Poet Tess Taylor reflects on how we read Sylvia Plath's poetry, 50 years after her death.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Fifty years ago this week, American poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide. She was 30 years old. Commentator Tess Taylor has this reflection on how she reads Plath's work today.
TESS TAYLOR: The details of Sylvia Plath's death are famous even outside of poetry. Depressed and separated from her husband, poet Ted Hughes, she stuck her own head in an oven, putting a dramatic end to her ambitious life. In addition to two small children, she left behind the wiry, electric poems that became the modern classic "Ariel," a book that set the literary world ablaze.
Have you read the posthumous poems by Sylvia Plath? Robert Lowell wrote Elizabeth Bishop later that year. They seem about as good to me as Emily Dickinson at the moment, as extreme as one can bear or rather more so.
Reviews of "Ariel" were extreme as well. In The New York Times, Denis Donoghue wrote that her poetry shows what self-absorption makes possible in art. English critic David Holbrook called that art a poisoned chalice. Feminist critics read Plath as a martyr in the war between the sexes. Plath was a lightning rod, and her legacy loomed uneasily over a generation of women poets.
Aftershocks of Plath's death may always follow her as if she were a Marilyn Monroe of the literati. But time has also changed the way we see her. It's as if the tragedy of her death is beginning to burn away to allow us to read her in new ways. Heather Clark is working on an upcoming Plath biography.
HEATHER CLARK: I don't think we read the work as much through her suicide as we used to.
TAYLOR: She was very much of her generation, Clark says.
CLARK: I think she really has more in common with the Beat poets than we realize because "The Bell Jar" is sort of her version of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." That might sound like a strange comparison, but it's as much a work of social protest as it is a narrative of mental illness and recovery.
TAYLOR: Clark notes that we're studying Plath in new ways as well. Now that Ted Hughes is dead, too, Plath scholars and Hughes scholars, long embattled, are looking at their collected papers as a unit, examining the two literary lions side by side. And perhaps we read Plath differently now because we've changed too. I like to believe that women have made so many strides in the last 50 years that Plath's legacy can haunt us less. Reading Plath now, I admire how her writing breaks boundaries, explores the ambivalence of motherhood and plays in new ways with female roles.
The voice she crafted is macabre, tender, theatrical, subversive and even funny. Her poems are otherworldly. They document midcentury life even as they unsettle it.
SYLVIA PLATH: (Reading) These little globes of light are sweet as pears. Kindly with invalids and mawkish women, they mollify the bald moon.
TAYLOR: Hearing the poem "Candles" in which Plath addresses flickering lights around her nursing child, I think of how much she struggled both to be heard as a woman and to be part of recorded time.
PLATH: (Reading) The eyes of the child I nurse are scarcely open. In 20 years, I shall be retrograde as these drafty ephemerids. I watch their spilt tears cloud and dull to pearls. How shall I tell anything at all to this infant still in a birth-drowse? Tonight, like a shawl, the mild light enfolds her. The shadows stoop over like guests at a christening.
TAYLOR: Retrograde? Hardly. A half-century later, Sylvia Plath's poems live on.
SIEGEL: That's Tess Taylor, who teaches poetry at the University of California, Berkeley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.