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Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Plath’

12 AUGUST, 2015

Sylvia Plath’s First Job: How the Beloved Poet’s Formative Experience as a Farm Worker Shaped Her Writing

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“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are.”

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) began honing her craft by reaping the creative rewards of keeping a diary from a young age and was barely a teenager when she first started writing poetry. By the time she graduated high school, she had amassed dozens of rejection slips and only a few acceptances. Young Plath studied both carefully and noticed a curious pattern — much like the response her first tragic poem had garnered, her sadder pieces tended to be the ones accepted, while her more exuberant and joyous poetry and prose ended up rejected. It would be quite crass to seek in this a direct metaphor for Plath’s life — certainly, despite her enormous capacity for livingness, Plath perished by her own hand; but had she not held on to that very capacity for joy and wonderment, had she not defended it tirelessly against the behemoth of her mental illness, she may have lost the battle far sooner, without gifting the world some of the most beautiful poetry ever written — the very record of her tussle with light and darkness.

Nothing fed Plath’s appetite for exuberance and light more powerfully and enduringly than her formative first job as a farm worker, which she took with her brother the summer after graduating from high school in 1950. It made so strong an impression on her that fragments of it slipped into her writing throughout her life.

Sylvia Plath's high school graduation portrait

In an entry from her scrapbook-journal, included by her mother in the preface to the posthumously published Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us the young poet’s thoughts on writing as salvation for the soul — Plath recounts that creatively and spiritually invigorating experience:

And so there are summers every year, but the one which brought my first job is unique. Warren and I went up to Lookout Farm [in Dover, Massachusetts] right after I graduated… Every day we biked up together early in the morning, left our bikes at Wellesley College usually and hitched a ride with one of the other hands. I can never go back to those days spent in the fields, in sun and rain, talking with the negroes and the hired hands. I can only remember how it was and go on living where I am… But … this Farm Summer will always be The First Job and the sweetest.

In an unpublished manuscript, included in the letters volume, Plath reflects on the experience:

I am now firmly convinced that farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are. As you work side by side in the rows, your hands move automatically among the leaves and your thoughts are free to wander at will. What, then, is more natural than to drift into conversation with your neighbor? It is really amazing what a receptive ear can do by way of encouraging confidences…

One of Sylvia Plath's little-known drawings. Click image for more.

That First Job sprouted Plath’s ongoing fascination with botany and her love of the land, which she would come to channel both in her poetry and, perhaps most directly, in her little-known drawings. But the farm work was also the seedbed for her first true sense of professional success: The experience produced a poem and an article, both published in The Christian Science Monitor — the first major publication not only to accept Plath’s work but to embolden her with a note from the editor: “We hope that you will try us again soon with articles and essays for these columns.” Only a year later, she was already seen as someone “born to write.”

In the closing words of that seminal article, published under the title “The Rewards of a New England Summer,” Plath captures the spiritual awakening kindled by that formative farm job, channeled with the same pensive beauty that marks her poetry:

When you see me pause and stare a bit wistfully at nothing in particular, you’ll know that I am deep at the roots of memory, back on the Farm, hearing once more the languid, sleepy drone of bees in the orange squash blossoms, feeling the hot, golden fingers of sun on my skin, and smelling the unforgettable spicy tang of apples which is, to me, forever New England.

Letters Home is a devastatingly beautiful read in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with French philosopher Gaston Bachelard on the spiritual rewards of housework, then revisit Plath on life, death, hope, and happiness, her breathtaking reading of her poem “A Birthday Present,” and the little-known children’s book she wrote for her own kids.

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03 JULY, 2015

Teenage Sylvia Plath’s First Tragic Poem, with a Touching Remembrance by Her Mother

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“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”

“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things,” Sylvia Plath observed in a BBC interview shortly before she took her own life. But the seed of those dark emotions started sprouting many years earlier, when Plath was still a teenager — quite a common life-stage for the first onset of depression.

In the introduction to Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us teenage Sylvia’s letters on the joy of living — her mother, Aurelia Plath, shares young Sylvia’s first poem marked by tragic undertones. The inspiration for it is a testament to the poet’s universal task of dramatizing the ordinary and transmuting it into the profound: One afternoon, Sylvia had just finished drawing a pastel still-life and was showing it to her grandmother when the doorbell rang; the grandmother took off her apron to greet the guest and tossed it on the table, accidentally sweeping the pastel drawing and blurring part of it.

That evening, Plath penned her first tragic poem. She was fourteen.

I THOUGHT THAT I COULD NOT BE HURT

I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering —
immune to mental pain
or agony.

My world was warm with April sun
my thoughts were spangled green and gold;
my soul filled up with joy, yet felt
the sharp, sweet pain that only joy
can hold.

My spirit soared above the gulls
that, swooping breathlessly so high
o’erhead, now seem to brush their whir-
ring wings against the blue roof
of the sky.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to destroy

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, they wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-
ment.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Plath’s English teacher showed the poem to a colleague, who — unaware of the rather comically benign incident that inspired the poem — exclaimed: “Incredible that one so young could have experienced anything so devastating.” But even more precocious than the emotional richness of the poem was young Sylvia’s response when Aurelia relayed the teacher’s remark to her — the teenage poet “smiled impishly,” as her mother recalls, and said:

Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.

And yet those tragic undertones were more than mere dramatic flair — they would come to dominate both Plath’s poetry and her journals.

But the eclipse of her inner April sun was gradual. In letter to her mother from early 1955, also included in the volume, 23-year-old Plath dangles her feet over the precipice of the abyss that would eventually consume her — she is aware that the abyss exists but still regards it as a curious phenomenon rather than a mortal threat, a challenge that can be overcome with sufficient optimism and discipline:

I don’t know whether it is a hereditary characteristic, but our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these last days I’ve been fighting an enormous battle with myself.

But beyond a point, fighting only wears one out and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy.

We now know, of course, that clinical depression is not something one can simply will away “with bravo and philosophy.” But Plath’s letter does intuit much of what scientists have since confirmed about depression: its hereditary nature and the role of rumination — that tendency to “lie awake at nights hating [oneself] for stupidities” — as a major cognitive vulnerability factor in depression.

Above all, Plath’s prolific creative output and her tragic end attest to what is perhaps the finest line in mental health: While ordinary melancholy enriches our capacity for creativity, depression — its severe clinical counterpart — crushes the creative spirit. And yet our cultural narrative about artists who lose their lives to mental illness is woefully devoid of nuance — to romanticize suicide is as fraught as to dismiss an entire body of work on account of the artist’s tragic end. It is possible — nay, necessary — to recognize that while suicide is indeed an unspeakable tragedy, without their creative restlessness, without their capacity for “the sharp, sweet pain that only joy can hold,” artists like Plath and Van Gogh and Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace would have likely succumbed to their tragic neurochemistry much sooner. To celebrate their art, then, is to celebrate not the malady that led to their deaths but the gift that enriched and extended their lives.

Complement the altogether revelatory Letters Home with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her little-known children’s book, and her reading of the breath-stopping poem “The Birthday Present” shortly after her last birthday.

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05 JUNE, 2015

Teenage Sylvia Plath’s Letters to Her Mother on the Joy of Living and Writing as Salvation for the Soul

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“I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light…”

Whether because we are wired by our cognitive circuitry or conditioned by our culture of cynicism, we tend to be profoundly incapable of recognizing that contradictory emotions, beliefs, states, and dispositions can coexist within a single person, at different times and even at the same time, complementing and enriching one another rather than canceling each other out. Can a life be lived with wholehearted exuberance and end by heartbreaking despair, without the fact of the latter negating the truth of the former? Hardly anything poses this question more acutely than the short, exuberant, and tragic life of beloved poet Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963).

In 1975, nearly a decade before Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize and before her journals were published, the world got its first glimpse of the turbulent and wildly creative inner landscape this troubled genius inhabited — Aurelia Plath, the poet’s mother, edited a loving selection of Sylvia’s letters to her family, published as Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library). Tucked between their lines is the enormity of emotion that animated the poet’s restless spirit.

In the introduction, Plath’s mother speaks of the “psychic osmosis” she shared with young Sylvia and cites a journal entry — for the beloved poet was among history’s most dedicated diarists — in which her 17-year-old daughter writes:

Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.

In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative — all unimportant now — fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.

I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free — unbound by responsibility.

In a sentiment calling to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer,” teenage Plath adds:

At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

[…]

I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote.

Illustration by Quentin Blake from Plath's 'The Bed Book,' a children's book written for her own kids. Click image for more.

Plath did get married and did have kids. To this, a necessary addendum: The hubristic assumption that her marriage was the cause of her tragedy — an assumption tragically common in our age of snap judgments and superficial impressions masquerading as informed opinions, with which people don’t hesitate to impale others whenever Plath and Hughes are mentioned — is a disservice to the seething cauldron of complexity that is a human life, to say nothing of the double complexity of human relationships; it is also an assumption that fails to account for the still barely understood neurochemistry of creativity and mental illness.

What is clear is that at seventeen, Plath is tussling with precisely those complexities that make a person, feeling out the boundaries of the self, that resident-alien of body and mind:

I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own. I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself “The girl who wanted to be God.” Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be — perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it. I am I — I am powerful — but to what extent? I am I.

Sometimes I try to put myself in another’s place, and I am frightened when I find I am almost succeeding. How awful to be anyone but I. I have a terrible egotism. I love my flesh, my face, my limbs with overwhelming devotion. I know that I am “too tall” and have a fat nose, and yet I pose and prink before the mirror, seeing more and more how lovely I am… I have erected in my mind an image of myself — idealistic and beautiful. Is not that image, free from blemish, the true self — the true perfection? Am I wrong when this image insinuates itself between me and the merciless mirror. (Oh, even now I glance back on what I have just written — how foolish it sounds, how overdramatic.)

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

And yet, echoing Van Gogh — another complicated artist with a tragic end, who wrote to his brother: “Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” — Plath wonders whether her reach for perfection will ever bear fruit and show on the outside:

Never, never will I reach the perfection I long for with all my soul — my paintings, my poems, my stories — all poor reflections…

Facing the overwhelming crossroads of young adulthood, Plath marvels at this unrepeatable moment in time:

There will come a time when I must face myself at last. Even now I dread the big choices which loom up in my life — what college? What career? I am afraid. I feel uncertain. What is best for me? What do I want? I do not know. I love freedom. I deplore constrictions and limitations… I am not as wise as I have thought. I can now see, as from a valley, the roads lying open for me, but I cannot see the end — the consequences…

Oh, I love now, with all my fears and forebodings, for now I still am not completely molded. My life is still just beginning. I am strong. I long for a cause to devote my energies to…

That cause became writing, a sense of purpose that came naturally to Plath as she let her life speak. She captures its pull beautifully in one of her earliest poems, written around the same time, which her mother includes in the introduction to the book:

You ask me why I spend my life writing?
Do I find entertainment?
Is it worthwhile?
Above all, does it pay?
If not, then, is there a reason? …

I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.

Plath soon headed to Smith College, where her dedication to writing grew so all-consuming that it was immortalized in a cartoon pinned to the College Hall Bulletin Board, which read under the caption “Teen-age Triumphs”:

BORN TO WRITE

Sylvia Plath, 17, really works at her writing… A national magazine has published two of her brain children! — the real test for being a writer.

For her part, Plath loved the opportunity to live up to the cartoon’s proclamation. She wrote in a letter to her mother:

Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness. I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively… The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.

Your happy girl,

Sivvy

And work, work, work she did — a few months later, she got that coveted Mademoiselle internship, which catapulted her into the world of professional writing. In a 1955 letter to her mother, which captures biographer Andrew Wilson’s apt assertion that Plath was “an addict of experience,” she writes:

Writing is the first love of my life. I have to live well and rich and far to write… I could never be a narrow introvert writer, the way many are, for my writing depends so much on my life.

In July of 1956, Plath articulates her inescapable calling in another letter to her mother from a trip to Paris with her husband, Ted Hughes, whom she had met that February in their famous first encounter and had married by June. Twenty-three-year-old Plath writes:

Dearest Mother,

… Both of us are just slowly coming out of our great fatigue from the whirlwind plans and events of last month; and after meandering about Paris, sitting, writing and reading in the Tuileries, have produced a good poem apiece, which is a necessity to our personal self-esteem — not so much a good poem or story, but at least several hours work of solid writing a day. Something in both of us needs to write for a large period daily, or we get cold on paper, cross, or down… We are really happiest keeping to ourselves, and writing, writing, writing. I never thought I should grow so fast so far in my life; the whole secret for both of us, I think, is being utterly in love with each other, which frees our writing from being a merely egoistic mirror, but rather a powerful canvas on which other people live and move…

Letters Home is a bottomless treasure chest of insight into this luminous spirit caught in a troubled mind. Complement it with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her beautiful reading of her poem “A Birthday Present,” and her unseeen drawings, collected by her own daughter.

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27 OCTOBER, 2014

Sylvia Plath on Poetry and a Rare Recording of Her Reading the Poem “The Disquieting Muses”

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“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things.”

In 1957, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) — beloved poet, secret artist, dedicated diarist, passionate lover, little-known children’s book author, youthful beholder of the transcendence of nature, repressed “addict of experience” — submitted a few of her poems for consideration for broadcast in the BBC’s celebrated series The Poet’s Voice. They were rejected. But she kept trying. In the summer of 1960, she finally broke through — two of her new poems were accepted for broadcast, and soon she had an ongoing gig. Between November 20, 1960 and January 10, 1963 — just four weeks before she took her own life — Plath produced at least 17 known broadcasts for the BBC. Those that survive are preserved in The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the same magnificent archival gem that gave us Plath’s readings of “The Birthday Present” and “Tulips,” as well as that rare interview on literature and love.

One of the most powerful poems in these recordings is “The Disquieting Muses,” later published in Plath’s Collected Poems (public library). It is after the famous Giorgio de Chirico painting of the same name and inspired by the enigmatic figures in it — “three terrible, faceless dressmakers’ dummies in classical gowns, seated and standing in a weird, clear light,” per Plath’s own description, who suggest a twentieth-century version of “other sinister trios of women,” such as the Three Fates and the Witches in Macbeth. Emanating from Plath’s verses is a haunting lament about maternal neglect.

'The Disquieting Muses' by Giorgio de Chirico, 1916–1918

But perhaps even more notable than Plath’s enchanting reading of the poem is her short preface to it, into which she condenses her views on poetry in general with extraordinary precision and eloquence:

A poem can’t take the place of a plum, or an apple. But just as a painting can recreate, by illusion, the dimension it loses by being confined to canvas, so a poem, by its own system of illusions, can set up a rich and apparently living world within its particular limits. Most of the poems I will introduce in the next few minutes attempt to recreate, in their own way, definite situations and landscapes. They are, quite emphatically, about the things of this world.

When I say “this world” I include, of course, such feelings as fear and despair and barrenness, as well as domestic love and delight in nature. These darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things, such as ghosts or trolls or antique gods.

She proceeds to read the poem itself:

THE DISQUIETING MUSES

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.

In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,

I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.

Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.

Despite its antiquated audio format, The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath is well worth the effort. Complement it with Plath’s unseen drawings, edited by her daughter, her bittersweet-in-hindsight diary entry on the appetite for living at age 18, and wonderful children’s verses illustrated by Quentin Blake.

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