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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

[9154] U.S. Office of War, Housewife Preparing Dinner in Compact Kitchen in Greenbelt, Maryland (c. 1942), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-94034].

Sylvia Plath spent most of her childhood in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she lived close to her maternal grandparents. Her father, Otto Plath, was an entomology professor at Boston University, where he was known for his pioneering work on bumblebees. In 1940, when Plath was eight years old, her father died, which forced her mother, Aurelia, to enter the workforce. Despite her efforts, however, money was tight in the Plath household. Even in light of these hardships, Plath was a precocious child who enjoyed writing, reading, and the outdoors.

To the outside world, Sylvia Plath seemed to represent the 1950s ideal. Tall, slim, and outgoing, Plath made friends easily and excelled in extracurricular activities. Always a talented student, Plath attended prestigious Smith College on a scholarship, and she quickly became known on campus as a gifted writer. Behind the social exterior, however, Plath was a perfectionist, whose drive for success proved intense. She enjoyed many accolades, placing fiction in national magazines and winning first prize in the Mademoiselle Fiction Contest in 1952. Despite her success, Plath suffered from depression, and after her junior year at Smith, she attempted suicide, an experience that appears metaphorically in her later poems. After graduating summa cum laude from Smith, she won a Fulbright to study at Cambridge University in England, where she met and married poet Ted Hughes. Plath was instrumental in helping Hughes begin his successful writing career, and their influence on one another is notable. As Plath’s poems about domesticity and motherhood suggest, becoming a wife and parent brought many difficult issues to the forefront of her life. Raised with 1950s middle-class values, Plath struggled with the tensions between those domestic ideals and her own feminism, and her poetry bears the mark of the conflict between her role as artist and her role as wife/mother. Plath’s struggle to represent women’s issues has earned her an important place in feminism. Hughes and Plath separated in the fall of 1962, and Plath was left to raise their two children alone. During what turned out to be one of the coldest British winters on record, Plath again suffered from depression, and she committed suicide at the age of thirty.

As a student in Robert Lowell’s writing workshop in the late 1950s, Plath met Anne Sexton, who was to become an important influence on her poetry. Plath admired both Lowell’s and Sexton’s liberating verse, in which they tackled taboo subjects like mental illness, suicide, and family relationships with candor and intensity. Known as confessional poetry, the verse pioneered by Sexton, Lowell, John Berryman, and Theodore Roethke exposed the raw emotion and intimacy of personal experience. Although Plath’s poetry is often described as confessional, her poetry proves less autobiographical than that of her friends. While she often begins her poems with what seems like autobiographical material, her genius lies in her ability to turn that autobiography into myth and metaphor. One of the great metaphor-makers of the century, Plath uses brilliant imagery to move her poetry far beyond the personal. In addition, much of what reads like autobiographical detail in poems like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” is actually a dramatized performance based only loosely on her own life.

Plath is best known for her last book of poems, Ariel, which was published posthumously in 1965. Most of the poems in the volume were written in the fall and winter of 1962-63 in what appears to have been an amazingly creative period. Writing during the “blue hours” of the morning, or between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. before her children awoke, Plath penned her finest work, characterized by a distinctive poetic voice, daring subject matter, colloquial diction, and brilliant metaphor. Plath told friend and critic A. Alvarez that these poems were meant to be heard rather than read, and the cooing rhymes of “Daddy” and repetition in “The Applicant” capture this sentiment. Although Plath had carefully arranged the sequence of Ariel before her death, Ted Hughes, the executor of her estate, rearranged the material, leaving out some of the more “aggressive” poems. He has been widely criticized for what many readers and critics consider the mismanagement of her work. Plath’s journals and letters were later published, and her Collected Poemswon the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. She also wrote dozens of short stories, a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, and two children’s books.

Teaching Tips

  • Students often have difficulty separating the poet from the speaker in Plath’s poems. A productive discussion of Plath’s work must consider her relationship to confessional poetry and the place of biography within that context. While it is indisputable that Plath draws on her personal life in her poems, many of the details are purposely exaggerated or misrepresented. In other words, biography is often a starting place, but Plath’s genius lies in the ability to transform the personal into something more general, or as some readers and critics have put it, into something mythical.
  • Introduce your students to the idea of a dramatic monologue by having them read Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” How does the speaker in Plath’s “Daddy” perform in a similar manner? How might this also be read as a dramatic monologue? Try to avoid discussion of sensationalized stories about the poet’s life.
  • Readers often overlook the wit and cleverness in Plath’s poetry. Often quite funny and refreshingly honest, Plath is one of the great metaphor-makers in modern poetry. Begin your study of Plath with poems like “Morning Song” and “Child,” which show the tender and witty side of Plath as she writes about the wonder, joy, confusion, and fear of motherhood.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Plath’s poems about motherhood are often surprising for their objectivity. In “Morning Song,” why does the speaker say “I’m no more your mother . . .”? What does she mean here? What is the significance of the image of the museum? How does this mother feel toward her new infant? Does the tone change in the poem?
  2. Comprehension: Like many of Plath’s poems, Lady Lazarus begins “in medias res,” or “in the middle.” In other words, the reader does not immediately understand the context or situation of the poem. In “Lady Lazarus” the speaker announces, “I have done it again.” What is the it? Who is the peanut-crunching crowd?
  3. Comprehension: Authors carefully consider their titles, often choosing them to set the tone of the work. Why do you think Plath chose the title “Daddy”? Why didn’t she use “Father,” or some other epithet, instead? What tone does this create? How does it fit with the content of the poem?
  4. Context: What is the tone of “The Applicant”? Who is the speaker? To whom is he or she speaking? What is the role of repetition in this poem? How might this poem be connected to 1950s culture?
  5. Context: Like other feminist works, Plath’s poetry frequently uses the symbol of the body. How does the body in poems like “Lady Lazarus” or “Metaphors” compare to that by other poets in this unit? You might consider Audre Lorde’s “Black Mother Woman” and Lorna Dee Cervantes’s “The Body as Braille.”
  6. Context: Many of Plath’s poems seem to engage the theme of transcendence; often, the speaker leaves or sheds the physical body (the end of “Lady Lazarus” is a good example); and frequently, her speakers commune with nature in interesting ways. “Ariel” is ostensibly about the speaker’s ride on a horse, but it seems to take on mythic qualities by the end of the poem. Is the ride a metaphor for something else? What images seem particularly strange or unique? What is the “red / Eye, the cauldron of morning”? How might this be considered a poem of transcendence?
  7. Exploration: The cultural critic Theodor Adorno was famous for saying that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, and indeed, many poets remained silent on the subject for many years. Plath has been widely criticized for her use of Holocaust imagery in “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy.” Why do you think she uses these images? What is the effect of the references to the Holocaust in these poems?
  8. Exploration: Sylvia Plath has become an icon in feminism since her death in 1963. Some people argue that her sensationalized life accounts for her large following, but other critics and readers agree that her poetry appeals to a wide audience for different reasons. Perhaps one explanation is that Plath’s poetry often articulates the struggle outlined by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. In other words, many of Plath’s speakers seem unhappy, even desperate, in a domestic space that seems to offer few outlets for creative or intellectual expression. What other reasons can you point to for Plath’s popularity among both scholars and general readers? How does her work embody many of the concerns of feminism?

Author Activities

[1617] Anonymous, Emily Dickinson (n.d.), 
courtesy of Amherst College Library. Portrait of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) sitting at table. 
Until recently, this was the only known image of Dickinson, a recluse who rarely left her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson influenced many twentieth-century poets, including Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich.

[9153] Fred Palumbo, Betty Friedan (1960), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115884]. 
In 1963, Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking Feminine Mystique changed American society by heightening awareness of what she termed “the problem that has no name,” the desperation that many women felt, confined to their homes and families.

[9154] U.S. Office of War, Housewife Preparing Dinner in Compact Kitchen in Greenbelt, Maryland (c. 1942), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-94034].
Women’s roles were largely confined to homemaking until the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Poet Sylvia Plath’s work, much of it published posthumously in the mid-1960s, chronicles her struggle for a creative identity apart from the confines of domesticity.

[9181] Anonymous, Hitler, from “The Year 1945” newsreel (1946), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
Sylvia Plath’s poetry often draws on Holocaust imagery. In both “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” Plath identifies with the Jews who suffered under Nazi rule. The speaker of “Daddy” rails against the memory of a father whose influence, even in death, is oppressive. Plath writes: “Not God but a swastika / So black no sky could squeak through.”

[9182] Anonymous, Jews Freed from Concentration Camp, from “The Year 1945” newsreel (1946), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
In Plath’s poem “Daddy,” the speaker identifies with the plight of the Jews under the Nazi regime and characterizes her father as a Nazi. Plath has been criticized for her use of Holocaust imagery.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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