Sylvia Plath: Put Poetry Before Biography

Photograph by Christian Lüts.

In the 2003 film Sylvia, Gwyneth Paltrow plays the tragic heroine in a tale that has already become one of the most infamous literary lives in 20th century literature. Sylvia Plath was an all-American girl from a middle class family who received a fine education at Smith College in the United States and at Cambridge in England. She married the English poet Ted Hughes (who would go on to become the Poet Laureate) and became a mother to two children, as well as an esteemed poet, short story writer and novelist in her own right. Yet, what has come to define Sylvia Plath in the public imagination, what prompted the 2003 film and countless studies of her poetry and fiction, was her life long struggle with depression and eventual suicide in 1963.

Many readers come to Plath thinking of her apparent unhappiness, but to indulge this tendency is to miss out on the rewards of Plath’s literary work. Plath is both great and greatly misunderstood, and now there are attempts being made to salvage her poetry from her biography. Tracy Brain, a critic who published a book in 2001 entitled The Other Sylvia Plath, is one such critic. We don’t allow the lives of other great writers to cloud our judgement of their work, so why should it spoil Sylvia Plath, one of our great modern poets?

In her lifetime, Plath published one collection of poems entitled The Colossus (1960) and a novel The Bell Jar (1963). After her death, a further collection of poems was published, Ariel (1965), and it is on that collection that much of her reputation rests. The poems in Ariel are powerful, sometimes dark, and they use language in such a forceful way that they sometimes stick in your brain long after you read them. One example of this is ‘The Applicant’; you can listen to Plath read this poem, and study the text, at The Poetry Archive.

‘The Applicant’ compares the capitalist employment market with the pressures put on women in the 1960s to marry and not work. In some ways, this poem is darkly humorous; it uses the conventions of job interviews and exaggerates them. Plath repeats certain phrases several times to make them sound more maddening, most notably in the final line. This final line is also interesting because it uses the language of a question, but there is no question mark, which is unsettling and suggests some level of resignation. In some lines, too, the poet isn’t saying what she really means, for example in the final stanza when she claims there is nothing wrong with marriage. The overall tone suggests something quite different.

We can draw many interesting conclusions from even a very quick glance at one Plath poem. If you read more Plath yourself, and try not to let Gwyneth Paltrow ruin it for you, you may find many more reasons to consider Sylvia Plath great and inspiring.

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5 Responses to Sylvia Plath: Put Poetry Before Biography

  1. I would say you are contributing to the problem by writing about Plath’s “lifelong struggle with depression.” What a distortion. The problem is not biography, but how her biography is presented in relation to her poetry. Full disclosure: I am the author of AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SYLVIA PLATH, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in early 2013.

    • Alex Pryce says:

      Hi Carl.

      Sorry you feel I’m contributing to the problem! That wasn’t my intention at all. My intention was simply to highlight the common conception – I do feel that her mental health issues have been allowed to define her more so than her poetry and this article aims to highlight the greatness of her poetry.

      Look forward to reading your book.


    • Just wanted to chip in with my two cents! I think you are being a ltte unfair to our blogger Carl. Alex’s words were:

      “Yet, what has come to define Sylvia Plath in the public imagination, what prompted the 2003 film and countless studies of her poetry and fiction, was her life long struggle with depression and eventual suicide in 1963.”

      And I think this is very true – what has come to define Plath to the public are the more gossipy facts of her life. For example, I’m teaching Plath to two first year undergrad classes. Every single one of them had heard of S.P.’s biography, about 60% of them knew ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’ and the rest were just under the impression she was a “mad poet”. We all know better, of course!! But S.P.’s life story unfortunately does take precedence over her work. The “Sylvia” film is another example of case in point – that film could have been about anyone! Even if the Hughes Estate had allowed use of Plath’s poems in the film, it would have made little difference.

      Biography is a huge problem for S.P. scholars. And while I do agree very strongly with your assertion that “the problem is not biography, but how her biography is presented in relation to her poetry”, and I also very much look forward to reading your upcoming Plath biography, the misdeeds of the past in terms of biographies will not be easy to erase. Anne Stevenson and David Holbrook (among many others) aren’t going away anywhere! And their shoddy work does skew interpretation.

      I think what Alex is suggesting here is very helpful – especially for new S.P. readers.

  2. Alex Pryce says:

    The Plath Diaries has been kind enough to continue this discussion over at her own blog. Read it here:

  3. I checked out the Plath diaries, where it is said my biography will be just another version of Plath. I agree. The answer to one biography is always another biography. I’m sure that certain readers will be dissatisfied with my book. For one thing, given the problems with the estate, there is no way I can do justice to the poetry. But that is why I took a different approach: looking very carefully at Plath as a cultural figure and as someone unique in her generation–closer in some ways to Marilyn Monroe, for example, than to Susan Sontag (two of my previous subjects). The other justification for my book is that I have new material about her Smith years and about the last six weeks of her life. For me, biography is the story of a life and Plath is interesting for her own sake, not only because she was a great writer.

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