It took the tragedy of Nicholas Hughes’s March 16, 2009 suicide to bring his mother Sylvia Plath back to the popular spotlight. The media buzzed with what it was all about–famous parents and the shadows they cast, mental illness and its inheritability, whether anyone, gifted or not, can escape the demons of the past.
When I read Nicholas’ obituary, my heart broke. I had forgotten about how much Sylvia Plath’s writing had once meant to me, much less that she had been a mother of two children when she died. Nicholas was barely past his first birthday when Plath sealed him and his sister into their bedrooms so the poison gas wouldn’t hurt them.
I decided to read the poetry of Sylvia Plath, this time as a mother. I found a whole new writer, a whole new person coming to life in her words. I saw my own demons being wrestled into submission on one page, but emerging victorious on others. I saw my children’s flesh and mine, the blood and the guts and the tears and the passionate love and the sorrow: in short, I saw all the stuff of motherhood boiled down to incredibly moving art.
As a teenager, her work moved me for other reasons. As had hordes of sensitive girls before me, I devoured the stars of the Plath canon: The Bell Jar, The Collected Poems, and especially Ariel. In the novel, I recognized Esther’s profound alienation as my own. I was no middle class princess, either, and I also failed to connect with the handful of my school’s nerdy punks who ought to have been my friends. I sensed early on that the inexplicable rage I possessed was not welcome anywhere. In Ariel, I saw rage as a thing of beauty, careening from mournful to manic and back again, Plath’s voice by turns vengeful and funny, breaking and broken. As much as I adored Holden Caulfield, his obsession with phonies shriveled beside Ariel’s power. I loved it.
The legendary backstory of Ariel’s first publication in 1965, two years after Plath’s suicide, also appealed to the black/white perceptions of the typical teen. Plath was separated, but not divorced from her philandering husband Ted Hughes at the time of her death, so her literary estate became his. As the story goes, Hughes found the original manuscript of Ariel so horribly unflattering that he re-edited it to his liking. In an even greater affront to Plath fans, he burned the journal she kept in the final month of her life. Whether or not Hughes’ self-absorption destroyed Plath’s life could be debated; less debatable was the fact that this same narcissism destroyed her art. This jibed with my experience of the world; teenaged boys were heartless, egotistical creeps.
But by the ripe old age of nineteen, I sensed my world changing. I assumed I must abandon drama so that my intellectual self could flower. Plath’s books gathered dust at my parents’ house while I studied literature at Carleton College. I wrote dispassionate papers on Hemingway’s neutered male heroes while blasting Bikini Kill, whose singer Kathleen Hanna shrieked the following lyrics:
The Sylvia Plath story is told to girls who write
They want us to think that to be a girl poet
Means you have to die.
….we are turning cursive letters into knives.
–“Bloody Ice Cream,” 1996
The riot grrrl movement rejected the romanticism of self-destruction that so thrilled me as I read “Lady Lazarus.” Kathleen Hanna, riot grrrl’s de facto spokeswoman, urged her fans to point their rage outward, not inward. Third wave feminists had no use for Sylvia Plath, for we maintained that feminist art must have patriarchal destruction, not self-destruction, as its goal. Anyway, Plath-style anguish felt so dull and old-fashioned in the Clinton era–it was more fun to critique sexual roles in Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video. No wonder I left my books at my parents’ house so long that they gave them to Goodwill.
Much has changed since Plath killed herself, and much has not. Mothers have lots of options, including tearing each other apart in a little cultural clash known as the Mommy Wars. Anyone with a laptop, a modem, and a WordPress account can call herself a writer, and mothers of young children are no exception. But the crap we plow through every day isn’t any easier forty years on. Children fail to complete us; spouses behave like jerks; mental illness courses through a great portion of our population; emotional bravery is still ridiculed while cold snark is king.
The Sylvia Plath story deserves redefining. Moms, I suggest a fresh riot is in order: a movement to reclaim Plath’s poetry, to utilize her art as a tool in our search to reach the truth about own fractured lives.
I didn’t realize until after the death of Plath’s son that the momentum behind Ariel and her final poems rose from Plath’s conflicted emotions about domestic life. I had to hit up the library to reread Plath, and there I found that in 2004 Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes authorized a new edition of Ariel, with the poems arranged in the order her mother had left behind.
As grown-ups, we understand shades of gray at work in our relationships. Still, it’s hard not to hate Ted Hughes a little for his fumbling attempts to reframe their life together. Their messy marriage provided a lasting archetype for scholars of feminism’s second wave, for whom Sylvia was a martyr to compulsory heterosexuality and its pitiable consequence, motherhood.
As a teenager, I never thought about this. Frieda and Nicholas, as children, didn’t really exist; they could have been extended metaphors for all I knew. Rereading the poetry makes me feel very stupid indeed. Ariel, in both versions, begins with the poem “Morning Song.” Its opening stanza is as follows:
Love set you in motion like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
–“Morning Song,” 1961
In the image I saw my newborn daughter Miriam’s blood-stained body being kneaded into her first breath by the team of doctors who feared meconium could be lodged in her throat. She gasped for air; she gagged; she began. My god, I gasped at the page beneath my hand, Sylvia’s writing about CHILDBIRTH! Even the term “midwife” failed to jog me out of my insulated teenage stupor. Sylvia as mother didn’t exist any more than Lady Lazarus herself lived outside of the poet’s prodigious imagination.
Today I am 37, six years older than Plath at the time of her death, and I am an at-home mom myself, trying to keep up my writing while I raise a son and a daughter. Ariel and The Collected Poems, read through the lens of motherhood, reveal far more than the either/or paradigm common to teenagers and second wave scholars. A close reading of her early poetry cannot fail to reveal her deep longing for love and for motherhood, a need that cannot be dismissed in solely political terms. If today we understand homosexuality as biologically-based, we might give heterosexuality the same break. Sylvia Plath wanted to marry Ted Hughes, and she wanted to have children with him. At the same time, she wanted to be a world-class poet. She needed these things, and she fought like hell to get them.
But I get ahead of myself — so-called “choice” feminism of the post-millennial age still doesn’t apply to the Hughes family, created as it was in the dark years before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (published exactly eight days after Plath’s suicide in February 1963). Her husband’s intellectual equal, Sylvia was nevertheless expected to raise the babies and type up his manuscripts, while balancing her own work in the little time left over. Sound familiar, gentle readers?
I’m neither gifted enough to earn a Pulitzer, nor mad enough to stick my head in the oven. My feminist husband does dishes and laundry. Still, Plath’s rage is once again my own. I love being a mother, and I really fucking hate it. I struggle daily to balance the intellectual requirements of a writing career with the brain-sucking boredom of peanut butter sandwiches, nose-wiping, and Barney.
Any reader, be she teenaged, motherly, feminist or otherwise, understands that Sylvia Plath’s poetry confronts ugly realities. Her gift to us today is speaking the scary truths of motherhood four decades before momoir gags like I Was a Good Mother Before I Had Children. Plath wanted a baby, but not simply for its own sake–she lapped up baby myths as well as any Yummy Mummy. In 1956, four years before Frieda’s birth, she wrote “Two Sisters of Persephone,” in which one luscious, fertile sister “bears a king” from the seed of the sun. The other?
The other, wry virgin to the last,
Goes graveyard with flesh laid waste,
Worm-husbanded, but no woman.
–“Two Sisters of Persephone,” 1956
Years later, in baby Frieda’s “Morning Song,” Plath notes the change in her body (she is “cow-heavy”) but laments that she has not undergone the expected transformation of her soul:
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
–“Morning Song,” 1960
Two days later, as dated by The Collected Poems, Plath would write a scathing rebuttal to her own insecurities entitled “Barren Woman.” She obsessed over what made a woman true, no more or less than readers of Cosmopolitan or Feministing.com do today. In “Persephone” and in other early poems, she imbued the condition of motherhood with mystery that no baby could hope to recreate. We post-millennial feminists grapple today with the fact that babies don’t make a woman “normal,” prevailing cultural attitudes notwithstanding. Babies make a woman a mother, neither good nor bad. Babies withhold judgment. Their job is to get their primal needs met without delay, not to make us feel good about ourselves. Lesser minds than Plath’s have been utterly confounded, if not destroyed, by this.
As much as I adored the prickly wit of “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” I saw fit to hang just one of Plath’s poems on the wall above my teenage desk, the place where I scribbled out my own contributions to the high school literary magazine.
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.
I loved this poem when I was a child myself, if a sixteen-year-old can be called that; at my desk in the basement, I felt my life to be ceilinged and starless due in no small part to the chronic mental illness ravaging my own mother. I adored this poem and must have seen it every day, but until I flipped through the dusty library copy of The Collected Poems, I had forgotten it completely. I also failed to notice that this poem was written only two weeks before Plath died, on January 28, in a single day of intense creativity that also produced “The Munich Mannequins,” which opens with the following declaration: “perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.” In one day, the author swung from existential mothering despair to the self-righteousness typical of the worst combatants in the Mommy Wars. I hear Plath telling herself, again, that motherhood with all its imperfections will provide her the psychic energy to rise above Holden’s phonies. As always, the level of her desperation reveals the depth of her doubt.
Today, my mother and I are estranged. She clings stubbornly to her version of my youth, in which I danced among rainbows, free of troubles and care, ignoring completely the effect her illness may have had on our family. Her revision of our history continued into my adulthood, until the ensuing dissonance became too oppressive to endure. The heartbreak of discovering the depth of the chasm between expectations and reality is at the heart of Sylvia Plath’s finest poetry.
Frieda Hughes, the fat gold watch baby, introduces the restored Ariel with an essay seething with hostility towards the scholars who’ve explained her mother for so long. It’s certainly understandable. Would you want an anonymous graduate student to explain the mystery and motivation of your mother? To tell you that rigid political structures made her abandon you even though you needed her so? Children never like it when their parents are revealed to be active humans with a consciousness separate from theirs, any more than parents enjoy it when their children pull away. Mothers and children lose each other every day, in ways both dramatic (gas ovens) and subtle (dishonesty).
Now Frieda’s brother is gone, too. The temptation to write Nicholas Hughes’ post-mortem in his mother’s poetry is irresistible. Sylvia expressed so much hope for him in her poems, as though the hypnotic rhythm of her verse could create the safety that she failed to secure for him.
O love, how did you get here?
Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean
In you, ruby.
You wake to is not yours.
–“Nick and the Candlestick,” 1962
Later in this poem she declared her son to be the “solid the spaces lean on, envious.” That’s what motivates so many parents though we dare not admit it: we create babies who will connect us, to our partners, to our families, to society as a whole. We lean upon these small people heavily, much more so than any of us care to admit.
Frieda Hughes, the subject of the poem “Child,” continues her “troublous wringing of hands” over the forced surrender of her mother to the outside world, but this is an inevitable consequence of genius. Plath creates a perfect screen for projection because, in her Ariel voice, she was able to do what so many others attempt but fail: speak the truth in a wildly inventive and unique way. Smart and sensitive women will always be drawn to Plath’s words, and what they search for they will find. This includes mothers, too. The next time you’re at the library, Mom, tuck a copy of Ariel in with the Barney videos. If the teens eye you suspiciously, just shake your head and say, “You have no idea.”