Courtesy the Lilly Library.

No One Gets Sylvia Plath

Emily Van Duyne on Loving, and Misunderstanding, an Icon

In researching my book-in-progress, Loving Sylvia Plath, I came upon a 2019 article in the Los Angeles Review of Books called “Who Gets Emily Dickinson?” Not, as the title suggests, a piece about who has the privilege of understanding the enigmatic poet’s work and life; it was instead a complex treatment of ownership. Dickinson famously eschewed marriage, and died single, making the question of who inherited her work exactly that—a question. Dickinson insisted during her lifetime that only she got herself, reportedly telling her niece, as they stood in her small bedroom which doubled as her writing study, “Mattie—Here’s freedom!” and made, with an imaginary key, to lock the door from within.

This paradox of the locked room as a place for transcendent creativity is the epitome of Dickinson’s life, which, like Sylvia Plath’s, we mythologize. Where Plath is a Medea-like monster rising from the grave to take revenge, Dickinson is a solitary ghost. She only wore white, and she only came out at night. People thought she was a ghost, a high school boyfriend said about her, the night we met. He had asked me who my favorite poet was as a conversation starter, and I lied—Allen Ginsberg. I didn’t want to look like a weirdo, on the off-chance he knew who Sylvia Plath was.

At least Allen Ginsberg was alive. In high school it seemed like all of the women poets I loved were not only dead, but most famous for having died. Later, I learned that my most cherished, Plath, was understood as being dead while she lived. I didn’t know it meeting my first love in March of 1997, standing on those green-shag carpeted stairs in my vintage Levi’s, my hair dyed jet black and a red plastic Solo cup of Natural Ice in hand, but Plath’s most famous poems, which I read obsessively even then, were characterized by men like Al Alvarez and George Steiner as the work of a marked or already-dead woman: In a curious way… these poems read as though they were written posthumously, Alvarez  wrote of them in 1965. Steiner, for his part, wrote that Plath “could not return from them,” as though the poems had gathered themselves into a murdering horde and dragged her to the oven, as she worked at her desk the morning of February 11, 1963. I would read those critics in a few short years, in college—but for now, here was this gorgeous boy telling me that before she died, Emily Dickinson was already haunting the neighborhood.

This interested me. Plath arrested me. I saw Dickinson (absurdly) as single and sexless, devoid of romance. By contrast, Plath was at all times bound up with these men: the one I loved, the one she loved. In college, when straight women friends asked me what the big deal about Hughes was, I pulled out an image of him and Plath in Paris in 1956, and watched it work its magic. Dude. Whoa. Jesus, what a hottie, they would say, one by one. Seeing him for the first time, Plath wrote that he was “the only one there huge enough for me.” Anne Sexton snarkily called him “Ted Huge.”

Plath also said of meeting Hughes, “I can see why women lie down for artists.” But the male poets I met as an undergraduate at Emerson College were a frail, aloof bunch; an elite, Marlboro Red-smoking, Baudelaire-worshipping Boys Club. I didn’t want to lie down for any of them, and I feared if I got on top, they’d suffocate. I wanted someone like Hughes. I wanted to surrender, but be inspired to write great poetry. I didn’t understand that this was not, like Dickinson’s locked room of freedom, a paradox—it was a calamity in the making, and my idea of it was formed in large part by reading badly constructed, Hughes-sanctioned books about Plath, in which she was cast as the aggressive lover who bit him on the cheek and marked him as hers on the night they met. In that oft-repeated story, Plath takes ownership of Hughes. She gets him. Dickinson, by contrast, was a sexless ghost floating through my head like a kid in a sheet on Halloween night. Who got her? I didn’t know.

What never occurred to me, then, was that my misinformed ideas of both women—I’ll call them my myths—were formed by relationships with men both distant and intimate. On the one hand, a first love. On the other, a bunch of poets and critics as untouchable as Plath herself: Alvarez, Steiner. Ted Huge.

*

I spent part of August reading Heather Clark’s extraordinary Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. I first heard of the book in November 2017 at a Plath conference at Ulster University, in Belfast. Clark wasn’t at the conference, but many other Hughes scholars were (Clark is a revered scholar of Hughes and Plath, a rare switch hitter). The book was being pitched as a “good” biography, i.e., one that had already, before anyone read it, won approval from the Plath people and the Hughes. After I finished my paper at the end of day one, I wandered down the stairs to the lounge where everyone was gathering for dinner. I passed a boothful of Hughes folks; one ducked his head and said, “Don’t shoot!” Everyone laughed, me included. There was a sense of being in it together, maybe for the first time.

The scholars—who would in fairly short order become friends—were sending me a quietly issued warning shot: You have to get every single thing right, always. You have to be perfect.

The only way I can define “it” is the troubled, tenuous relationship our fields have, which at both its best and worst is like the marriage that birthed those fields in the first place—alternately full of shared creativity and scholarship, or in bitter contention. At the conference, I had delivered a paper on how Hughes’s gaslighting of Plath has been perpetuated against Plath fans and scholars, so I anticipated some blowback, and was pleasantly surprised by the friendly joking. I was less pleasantly surprised when two major Plath scholars came to me to correct minor mistakes in the paper: describing Plath’s famed “Lady Lazarus,” in which she says there is “a very large charge” to see “a piece of [her] hair or… clothes” as prescient, I had written, “Indeed, we can now pay a fee to see Plath’s hair and clothes at the Smithsonian exhibit of her artwork and possessions,” as it was presently running. I had yet to visit it, and was unaware admission was free—hence the correction. Their tone was so serious, it took me aback. The larger truth of the piece, which pointed out that Plath’s poem is less about a zombie woman rising from the dead than the way we profit off of women’s public agony, was correct. Why the long faces?

In 2017, I was an old hat at Plath fandom, but a newcomer to this group of serious scholars. I didn’t yet know the scrutiny each and every Plath-related project, especially those sympathetic to the poet, especially those published or presented in the United Kingdom, faces. No one, for instance, had yet to comment “YAWN” on my essay about Plath’s (and my own) experiences of domestic violence. The scholars—who would in fairly short order become friends—were sending me a quietly issued warning shot: You have to get every single thing right, always. You have to be perfect. Later, on the phone call that led to my book deal, my editor said the same: It has to be exactly right. Because everyone is going to come for it.

*

The Ted Hughes Society Journal recently came for feminist scholar Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick when they ran Terry Gifford’s review of her book Reclaiming Assia Wevill: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, & the Literary Imagination. Wevill was one of the women with whom Hughes was unfaithful to Sylvia Plath—she inspired poems by both writers and was a professional writer herself, producing acclaimed translations of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and successful 1960s advertising copywriting, including the then-famous 90-second “Lost Island” commercial for the Sea Witch hair dye company. Goodspeed-Chadwick’s book does double duty by giving us a fresh analysis of how Assia appears in the poetry of Plath and Hughes, and an analysis of Wevill’s own work. The book is the first ever to do a serious literary and feminist analysis of Wevill’s writing, to treat her as something other than a “femme fatale” who “lured” Hughes away from the stability of his marriage to Plath.

But for Terry Gifford, whose review discredits the fact that Goodspeed-Chadwick undertook this research at all, Wevill can never be her own person who did her own work, because, despite the fact that they never married, Wevill belongs to Ted Hughes—he gets her. Writing of her Amichai translations, he takes a swipe at Goodspeed-Chadwick’s “assumption” that Wevill translated them at all. Wevill’s family fled to Palestine from Hitler’s Germany, where she became fluent in Hebrew—it was this background and ability with language that forged her friendship with Amichai in the first place (he went on to write a poem for her called “The Death of A.G.,” a reference to her maiden name, Gutman). Ted Hughes spoke no Hebrew, and Goodspeed-Chadwick quotes a letter from him to Amichai where he tells him Wevill’s translations of his work are “the best of all I’ve seen, of translations of your poems, Yehuda.” Hughes and Wevill were guests on a program about the translations for the BBC, which was aired in 1968; the official BBC script for it is held in the Rose Library, at Emory University, and it is marked, “POEMS BY YEHUDA AMICHAI by Assia Gutman.” Despite this carefully mounted evidence, Gifford doesn’t buy it: “…at present, we cannot know how much of Hughes is in [the Amichai translations].”

I’m tempted to make a bad joke—do you have a little Hughes in you? Do you want some? But it’s all so grim. Like Plath, Wevill ended her life, and the life of her 4-year old daughter with Hughes, Shura. Gifford also skewers Goodspeed-Chadwick’s “assumption” of Hughes’s paternity of Shura, despite the fact of his name on her birth certificate—less Hughes in Shura than her mother’s translations, apparently.

Hughes did his best to hide Assia’s identity and her and Shura’s fate, going so far as to cremate them both against Wevill’s wishes and scatter their ashes in an unmarked location. For a long time, these attempts at keeping Assia and Shura under wraps worked. The poet Anne Stevenson told the journalist Janet Malcolm that in the world of British poetry, there was an unwritten rule: you didn’t talk about Assia and Shura. Stevenson herself wrote a major biography of Plath in which she did not address Wevill’s death. Discussing it with Malcolm for her book The Silent Woman, she said, “I didn’t dream of disobeying Ted… When he says ‘Please don’t,’ you obey. He always says ‘Please.’”

The Silent Woman is supposed to refer to the famously dead Plath. But like the life of the man it spends hundreds of pages apologizing for, it is littered with silent women. A jacket blurb on the book claimed that Malcolm had made all future writing on Plath and Hughes superfluous, as she was “the cat who had licked the platter clean.”

But she also got her subjects’ tongues.

*

Red Comet debuted in the United Kingdom twelve days before it did in America. As a reviewer, I got an email from publicity at Knopf, letting me know the US publication date had been pushed back to 10/27—what would have been Plath’s 88th birthday. When I read it, my eyes blurred with tears.

At Emerson College, 20 years old, reading feminist theory for the first time and in love with what I saw as exciting new ways to “reclaim” Sylvia Plath, I had written a long paper on her newly published Unabridged Journals. Hughes had barely been dead two years, and the publication had fast-forwarded a previous claim he had made that the unpublished journals would be “unsealed” on the 50th anniversary of her suicide. Why, I asked in the paper, did we continue to macabrely “celebrate” this tragedy, instead of her birthday? Why not focus on her extraordinary life? Twenty years later, it seemed, we were. I felt it in my bones: the work we—Plath scholars—were doing mattered. We had changed the game a little.

Five days before the UK debut, the British press began to run their reviews, and I realized my bones were wrong. In The Telegraph, there it was: “Red Comet by Heather Clark review: rescuing Sylvia Plath from the cult of her fans.” As though we had gathered in our centralized coven and kidnapped her.

 *

In the spring of 2013, I sat down with a longtime friend and fellow poet at her kitchen table to discuss our manuscripts, which we had swapped. It had not quite been two years since I had fled a dangerous relationship with my son’s father, at dawn. At the time I was adjuncting at three different colleges on four different campuses, and living with my two-year-old son at my parents’ house, in my childhood bedroom. My ex and I were estranged—he was still living in Texas, in Houston, as far as I knew. But he was an addict, drifting by then from place to place, apartment to apartment, sometimes sending handwritten letters from rehab (“I’m not allowed a phone”), then sending a text from a new number a few weeks later (“Surprise, they kicked me out”).

My ex and I met because of poetry. We competed against one another in a weekly online poetry contest called “Project Verse,” based on Project Runway. It ran for the entirety of summer 2009. You had to write rapid-fire poems from week to week, and every week, one person was out, one person that week’s winner. It was incredibly fast-paced and hard and fun. At the end, I was the winner—he was out. And we had begun an emotional, online affair: he was engaged and I was in a loveless marriage.

We spent the fall writing poems together, plotting to leave our significant others and meet in Austin for the first time. His name lent itself (I thought) beautifully to puns. I wrote a long poem that began, “My will packed up and skipped/state lines, I had to go and/fetch it, won’t you, please now…”. Another with his name in it had helped win me Project Verse; later it would win another contest, judged by Terrance Hayes. I kept telling my writer friends, It’s him, he’s making me a better writer. My best friend from college said, What if it’s not him, what if it’s you?

But I would have none of it. Once we were living together—once I was pregnant—all of this happened in a whirlwind, by April of 2010—I was writing odes to him, sonnets, rhyming devotionals to sex. The poems were… good, I guess. I can write poetry. But they were also, by then, lies. Our day-to-day life was a nightmare of addiction and violence and I was terrified. Then, he’d be sweet for 36 hours, and I’d immortalize it (ha) in verse—as if to prove to myself, to anyone willing to listen, how good I had it.

I’m embarrassed to say it, but here it is: I thought he was “my Ted Hughes.” Finally, I had lain down for an artist. I looked around our apartment for the paradox and waited for the miracle to happen. Mattie, here’s freedom: but he was everywhere I looked, everywhere I went, hell bent on interfering in everything I said and did, unless it was writing about his glory as a lover. Once, while we were together, I wrote a poem in homage to Dickinson about a close friend from college—we had both had strong feelings for one another, but never acted on them. The poem centered on him telling me one night, outside of a Cambridge bar as I waited for a cab, In another life, maybe…, and ended with the lines “And I was 21/Less a girl, a loaded gun.” I worked the draft to death, humming with anxiety. I could have kept it from him, but he’d find it like he found everything. And when he did, he sulked, then raged. The love affair had never happened—that was the point of the poem. But it didn’t matter—even the possibility that I could love someone other than him ten years before we met unleashed a torrent. After that, I stopped writing poems about anyone but him. And then, for several years, I stopped writing poems, full stop.

Like all of the writers I love, Plath still lives for me. Sometimes, I talk to her. I have for years.

Back at my friend’s kitchen table in 2013, she tactfully discussed my poems in terms of craft and content, the order they should appear in the manuscript. I was still, without realizing it, in rough shape, and she knew it better than I did. She had survived her own similar nightmare a while back, and was now happily married, tenured, raising her daughter, writing. She sat back in her cracked linoleum chair. She said, Can I make a frank suggestion?

That’s why we’re here, right?

Take his name out of these poems.

Huh?

They’re yours. He didn’t write them. He tortured you enough that it’s a miracle they got written at all.

I sat in dim silence, amazed. It had not occurred to me that I didn’t have to give him credit for them. That they weren’t practically an act of dual authorship.

His name. Get it out.

*

Red Comet debuted in the United Kingdom: on the front cover, a beautiful 1957 studio portrait of Sylvia Plath, in black and white profile. When I first saw an image of it online I thought, Strange choice. It’s half of a portrait of Plath and Hughes, taken in the first year of their marriage.

I should have known better. The jacket design makes use of the whole photograph: Plath on the front, her paramour on the back. The entirety of the back cover is the other half of that studio portrait, Ted Hughes staring back at his first wife, staring back at him. The jacket blurbs, with their celebration of the book’s even-handed account of Plath’s life, are next to Ted Hughes’s face.

Imagine Elizabeth Hardwick taking up the whole back cover of a biography of Lowell.

Imagine any of Hemingway’s four wives, anywhere, on any book jacket of his.

I stared at the portrait of Hughes, amazed that we are still treating Plath like this.

Amazed that, after all this time, I am still amazed.

*

Suicides both get, and do not get, the last word. Plath’s case is especially complicated in this regard. On the one hand, there are the poems, read for too long as the static record of a woman with one foot in the grave. Impossible to follow. In 1971, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote famously of her, “Orestes rages, but Aeschylus lives to be almost seventy. Sylvia Plath, however, is both heroine and author; when the curtain goes down it is her own dead body there on the stage, sacrificed to her plot.” In this, she was taking part in what would become—what was already—a long tradition of critics treating Plath’s life and death as a work of art in which Plath herself is the heroine, her death her star-making turn. Although Plath did leave a note, it read simply, Please call Dr. Horder, who was her London doctor. In terms of her image in popular culture, this is not much discussed—easier, more intriguing, to focus on her last poems like “Words” and “Edge,” like “Kindness,” with its terrible, beautiful assertion that “The blood jet is poetry/There is no stopping it.”

I’ve seen that note, or I’ve seen a photograph of it, included in yet another early biography that never saw the light of day, by the writer Elizabeth Hinchcliffe. I didn’t know it was coming—I was reading through Hinchcliffe’s vivid narrative of Plath’s last days, and there it was. Plath’s handwriting, in this note, is off—big and clear, all capital letters, unlike the looping script she typically wrote. I jumped back like I had seen a ghost.

Because in a way I had. I hadn’t seen the words of an actress. I hadn’t seen a work of art.

I had seen the last written thoughts of a still living woman named Sylvia Plath Hughes, in a state of great, active suffering, out of which she saw no other way out but to end her life. To quote Red Comet: “Her poems had flouted gentility, but she began her last written words with ‘Please.’” Which is possibly another way of saying, I am still here. Help.

And yet, describing the last book Plath published in her lifetime, Red Comet turns inevitably to Ted Hughes, quoting one of his poems about The Bell Jar:                        

Who bore the hate?

Not your smile, your platinum

Veronica Lake bangs. Or your summa.

A small girl bore it, crouching in a coffin,

 

Little poltergeist girl, who lived in death

Curled at the breast of her dead father.

*******************************************

The buried girl had finally had her say.

Once more, Plath is dead before she has the chance to live. Her novel is written by a poltergeist rattling her revenge, rather than a woman writing a now-classic novel, a lasting work of art. Once more, Hughes gets the last word. Only this time, there is a slight twist. Where usually Plath is either dead and writing her poems from beyond the grave, or else her poems kill her in the culmination of her life as a stage set, a work of high art, this time, Hughes is the narrator of The Sixth Sense: Surprise! Plath had been dead THE WHOLE TIME. She is a “Little… girl, who lived in death” who “finally had her say.”

I felt like a lurker, the thing I’ve been accused of being my whole academic life by those who think anyone who loves Plath is a macabre creep.

I guess I have the opposite problem. Like all of the writers I love, Plath still lives for me. Sometimes, I talk to her. I have for years. It’s old advice from a writing teacher—Write letters to your heroes, she said, whether they were dead or alive. Better if they were dead—you’d be more likely to let it just rip. So I started doing it, and never really let up. The letters turned into essays, which are turning into a book, which, especially since I’m finishing it in a pandemic, cut off from archives and scholars and conferences, has turned into a lot of talking to the air, to Sylvia Plath:

He didn’t write those poems, Sylvia. Get his name out of them.

Which is impossible. His name appears everywhere hers does, although the converse is not exactly true—lots of work on Hughes exists with scant or no reference to his famous first wife. There is Hughes and the pastoral, Hughes and the occult, Hughes and the Royal Family. But there is no Sylvia Plath without Ted Hughes. This is partly because in the “stage set” of her death, one of the “set pieces,” per the aforementioned Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, is the “black spring binder” where Plath kept her manuscript, Ariel. Hughes made sure a version of the book was published, but it wasn’t the one she left behind. Plath’s Ariel, as detailed by scholar Marjorie Perloff, is a book about the agony of lost love, rebirth, nature, motherhood. Hughes’s Ariel is a book about death. The Sylvia Plath we “got” for so many years—the one we still mostly get, if we’re being honest—had very little to do with the work the writing woman had left behind with every intention to publish.

Ted Hughes once wrote that Ariel was “just like her, but permanent.” As though the book was a mausoleum you could enter at will, and leave behind your little trinket.

As though the book he made looked anything like hers.

Gotcha.

*

In a review of Red Comet in The New Statesman, Anna Leszkiewicz wrote, “There are rare, shimmering moments where Clark succeeds in capturing Sylvia Plath. But she flickers. It’s only in Plath’s own work that we really see her; her presence radiating from the page, uneclipsed by her own myth.”

I disagree. In the last year, I haven’t just seen Plath’s suicide note. I’ve seen her autopsy report, part of the newly acquired Harriet Rosenstein papers at Emory University. The report notes bruises on her head. I didn’t know what to make of that, and didn’t want to try and think of what it meant. I closed the computer screen—I was reading a scanned photograph of the report—and didn’t look again. What it could possibly lend to my research, which is to do with the ways Plath’s myth has been constructed over time, the inherent sexism and misogyny of that construction? I felt like a lurker, the thing I’ve been accused of being my whole academic life by those who think anyone who loves Plath is a macabre creep, because anyone who loves Plath must be obsessed with her death.

In Red Comet, Heather Clark notes this detail. She imagines several possibilities. One is that Plath heard her children begin to stir and wake, and tried to get herself up, but fell and hit her head, already nearly unconscious from the domestic cooking gas she used to end her life.

This image of Plath trying and failing to reach her crying babies tore me apart, initially. But then, I thought of the ways “Edge,” Plath’s poem that begins, “The woman is perfected./Her dead//Body wears the smile of accomplishment…” is quoted at the end of almost every biography written about her, presented as the work of someone already dead who came back to tell the tale. The idea of the woman who is perfect in death begs us to read Plath’s life and death as static. The poem “Edge,” Clark writes, is almost like a frieze—I would agree. But Plath’s life is not. It’s not a frieze, or a poem. Sylvia Plath did not make her life into a work of art—we did. No curtain fell when she died. The scene—which I had to admit to myself was, up to that point exactly that, a scene in my head with a creaking character always condemned to commit the same dramatic act—became, upon reading Clark’s rendering of it, not just the end of someone’s life, but a part of that life: with the possible still present, the present still possible.

Emily Van Duyne
Emily Van Duyne
Emily Van Duyne's poems, reviews, and essays are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Harvard Review, and Entropy; Loving Sylvia Plath is under contract with W.W. Norton & Co. She is represented by Beth Vesel of the Beth Vesel Literary Agency. Tweet at her @emilyvanduyne.





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