P.H. Davies – A Life of Plath
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As most people who read my blog regularly know, the one writer I revere above all others is the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath. When I say this to a lot of people, they often scratch their heads. “Oh that mad poet who stuck her head in the oven?” is often the ignorant response I get back, usually from individuals who have never read a single word she’s written. It’s rather sad that Plath’s life and work have been reduced to such glib and facetious statements, as it makes no reference to the profound literary achievements that have established her as one of the great poets of the twentieth century. Out of a staid and pompous poetic tradition, Plath’s poetry created a new form of expression that laid the groundwork for all poetry that followed. Modernist poet T.S Eliot often takes that credit, while Plath is routinely dismissed as a ‘Confessional Poet’ but it’s Plath’s influence on all late-twentieth and twenty-first century poetry that cannot be ignored. Her work is as popular today as it was when it was first published.
As someone who writes poetry (and only occasionally dares to call themselves a poet), I can safely say Plath’s work has had the biggest influence on my writing. We’re taught not to credit our influences as writers because most of us want to find our own voices. I think that’s unrealistic and egotistical not to acknowledge the artists that inspire you to write in the first place. Anyone who reads my poetry can see Plath’s shadow on my work and the real challenge for me at this point in my writing life is to acknowledge it and also try to step out of it. But it’s not just Plath’s writing that has been a guiding literary light for me – it’s her life too. Those same people who reduce Plath to an anectdote about depression and ovens often don’t realise that despite the tragedy that beset her, she lived life as all poets should – on the edge, in excelsis, amplified to screaming volume, feeling every little thing – even if it meant death. It is this Romantic view of her (and many other writers from Byron to Rimbaud to Woolf) that attracts so many, such as myself.
I first discovered Plath’s writing as an angsty teenager – wearer of Doc Martin boots, school rebel, painter, poet, and songwriter (or so I thought at the time!) I bought a copy of Elizabeth Wurtzell’s seminal book Prozac Nation (1994) when I was fifteen, a memoir about Wurtzel’s decline into depression as a college student. While one of the chapters quoted directly from Plath’s poem Elm, the back cover blurb compared Wurtzel to Sylvia Plath twice. The New York Times wrote that the book possessed ‘the irritating emotional exhibitionism of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar,’ and the New York Times Book Review wrote ‘Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna’. As a fan of Madonna, this quote stood out to me and it wasn’t long before I had bought my own copy of The Bell Jar (1963). I was about eighteen at the time and the book spoke to me much in the same was as J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a book incidentally on which Plath modelled her own roman à clef.
I shared the malaise of both Holden Caulfield and Esther Greenwood, though I could not entirely equate it with my own experience. It wasn’t until I went to university to study English Literature and went through a similarly bleak episode that I really appreciated what The Bell Jar was about – the difficulty of choosing who you’re going to be when you’re a young adult. It was at university that I also discovered Plath’s poetry (at A Level all I got was Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin) in an elected module called ‘Poetry Reading/Reading Poetry’. Not only did I become exposed to the poems, I also learnt about the poet’s life – a necessary lens to better understand the symbols and references in her work.I read these tough, highly pitched, searingly angry monologues and the effect was profound. I went from writing song lyrics and trite verses to seriously applying myself to poetry. Some of my essays on Plath got the best marks of my undergraduate degree – an essay critiquing Plath’s poetry within the themes of her life got a good 2:1, while an essay on The Bell Jar was awarded a first.
These formative experiences formed a life long interest in both Plath the poet and the woman. I started to buy anything Plath had written and also to collect biographies of her to find out more about her life. The publication of her Journals in 2000 was a seminal moment and it took me a long time to save up the £30 asking price (I was a poor student) to buy it in hardback. After my degree, I moved to Yorkshire for a year to live with a friend in Leeds. I had read that Plath was buried in a very small village called Heptonstall and that I could get there by taking two buses. So, in June 2001 I made my way to Heptonstall to visit Plath’s grave, commemorated in a poem of the same name (see below for my free ebook which includes this poem.) It was a rather surreal experience to visit the grave of someone who I’m not related to but the powerful connection I have always felt with the poet took me there. It was a tranquil, sombre and fascinating experience, one I hope I captured adequately in my poem.
I moved to Oxford not long after and being close to London, I decided to see the houses in which Plath lived. I did not know London well, but looking up Chalcot Square and Fitzroy Road in my AZ (these were the days long before iPhones and Google Maps) I managed to find my way to both. Chalcot Square was just as I imagined it and it was here that Plath and Hughes lived happily (though in cramped conditions) with their newly born daughter Frieda. I could see why Sylvia found the house and area attractive, as my pictures show. Fitzroy Road I found to be disappointing – the maisonette flat Plath once lived in was being renovated by builders, as you can see in my photograph below. It felt sad to visit this house where a poet I have so admired took her own life – it was as though the house had no memory of the event whatsoever. Again, this experience was captured in a poem I wrote called Fitzroy Road about how strange it is to visit such a place.
Last year, my husband and I took a holiday in Cornwall and Devon and on a trip to Dartmoor I planned in a quick stop to North Tawton to see Court Green, the house Plath and Hughes lived in and the site of their marriage break-up. The house is breath taking – I wondered naively at the time how a marriage could fail so disastrously in such beautiful surroundings. Everything is still in place as described in Plath’s poetry and journals – the thatched roof, the orchard, the famous yew tree, the headstone-lined wall, the ancient church. Over the years I have also been to see the church where the poets married – St George the Martyr in Bloomsbury – and visited Cambridge where Plath studied as an undergraduate and met Ted. Why visit these places you might ask? Because they inform one’s reading of the work as both Plath and Hughes have written about them so vividly in their prose and poetry. Whenever I read about Court Green or the flat in Fitzroy Road or the graveyard in Heptonstall, I now have my own connection to the place and it makes the writing more alive.
As a poet, Plath’s style and subject matter have been jumping-off points for my own work. I have often imitated it in earlier poems though I never seek to emulate (I’m not stupid enough to think I can ever reach the genius of her poems). Her poetic voice has helped me find my own and the more I write, the more I use what I have learned to create something distinctive, that is uniquely mine – though admittedly with varying degrees of success. Not only has Plath’s style influenced me, I have also used events in her life as metaphors or ways of resonating certain experiences that are similar to my own. Over the years, I have created a poetic biography and tried to imagine episodes in her life that many other writers have tried to fictionalise (Kate Moses’ book Wintering is a classic example). Visits to Plath’s grave or the house where she committed suicide have become poems in their own right. I have collected these poems, some old, some new, and compiled them into a free e-book on Plath, which further illuminates the importance of the poet’s work on my life and writing.
I like to think that, for each practioner of the arts, there is someone important to them – a person who fires the imagination and inspires them. For me, it’s Sylvia Plath. For my husband, a musician, it’s Bach. Their work and their lives become important to us, perhaps because we sympathise with what they were trying to achieve or we view our experiences and desires as being very similar. I think such interests only enrich and energise our own lives and their genius gives us something to strive for in our own artist endeavours, however much we fall short of what they managed to achieve.
All photos copyright © 2012 P.H. Davies
Please see Peter Steinberg’s website for lots of great photos he has taken over the years of places Plath lived and visited.