Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Sylvia Plath

Episode Summary

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was one of the most interesting and admired poets of the 20th century.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Before we get started with today’s episode, I want to let you know that our story contains mentions of suicide.

Today’s Beautiful Mind is one of the most interesting and admired poets of the 20th century. While she achieved a level of fame during her short life, her confessional poetry, often documenting her sense of alienation and self-destruction, became increasingly popular and revered after her death. Much of her poetry came out of her own personal experiences, and by extension, reflected the condition of many women in postwar America. Let’s talk about Sylvia Plath.

Sylvia was born on October 27, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts to Otto and Aurelia Plath. Otto was a German immigrant and professor of entomology at Boston University. Sylvia’s mother had been one of his students.

In 1936, when Sylvia was four, her family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts, a town on the coast where Sylvia’s mother grew up.

From an early age, Sylvia was a devoted reader and a very talented writer. She had her first poem published when she was 8 years old in the children’s section of the Boston Herald newspaper. After that, Sylvia published additional poems in regional magazines and newspapers throughout her childhood.

A week after Sylvia’s 8th birthday, tragedy struck when her father died suddenly from complications following the amputation of his foot. His death had a major and lasting impact on Sylvia, whose poetry, particularly her famous poem “Daddy”, often concerned the troubled relationship she had with her authoritarian father.

After her father’s death, Sylvia’s mother moved the family to Wellesley, Massachusetts so she could take a teaching job at Boston University. Of her life up until that move, Sylvia later wrote that her first 9 years "sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth."

While in high school, Sylvia sold her first poem to a national publication- the Christian Science Monitor- and sold her first short story to Seventeen Magazine. She was both talented and driven to make her way as a writer.

In 1951, after graduating from high school, Sylvia attended Smith College on a full scholarship. She excelled there academically, artistically and socially, but during this period Sylvia began dealing with severe depression. She described it as “if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”

During her sophomore year, Sylvia was named co-winner of the Mademoiselle magazine fiction contest for one of her short stories. In 1953, after her junior year, she won a coveted summer job as a guest editor at Mademoiselle for which she spent a month living in New York City. This turned out to be a tumultuous experience that coincided with a major depressive episode.

In August of that summer, Sylvia tried to commit suicide by swallowing sleeping pills in her first medically-documented suicide attempt. She survived the attempt but was hospitalized and went through electro-shock therapy. She would later recall the experience of her breakdown and subsequent recovery in her only published novel, The Bell Jar.

After her hospitalization, Sylvia returned to Smith to receive her degree with highest honors. She subsequently won a Fulbright fellowship to study at Cambridge University in England where she continued her writing.

In 1956, while at Cambridge, Sylvia met poet Ted Hughes and after a whirlwind romance, the two married months later. Hughes was already a well-known and celebrated poet at the time, and Sylvia admired his work.

In 1957, Sylvia and Ted moved to the U.S. where Sylvia took up a teaching position at her alma mater, Smith College. Unfortunately Sylvia found it hard to teach and write at the same time, so the couple moved to Boston in 1958 where Sylvia worked as a receptionist.

At night, Sylvia attended creative writing seminars given by the famous poet Robert Lowell. The poet Anne Sexton was one of her classmates. Both Lowell and Sexton encouraged Sylvia to spend more of her time writing from her own experiences, and Sylvia confided much to these two about her struggles with depression and her suicide attempt. Anne Sexton also encouraged Sylvia to embrace a more female perspective in her writing, which Sylvia took to heart.

At the end of 1959, Sylvia and Ted moved back to London, and in April of 1960, their daughter Frieda was born. In October of 1960, Sylvia published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. Most of the poems in The Colossus had already been printed in major publications like Harper’s and The New Yorker, but the collection was met with general acclaim in the literary world.

Sylvia continued to struggle with depression throughout this period. In June of 1962, Sylvia ran her car off of the road and into a lake in what she described afterwards as a suicide attempt. She found out a month later that her husband was having a long term affair, after which Sylvia and Ted separated.

Starting in October 1962 Sylvia began writing new poems at an extraordinary rate. At least 26 of the poems written during this now-famous 6 month creative period were included in her masterwork collection of poetry, Ariel.

In the early months of 1963, Sylvia’s depression worsened and she began to see a new psychiatrist who put her on an MAOI Inhibitor and arranged for a live-in nurse.

When the nurse arrived on the morning of February 11, 1963, she couldn’t get into Sylvia’s flat. After breaking in with the help of a local workman, the two found Sylvia in the kitchen with her head in the oven, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. She had sealed the kitchen off from her sleeping children with towels, cloths, and tape. She was just 30 years old.

Ariel, the collection of poems that Sylvia furiously wrote during the last months of her life, was published posthumously in 1965 and brought Sylvia to greater fame than she ever achieved during her lifetime. These poems were raw, confessional, and broke many of the conventions that bound Sylvia’s early work.

The impact of Ariel was dramatic and sparked the growth of a much broader following of devoted and enthusiastic readers. Joyce Carol Oates, a noted admirer, wrote about Sylvia’s best known poems from Ariel, “many of them written during the final, turbulent weeks of her life, read as if they’ve been chiseled, with a fine surgical instrument, out of arctic ice.”

The first stanza of Sylvia’s poem “Tulips” which appears in “Ariel” reads:

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.

Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in

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.

I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses

And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!