The recent 50th anniversary of The Bell Jar also ensured that Plath is very much present in the early part of this year. As might be expected, there has been a recent biographical focus given to Plath in books by Carl Rollyson (American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath) and Andrew Wilson (Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, and the forthcoming Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder). These serve as a reminder that her Sylvia Plath's life is interesting, important, and relevant. Any consideration of her work has to be mindful of her life: we would not have one without the other.
That began my interest in Sylvia Plath, which some thought would be just a phase. I think I have surpassed the phase designation! And there has not been a day since when I haven't thought about my introduction to her, the circumstances under which I was in that poetry course, and my decision to then major in English as opposed another interest (Pimpology). But, enough (explicitly) about me...
Sylvia Plath's life and death are tangled in a seemingly ceaseless round of controversy. We have been reading about this for the last six weeks essentially nonstop: "The engine is killing the track." Enough: this is not the time for that.
Plath's life remains interesting and instructive. The subject of newspaper article and books, Plath has proven to be an inspiration to people across several different creative genres and generations. The physical output of her life, now fastidiously available in numerous archives around the world as well as some materials, undoubtedly, still in private hands, has launched a thousand dissertations. And only about four websites! What is more, through her archives and through the publications Sylvia Plath lives on. As she wrote in her journal on August 30, 1951, "It is sad to be able only to mouth other poets. I want someone to mouth me" (92). Well, she got that which she desired.
The contribution Sylvia Plath made to literature is unshakable. I even find it hard to define: on some levels it is a personal connection one makes to Plath's words, on other levels, it is more cerebral. The controversy that surrounds her aside, Plath is a formidable poet who has somehow managed to attract readers and fans of varying backgrounds. She is not just a poet for poets, not just a writer for academics, and not just for casual readers. She is for everyone, and I think Sylvia Plath recognized this even when she was alive: that once a work is published it is out there consumption in any fashion and by anyone. This is of a higher level than the hackneyed and futile "ownership" debate. We all own our feelings and our connections with Plath's words; and if that therefore translates into a kind of ownership of Plath then it is a natural byproduct and not something to be so derided.
The life of Sylvia Plath is constantly being re-evaluated and re-made. As new students are introduced to her each year, there comes the potential for that same spark of interest that struck many of you and me (holy sh-t!) 19 years ago to develop into something full-blown ("So many of us! / So many of us!"). This benefits our understanding of her poetry and other creative works, and can change way we think about those works: both the separate works' individuality and the way in which a connective narrative can be seen.
Today we must think about those still living that Sylvia Plath knew: particularly her brother Warren Plath and daughter Frieda Hughes. Likewise, of her friends Elizabeth Sigmund, A. Alvarez, Elinor Klein, and Phil McCurdy, to name a few. We remember, too, those that have since passed on: Aurelia Plath, Ted Hughes, Nicholas Hughes, Marcia Brown, and many others. Since 11 February 1963 when she died, and 18 February when her funeral took place, Sylvia Plath has barely had a moment to rest in peace and it seems unlikely that the controversy that developed surrounding her final months and her death will ever abate and level out into a place where the work can be at the forefront of academic and popular consciousness.
But, let's let me shut up (oh, the courage!) and let Plath have the last word today. From her short essay "Context":
"I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far—among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime."