Plath – A 50 Year Retrospective

Academics commemorate the life and work of prolific writer and poet Sylvia Plath

The 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s tragic death by suicide has been widely marked in Britain, whether by assessment in the broadsheets, or even the choice of her celebrated novel, The Bell Jar (1963), as Book at Bedtime on Radio 4.

What of Ireland then, where, no less than elsewhere, Plath was an edgy and radical voice picked up from the mid 1960s onwards by women in particular? Well thanks to the students of the University of Ulster, and in particular to PhD student Maeve O’Brien, who is researching Plath, ‘the only event on the island of Ireland’ to mark the anniversary takes place.

O’Brien is intent on ‘celebrat[ing] Plath’s achievements’ because ‘so much focus is placed on Plath’s life and the facts of her death, that her work is often overlooked'. The difficulty is that the enthusiastic audience has gathered on the very night of the anniversary of her death.

Even while watching a preliminary projection of scenes from her life – happy holiday snaps, idyllic pictures of Plath as mother with children – it is impossible to do so without a sense of foreboding. A troubled and introspective school self-portrait, or frantically corrected and re-corrected manuscripts, or lists of works sent hopefully to publishers, suggested difficulties and struggle.

Philip McGowan gives the first of three broadly academic contributions in his exploration of ‘Morning Song’, the first poem in Ariel (1965), which begins:

Love set you going like a fat gold watch,
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

McGowan is surely right to celebrate the poem for its ‘optimism’, ‘elation’ and sense of ‘possibility’; after all Ariel in Shakespeare’s Tempest was freed from imprisonment because of his potential for good.

Plath’s ‘crystal clarity’ is evident. McGowan homes in on another quality – ‘aeration’, arguing for the significance of ‘o’s, all 56 of them in the poem. A questioner slightly undermines the proposition by pointing out that ‘o’s are pronounced in different ways – some are long and others are short!

Nerys Williams from University College Dublin explored Plath’s radio broadcasts. It was a hallmark of Plath's frenetic activity that she made 17 of these in three years, and, happily, recordings of seven have survived. It is good to hear a feisty and at times humorous voice, and her dismissal of the suggestion that she worked in tandem with her husband, Ted Hughes.

Her radio play Three Women for Radio 3 – three monologues by women awaiting childbirth in a maternity hospital – was, in fact, strongly influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s film, Brink of Life (1958), though this is no more than evidence that Plath, apart from instinctive talent, was open to a wide range of poetic and cultural influences.

In the end, of course, we can’t escape the Plath/Hughes relationship and its failure prior to her suicide. It is done in a most entertaining and penetrating way by Gillian Groszewski from Trinity College in her contribution, ‘The Truth Untold’.

This takes as its unlikely starting point Plath’s story ‘The 59th Bear’, about a couple touring Yellowstone Park in the far west of the United States and agreeing to count the number of bears they see. It all comes to a sticky end as the man is killed by the 59th.

The story was based on an actual event, when Plath and Hughes toured Yellowstone and were attacked, though the bear merely ravaged their car. They both wrote home separately about it, with Plath rather emphasising her dominant role, and Hughes his.

Hughes couldn’t let the story go, however, and returned to it at the very end of his life in Birthday Letters (1998), when he re-asserted his manly role, even taking up a hatchet that didn’t appear in previous accounts.

Plath couldn’t answer back by then, but in the meantime some clever researcher has discovered that there was no record of anyone being killed by a bear in Yellowstone Park in the 30 years prior to her and Hughes’s stay there. Thus the major premise of the story was no more than a campsite myth. Finding truth in this one small arena is impossible.

We are then left with the poetry and writing, and readings by Sophie Collins, Stephen Connolly, Manuela Moser and Sam Riviere make a strong case for its enduring power.

This is true whether of the simultaneously self-deprecating, funny, and yet bitter account of Plath’s skiing accident in The Bell Jar, or of the bee sequence from The Colossus (1960) and its tribute to the endurance of the tattered queen bee. Yes, Plath lives!