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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

15. Poetry of Liberation

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- John Ashberry
- Amiri Baraka
- Lorna Dee Cervantes
- Allen Ginsberg
- Joy Harjo
- Audre Lorde
- Sylvia Plath
- Adrienne Rich
- Gary Snyder
- James Wright
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

Housewife Preparing Dinner in Compact Kitchen in Greenbelt, Maryland
[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 Activities
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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 Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. She also wrote dozens of short stories, a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, and two children's books.

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