A death as potent as her poetry

Posted: October 23, 2003

Sylvia trumpets its true subject in the opening frames. "Dying Is an art, like everything else," Gwyneth Paltrow quotes, in a narcotic monotone, from poet Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus."

"I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I've a call."

And from that moment, the movie, which opens nationally tomorrow, storms toward its inexorable conclusion - Plath, with a folded tea towel on which to rest her troubled head, and a waiting stove. Her two young children sleep close by, milk and bread set out for them, tape masking their door from the gas.

Plath was brilliant, beautiful and miserable, and dead at age 30. Her life, like that of many a young suicide, has virtually eclipsed her formidable art. She was a poet in cashmere sweater sets and vermilion lipstick, with showgirl legs. Paltrow's intelligent good looks are almost an ideal match, though Plath's eyes were hauntingly dark, almost opaque.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the poet's death - and Monday, the 71st of her birth - while an ongoing global industry of biography, criticism, fiction, plays and even an opera has transformed Plath into myth and martyr.

This fall alone marks the arrival of the movie; Diane Middlebrook's trenchant Her Husband: Hughes and Plath - A Marriage; the paperback of Kate Moses' Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath; as well as the collected poems of her husband, Ted Hughes, all 1,376 pages.

Since the 1971 American publication of Plath's tart autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar - a Catcher in the Rye from a female perspective, which was her intention - she has been a hero to many smart young women. Plath's towering ambition to marry a great (and handsome) artist, bear children and be a brilliant writer presaged the feminist movement. Plath's writing is frankly sexual, as is her admission, in the days before the birth-control pill, to having multiple partners.

"I had never read her type of writing before and found her extremely witty with a sort of blackness," says Sarah Sterling, a Bryn Mawr College junior. "In high school, depression was sort of a cool thing, walking around holding a copy of The Bell Jar. I've since learned to detach her poetry from her life."

A scholarship student at Smith, a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge, Plath married British poet - and future poet laureate of England - Hughes, a craggy colossus of a man with rock-star looks, a heat-seeking missile for stunning women of dangerous temperament.

Their meeting, faithfully depicted in the movie, began at a party: Plath recites his poetry, a torrid kiss, Hughes snatches her hair band and earrings, and she bites his cheek, drawing blood. "The solar system married us," Hughes wrote years later. They wed 112 days after meeting, on Bloomsday, June 16, the day commemorated in James Joyce's Ulysses.

That Hughes left Plath for Assia Wevill - another suicide, who killed their 4-year-old daughter with sleeping pills and gas from a stove - and eventually became rich and celebrated, caused him to be vilified by Plathians. He died in 1988, at age 58, seven months after the publication of Birthday Letters, his long-awaited response to rereading Plath.

Like warring camps in a divorce, admirers frequently side with one artist while disparaging the other. Sylvia shows how impossible Plath became, her paranoia pushing Hughes toward Wevill, though it's worth noting that the original title was Ted and Sylvia. Daniel Craig, a fine actor, is neither as tall nor as striking as Hughes.

"I remember teaching 'The Thought-Fox,' which is a really great poem, at Smith," says Karl Kirchwey, now director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. "The students wouldn't even consider it because it's by Hughes, who is persona non grata there. They had been completely clouded by their prejudices." In Plath's "beatification process," Kirchwey says, admirers have ignored "the fact that she was often dislikable, an egomaniac and extremely ambitious."

Kirchwey's Bryn Mawr poetry students share an admiration for Plath's work, citing her anger and intensity, and view Hughes as a lighter, lesser poet. They're wary of the movie.

"When I heard Gwyneth Paltrow was playing her, I groaned," says senior Robin Reineke, a view shared by classmates. "She's such a golden girl, and I worry the movie is going to glamorize and exploit the story, romanticizing the idea of women and depression."

Plath made a serious attempt at killing herself at age 20, hiding in a crawl space under her family house after overdosing on sleeping pills. She wasn't found for two days, and later endured shock treatments. She was hospitalized at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., the Harvard of psychiatric institutions, which has treated Robert Lowell, Susanna Kaysen (Girl Interrupted), James Taylor and Plath's friend, Anne Sexton - another great beauty and poet, who killed herself by asphyxiation in 1974.

"I think she's obviously a brilliant poet," says psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, author of Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. "But the whole romanticization of suicide leaves me cold. Her life is so mythologized, the writers who come close to her are the Romantic poets - Byron, Keats and Shelley. There's a romantic intensity about early death, and adolescence is when people first start to think about mortality."

Even without her premature death, Plath's poetry attracts young women readers "drawn to its terrifying emotion," says Jane Hedley, who teaches Plath's work at Bryn Mawr. "The poem 'Daddy' is just bursting, churning, it's almost speaking as if it's a severed head, the ghost of a prophet."

"When I taught at Stanford," Middlebrook says, "there was such a great passion for her among young women. There can be a very distasteful aspect of femininity that's masochist. As Plath wrote, 'every woman adores a fascist.' Her other hold is the sheer rage that is in her poetry, an anger that is part of adolescence."

Karen Kukil is curator of the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith, where scholars visit from all over the world, including Bosnia and Japan. "A lot of people assume she was a victim, which I try hard to correct," says Kukil, editor of Plath's journals.

Sylvia depicts Plath suffering from crushing writer's block and jealous of Hughes' early success and creative agility, but, Kukil says, people "are always surprised by the sheer volume of her work and how hard she worked to achieve her reputation. She was always writing, rewriting, letters, journals, poetry."

Kukil hopes Sylvia "will reintroduce readers to Plath's poetry," though filmmakers were hamstrung by the often-warring, equally vigilant estates of both poets - Plath's work is controlled by their two children, Frieda and Nicholas, and Hughes' by his last wife, Carol.

In a movie about two towering 20th-century poets, only snippets of their work were allowed under fair-use copyright guidelines, which have hampered biographers. "One of the more impressive things about Sylvia," writes New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, ". . . is the fact that the film was made at all."

Time and so many books on her have done nothing to diminish the poet's legacy.

"Plath retains her hold," Middlebrook says. "She's helped keep poetry alive in universities. There are so many students stoked on Plath, they can't get enough, the work is so beautiful and powerful and filled with rage."

Plath, as Middlebrook's biography shows - though Sylvia does not - was gifted at virtually everything she did, from housekeeping to serving as literary agent for Hughes and herself. As a romantic union, the couple crashed and burned. As a creative match, the six-year marriage was a success, marked by a febrile creativity that ensured both their legacies, while continuing to inspire his work for years. If his heart and body strayed, Hughes always remained faithful to her art.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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