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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Saluting Sylvia

CAREER:  Poet and writer. Worked as a volunteer art teacher at the People's Institute, Northampton, MA, while in college; served as guest editor with Mademoiselle, summer, 1953; taught English at Smith College, 1957-58; lived in Boston, 1958-59, and Yaddo, 1959; settled in London, England, 1959, then in Devon, England.    
   
Sylvia Plath

"
ylvia Plath was one of the most dynamic and admired poets of the twentieth century. By the time she took her life at the age of thirty, Plath already had a following in the literary community. In the ensuing years her work attracted the attention of a multitude of readers, who saw in her singular verse an attempt to catalogue despair, violent emotion, and obsession with death."




Born in 1932 in Boston, Plath was the daughter of a German immigrant college professor, Otto Plath, and one of his students, Aurelia Schober. The poet's early years were spent near the seashore, but her life changed abruptly when her father died in 1940. Some of her most vivid poems, including the well-known "Daddy," concern her troubled relationship with her authoritarian father and her feelings of betrayal when he died.


Financial circumstances forced the Plath family to move to Wellesley, Massachusetts, where Aurelia Plath taught advanced secretarial studies at Boston University. Sylvia Plath was a gifted student who had won numerous awards and had published stories and poetry in national magazines while still in her teens. She attended Smith College on scholarship and continued to excel, winning a Mademoiselle fiction contest one year and garnering a prestigious guest editorship of the magazine the following summer.


It was during her undergraduate years that Plath began to suffer the symptoms of severe depression that would ultimately lead to her death. In one of her journal entries, dated June 20, 1958, she wrote: "It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it." This is an eloquent description of bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, a very serious illness for which no genuinely effective medications were available during Plath's lifetime. In August of 1953, at the age of nineteen, Plath attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. She survived the attempt and was hospitalized, receiving treatment with electro-shock therapy. Her experiences of breakdown and recovery were later turned into fiction for her only published novel, The Bell Jar.


Having made a recovery, Plath returned to Smith for her degree. She earned a Fulbright grant to study at Cambridge University in England, and it was there that she met poet Ted Hughes. The two were married in 1956. Plath published two major works during her lifetime, The Bell Jar and a poetry volume titled The Colossus. Both received warm reviews. However, the end of her marriage in 1962 left Plath with two young children to care for and, after an intense burst of creativity that produced the poems in Ariel, she committed suicide by inhaling gas from a kitchen oven.


The Bell Jar is narrated by nineteen-year-old Esther Greenwood. The three-part novel explores Esther's unsatisfactory experiences as a student editor in Manhattan, her subsequent return to her family home, where she suffers a breakdown and attempts suicide, and her recovery with the aid of an enlightened female doctor. One of the novel's themes, the search for a valid personal identity, is as old as fiction itself. The other, a rebellion against conventional female roles, was slightly ahead of its time. Nancy Duvall Hargrove observed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "As a novel of growing up, of initiation into adulthood, [The Bell Jar] is very solidly in the tradition of the Bildungsroman. Technically, The Bell Jar is skillfully written and contains many of the haunting images and symbols that dominate Plath's poetry." 



Materer commented that the book "is a finely plotted novel full of vivid characters and written in the astringent but engaging style one expects from a poet as frank and observant as Plath. The atmosphere of hospitals and sickness, of incidents of bleeding and electrocution, set against images of confinement and liberation, unify the novel's imagery." Hargrove maintained that the novel is "a striking work which has contributed to [Plath's] reputation as a significant figure in contemporary American literature. . . . It is more than a feminist document, for it presents the enduring human concerns of the search for identity, the pain of disillusionment, and the refusal to accept defeat."

Source:  The Poetry Foundation


Plath: Probably her most published photograph, taken 1957