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The Story of Sylvia Plath, a Writer Who Shouldn't Be Defined by Her Death

"[She was] always hurtling towards destruction,” historian Alexis Coe says, “but that’s only because we knew how her story ends.”

by Bianca Betancourt
Nov 21 2018, 7:22pm

Photo from Getty Images

When many think of Sylvia Plath, sadly, the first thought tends to be her death. Yes, the renowned, late poet, is synonymous with being the literary poster child for angsty, young college women who are attracted to her romantic “narration” of internal struggles. But defining Plath’s life solely by her pain is a shallow assessment of the incredible accomplishments she achieved in her 30 years of life.

In the latest episode of No Man’s Land, historian Alexis Coe reflects on the highs of Plath’s life and her complex persona that history has so severely misunderstood. In the episode, we learn that while Plath suffered with her mental health, when she was writing—and feeling her most creatively fulfilled—she was a charming, whip-smart, and a passionate young creative. From this podcast episode, we learn that Plath’s life shouldn’t be summed up as a tragedy.

Coe compares Plath’s legacy to the Greek story of Medea. “[She was] always hurtling towards destruction,” Coe stated, “but that’s only because we knew how her story ends.”

Plath published her first poem at the age of eight in The Boston Traveler and that single, glorifying moment as a child was the catalyst for her love affair with writing. From then on she continued to be published in regional magazines and newspapers throughout her adolescence. Shortly after finishing high school in New England, she published her first national piece in The Christian Science Monitor and even through surviving a deep depression and a second suicide attempt—with the first being a couple years before as a teenager— during her time at Smith College, she still graduated summa cum laude in 1955.

Plath was thoroughly passionate about her craft and excited about the aspiration of building a writing career for herself.

According to Coe's research, it was more often when the daily trials and tribulations of life—especially once Plath entered marriage and motherhood—got in the way of her writing and creative expression, that her depression worsened. If she wasn’t happy, then she couldn’t work.

With that being said, analyzing Plath’s poetry, according to the episode, as merely “biographical” is a lazy and irresponsible assumption. Experts describe Plath’s writing (evident in pieces outside of her renowned Daddy and of course The Bell Jar) as sharp, fresh, passionate and provocative. Her work, which often centered around her fascination with womanhood, pleasure, sex, and pain, was more than poetic cries for help. If anything, her poetry showcased how aware she was of her stance in this world, especially as an applauded, female poet.

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The episode also dives into Plath’s marriage to fellow poet and writer Ted Hughes. Though from the outside looking in their pairing seemed perfect—two writers passionate about each other, their work, and eventually family—Hughes’ future infidelity would tear apart their union. Many fans of Plath blame Hughes’ matrimonial betrayal as the cause of Plath’s suicide only a year later, but researchers who analyzed journal entries and letters left behind by Plath, believe her to be actually relieved upon the first day of their separation. No longer being forced under the role of doting wife, Plath had more time for herself and to most importantly, to write.

Coe believes that Plath’s looming divorce led to a burst of ideas and creativity that Plath had long been craving. This period of inspiration inspired the creation of Plath’s book Ariel, which would be eventually published, posthumously. Though Plath’s writing is best described as surreal, the poems in Ariel are some of the only insight historians have into Plath’s mindset leading up to her death. Coe recites passages from it that don’t sound of desperation, but rather, a sense that Plath was hopeful that beyond her physical life on Earth, could be something more.

It’s revealed at the very end of the podcast, that because of Ariel’s posthumous publishing, Plath’s work was not released to the public in the initial order that she intended. Because her divorce was not yet finalized at the time of Plath’s death, Hughes was in control of Plath’s estate and had final say on the editing and publication of her final materials. Coe alludes that Hughes’ manipulation of Plath’s texts helped continue the shallow characterization of Plath that has defined her career and life until this very day. Coe however, at the episode’s close, makes an inspiring effort to give Plath the send-off she originally deserved.

This episode of No Man’s Land featured interviews and commentary from clinical analyst Suzanne Demko; author of The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Heather Clark; and writer Megan Abbott. Listen to it now on iTunes and Spotify.