a writer. In the midst of an exhausting year teaching at Smith College to support herself and Hughes, with little time for her own writing, she wrote in her journal: “I catch up: each night, now, I must capture one taste, one touch, one vision from the ruck of the day’s garbage. How all this life would vanish, evaporate, if I didn’t clutch at it, cling to it.” Sylvia, alas, is primarily caught up in the vicarious, dramatic thrill of depicting the poet let go. And so we don’t get to experience the thrill of watching her cling.