Tuesday, 19 February 2013


Sylvia Plath
London, Faber, 2010, 81p

Earlier this month we marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath. In the same week, I found out my library had absolutely no Plath literature in stock. I was appalled, and I immediately rectified the situation. 

I first discovered Sylvia Plath at school, in an Extended English module - we learnt about literary theory and criticism, and started by analysing Ariel. I didn't rate it much at the time - the structure was perculiar, and the words didn't seem to make sense, like they had been placed on the page at random. Later at college, I read The Bell Jar, and now I am reading the her most famous collection, Ariel, in full for the first time. Somewhere along the way, I have started to understand the structure, and make sense of those words. 

Plath's writing is incredibly powerful, with recurring themes of death and mental health issues. She is famous for her psychiatric state. In Ariel, she writes about her experiences of mental institutions and her attempted suicides, claiming: "Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well" (Lady Lazarus). The way she places "dying" on a separate line, all by itself, shows how explicit she is willing to be. She also references self harm, describing the sight of blood as "a million soldiers / Redcoats, every one" (Cut). In the same poem, she calls this injury a "celebration". It is incredible how she makes physical pain seem so wonderful.

Her state of mind is clear from her poems. She was not helpless or unaware of what was going on around her - if anything, she seems to be more sensitive to the world, to see it and describe it more clearly. Her words are meaningful, though subtle; and although the arrangement of the words on the page is difficult to follow, it forces the reader to really concentrate, to look closely at the words.

She was not docile or weak. In fact, her poems are incredibly aggressive. In 'Daddy', each word packs a punch. To read it out loud makes one's pulse race with the anger. I came close to shouting as I spoke the words. The imagery is dark and the language is emotional. This poem comes from somewhere deep within Plath.

My favourite, which I studied at university whilst looking at 1950/60s feminism, is "The Applicant". Some of Plath's poems are about the role of the woman in the domestic, middle class household, though few of those poems are in this collection. "The Applicant" is to do with the stereotypes of a 1960s housewife, defined by her appearance, trapped within the expectations bundled upon her by a misogynist society: "It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk talk". The tone is mocking and dark, dehumanising and objectifying the subject to "it". 

It is tragic that Plath took her own life whilst still so young. In terms of prose, I feel she had her best work yet to come; The Bell Jar was just the start. But Ariel is undoubtedly one of the most wonderful, powerful and emotional collections of poems every published. It is a must-read for any self-confessed feminist, any ambitious academics, and all budding writers.

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