This year the 11 February saw both the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Bell Jar” and the 50th anniversary of the death of its author, Sylvia Plath. Whilst her death was undeniably tragic, I can’t see Sylvia Plath’s life as one of tragedy. In my review of the film “Sylvia” I argued that her life was not foreshadowed by her death. Even “Ariel”, the collection she was working on just before her death, contains moments of joy. The first poem, “Morning Song” ends, “Your handful of notes/ The clear vowels rise like balloons.”
I was introduced to Sylvia Plath’s work by a Ted Hughes poem, “You hated Spain”. School taught me that men wrote poems about war. Either women didn’t write poems or women’s poems weren’t worth studying. I didn’t believe either option. When I read “You hated Spain”, I wanted to find out more about this woman whose poems were yet to be written. I started with “Ariel” and worked backwards. Finally: proof that not only could a woman write poetry but also that she was worth studying.
I don’t believe you either have to be “pro Sylvia” or “pro Ted”, I enjoy poetry by both poets and don’t blame Ted Hughes for Sylvia Plath’s death. She’d left the manuscript for her “Ariel” poems carefully organised so the first poem started with the word “love” and the last ended on “Spring”.
Ted Hughes faced a difficult task. Unable to see into the future and predict if there would be enough demand for him to be able to persuade a publisher to publish any further posthumous books by his late, estranged wife, did he alter her manuscript to include her most recent poems or did he go with her original order and risk the most recent poems being left unpublished? With hindsight, it’s easy to say he should have left her manuscript alone. But now both versions are in print: Ted Hughes’s arrangement and Sylvia Plath’s original. Readers can make their own minds up.
In this 50th anniversary year, I’d strongly recommend readers do read the original Sylvia Plath. It’s what I’ll be doing.
By Emma Lee