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Art ahead of autobiography: Sylvia Plath’s legacy

In Sylvia Plath’s birthday week, poet Eunice de Souza reflects on the American writer’s tortured life and marriage, and her literary legacy

books Updated: Oct 29, 2016 09:43 IST
Eunice de Souza
Eunice de Souza
Sylvia Plath,Ted Hughes,Anne Sexton
Sylvia Plath had a life-long struggle with depression, suicidal tendencies, suicide attempts, mental illness

“No literary couple,” says a commentator, “has been so mythologized as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.” That, for me is the true tragedy of their lives. Endless essays and books comment on Plath’s suicide, Hughes’ alleged responsibility for her suicide. Radical feminists appropriated Plath to condemn all men, vandalised her gravestone to erase the word “Hughes,” heckled him at readings. These simple-minded views have actually damaged their cause, and reduced the lives of two great poets “to players in a soap opera.”

As Frieda, the daughter of Hughes and Plath put it in a BBC documentary about her father, “For outsiders—because that is what they are, make judgments that affect somebody in their life, for all of their life, is a sort of horrible form of theft...It’s an abuse.”

The American poet Anne Sexton was a friend of Plath’s. They studied with Robert Lowell. Sexton, like Plath had a life-long struggle with depression, suicidal tendencies, suicide attempts, mental illness...In a memoir of Plath, Sexton wrote “We talked death and this was life for us.” Sexton too eventually took her own life.

But as the critic John Simon writes, “The trick is to make poetry come out ahead of neurosis, art ahead of autobiography.” W B Yeats, in his poem, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ talking about his search for inspiration says much the same thing. “Those masterful images because complete/Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” The point is, as Rosemary Goring of the Herald Scotland said, is that in her poems Plath “remains breathtakingly alive.”

But it’s amazing how discussions of such poets keep going awry. In a purely descriptive, not judgmental way they are described as “confessional,” because they wrote about their personal experiences, their inner-most feelings, ambivalence towards parents and others. In India, the word “confessional” became a term of condemnation. Academics, literary critics, and sometimes even other poets said women should not write about themselves. They felt poetry should be about myth, history, society, etc. They quoted T S Eliot who had said poetry should be “impersonal.” Never mind that Eliot wrote in a different place and time.

Does Plath’s work continue to fascinate? Yes and no. I remember young students who were appalled by poems such as ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’ and other such, because of what seemed to them to be manic feelings and violent language. Other readers, particularly women have felt that Plath speaks about experiences that they themselves could never talk about. “Everything in these poems,” says Robert Lowell in his Foreword to the book Ariel, “is personal, confessional, felt, but the manner of feeling is controlled hallucination, the autobiography of a fever.”

And Ted Hughes, talking of Plath’s poetry says her language, a “unique and radiant substance, is the product of an alchemy on the noblest scale. Her elements were extreme: a violent, almost demonic spirit in her, opposed a tenderness and capacity to suffer and love things infinitely which was just as great and far more in evidence.”

Eunice de Souza is the author of several books of poems. Her groundbreaking debut Fix was published in 1979 followed by Women in Dutch Painting (1988), Ways of Belonging (1990), A Necklace of Skulls (2009).

First Published: Oct 28, 2016 13:28 IST