April is National Poetry Month and so I think it’s a good time to talk about the influences of Sylvia Plath. As a writer of poetry and fiction in the 20th century, she continues to take my breath away. In particular the influence of Sylvia Plath poetry on mental health awareness is why I’m writing about her today.
Sylvia Plath’s Voice Cuts Through
Some people adore her writing. Meanwhile, others cringe at the mere mention of her name. There’s no denying that Sylvia Plath poetry cuts like slices of an axe – they cut deep into her wounds and can even open up wounds in us, the readers.
But isn’t that the way of really good writers. They connect with us emotionally. It’s like with movies; there’s something about seeing ourselves in that character on the big screen that makes the film all the more real. And words can jump off the page when they were written with intensity and unapologetically so, as with the words of Sylvia Plath.
But whether you like her written work or not, there’s no denying her influence. After all, if she didn’t make you react so strongly one way or the other then she wouldn’t be influential, now would she?
Sylvia Plath Poetry: Her Words Stemmed from Pain
Unfortunately, her words published decades ago continue to hit readers’ hearts and heads so deeply because of her troubled life. If you look deeply into the writing, from poems to her book The Bell Jar, you can likely feel her pain. Here is is an example; it is the last stanza of her poem “Never Try To Trick Me With A Kiss”:
Sooner or later something goes amiss;
The singing birds pack up and fly away;
So never try to trick me with a kiss:
The dying man will scoff and scorn at this.
It has been suggested that she was manic-depressive. In early 1963, Sylvia Plath went to her doctor about her depression and told him about her suicide attempt a decade earlier. At this point, she had lost about 20 pounds and some friends described her as “hysterical” or agitated.
The relationships she had with her mother, father, and husband Ted Hughes were difficult ones too. A feminist reaction to Hughes’ influence on her life has been to chip off the surname “Hughes” in the “Sylvia Plath Hughes” written on her gravestone. But while myths and truths about those relationships continue to abound, including her husband’s infedelity and allegations of domestic abuse, what I know for sure is that she advanced mental health discussions.
Speaking Up: Mental Health Awareness
I would call Sylvia Plath a trailblazer for speaking up about mental health issues when very few people were willing to do so through the medium of poetry or otherwise.
Plath, born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27th, 1932, published many poetic and fictional works over her short 30-year life. While some of these poems, as well as her book The Bell Jar, have been criticized for being violent in some of their images, I commend her for not holding back her feelings.
Indeed, her ability to express her herself through poetry in a way that touches readers shows her talent as a writer. And, yes, that’s even if it is with a disturbing undertone to some readers.
Furthermore, Sylvia Plath’s writing style was pivotal in the confessional movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Her confessional poems written using “I” and “me” included the poem “Daddy,” which was addressed to her dad and included discussion of the Holocaust. This particular writing style changed American poetry as it introduced a new self-expression.
I admire Plath for the courage it took to share her own experiences, including feelings of depression and emotional pain from her relationships with her father and husband. To put emotional pain out into the world isn’t easy, I know that from experience.
She didn’t shelf her mental health issues to write happy poems but instead confronted what she felt. The same was true of The Bell Jar, which was originally titled Diary of a Suicide. For her, I imagine writing was therapeutic in that she could put her thoughts to paper. It also gave readers a reassurance they were not alone in how that felt about:
- The world
- Loved ones, and
I think that’s still the influence of her words today on many readers.
Sylvia Plath’s Legacy
Unfortunately, Sylvia Plath took her own life in London in 1963 after a long struggle with depression and suicide attempts. It was a decade after her mother admitted her into McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, following her suicide attempt in August 1953. A lot of that experience is in The Bell Jar.
I can only imagine what written gifts she would have given the world, had she lived longer. In 1982 she received the Pulitzer Prize; she was the first woman to postumously receive it.
For Sylvia Plath poetry, her fame grew after she died. The Bell Jar has become a classic. Why? Likely partly by those trying to find the answer to why she’d taken her own life. But also to read her words about the mental health struggles of main character Esther and the oppression of women.
The Invisible Illness that Sylvia Plath Brought to Light
Is it ironic that she brought light to the darkness of depression? Whatever the answer to that question, I think she did bring to surface the complexities and gravity of mental illness.
While depression is not something you can see, which is why it is an “invisible” illness, Sylvia Plath poetry puts a tangibleness to it. The passion with which she wrote, the pain that she transmitted through her pen, helped to encourage discussions about mental health. If you feel a heaviness from Sylvia Plath poetry, such as “Lady Lazarus,” then perhaps you are starting to feel a bit of the weight of her depression at the time of writing it. Here is part of “Lady Lazarus”:
Release from the Grips of Depression
It saddens me that the monster called depression took its grip on her as it does and that she never found a release. She did turn to drawing as a way to explore her emotions, which is an activity that can be good for mental health generally.
But escaping the torment isn’t easy. While I was like Plath in that I tried to take my life to escape it, I was fortunate to find after that lowest low a single thought one day that maybe I could get through it. It was a brief thought, in one moment and gone the next, but it was there for just a second. And that was hope that been non-existent for a long time. That was the start of clawing my way back.
If you are contemplating suicide, please know you’re not alone. And that if I can come back from it then you can too. It won’t be easy but it IS possible. Help is out there, both pharmacological and natural. Talk to someone about how you feel. Today.
Who are your favorite female poets? What are some other ways than writing to raise mental health awareness?