Sylvia Plath at 90: Smith College forum examines famous poet in wake of new biography

  • A 1954 portrait of Sylvia Plath after she dyed her hair dark brown to accentuate her “serious, intellectual side.” PHOTO BY Warren Kay Vantine/courtesy Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College

  • In her 2020 biography of Sylvia Plath, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, Heather Clark tapped previously unaccessed materials to produce what The New Yorker calls “a new understanding and appreciation of an innovative, uncompromising poetic voice.”

  • Before she died, Plath published one poetry collection, “The Colossus and Other Poems,” and the novel “The Bell Jar,” a semi-autobiographical account of her suicide attempt in 1953, when she was still a Smith student, and the subsequent time she spent in a psychiatric hospital. CONTRIBUTED

  • Beth Myers, right, director of Smith College Special Collections, introduces Judith Raymo, middle, and biographer Heather Clark, left, at a discussion at the college about one of its most noted graduates, Sylvia Plath. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Judith Raymo, right, and biographer Heather Clark discuss Clark’s biography on Sylvia Plath, “Red Comet,” earlier this week at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Heather Clark, left, is the author of “Red Comet,” a recent biography on poet Sylvia Plath. She calls Plath “one of the most important women writers of the 20th century.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Heather Clark, left, is the author of “Red Comet,” a recent biography on poet Sylvia Plath. She calls Plath “one of the most important women writers of the 20th century.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Judith Raymo, right, speaks with biographer Heather Clark during a discussion at Smith College about poet Sylvia Plath. Raymo, a Smith graduate, has donated many books and writing by Plath to the college. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Judith Raymo, right, speaks with biographer Heather Clark during a discussion at Smith College about poet Sylvia Plath. Raymo, a Smith graduate, has donated many books and writing by Plath to the college. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Biographer Heather Clark, left, and Judith Raymo discuss Clark’s biography on Sylvia Plath, “Red Comet,” earlier this week at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • A recent forum at Smith College on Sylvia Plath, held just a few days after the famous poet would have turned 90, celebrated her legacy as a writer and a feminist. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • In her 2020 biography of Sylvia Plath, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, Heather Clark tapped previously unaccessed materials to produce what The New Yorker calls “a new understanding and appreciation of an innovative, uncompromising poetic voice.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 11/3/2022 4:17:07 PM
Modified: 11/3/2022 4:16:49 PM

Almost a century after she was born, Sylvia Plath is still winning admirers.

The famous poet and Smith College graduate, who took her life in 1963 and was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize, has been the subject of a huge number of books and publications: biographies, memoirs, critical studies, letter collections, novels, even plays and movies. And she’s long been considered a feminist icon, an early voice in the women’s movement, especially through her last collection of poems, “Ariel.”

In the last two years, Plath has been getting renewed attention, courtesy of an acclaimed 2020 biography by Heather Clark, an American scholar and professor of poetry. “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath” has won numerous awards and was a finalist for both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Among many favorable reviews, The New Yorker says that Clark’s monumental work — it’s over 1,000 pages — offers “a new understanding and appreciation of an innovative, uncompromising poetic voice.”

Earlier this week, a few days past what would have been Plath’s 90th birthday (Oct. 27, 1932, in Boston), Clark came to Smith for a talk with Judith Raymo, a 1953 Smith alumna who knew Plath when they were at the school and has collected a variety of her published and unpublished writing over the years; she’s since donated many of these works to the college.

Clark, the author of a previous study of Plath and her husband, English poet Ted Hughes, said she’d wanted with her biography to move beyond the clichés that for decades have grown up around Plath: that she was a tragic figure, or death-obsessed, or a victim of male oppression.

Instead, said Clark, she wanted to focus on Plath’s energy, creativity and determination — to show that she was not predestined to a terrible end but was in fact a visionary writer who pioneered a personal, confessional style of poetry and blazed a trail for women poets everywhere.

“I feel she was one of the most important women writers of the 20th century,” said Clark. “And today we have access to more of her letters and papers, so we have a better sense especially of how determined she was to make a life as a writer and poet.”

Clark noted that she’d done considerable research at Smith College, which has an extensive collection of Plath’s writing. “I spent many happy hours here,” she said.

The basic details of Plath’s story are pretty well known. She was an academic star at Smith, from which she graduated in 1955, and she met and married Hughes while on a Fulbright scholarship in England. It was a marriage that began with intense attraction — Plath famously wrote in her journal that he kissed her “bang smash on the mouth” when they met at a party in 1956 — but ended with Hughes leaving her for another woman in 1962.

But early on, Clark said, they formed a strong partnership because both Plath and Hughes “were young poets who wanted to take on the world, to shake up the world … They had so much ambition.”

Hughes would go to become a poet laureate in Britain and win general recognition as a great 20th century writer. But Clark noted that Plath, in serving as his “agent and secretary” during their marriage, was the one who put him on that trajectory by typing his early work and submitting it to publications.

“He later recognized that he would not have been successful without her,” she said.

Going down into the depths

Before she died, Plath published one poetry collection, “The Colossus and Other Poems,” and the novel “The Bell Jar,” a semi-autobiographical account of her suicide attempt in 1953, when she was still a Smith student, and the subsequent time she spent in a psychiatric hospital. She also wrote widely for magazines and literary publications, Clark noted.

“She was one of the most brilliant (literary) critics of her generation,” she said.

But Clark said she was most intrigued by Plath’s poems, noting that she’d been writing poetry since she was young and regularly wrote in her journal of her determination to have a career as a writer.

“She certainly struggled with depression — that’s part of her story,” said Clark. “But when I researched her, I got a sense of this amazing strength and focus just on a day-to-day basis.”

She also noted that Plath composed much of her most searing work in the last months of her life, when she was living alone in a small London flat with her two young children after Hughes had left her.

Those poems would appear in the collection “Ariel” in 1965, two years after her death, and win wide acclaim. Controversy swirled around the volume for years, though, because it was edited by Hughes, who removed some poems, added others, and reordered the poems’ sequence in a way that many critics — including Clark — believe contributed to Plath’s image as a suicide queen.

“She had these two little toddlers at her feet, she was struggling with depression, but she wrote these incredible poems,” said Clark. “She was able to go down into the depths and come back up and report on it.”

For her part, Raymo, a retired professor of education who lives in New York City, said she’d been drawn to Plath’s work because she wrote about the challenge of trying to have a career and be a young mother at the same time — a rare combination for most women in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and something Raymo experienced herself during that era.

“I began to know (Plath) better through her writing, and it was a support to me,” said Raymo.

Some of the discussion, held in the Smith College Campus Center, also revolved around Hughes, who, through his infidelity and emotional abuse, has long been viewed by many Plath admirers as the cause of her descent. About five years ago, scholars also discovered some letters between Plath and her former psychiatrist that included Plath’s accusation that Hughes had once beaten her while she was pregnant, causing her to miscarry.

Clark did not touch on that story, but she said the way Plath and Hughes’ marriage “devolved” was certainly painful to Plath. But unlike some other scholars, she said many of Plath’s “Ariel” poems, written during the exceptionally cold winter in England in 1962-1963, were about “light” and even “transcendence,” as the poet looked ahead to spring and to greater literary success.

“There was a rawness and a sense of rebellion to much of her best work that still stands out today,” she said. “And she was a pioneer in writing about motherhood. I think she had so much to offer.”

A pop-up exhibition, “Selections from the Judith G. Raymo Collection of Sylvia Plath at Smith College,” is on view on the third floor of Neilson Library through Nov. 24. 

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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