Review: Bitter Fame: The Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson Print E-mail

plath2020kids(San Diego Union-Tribune October 6, 1989)

A Journey Through Plath's Inner World

No other American poet had anything like Sylvia Plath's meanness in language. Her words are astringent, vengeful, terrifying—the poetry hurts, as it seems intended. She will forever be the Queen of Blame—hating family, father, and self with equal rancor.

Since her death by suicide in 1963, the narcissistic exhibitionism of her work—best known from the Ariel poems and the novel The Bell Jar—has attracted a caldron of worship. Criticism and biographies arrive regularly, fueling the Plath cult. Of course, she meant to turn the oven on and stick her head in. But why? With her talent? Successful suicides (which, when done with craft and imagination, are strangely beautiful) create eternal enigmas. Such has mythologized her pain more than her poetry, which was obviously good and didn't "warrant" death.

In any event, when Plath gassed herself at 30, America's literary innocence suffered a cultural bloodletting the equivalent of Kennedy's political death nine and a half months later.

With her self-inflicted torment, Plath called out the monstrous in surreal, ecstatic, ruthless images: "The Disquieting Muses" had "heads like darning-eggs"; "Lady Lazurus" wore "skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade"; "Ariel," both a horse and a spirit, was a "Stasis in darkness," alive on "Black sweet blood mouthfuls"; in "Fever 103" Plath was an "acetylene Virgin," "too pure for you or anyone."

"Words," she wrote, were "Axes." But behind this endless play with the death mask was a terrified woman, suffering with manic-depression, whose vision of poetry entrapped her.

A 1958 journal entry expresses a not-uncommon Plathian sentiment: "If I didn't write nobody would accept me as a human being . . . If you don't love me, love my writing and love me for my writing."

Anne Stevenson's biography, much more the story of bitterness than fame, is clearly sensitive to Plath's unsuccessful struggle, through art, to survive her depression and fears. A poet herself, Stevenson knows that the dubious value of much modern poetry lies in such incandescent play with one's past, one's guilt, one's demons.

To live and die, for many American poets, has been to make a private myth of one's pain so as to use it imaginatively as the warp of the writer's art.

The problem is that the self gets lost or deranged—or both. Plath felt her hurts were countless.

The myths, though, were (mainly) three: Father and husband abandoned her; mother was always watching; poetry could best be used to unsettle herself toward more suicidally compulsive behavior. Only the last of these had more truth than fiction.

Stevenson says of her schizophrenic drive that "the only way open to her for expression in her poems was to write pleas for love whose themes were subtle shafts of hate." Choking herself while she cried out for love—that is the shoe-box life Stevenson found in Plath's journals and letters, and in interviews with those who knew her well.

Stevenson has given us an immensely detailed, superbly factual biography.

She cites most every important drama in Plath's mature life and bravely charts Plath's inner world. The book is eminently non-judgmental, and it takes a refreshing turn from some feminist writing that stresses the ideological importance for women of Plath's suicide. Plath's father died when Sylvia was 8. (Her remark at the time was "I'll never speak to God again.") From his loss, Plath invigorated her imagination and stewed for a lifetime, never resolving her grief.

Her achievement in school (first at Smith, then Cambridge) and in many literary contests (praise from Robert Lowell and Alfred Kazin) fueled her ambitions to please the father who she felt tortured her with his absence. As her twice-weekly letters to her mother attest, Plath was a devoted but grossly insensitive daughter.

She wrote exclusively about the pleasures and frustrations caused by her growing fame (largely imagined) and her marriage to the English poet Ted Hughes. With Hughes, Plath was co-committed; the two pushed each other toward ever-new depths in their writing. Such creative purpose sustained their happy-at-first marriage, but it quickly fell apart.

But she sabotaged the marriage as much as her husband did. Her self-crucifixion over her father's death and her passive aggression with her mother by late 1962 produced an uncontrollable regression.

"It was," Stevenson suggests, "as though she looked in a glass and a huge mirror image of her traumatized childhood self stared back."

Stevenson believes that this was the person Sylvia became and the one Plath killed.