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 Sylvia Plath, Featured Poet


The legacy of the poet who died at 30.


by Hilary Holladay



As an English professor who teaches the literature of the Beat Movement at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, I spend a lot of time thinking about Jack Kerouac, our fair city's most famous native son. Never has this been more true than this year, when Lowell is hosting an exhibit of Kerouac's original scroll manuscript of On the Road. But even though I sometimes feel like Kerouac is my shadow, or I am his, he is not the only New England author who occupies my mind and heart.

In recent months, I have found myself turning again and again to the poetry of Sylvia Plath, whose 75th birthday will be commemorated this year. Sivvie, as her friends sometimes called her, was born in Boston on October 27, 1932, to parents of German and Austrian descent. After four years in Jamaica Plain, her family moved to Winthrop to be close to Plath's maternal grandparents. In 1942, two years after the death of her father, a professor of entomology who also taught German, Sylvia and her mother and brother moved to Wellesley. There, Sylvia excelled at her studies and earned an academic scholarship to Smith College in Northampton.

A preternaturally gifted young woman, Plath was destined to write some of the greatest poems of the 20th century. Who can forget "Daddy," the poem she wrote both as an elegy for the father whose death she had never fully accepted and as an angry rebuke of the husband from whom she separated after seven years of marriage? The poem begins:

      You do not do, you do not do
      Any more, black shoe
      In which I have lived like a foot
      For thirty years, poor and white,
      Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

The poem ends on this note of searing, triumphant rage:

      There's a stake in your fat black heart
      And the villagers never liked you.
      They are dancing and stamping on you.
      They always knew it was you.
      Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

"Daddy" and its companion poem "Lady Lazarus" are Plath's two most famous works, but they only begin to tell the story of her artistic range. This time of year, I am drawn irresistibly to "Poppies in October," which Plath wrote in London near the end of her brief life of 30 years. In a few spare lines, the poem juxtaposes the startling beauty of the poppies with an oppressive urban scene. An ambulance is picking up a woman under ominous skies as men walk by, their eyes "Dulled to a halt under bowlers." Then comes the sudden, martyred cry of the conclusion:

      O my God, what am I
      That these late mouths should cry open
      In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.

In these lines, Plath revels in a paradise not quite lost. Her unanswerable question tellingly ends with a period rather than a question mark. We are left in our private forests to contemplate the poem's epiphany.

Of all the poems in the collected edition of Plath's work, the one I consider her crowning achievement is "Three Women," subtitled "A Poem for Three Voices." Plath wrote it as a verse play, and it aired on the BBC. The poem imagines the thoughts of three unnamed women who are all pregnant: one who will bear and keep her child, a second who will suffer a miscarriage, and a third, a university student, who will give up her child for adoption. The simplicity of the setup belies the emotional complexity of the poem.

The three women's musings reveal just how conflicted they are about the holy office of motherhood. Here, for instance, is the First Voice speaking near the end of the poem after the birth of her son:

      How long can I be a wall around my green property?
      How long can my hands
      Be a bandage to his hurt, and my words
      Bright birds in the sky, consoling, consoling?
      It is a terrible thing
      To be so open: it is as if my heart
      Put on a face and walked into the world.

In her most moving poems, Sylvia Plath gives voice to the emotions that exist in the fine interstices between the more obvious feelings of love and fear, anger and sorrow.

Here in his hometown of Lowell, Jack Kerouac is a voice to be reckoned with. But sometimes I hear Plath's voice breaking through, traveling to me from the various places she lived in Massachusetts and from her final home in London. As readers, as human beings, we need her, as we need all great poets, to say for us what we could not or would not say on our own. And for that she deserves both our gratitude and our vigilant attention.

Hilary Holladay is a Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where she teaches African American Literature, Literature of the Beat Movement, and Modern Poetry. She is the author of Ann Petry and Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton.

2007 by Hilary Holladay. All rights reserved.

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