Apr 10, 2010

On Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

As part of the National Poetry Month celebrations (a US-based event, but as usual I’m butting in), I thought I’d occasionally share a poem that means something to me during the month of April. What I’m sharing today is not a poem by Sylvia Plath, but a poem about her – “My Mother” by her daughter Frieda Hughes. This is a poem I came across for the first time only recently, but it had quite an effect on me. The theme is the fetichization of suicide, and of women’s suffering in general. I was reminded of this recent (and brilliant as usual) post by litlove, about how the very same process seems to surround Virginia Woolf’s suicide.

This is something that worries me because I think that not even the most well-meaning of us are above doing it. Even if we’re interested in these women as people and not merely as “suicide dolls”, even if we care about their lives and not only their deaths, are we voyeuristic in our interest? Suicide is a contentious topic, and it’s something that obviously stands out in any biography. It’s only natural that it will be discussed, but it’s important to remember that one moment never defines a whole life.

“My Mother” by Frieda Hughes

“They are killing her again,
She said she did it
One Year in every ten,
But they do it annually, or weekly,
Some do it daily,
Carrying her death around in their heads,
And practising it. She saves them
The trouble of their own;
They can die through her
Without ever making
The decision. My buried mother
Is up-dug for repeat performances.

Now they want to make a film
For anyone lacking the ability
To imagine the body, head in oven,
Orphaning children. Then
It can be rewound
So they can watch her die
Right from the beginning again.

The peanut-eaters, entertained
At my mother's death, will go home,
Each carrying their memory of her,
Lifeless - a souvenir.
Maybe they'll buy the video.
Watching someone on TV
Means all they have to do
Is press pause
If they want to boil a kettle,
While my mother holds her breath on screen
To finish dying after tea.

The filmmakers have collected
The body parts.
They want me to see.
But they require dressings to cover the joins
And disguise the prosthetics
In their remake of my mother.
They want to use her poetry
As stitching and sutures
To give it credibility.
They think I should love it-
Having her back again, they think
I should give them my mother's words
to fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll.
Who will walk and talk
And die at will,
And die, and die
And forever be dying.”

Is this something you ever worry about, either as a process you may slip into yourself or as a problem with the most common forms of representations of mental illness, suffering and suicide?

Also, it hit me today that I completely forgot to draw the winner of my third blogiversary giveaway - oops! The winner is PherenV, who said her favourite author she discovered through blogs is Shaun Tan - an excellent choice! Congratulations, and please e-mail me our address and your book of choice (you can see a full list of what I’ve reviewed over the past three years here). I’ll get it to you as soon as possible.

Finally, I wanted to wish those of you participating in Dewey’s Read-a-thon today the best of luck. I hope that above all you’ll have tons of fun and make some new friends - because that’s what Dewey’s read-a-thon was always about.


  1. I must admit I've always been fascinated by her complex personality, by her own longing for death which was a haunting presence all through her life,more than by her death itself.

    If you want to have a look, here are my posts about her
    1. http://flyhigh-by-learnonline.blogspot.com/2009/06/life-was-too-small-to-contain-her.html

    2. http://flyhigh-by-learnonline.blogspot.com/2010/03/throwback-thursday-bell-jar-by-sylvia.html

    3. http://flyhigh-by-learnonline.blogspot.com/2009/07/i-didnt-know-how-to-start-this-letter.html (with one of my videos)

    Thanks for the beautiful poem. I didn't know it.

  2. I trouble a lot over this idea - just last week, I almost wrote an entire post talking about the art of the suicide note, and then didn't because I thought it might make people think I was glorifying suicide itself. Suicide is a very strange thing and, for admittedly good reasons, it's very difficult for human beings to look at it without overlaying judgements on it - judgements one way or the other. At the same time, it's hard, because when you read so many of the poems of Sylvia Plath it's difficult NOT to think of suicide, the poet asks you, over and over, to consider the bare facts of her life. In a sense, I suppose, and I don't want to say this as an attack on Sylvia Plath who I love deeply, but in a sense she kind of 'fetishized' herself if that's what we call it. In her poetry, that kernel of self is always, slowly being swallowed, digested, and there is always that moment of dissolution, until eventually, her entire personality DOES kind of devolve into a self-immolation machine.

    Of course, as with any human being, we have to look at that and not use it as an excuse to make the speaker something other than human. I think that through all that self-immolation, that thing that makes Sylvia Plath both beautiful and tragic is that she DID cling on to her humanity, she lived and lived and lived right up until she died, and it forces you as a reader to look at that and know that there is reality and messy, human emotion in that whole process, instead of the sort of transformation we make in our brains where we figure the victim into a kind of distant other before she goes, so that it's easier to insulate the horror from our own psyche.

    I don't know, it's difficult. I think Plath HERSELF struggled with this idea - the whole grotesque circus atmosphere in a poem like Lady Lazarus prefigures our morbid fascination with her final act. But that's just it - it's something we DO struggle with, something we DO need to learn to understand, and sometimes that obsessing isn't just fetishization, it's a reflection of the poet herself, digging, gnawing at the flesh stripped bone to try to make out the contours of it. I don't know. I feel horrible for even saying that, especially after reading her daughter's words. How would you like it, after all, if it was your mother whose bones were collectively gnawed by millions of lonely, frequently disrespectful searchers?

  3. I think I go with both you and Jason - i.e., yes she and other suicides get fetishized, but Plath fetishized herself as well. I think her daughter's poem is brilliant, and beautiful.

    I would also maintain that we are voyeuristic in our interest in *any* disaster or tragedy. I suppose we should take heart that one person's death by suicide *is* considered enough of a tragedy to invoke that voyeurism gene!

  4. Maria Grazia, thank you for your links! I'll definitely click over to read them in a little bit.

    Jason: I actually read that post of yours, as it poppet up on google reader briefly - I'm sorry! I only realised it was gone when I clicked over to comment. It IS a difficult topic, and yes, with good reasons. And you're right that the struggle is there in Plath's own work. I hope I didn't make it sound like I thought this was a simple issue - either you ignore it, or if you care and obsess over it, you're fetishizing it. I know it's so so so much more complicated than that. But the reason why the poem hit me so strongly was because I'd never stopped to consider the effect of all this gnawing and wondering and questioning on those who knew her, those who loved her, those who saw her as a human being. Like you said, not all the questioners are necessarily respectful, or even aware of her humanity, and that has got to hurt. I worry I'll forget her life in wondering about her death, but I also know it's only human to ask those questions.

  5. Jill, excellent point - this applies to disasters, tragedies, and human suffering of any kind. We may scrutinise it voyeristically, but then again, would we be able to truly FEEL for other people if we didn't? It's a complicated issue for sure.

  6. I love Plath, but I've yet to read any of her poetry. I plan to read the Ariel poems sometime this year as part of my poetry personal challenge.

  7. Wow- what a powerful poem! Thank you for sharing it... I think about death a lot- it’s always on my mind when I sit down to write, actually I had people who read my stories ask me why I always mention death in my stories so now a days I try to be a little bit more death-less when I write…
    As a natural result, suicide is an issue I think about from time to time. Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors, and I read her journals from time to time, looking for clues which lead her to her suicide…

  8. Her daughter's poem is so powerful and moving and thought provoking. I always feel that Plath's suicide is what defines her in most people's minds and that makes me really sad.

  9. You're welcome to butt in anytime!

    That poem is so sad, but true.

  10. Hey there Nymeth! Thanks for sharing this poem. It's made me view 'based on true events kind of movies' in a different light. How awful it must be for the person's family members to watch a movie which so quickly portrays his/her life and death in a mere two hours. No wonder Plath's daughter wrote the poem.

  11. I never heard of her, I must admit. But the poem is very powerful and emotional. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Wow, what an emotional poem. I've always been envious of people who can write like that.

  13. always felt sorry for plath lost in life at points ,unhappy with hughes at times

  14. also love ryan adams song about her

  15. Thanks for sharing this poem, I had never come across it before and it was very moving. It expresses a point of view about the attention Plath receives that I've never heard before. You've definitely raised some interesting issues and given me some food for thought.

  16. wow, this is a moving poem by her daughter, how sad.
    It can be rewound
    So they can watch her die
    Right from the beginning again'

    It gives me chills reading that. And it seems that when a person in the public eye commits suicide, most just remember them for that. Its more important to remember them for the life they lived. Not just that final act.


  17. ...and not just a person in the public eye, anyone actually.

  18. I'm always afraid of this, whenever I'm interested in someone who also happened to have tragic life-parts, whether I'm more interested in their salacious moments or in them as a person. I definitely love me some lurid melodrama in fiction, and I think I have trouble emotionally distinguishing fictional tragedy from real.

  19. Interesting. I know there's been a recent trend for authors to cry out about using real life people in historical fiction because they think it takes their story from them and makes them into objects rather than people. That's always been an issue with living people, but now it's starting to be applied to dead people, especially those with living relatives.

    Like you say it's a complicated issue - how much are we attempting to understand them and how much are we viewing them as at a remove as a piece of tragic, dark art? I think this idea of misery and suicide as art is very prevalent when it comes to the death of artists like Plath. It gets all tangled up with their genius, as if depression is almost the cause of art (I'm sure there's a recent book on that topic, definately one about artists suicides came out a few years ago). When you redrammatize it with music, on film it can come to seem like a performance piece rather than what it is...Maybe new ways of representing the act of suicide and depression need to be investigated by film makers (less glamourous gothic, more plain death and dreariness - films about people who couldn't get out of bed, or slumped dead eyed in an armchair, rather than set piece death scenes).

  20. that's a very sad, beautiful and true poem. wow.

  21. Glad to see you also participating in NPM!

    What a powerful poem indeed. It's almost like there's a cult mentality surrounding some people isn't there? I think it must be so sad for those truly affected by something like this because it's almost like their grief isn't theirs alone.

  22. She was an interesting person. I read the Bell Jar quite some time ago and really didn't care for it. Maybe now that I'm older I would be able to appreciate it more??

  23. That is quite a beautiful poem. I've never read it before. I admit I am fascinated by people like Sylvia, but not because she died, rather because she went through a deep depression during and after her internship in NY AND came through it "recovered". I may still have read about her, even if she didn't commit suicide, but that's a vicious cycle, seeing as her book got prominence only because she committed suicide. I haven't studied about the later part of her life but only read a bit about it. It saddens me that she took her life after going through depression again.

  24. I think it's a person's journey through depression that interests me rather than the suicide. Suicide is not something I dwell on.

    I read The Bell Jar, a lot of Plath's poetry, and some of her journals when I was in high school. I was suffering severe depression, in the era before Prozac. :-) Her writing really spoke to me.

  25. Great topic for a post. I remember this poem from college and the discussions it spawned. Unfortunately, suicide or any tragic death does have a way of encapsulating a person and overshadowing the rest of their life. Plath was an amazing writer, and it is too bad that she can't be known for just that.

  26. I'd like to see literary critics return more often to the idea that the author of a poem is not necessarily the speaker of it.

    At the same time, I have little sympathy for the children of public figures who whine about how their parents are perceived.

    This is a good poem, but not as good as any of Plath's or Hughes' and so it gets to carry less of their story, for me.

  27. Lua: If it's something that concerns us (and honestly, doesn't death concern all of us?), I think it's only natural that it'll surface in your writing. I don't mind authors that deal with dark/difficult topics - quite the opposite!

    Kathleen: It makes me sad too - especially because I completely understand why it stands out and is so defining.

    Kathy, thank you! You guys always make me feel completely welcome :)

    Josette: Yeah...those movies do make me uncomfortable for that very reason. I do understand why people want to know more and why these stories have such power, but it must be difficult for the real human beings who lived through them.

    Andreea: I knew Plath had had children, but I also had no idea her daughter was herself a poet. It makes me want to read more of her work.

    Emidy: Me too. Of people who can write, period :P

    winstonsdad: I LOVE that song too!

    cofeestainedpages: I'm glad to hear you found the poem as powerful as I did! It's one of those pieces of writing that make me uncomfortable, but not in a bad way.

    Naida: True - anyone. Suicide is such a private decision, and yet it becomes so public after the person's passing. Sadly, when that happens that one decision becomes the thing that people remember the most.

    raych: It's probably an inevitably result of turning something into a story. On the one hand, we need that sort of distance to make sense of things, but on the other hand, it can be dehumanising. Anyway, you're definitely not alone.

    Jodie: Yes, I think it should be avoided when people have living relatives, but when it comes to older historical figures I don't have much of a problem with it. I think Wolf Hall in particular was criticised on those grounds, but I'm not sure if that's fair. A historical novel is by definition an interpretation of history, after all. But yes, when people have living relatives, it's good to be sensitive. I really like your point about the depression being seen as the cause of art - that's something that bothers me, because while I'm sure depressed people can be brilliant artists, I'm sure that plenty of happy ones are just as brilliant. It's the whole Romantic idea of the doomed, removed artist all over again, and I call shenanigans on that :p

    Marie: It really is.

    Iliana: Yes, I think there is. You see the same thing with music too. Cobain, Morrison, etc.

    Staci: It's not a book for everyone, that's for sure, but I really loved it. I also want to read it again, though, because it's been years and years.

    Aths: Yes, there's always the fact that her suicide brings more attention to her work, but then people can and DO love it for herself. I'm glad for anything that brings attention to the work of such a brilliant poet, but it's such a complicated process. Anyway, yes, it saddens me too :\

    Stephanie: I'm so sorry you went through that :( I've been there too, so I can relate. I remember first reading The Bell Jar SO clearly. I was in high school too, and it made me feel so much less alone.

    Elisabeth: It does, and it really is. I understand why it happens, though.

    Jeanne: I have no problem separating the author from the narrator with novels, but with poetry I'll fully admit that I do. Which is completely silly, I know, but my natural tendency is to read it as confessional (same with song lyrics).

  28. I think you make fair points. What a powerful poem. Sounds like Plath's daughter is just as much a poet as she is!

  29. I read another poem by Frieda Hughes which was also beautiful. I think I need to go and dig her out and read a bit more.

    I don't know why there is such fascination with suicide. I'm guilty of it myself. Maybe a part of it is wondering what is so bad that makes someone cross that line when so many others can carry on (not all happily). And maybe it is also that she died too young before she fulfilled her potential. Who knows?

  30. It's particularly hard to separate the suicide from the writer when it comes to Plath, and that's both unfortunate and enlightening. Personally, I find not the act of suicide so fascinating as the ripple effects (I'm speaking specifically of Plath). Suicide itself is a horrible thing--a teenage girl two doors down from me killed herself a year ago, and it just devastated her family. But most people don't have to try and cope with it is publicly as Hughes did.

  31. That was beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  32. I think we have well and truly established that our fascination with suicide (and tragedy in general) is certainly a complicated issue, especially when taking into account the effects that sensationalism may potentially have upon the loved ones of a deceased person. However, can we really blame ourselves? Some people in these posts seem to report on their fascination with Sylvia's despair with a kind of sheepish admission, as if their interests are indecent or wrong.

    Personally, I think it is the human condition to be attracted by our own traumas - we are inherently self-obsessed. In terms of science, we have come to attain immeasurable quantities of knowledge, and we understand most aspects of our existence. However, the most intricate and fascinating field of all, and one which remains only partially uncovered, is the workings of the human psyche. It is ironic that of everything, we know least about ourselves. We are almost mesmerised by the possibilities of our potential to progress further, to better ourselves even more - yet we are equally enthralled by our downfalls, our faults, and our ability to actually desire death - a desire which entirely contradicts our most primitive survival instincts.

    Awful as it may sound, it is only natural that we are fascinated by the depression, despair and traumas of our fellows - it reminds us of the complexity of ourselves, and allows us to exercise our diverse and intricate range of human emotions. Let's face it - as a species, we are pretty bloody interesting. Additionally, I think it nourishes us to truly FEEL. A common cause of depression is the constant repetition of the banal tasks of our everyday lives, which rob us of our ability to respond emotionally to our ever-static surroundings.

    So, whilst it is certainly important to remember that these people had/have loved ones who may very understandably be upset by our sensationalism and "fetishization" of suicide/human trauma, we should not feel guilty per se for our intrinsic self-absorption. We see this in Plath herself - most of her literature is based wholly upon the experiences and emotions of her own psyche, and it was this self-obsession that allowed her to gain such deep and profound insight into herself, and should not be criticised. To tiptoe around these issues and to speak of them almost apologetically does not make us more considerate or caring; and to pretend that our captivation with suicide and other human traumas is somehow wrong does not make us any more 'humane' - it simply makes us more ignorant.

    We need to accept that yes, these things really do interest us - our own frailties are fascinating - and this is not only okay but brilliant, because these idiosyncrasies are what define us as human. After all, isn't exploring, discussing, communicating and coming to an understanding of humanity's big issues what literature is all about?


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