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Sylvia Plath....... .Talent Development Resources..home page...site map

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Sylvia Plath  [1932 - 1963]
 

left: Sylvia with Mother and Brother, 1950;

right: at Yale prom [from book Rough Magic]

far right self-portrait, Smith College, 1950-1955

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That the full expression of Plath's genius -- the poems such as "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" that she knew would make her name -- coincided with the breakup of her seven-year marriage to Ted Hughes has been made much of by feminist critics, who rightly see Plath's anger as the crucible for this astonishing work. 

(Typically a slow, exacting writer, Plath fired off 21 poems in the 28 days after Hughes left her.) ... 

Some poems, such as "Medusa," were written when Plath was not only burning with indignation but also running a high fever, alone in the flat with her two sick children...

Regina Marler ... [LA Times Jan 26 2003] - from her review of book: 
Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath by Kate Moses

...related page:....anger

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      The Bell Jar - Chapter 1

I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, 
but I couldn't get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty.

It is the summer of 1953 and Esther Greenwood, a college student, is living in New York and working at a month-long job as guest editor for a fashion magazine.

As the novel opens, Esther worries about the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, a husband and wife who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union...

She also worries about the fact that she cannot enjoy her job, her new clothes, or the parties she attends, despite realizing that most girls would envy her.

from Sparknotes page

...image from cover of an edition of The Bell Jar

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I was 20 and I was doing a film called Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, and there were all these fantastic actresses in it -- Jennifer Beals and Jane Adams and Jennifer Jason Leigh -- who said, "You know, you should play Sylvia Plath one day. You sort of resemble her." 

I had never read The Bell Jar, and I still have the book they bought -- they all signed it to me. ... 

To read that book when you're in the age frame that it was written in, it's disturbing. Because you can so quickly tap into those feelings of indefinable walls and edges and not knowing who you are. And you can see how somebody could go past that into an area of madness.

Gwyneth Paltrow

Style.com excerpt from article: "Shining Through" by Vicki Woods, Vogue, Oct 2003

official "Sylvia" site  /  photo ©2003 Focus Features

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Gwyneth Paltrow made sure her new film Sylvia was kind to the tragic poetess' husband Ted Hughes - because she wanted it to portray both sides of their story. 

In Sylvia, Gwyneth takes on the role of Bell Jar writer Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide, but despite her strong affiliation with Plath, she didn't find herself angry with Hughes. 

Many literary historians have named Hughes' infidelity as one of the reasons Plath gassed herself to death in 1963, but Paltrow doesn't concur with their version of events. 

She says, "I'm not interested in vilifying people. It takes two people to compose a relationship and the film feels like a documentary of their life together and that his side is also represented. 

"The truth is they were incredibly in love, as evidenced by the fact he published letters before he died.

"It was one of those relationships that was so full of passion it was like the 'can't live with you, can't live without you' scenario.


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"I don't subscribe to the point of view that he was a misogynist and responsible for her demise. Life's far more complicated than that." 

[imdb.com Celeb News 30 Oct 2003]

photo: Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath dancing in a scene in 
her film 'Sylvia' with actor Daniel Craig who plays her 
husband Ted Hughes.

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After The Bell Jar's heroine has a nervous breakdown, she sheds her identity as an emotionally repressed overachiever and starts telling the truth to wrong-headed authority figures and hypocritical peers. 

It is in part this acerbic "truth-telling" that attracts teenagers. Angelica Torn, the star of the Plath biographical one-act play Edge, recalls being drawn into the Plath fold more than 20 years ago, at age 14, by The Bell Jar's "brutal reality."

"I was having problems with cliques," Torn remembers. "Then I found The Bell Jar and read it five times." Before she read Plath in the late 1970s, Torn says she was a "wild child" sneaking out of her family's home at night to frequent clubs.


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"The Bell Jar gave me faith in sticking to my individuality -- with its scars and bruises. Plath helped me have faith in what's really there."

from article Dying for Melodrama - by Alisa Quart, 
Psychology Today, Dec 2003

Angelica Torn as Sylvia Plath in "Edge" 
photo by Carol Rosegg [New York, July/Sep 2003]

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Sylvia Plath published her first poem when she was eight. Sensitive, intelligent, compelled toward perfection in everything she attempted, she was, on the surface, a model daughter, popular in school, earning straight A's, winning the best prizes.

By the time she entered Smith College on a scholarship in 1950 she already had an impressive list of publications, and while at Smith she wrote over four hundred poems. 

Sylvia's surface perfection was however underlain by grave personal discontinuities, some of which doubtless had their origin in the death of her father (he was a college professor and an expert on bees) when she was eight. 

During the summer following her junior year at Smith, having returned from a stay in New York City where she had been a student "guest editor" at Mademoiselle Magazine, Sylvia nearly succeeded in killing herself by swallowing sleeping pills.

She later described this experience in an autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, published in 1963. After a period of recovery involving electroshock and psychotherapy Sylvia resumed her pursuit of academic and literary success, graduating from Smith summa cum laude in 1955 and winning a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge, England.

from Short Biography on sylviaplath.de

 
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So people are drawn to her work in much the same spirit as Time magazine featured her at length: not for the poetry but for the gossipy, extra-literary "human interest." 

Yet just as the suicide adds nothing at all to the poetry, so the myth of Sylvia as a passive victim is a total perversion of the woman she was. It misses altogether her liveliness, her intellectual appetite and harsh wit, her great imaginative resourcefulness and vehemence of feeling, her control. 

Above all, it misses the courage with which she was able to turn disaster into art. The pity is not that there is a myth of Sylvia Plath, but that the myth is not simply that of an enormously gifted poet whose death came carelessly, by mistake and too soon.

A. Alvarez - NY Times, April 11, 1972 - excerpt from his book: The Savage God: A Study of Suicide

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And real teens continue to love Sylvia Plath. Jesse Cordes Selbin, a 16-year-old in Georgetown, Texas, first read Plath's novel The Bell Jar when she was 14. ... 

"Plath is so good at gory, descriptively gross things," says the teen. The Bell Jar is not just a novel about teenage crack-ups. It's a novel, in a sense, about Selbin herself.

The Bell Jar tracks high-achieving Plath stand-in Esther Greenwood, who despite her conventional achievements -- high marks at an elite college, an internship at Mademoiselle magazine, a number of suitors -- is alternately despairing and independent-minded. 

Esther is also fueled by contempt for other girls, those who merely dream of being hat makers or paramours, while she aspires to be a poet. ...

"Esther is an outcast," says Selbin. "If you are an outcast teenager, you want to identify with someone who feels the same way -- that 's not Miss Popularity and her crowd." ...


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Plath's short life had the mark of melodrama. Her stormy marriage to the poet Ted Hughes was troubled by his emotional domination of her, and their bitter separation.

Plath's suicide in February 1963, at age 30, occurred at the peak of her creativity, just after she completed the poems published postumously as Ariel. 

Sixteen-year-old Plath fan Selbin understands the intrigue of such an exit. "If you die right after you do your great work, then you get to be even more idolized, like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. I try not to buy into that."

from article Dying for Melodrama by Alissa Quart, 
Psychology Today, Dec 2003

photo above: Plath in Fall 1952 [from book Rough Magic]

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Unfortunately, Plath's appeal is because she killed herself, which is not a great legacy. 

Plath, like many people with dramatic lives, suffered from severe depression. Teenagers may appreciate Plath because they are experiencing intense moods and emotions for the first time. They are also at the average age for the onset of depression.

Kay Redfield Jamison - professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University - 
from article Dying for Melodrama by Alisa Quart, Psychology Today, Dec 2003

...Kay Redfield Jamison, MD.  Touched With Fire : Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament

...related pages:....depression.......depression:: teen/young adult.

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I think I would like to call myself "the girl who wanted to be God." 

Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be - perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it.

....Sylvia Plath

*related page:**body image

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People thinking that Sylvia Plath was a poor, sensitive poet, are not getting that she had great amounts of ambition and anger that moved her along, or she wouldn't have been able to fight against that depression to produce such an incredible body of work by the age of thirty.

Elizabeth Wurtzel   [randomhouse.com interview] - author of Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women

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When the expatriate American poet Sylvia Plath gassed herself in her London flat in February 1963, Betty Friedan was anticipating the publication of The Feminine Mystique later that year. 

The confluence of these two events was the first trickle in that river of no return known as the Women's Movement, for Plath, trying to write while saddled with two toddlers and estranged from her philandering husband, died in the name of Having It All.

from article: The other Plath by Florence King, American Spectator, January 1992 -- 
posted on  PlathOnline.com

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Plath's Daughter Upset with Gwyneth's Film

The daughter of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes has penned an angry poem to protest the making of a new film about her family. 

Frieda Hughes' prickly poem My Mother, which will feature in the upcoming issue of British society magazine Tatler, claims BBC bosses are wrong to make a movie cashing in on her mother's tragic gas oven suicide.

The poem criticizes the makers of the film Ted & Sylvia and its potential audience. 

Hughes, who was two when her mother killed herself, writes, 
"Now they want to make a film
For anyone lacking the ability
To imagine the body, head in oven
Orphaning children."


The poet, 42, claims she has been "pestered" to help movie makers complete the project, which stars Gwyneth Paltrow, but she's determined to not even see it when it's released. 

She says, "I wrote a letter to them saying, 'I don't want to collaborate, ' and they kept coming back. Why would I want to be involved in moments of my childhood which I never want to return to? 

"I want nothing to do with this film. I will never, never in a million years go to see it." 

Hughes, who is literary executor of her mother's estate, has banned the BBC from using any of Plath's poetry in the film. 

[imdb.com Celebrity News 4 Feb 2003]

> Frieda Hughes' collection Wooroloo was a 
Poetry Book Society Special Commendation.

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McLean Hospital, in Massachusetts, was for years America's most literary mental institution, a place that Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton knew well. ...

In the modern era McLean became, if anything, more literary and even fashionable. The curious "McLean chic," which culminated in the unexpected success of the movie version of Susanna Kaysen's memoir, Girl, Interrupted, can be traced to the fall of 1953, when McLean's director, Franklin Wood, admitted a Smith College senior named Sylvia Plath, who was suffering from suicidal depression. 

Just six years after her treatment, when she was twenty-seven, Plath realized that she could capitalize on her stay at McLean.

After spotting two articles on mental health in Cosmopolitan magazine, she wrote in her journal, "I must write one about a college girl suicide ... And a story, a novel even ...

"There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don't relive, recreate it."


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When Plath's novel, The Bell Jar (1971), finally appeared, it became must reading for girls, in the same way that J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was devoured by moody adolescent boys. 

Wandering the fictional corridors of "Belsize" (Belknap) and "Wymark" (Wyman) Halls, thousands of American teenagers were getting a first-hand look inside McLean.

from The Mad Poets Society by Alex Beam, 
The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001

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....articles:
 

Are Creativity and Mental Illness Linked?
[from Today's Science On File ]  Writers Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, painter Vincent van Gogh,
and musician Kurt Cobain all committed suicide.

Depression and Creativity - by Douglas Eby

Dying for Melodrama by Alissa Quart, Psychology Today, Dec 2003
Sylvia Plath is American poetry's lone 20th-century celebrity. We have largely forgotten the lives of once famed public poets such as Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. But 40 years after her death, we are still enthralled with the 1950s sweater girl who transformed herself into the poetic persona of Lady Lazarus.

The Real Sylvia Plath  - by Kate Moses [Salon.com]
"Her newly published, unexpurgated journals reveal the poet's true demons -- and support a little-known theory about what drove her to suicide.... The unabridged journals and other new information... lend credence to a little-noticed theory that Sylvia Plath suffered not just from some form of mental illness (probably manic depression) but also from severe PMS. The idea that Plath's demons had a biological basis, far from being reductive, only increases her stature as a poet and a human being. She wrested her art from great darkness."

The 'Sylvia Plath' effect - by Deborah Smith Bailey, APA Monitor on Psychology, November 2003
Popular culture has long stereotyped poets as depressed and creative scientists as mad. In fact, the idea of a link between creativity and mental illness goes back to the time of Aristotle, when he wrote that eminent philosophers, politicians, poets and artists all have tendencies toward "melancholia." ... Moreover, in a more recent retrospective study of 1,629 writers, Kaufman [James Kaufman, PhD, of California State University, San Bernardino] found that poets--and in particular female poets --were more likely than fiction writers, nonfiction writers and playwrights to have signs of mental illness, such as suicide attempts or psychiatric hospitalizations.

In a second analysis of 520 eminent American women, he again found that poets were more likely to have mental illnesses and to experience personal tragedy than eminent journalists, visual artists, politicians and actresses--a finding Kaufman has dubbed "the Sylvia Plath effect" after the noted poet who had depression and eventually committed suicide. The findings appear in The Journal of Creative Behavior (Vol. 35, No. 1).
 
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...sites:.
 

A Celebration of Sylvia Plath....source for self-portrait, Smith College, 1950-1955

PlathOnline.com

sylviaplath.de

Sylvia Plath - The greatest poet ever! - source for 2 photos at top etc

Sylvia Plath Forum

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....books:
 

The Journals of Sylvia Plath - by Sylvia Plath
"'It's the tally of my lusts and my little ideas,' wrote 17-year-old Sylvia Plath of the journals in which she confessed her judgments, her 'test tube infatuations,' her story notes, her cake baking, her dreams and her fears from the age of 12 until days before her death by her own hand at the age of 30. Plath's characterization of her journal stands in stunning contrast to the monumentally revealing document she created: more than a thousand pages scattered through various handwritten notebooks, diaries, fragments and typed sheets, the sum of it an extraordinary record of what she called the 'forging of a soul,' the creation of a writer and a woman whose many veils and guises have succeeded in forestalling anyone from knowing who she really was, despite her lifelong quest to discover the answer for herself."  [review by Kate Moses, Salon.com]

The Bell Jar - by Sylvia Plath
"Plath was an excellent poet but is known to many for this largely autobiographical novel. The Bell Jar tells the story of a gifted young woman's mental breakdown beginning during a summer internship as a junior editor at a magazine in New York City in the early 1950s. The real Plath committed suicide in 1963 and left behind this scathingly sad, honest and perfectly-written book, which remains one of the best-told tales of a woman's descent into insanity."

< more Sylvia Plath books


Rough Magic : A Biography of Sylvia Plath - by Paul Alexander

Sounds from the Bell Jar: Ten Psychotic Authors - by Gordon Claridge et al.
"..a unique collaboration between an Oxford psychologist and two literary critics. It explores the lives and works of ten authors, among them Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, who embody both serious mental illness and great originality of thought. Drawing upon personal diaries, historical archives, clinical records and literary productions, this book examines modes of thinking which psychosis and creativity share."

Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison
"..Jamison (Psychiatry/Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine) has a rich lode of firsthand observers to quote from: Byron, Coleridge, van Gogh, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Virginia Woolf,and many more, all of whom offer spellbinding words about their bouts with manic depression. [From Kirkus Reviews]

Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath - by Kate Moses
 
 

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