Today would have been Sylvia Plath's 77th birthday. She left an astonishing number of good-to-excellent poems for someone who died at 30, a testament not only to her talent but to her dedication to her craft and iron Yankee work-ethic. Easily, so easily, she could have been writing still - imagine that raw voice honed by five more decades of experience and maturity.
Arguably, she is the single most influential poet of the mid-20th century. Not just her poems, written at the very edge of daring (how many of us are that psychically brave or foolhardy?), but her endlessly re-hashed and microscopically-examined life. Part of this the result of her own myth-making - at its best, her writing is so powerful, so compelling, that it creates its own epic biography. Part of this comes from the mythologizing by her own mother (her sanitized Letters Home, edited by Aurelia Plath, was a best-seller and obligatory reading by young female poets when it came out in 1978), and by the endless books and articles written about her. Anyone who knows anything about Plath knows all the details of her life: her suicide attempts, her marriage, her children, her death - and everyone has an opinion. The story continues into the present - it was just this year that her son, Nick Hughes, a biologist and expert on fishes, the baby of whom she wrote, "Love set you going like a fat gold watch," hanged himself in Alaska. Tragic, yes - but how oddly personally tragic this death felt to so many! We feel proprietary over her, as if somehow her story is part of our own.
But how can we really know someone we didn't know? The answer is, we can't . We can know the facts of Sylvia Plath's life, and we can know her work. The rest is filling in our own blanks, making Plath into something we each want her to be, something that fits our own mythology. We didn't (most of us, anyway) know her personally, and we don't, we can't, know her now, 46 years after her death. The details of a life aren't a life. And this detritus of detail and what we project onto Plath can obscure the poetry. When she writes, in the first line of "The Jailer," My night sweats grease his breakfast plate, we are pleased because we get exactly to whom she is referring and why; like teenagers whispering at a lunch table, we are in on the secret. But maybe we are so invested in the backstory, the poem itself is compromised - Yeah, you tell him, Sylvia. Kick his poetic ass.
Sylvia Plath wasn't a symbol, and she wasn't ours. She was a gifted, difficult, dedicated, passionate, troubled, and brilliant woman. Other than that, we cannot presume to say what went on in her heart. (After all, are we just what we write?) But what we can know is the work, because what we have is the work. Look, I like gossip as much as the next person. I've read the biographies and I've read her journals and letters and I know all the juicy bits. But today, on her birthday, I'd like to try to honor her poetry by untethering it from all this - to read it the way poems should be read, on their own merit, good or bad. And when Plath is good, she is transcendent. Today, I grieve in the only way I have any right to - for the poems that did not get written, for the work we will never have.
Poppies in October
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly --
A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky
Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.
O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
Written October 27, 1962