Nat’l Poetry Month: Featured Poet ~ Sylvia Plath

When people hear the name Sylvia Plath, many ask: “Isn’t that the writer who stuck her head in an oven?” It’s true, Plath did take her own life at the very young age of 30, but this woman’s suicide unfortunately overshadows the talented poet that she was.

For National Poetry Month this week, we focus on Sylvia Plath, author, poetess, mother, and anguished woman.

Today, we share some details about the woman who was brought to life on the silver screen by Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie Sylvia (which mainly focused on the relationship between Plath and her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes).

Plath was born in 1932 in Massachusetts and grew up in the U.S., eventually attending Smith College. After her third year of higher education, she made her first documented suicide attempt and had a brief stay at a mental institution. Plath did graduate with honors, however, and earned a Fulbright scholarship to a college within the University of Cambridge. That’s where she met Hughes.

The couple had a brief stint in the U.S. after they first married (in 1956) and it was during this time that Plath studied with the poet Robert Lowell. Her first collection of poems, Colossus, was published in 1960 – it was the only book of hers published while she was alive.

The couple returned to England when Plath became pregnant with their first of two children and that’s where they remained until her death on February 11, 1963. Sadly, Plath’s name most recently entered the media again when her son Nicholas committed suicide in March 2009 at the age of 47. He was only an infant when Plath died.

Plath’s marriage was a tempestuous one, complicated further by Hughes’ affair with another woman for whom he left the relationship in 1962. After Hughes’ departure, Plath, in a deep depression, composed the majority of the poems in Ariel, her most famous poetry collection which would be published posthumously by Hughes in 1965 (Plath’s copyright fell to Hughes upon her death, a controversial subject… more on this tomorrow). Further evidence of her prolific nature, Plath also finished writing the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar right before her suicide.

Plath is most often classified as a confessional poet, and she is compared to Lowell and poet Anne Sexton. She often used violent and disturbing imagery in her writing, though at the same time penning lines with playful alliteration and occasional rhyme. Ariel in particular held poems such as “Tulips,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Daddy” which alluded to mental illness.

Besides Ariel, Hughes published three other volumes of his wife’s work posthumously: Crossing the Water (1971), Winter Trees (1972), and The Collected Poems (1981), the latter of which received the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. Plath was the first poet to win this award after death.

Here is part of an interview with Plath and Peter Orr of The British Council. Her voice is rather… unexpected.

While there is great sadness surrounding the life and death of Sylvia Plath, while her work was at times charged and maudlin, she is a poet to be celebrated. We will do that this week as we look more closely at a collection of her poetry and one poem in particular. Stay tuned.

Have you read any of Plath’s work? Do you feel that her troubled state of mind was evident in her writing?

4 thoughts on “Nat’l Poetry Month: Featured Poet ~ Sylvia Plath

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  1. LOVE Sylvia Plath — I’m not much for poetry but I make an exception for her, and “The Bell Jar” is one of my top 5 favorite books! Had to laugh at her voice in the interview though … she seems to have pulled a Madonna and acquired a fake British accent.

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