Brain Pickings

Sylvia Plath’s Unseen Drawings, Edited by Her Daughter and Illuminated in Her Private Letters

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“It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it.”

Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer, editorial party girl — was among that small and special coterie of creators with surprising semi-secret talents in a medium radically different from that of their primary cultural acclaim. Though her strikingly deft sketches and drawings have been previously exhibited, they are now collected with more depth and breadth in Sylvia Plath: Drawings (public library) — an enthralling portfolio of pen-and-ink illustrations amidst a context of the poet’s letters and diary entries, edited by the poet’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, for whom Plath wrote her two little-known and lovely children’s books.

Created during Plath’s pivotal period at Cambridge, where she met and married Ted Hughes, these drawings embody Plath’s lifelong attraction to art as her greatest inspiration and most consistent form of therapy: In a March 1958 letter to her mother, Plath writes:

I’ve discovered my deepest source of inspiration, which is art: the art of the primitives like Henri Rousseau, Gauguin, Paul Klee, and De Chirico. I have got out piles of wonderful books from the Art Library (suggested by this fine Modern Art Course I’m auditing each week) and am overflowing with ideas and inspirations, as I’ve been bottling up a geyser for a year.

In a letter to Hughes she penned one Sunday morning in October of 1956, twenty-four-year-old Plath traces her initial toe-dipping in art:

Yesterday, right after lunch, I took my sketch-paper and strode out to the Grandchester Meadows where I sat in the tall grass amid cow dung and drew two cows; my first cows. They sat obligingly while I drew the first, couchant, its head very cowish, but its body, more like a horesehair sofa, very flat and unmodeled; then, suddenly, they all got hungry and got up in a drove; I think they were bulls; they seemed to have no udders. So I forged ahead, sat down on the river brink, and did a quick sketch of one grazing, or, rather, of several put into one, as they all moved continually, so the side muscles are all wrong, but most decorative; I got a kind of peace from the cows; what a curious broody looks they gave me; what marvelous colossal shits and pissings. I shall go back soon; I shall do a volume of cow-drawings.

Later in the same letter, she adds:

I brought, from my walk yesterday, a purple thistle and a dandelion cluster home with me, and drew them both in great and loving detail; I also did a rather bad drawing of a teapot and some chestnuts, but will improve with practice; it gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it. . . .

And oh how bittersweet to consider what may have become of Plath’s dreamsome aspiration:

My latest ambition [is] to make a sheaf of detailed stylized small drawings of plants, mail-boxes, little scenes, and send them to the New Yorker which is full of these black-and-white things — if I could establish a style, which would be a kind of child-like simplifying of each object into design, peasantish decorative motifs, perhaps I could become one of the little people who draws a rose here, a snowflake there, to stick in the middle of a story to break the continuous mat of print; they print everything from wastebaskets to city-street scenes.

In a “Monday P.S.” addition to the same letter, Plath relays to Hughes yet another drawing episode with equal parts irreverence and earnest excitement:

Yesterday I drew a good umbrella and a chianti bottle, better chestnuts, bad shoes and a beaujolais bottle. Soon I will go about fanatically doing exact and painstaking landscapes of grass-blades — but I bet if I covered a page of grass-blades it would sell; I keep seeing Infinity in a grain of sand.

Complement Sylvia Plath: Drawings with this rare 1961 BBC interview with Plath and her poignant diary meditation on love, death, hope, and happiness.

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