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Sylvia Plath Poetry: Her Influence on Mental Health Awareness

Reading Sylvia Plath

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.

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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.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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
  • Themselves

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”:

And I a smiling woman.   
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.   
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.
Drawing for mental health.

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?

63 thoughts on “Sylvia Plath Poetry: Her Influence on Mental Health Awareness”

  1. This is a beautiful analysis. If I could speak with one person from the past it would be her. The raw pain she experienced is too close to home for so many of us.

  2. Excellent post… thank you for sharing… I love what I’ve read by her, although not too much, I admit. On a side note, and if you have time, please listen to a song called “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have… but I have it” (long, but eloquent title). It’s a Lana del Rey’s song. She mentions Sylvia Plath … in fact the song was originally meant to be titled “Sylvia Plath”. The lyrics speak out loud and there are references to poems too (I have checked out Genius for deeper insights on it!) hugs, CB 😘🧡

    1. Ohhhh thanks for telling me about the Lana del Rey song and YES I’ll check it out, Aqui! I wouldn’t have even known about such a song if I hadn’t gotten your beautiful comment here. Have a wonderful weekend, including Easter if you celebrate it. BIG hugs xo

    2. Awesome. You’ll think the lyrics are powerful, given the “Plath” context. 😌💛 yes, of course, I’ll be celebrating Easter. Thank you for the words here. Big hugs back at you. Happy Easter, dear CB 😘 🐣

    3. Hi sweet you! What a song, wow, the lyrics blew me away! Thanks again for telling me about it. Happy Easter! It’s a lovely time for family, isn’t it xo And you’re part of my family ((HUGS))

  3. Such an insightful post Christy. I love Plath’s work, and as depressing as some her work is, it’s real and raw emotion. I do tend to think she may have been bipolar undiagnosed? And loved the Bell Jar. <3

    1. Hi Debby, I’m glad you know about her work already. As for her mental illness, there are some camps who say yes she was bipolar, while others say there’s nothing concrete to that. What a lot of people seem to agree on is that if she was bipolar, she wasn’t diagnosed as such in her lifetime, unfortunately.

    2. As many weren’t diagnosed back then, just called crazy! I’m convinced it’s the same with A.D.D. which was unheard of back then too. :)

  4. Wow. I loved this piece you wrote, Christy! I had no idea about all this with Sylvia Plath and she reminds me of Emily Dickinson in that she’s raw…and accessible. Thank you for sharing this and now I have a new poet to read.
    Speaking of poems, you have an incredible poetic talent. I’m remembering your other blog with the incredible writing you shared there.
    Lastly, depression, it might not be visible, but I think it’s getting a LOT more tangible. Advances in brain science can literally show that neurotransmitters are off. I have a friend who was experiencing depression and anxiety and she went to a neurofeedback session. The guy who helped her basically said here is why you do everything you do. It was all based on a scan of her brain and he was able to tell her details – like how certain regions of her brain are “just so” that she would brood and “hold on” to events of the day. Fascinating stuff.
    Sending you hugs and I hope you’ve had a great weekend! xo

    1. Hi C.! I’m so pleased that you will check out Sylvia’s poetry. Thanks too for the compliments on my own poems. I’ve fallen out of writing them as of late but know I’ll return to it one day. Ohhh doctors are honing in on the brain, fascinating what your friend went through with that session! To get those answers for why we feel certain ways is huge toward our finding health solutions that work for an individual. Your friend is lucky to have you as you are both suportive and non-judgmental. I’m grateful for your posts.

  5. I’ve heard of her and read articles about her but I couldn’t read her work as I’ve been hospitalized for anxiety, depression and panic attacks. I stay away from writing, movies and videos that discuss depression. My two week stay in the hospital was so horrible that I’m still traumatized to this day. My treatment was worse than the disease. I still have nightmares about doctors nurses and therapists.

    1. Understand that. It took me a long time to be able to watch the news or to watch a movie or TV show with any courtroom scenes in it. I’m sending you a gentle hug.

    2. Thanks. Same with any news stories or blog Posts about the MeToo movement. Reading or listening to any reports about MeToo just reignites my trauma even though the sexual assault happened in the late 1970s. Even after 40 years any discussion sends me downhill. When I was in the hospital I refused to discuss with the psychologist because I can’t return to 1977/78 and change what happened.

      However I encourage other Women of All ages to get whatever help they need and is available in their community.

    3. For me, talking about it has gotten easier with time. That doesn’t make anything that happened less serious but it has helped me feel stronger and to slowly heal. I hope healing comes for you in time, whatever the process looks like to get there.

    4. I concentrate on my writing, Photography, art and blogging. Every day I do my Fitness Walking exercises. Helps to put that part of my life behind me where it belongs. Also my greatest happiness and Joy comes from spending time with my brother Stephen.
      I changed my story. No more being a victim. I’m a survivor. No negative labels. Only Victory.

    5. Same here. Fist Bumps and High Fives! I also keep myself spiritually strong through prayer, reading my Bible, listening to uplifting videos and I attend Church when possible. Sometimes I meet up with my Japanese girlfriend and we attend her Buddhist Temple. Better than sitting at home being depressed. For me personally I must take action to get myself out of my Thoughts and into a positive environment.

    6. That’s great that you know when you get into that negative mindset the ways to distract yourself or boost your mood. Having those things that work for you to pull from is so important. Wonderful too that your faith keeps you rooted. YES to high fives!

  6. I absolutely love Sylvia Path and her beautiful work. She was a trail blazer and talked about so many things regarding women that were encouraged to be hidden away. I’ll always appreciate her power and voice. Thanks for sharing!

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