I first read Plath when I was sixteen. I remember the lines I jotted down, memorizing them through my handwriting as I could then, render something it indelible by jotting it in my notebook: “And here you come, with a cup of tea/ Wreathed in steam. /The blood jet is poetry, /There is no stopping it. /You hand me two children, two roses.”
What I wrote underneath: “Nothing for you here. Too much darkness, too much death.” Like most young readers I was as taken by the power of her voice as I was by the suicide, the details of that tragic moment, that framed the voice. But I had enough darkness of my own, I was frightened by Plath’s death-affirming verse.
In my early thirties I picked up Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, knowing very little about the Hughes-Plath mythology except that it had spawned an industry. What struck me then was the extraordinary hard work that went into forging the poems that seared into the collective consciousness. She made a decision to become a great poet and did everything—craft and shmooze—necessary to achieve it.
In my forties I picked up her Collected Works again. “You have all these books,” exclaimed my daughter, fierce reader and re-reader of favourite stories “but you never read them!” “Start here,” she said, handing me the Plath tome, the first on my poetry shelf.
By then I had been and stopped being, an academic. I had toddler twins that sealed my exclusion from an academic career. Fully immersed in motherhood, I was picking up the pieces of an interrupted writing life. Plath’s work was a revelation: where I had seen only darkness, this time she was a lighthouse. Above all, I found in her work the voice of a mother, writing, like me, in stolen moments (while nursing by candlelight, in her case, surrounded by a nursing cushion, in mine.)
Older than Plath had lived to be, I felt maternal tenderness for this troubled voice. What I saw this time was the accident of her suicide, how if she had lived she would have seen that the personal is political—if only she had held long enough for feminism’s second wave. However extraordinary Ariel was, Plath had not reached her peak. Single mother, fighter, survivor, caretaker of her own mother: there were so many selves she had yet to inhabit. Re-reading her words, I set out to create one of those personas, a Plath who lived through feminism, who had the benefit of distance and compassion for herself as the struggling young mother in the grip of post-partum depression. Could I take her words and construct that absent poet?
Soon after I started recombining lines into centos, however, I had left the idea of reconstructing Plath behind. I took her words to speak of my own intimate self, about nursing my sons, the sorrow and frustrations of maternity, as permission, after all these years, to speak of the small things in life—the essence of my existence in those years of intense nest management—to build my own voice through someone else’s words. Only Plath’s monumentalism allowed this: Plath, her words almost as well known as Shakespeare, a quarry for academics and British gossip columns, is undiminishable.
I’ve learned far too much about her life since, and Hughes, embodying in all its sordid depths the myth of the poet-hero god, sacrificing all and sundry (Shura, whose forgotten short life pains my mother-heart) to his art and ego. Plath had something of this myth, placing poetry above all and sacrificing herself, or perhaps a mistake, an impulse, a symptom. Beyond the unanswerable question of her suicide, her multi-faceted expanse of her writing is a gift for the taking.
I acknowledge her here as one of many mothers, with Grace Paley, especially, who is perhaps her antidote as a writer who put life, and the business of life, before her writing. Plath is the mother who pushes you out the door, the one who repels, fascinates and horrifies; the mother you don’t want to be in your youth who you come to have compassion and understanding for in midlife. I acknowledge the power of her words, the fecundity of her talent.