Sylvia Plath in the 21st century: read by Maiya Dambawinna

Sylvia Plath is one of the most beloved poets of all time, especially by young writers. We asked Foyle Young Poet Maiya Dambawinna why she thought young poets flock to Plath.

Content warning: contains references to suicide

Sylvia Plath looks to one side
Plath in July 1961 at her Chalcot Square flat in London. Photo: Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri

Last year, The Poetry Society surveyed young poets about their reading and writing habits: when asked their favourite poets of all time, Sylvia Plath was mentioned more than any other poet, with nearly 13% of the young people’s vote – Plath surpassed Maya Angelou, William Shakespeare, Rupi Kaur and 300-odd other poets. So I wanted to find out: why do young poets flock to Plath’s work?

Born in 1932, Sylvia Plath grew up in Boston, Massachusetts; by eight years old, she had already published her first poem in the children’s column of the Boston Herald. Her first story was published shortly before joining Smith College, Boston, and her academic career saw various writing successes. In 1956 she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Cambridge University, where she met Ted Hughes. By June 1956, they were married.

Sylvia Plath published one collection of poems and one novel during her lifetime. The former – The Colossus – hit the shelves in 1960 and was received by critics with relative indifference. The Bell Jar (1962) was written under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas and, similarly, saw little acclaim until after her death. The posthumously published Ariel was by far Plath’s greatest poetic success, and garnered the mass recognition she never achieved during her life. The circumstances that surrounded her death catapulted her into the spotlight. Most of the poems from her collection Ariel were written frantically mere weeks before her suicide. Many of the poems explore her inner mind, and it could be said that it’s her unabashed honesty about her mental health which has inspired masses of young poets.

I would argue that the strong emotions in Plath’s poetry tap into ‘teenage angst’, that the uncertainty of how she feels about her ‘self’ reflects the feelings of many young people across the world, unsure of their goals and aspirations. I believe that Plath’s blatant refusal to write herself into a stereotype can be affirming to a teenager who is still discovering their true self.

I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.

from ‘Tulips’

Far from a ‘nobody’, Plath is perhaps the most well-known female poet of the 20th century. I do think that, for young poets who are just discovering poetry of the past, she is a remarkable writer to begin with. Self-assured and uncertain in equal degrees, Plath presents a beautiful contradiction of human nature, moving from confidence –

Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

Does not my heat astound you. And my light.
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.

from ‘Fever 103’

To almost total disassociation from herself –

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars

from ‘The Moon And The Yew Tree’

Her use of colour highlights the differences in mood between these two poems. ‘Fever 103’ is full of warm, bright colours that reflect the speaker’s self-confident outlook, the idea of a ‘flush on flush’ emphasising the heat of the poem. On the other hand, ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ has a much colder tone: ‘The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.’ The abstraction of ‘clouds… flowering / Blue and mystical’ creates a distance between the reader and speaker.

Photo of a thunderstorm at night - blue clouds

Plath’s work is sometimes considered as part of the American ‘confessional’ school of poetry (more on that here), alongside poets like Anne Sexton, John Berryman and Robert Lowell. This style of writing gained in popularity in the 1950s, and is characterised as deeply personal and self-reflective. Some critics find the term ‘confessional’ problematic because it suggests that the poet is ashamed of what they are ‘confessing’; however, to me Plath seems far from ashamed of her inner thoughts – in fact she appears to revel in her literary freedom and often intentionally broached taboo subjects, as in poems like ‘Daddy’:

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute,
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot,
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

from ‘Daddy’

Plath brings in murder, the Holocaust, and conflates the father figure with that of the husband (“I made a model of you…And I said I do, I do”). Published in the 1960s, I think this poem defied everything that (male) readers expected of women writers. It seems to me that Plath opened a gateway for female poets to break boundaries today, rebuffing the typical stereotype of women at the time. She seems defiant and assertive, and refused to conform to societal expectation:

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

from ‘Lady Lazarus’

The title of this poem (‘Lady Lazarus’) suggests a rebirth, much like the biblical Lazarus being raised from the dead. But the content of the poem also attributes phoenix-like qualities to Plath’s persona – rising “out of the ash” of her unhappiness.

Plath never pretends that married life is the epitome of a woman’s life that 1950s society suggested it was. She writes frankly about the discontent of marriage and the struggle she felt maintaining a role of wife or mother:

Viciousness in the kitchen!
The potatoes hiss.
It is all Hollywood, windowless,
The fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine,
Coy paper strips for doors
Stage curtains, a widow’s frizz.

from ‘Lesbos’

I think Plath’s honesty and fierce independence, captured in precisely crafted poetry, was, and still is, fascinating to readers. You might want to find out more about Plath’s work and get inspired to write too. Some suggestions to get you started:

  • Take some lines from Plath’s poems and write a response
  • Write a Golden Shovel after Sylvia Plath
  • Play around with similar themes as her – colour, contrasts, domestic settings and more

You can enter your poems into our free Young Poets Network challenges, or one of the Poetry Opportunities we list – or the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award if you’re aged 11-17.

Are you a Plath lover? Share links to your favourite poems below…

Photo of Maiya Dambawinna smilingMaiya Dambawinna is a 19 year old student at Durham University. She was a top 15 Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2018, and has since published with Picaroon Poetry, Pulp Poets Press and Honey Machine Magazine. She is contributing editor of the magazine Iceberg Tales.

Published June, 2020

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