Book Reviews

Make Myself & Not Let Myself Be Made

by Holli Carrell | Contributing Writer

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 2
Sylvia Plath
Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil
Harper, 2018

Over fifty years after the publication of Ariel, Sylvia Plath exists in mythic proportions within our literary and cultural imaginations. Her life, death, and literary legacy have been fetishized perhaps more than any other female poet of the twentieth century. She is the suicidal poet, the “woman possessed,” an eerie voice reciting “Daddy” on the BBC. In the second and final volume of her collected letters, The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol 2: 1956- 1963, Plath is given back her personhood. She tells the story of the last seven years of her life in her own words with extraordinary attention to the life, poetry, and everyday details that surrounded her. The letters are a portrait of Plath’s very humanity: her complex and often disparate identities as writer, wife, mother, and daughter; as a flawed and deeply feeling human being whose honesty, daring, and genius would revolutionize American poetry.  

Plath believed her marriage was one of the central creative experiences of her life; “much more crucial than a religion or a career,” she wrote to her mother as a newlywed in 1957. The letters begin five months after Plath’s marriage to the poet Ted Hughes while on a Fulbright Scholarship at Cambridge University. Of the 575 letters in Volume 2, 230 are addressed to Plath’s mother, Aurelia. Plath wrote to her mother frequently asking for cooking advice and confessing her hopes and aspirations. Plath had extraordinary ambitions for her own writing career and Hughes’s. She volunteered to be his agent: editing, typing, and submitting his poetry and first manuscript while still completing her degree. Her letters to Aurelia are unusually candid; she marvels over her creative and domestic compatibility with Hughes, remarking “we have everything—health, books, talent & ambition & love—all but money . . . I am convinced Ted is the one person in the world I could ever have married.” 

The collection is a significant achievement in Plath scholarship. Each letter is meticulously transcribed and indexed with footnotes that provide context to the multitudinous details of Plath’s life and publishing history. The book contains a fascinating foreword by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, a timeline of the significant events in Plath’s life, and an introduction by the editors, Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, both eminent Plath scholars. Many of the qualities I love most about Plath’s writing—her deadpan humor, concreteness of description, and delight in the exterior world—are present in her vivid and transporting scenes of daily life. When Hughes received a telegram announcing his poetry prize for The Hawk in the Rain, Plath writes “we gawped at it. At first we thought Ted’s poem at The Atlantic had got some piddling prize. Then light dawned, & we both jumped about, yelling and roaring like mad seals.” In another letter, Plath writes of standing on a stile in a meadow before a crowd of cows and reciting all she knew of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. These sketches of her life and early marriage are moving and memorable despite our knowledge of the outcome. They show Plath’s unwavering dedication to her craft and marriage. 

I was surprised how closely Plath’s emerging writer years resembled those of a young poet today. She too searched for teaching positions, tallied rejections and acceptances, applied for grants and book awards, and struggled to find more time for her writing. In spring 1957, she moved with Hughes to Northampton, Massachusetts for a teaching position in freshman English at Smith College, her alma mater. Plath was quickly disillusioned and frustrated by the academic life, calling it “death to writing.” In the midst of a stressful semester, she wrote to her mother that she felt her talent for writing was “rusting” and it was “very painful” for her. After completing their spring semester, Plath and Hughes decided to cancel their teaching appointments, move to Boston, and apprentice themselves to writing full-time while living off their savings. Plath wrote to her younger brother, Warren Plath, that she saw the next five years of her writing life as crucial in her development as a medical school to a surgeon. 

Plath’s year in Boston was an incubation period for her writing to come. In the letters, she analyzes her poetic and professional growth, claiming she needed to accustom herself to “slow progress and careful practice.” Often overcome by writer’s block, she used writing exercises given to her by Hughes and also audited Robert Lowell’s poetry course at Boston University alongside Anne Sexton and George Starbuck. Plath admired Sexton’s writing for its directness, “no inhibitions,” and honest depictions of depression, suicide, motherhood, and marriage. At this time, Plath’s writing was restrained and formal. She told her brother that her primary difficulty was overcoming “a clever, too brittle and glossy feminine tone,” and she needed to learn to speak “‘straight out of real experience, not just metaphorical conceits.” Plath wrote prolifically in her journal during this period and worked part-time at Massachusetts General Hospital typing up patient medical histories and therapy sessions. She resumed therapy with her old psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, who she described as the “midwife to my spirit.” The topics recorded in Plath’s therapy notes would resurface as major preoccupations and themes in her Ariel poems.  

Plath’s editors and first readers would remain primarily male her entire life, though she was eager for correspondence and writing relationships with other female poets who felt “psychically akin” to her. It’s easy to forget that at this time Plath could not accompany her husband to the Lamont Library at Harvard: women would not be admitted until the 1970s. In a rare letter to a fellow female poet, Lynne Lawner, Plath muses over the lack of female poets to model herself after. She asks, “except for M. Moore & Elizabeth Bishop what women are there to look to? A few eccentrics like Edith Sitwell, Amy Lowell. And the perennial Emily, I suppose.” Marianne Moore would later refuse to provide a blurb for Plath’s first poetry collection. As Hughes prepared his second volume of poetry, Lupercal, for publication, Plath struggled to find a publisher. Her first manuscript lost the 1959 Yale Younger Poetry Prize to “that louse of a guy” George Starbuck. Plath praises her husband’s accomplishments in her letters far more often than her own. In her journals, however, she records her desire to separate herself from him artistically, writing “I must be myself—make myself & not let myself be made by him.” 

Plath and Hughes would spend the latter half of 1959 and the early months of 1960 traveling while Plath was pregnant with their first child, Frieda. They drove from Massachusetts to Canada to California and back on a nine-week summer camping trip using Aurelia’s gray 1953 Chevy Sedan. After two months at Yaddo in the fall, they sailed for England shortly before Christmas. Hughes was homesick, and Plath wrote to a friend that she had no desire to ever return to “the land of milk & honey & spin-dryers.” She never would. The couple settled into an unfinished flat near Primrose Hill in London. Shortly after, Plath’s first poetry collection, The Colossus, was accepted for publication by Heinemann. Plath wrote Dr. Beuscher proudly that “baby and 1st book are well on the way.” Plath’s heartfelt, lucid descriptions of her labor and home delivery are some of my favorite letters in the collection. She wrote to her mother that she “loved every minute” of the experience. 

Motherhood, miscarriage, and illness would inspire Plath’s writing in 1961. Two months after the delivery of her first child, Frieda, she wrote to her mother that she was “itching to get writing again & feel I shall do much better now I have a baby. Our life seems to have broadened and deepened wonderfully with her.” Plath would become pregnant less than a year after the birth of Frieda, but the pregnancy would end in a miscarriage in February 1961. Plath wrote seven poems that February, including “Morning Song” and “Barren Woman.” Her appendectomy a month later inspired her famous hospital poems “Tulips” and “In Plaster.” After her recovery, Plath began writing prose “fiendishly” for 4-5 hours per day at Bill and Dido Merwin’s unused study, unencumbered by “phones, doorbells, or babies.” In one of the few letters that mention what would become The Bell Jar, Plath writes to a friend, “I have never been so excited about anything. It’s probably godawful, but it’s so funny, yet serious, it makes me laugh.” Plath called the novel a “potboiler” and planned on publishing it under a pseudonym. 

The landscapes, natural imagery, and domestic details of Plath’s life factor heavily into the poems she produced in 1961 and 1962. In August 1961—five months before the birth of their second child, Nicholas—Plath and Hughes purchased Court Green, a pre-Domesday thatched farmhouse with over two acres of land in North Tawton, Devon for £3,600. Plath won the Guinness Poetry Award for “Insomniac” and a Saxon grant for The Bell Jar that autumn. Plath wrote to her mother about her happiness over her new home, describing it as “one of those mystical appearances that makes one believe in destiny.” For the first time in their marriage, Plath and Hughes would have their own separate writing rooms. They divided their days into alternating writing and childcare shifts. Plath would write about her ill, elderly neighbor bowing among the flowers in his garden in “Among the Narcissi,” record the unexpected appearance of a pheasant “pacing through the uncut grass” in her poem “Pheasant,” and embody the voice of the giant wych elm on her property in the poem “Elm.” After her son’s birth, Plath began beekeeping and started horseback riding lessons, riding weekly over the moorlands on a horse named Ariel. 

In 2016, fourteen previously unknown letters by Plath written to Dr. Ruth Beuscher between 1960 and 1963 surfaced. Portions of the letters appeared online detailing Hughes’ infidelity, the dissolution of Plath’s marriage, and allegations that Plath’s miscarriage was caused by domestic abuse. Smith College obtained the letters in 2017 after a lawsuit. In her foreword to the book, Frieda Hughes explains that if she did not include the letters in the collection, she would “forever feel that it was unfinished.” Because none of Plath’s journals remain from this period, these letters inform us of Plath’s mental state during the composition of Ariel and during the last months and weeks of her life. In the spring and summer of 1962, despite assurances to her mother that “this is the richest and happiest time of my life,” Plath’s poems like “Elm” and “Event” allude to a conflict in her marriage. On July 11, 1962—the same day she wrote the poem titled “words heard by incident over the phone”—Plath wrote to Dr. Beuscher about the discovery of her husband’s affair to Assia Wevill. Plath moves through denial, despair, anger, and resentment as she processes her husband’s infidelity, amazed “what seems to happen to everybody else” has happened to her. Initially, Plath hoped her marriage would last. She asked Dr. Beuscher how she could live without Hughes when “all the complexities of my soul are involved inextricably with him.” If Plath could not sustain the physical intimacy of the relationship, she hoped to sustain the creative union. She laments that despite his actions “he is a genius, a great man,” and their life has been a daily creation. Plath would lose a domestic partner, her editor, and first reader.

Plath would write twenty-five major poems in October 1962, reassuring her of her creative and artistic autonomy, and providing her with the confidence she needed to face her separation. In late September 1962, Plath wrote Beuscher that she had decided on a divorce and “the man I loved as father and husband is dead.” A week later, after writing seven poems including her famous bee sequence, she wrote the poet Richard Murphy that she was writing “for the first time in years, a real self, long smothered.” She rose at 4:00 a.m. and wrote until her children woke, comparing it to “writing in a train tunnel or God’s intestine.” Plath refused to return to America and told her mother she needed to make her own life. On October 21, six days before her 30th birthday, Plath wrote Beuscher of driving Hughes to the train station with his packed up belongings. She expected to be “huge with gloom” upon returning home alone. Instead, she writes, she was surprised to find “I was ecstatic. My life, my sense of identity seemed to be flying back to me from all quarters . . . I knew what I wanted to do, pretty much who I was, where I wanted to go, who I wanted to see.” Plath composed some of the most famous poems of the twentieth century—“Cut,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Ariel,” “Fever 103,” and “Daddy”—all in a period of a few weeks. She was confident she was writing the “the best poems of my life” and told her mother “they will make my name.” 

Child care would be a recurring source of stress for Plath in the final months of her life. Before her separation, in a letter from 1961, Plath wrote a friend that “time to write is my lifeblood and makes it possible for me to be domestic and motherly.” The poem “Cut” is dedicated to Susan O’Neill Roe, the nanny who helped Plath care for her children from October to early December. Roe provided Plath with the companionship she needed during her separation, and Plath told her mother she loved Roe “like a younger sister for what she’s been through with me.” In November, Plath decided to close Court Green for the winter and move to London for the colder months. She wrote she was eager to “read, see plays, exhibitions, build back the mind this country has dulled.” While flat hunting, she discovered an apartment for rent in the previous home of W.B. Yeats “by an absolute fluke.” The house was symbolic for Plath, and she wrote Aurelia of her happiness to live “in the house of a great poet I love.” Plath planned on selling the poems she had written that autumn one by one, releasing her second poetry manuscript, Ariel, and working on her second novel, Double Exposure, that winter. The critic Al Alvarez told Plath her new poems deserved a Pulitzer Prize, and she went clothes shopping for the first time in years and got her hair cut and set. She told her mother, “once I get to London, and mother’s help, day after day to write, my life will be utter heaven.” Plath spent the days before Christmas 1962 furnishing and painting her new apartment. She told her mother blue was her new color “royal, midnight . . . Ted never liked blue.”

Plath’s letters from early 1963 are a record of the incapacitating, numbing, and all-consuming experience of depression. They offer us a small glimpse of what she was up against in the final weeks of her life. On Boxing Day, a blizzard hit London. Temperatures plummeted and “The Big Freeze” brought London to a standstill. It was one of the coldest winters on record, and Plath records her experience in her essay “Snow Blitz.” Her roof leaked, the pipes froze over, and power cuts would leave her and her children without light and heat. Plath and her children became ill with the flu. Without telephone service installed in her apartment, she had to walk blocks in the snow and ice to make a call. She wrote to a college friend that Hughes only visited “like an apocalyptic Santa Clause.” Plath told her mother her weakness and tiredness was beginning to make her feel cross, admitting, “I guess I just need somebody to cheer me up by saying I’ve done alright so far.” Plath’s discouragement becomes increasingly apparent as the letters progress, and she despairs over the loss of her marriage. Without any childcare help, she wrote to her college benefactress that she had not been alone in two months and that it had been “the keenest torture, this lack of a centre.” She writes of being “in limbo between the old world and very grim new.” In her last known letter, written a week before her death, Plath wrote to Dr. Beuscher that she feared “the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear.” She wrote that she was aware “of a cowardice in myself, a wanting to give up.” The letter closes with Plath mentioning that her children are crying in the other room, and she must make them tea. 

Plath would leave her original Ariel manuscript on the desk in her bedroom decorated in bee colors. She did not include the poems written in the weeks before her death. Because her divorce was not finalized at the time of her suicide, Hughes would become her literary executor. His editing and rearrangement of Ariel—finally published in 1965—will continue to divide readers for years to come. It is only in the last few years that the Hughes/Plath dynasty has begun to loosen its stronghold on Plath’s remaining papers and possessions—likely because Frieda Hughes is the only surviving member of Plath’s immediate family. In 2017, I took a Megabus from New York City to Washington D.C. for the day to see a Smithsonian exhibit on Plath’s life featuring archives borrowed from various universities. I almost missed her desk from Court Green, a plank of elm wood, bolted high above me on the wall. It was a writer’s desk: dented, dirty, smudged with ink stains and something that looked like glue. In October 1962, while composing her Ariel poems, Plath wrote, “My study has become a haven, a real sanctuary for me. Here is my hearth, my life, my real self. I have never been so happy anywhere in my life as writing at my huge desk in the blue dawn, all to myself, secret and quiet.” I think of her sitting there. 

Holli Carrell is a writer originally from Utah, now based in Queens. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Salt Hill, Bennington Review, Quarterly West, Blackbird, Tupelo Quarterly, The Florida Review, and other places. She has received support from the NY State Summer Writers Institute and is a graduate of the MFA program in poetry at Hunter College, where she was a recipient of the Colie Hoffman Poetry Prize and a Norma Lubetsky Friedman Scholarship. In 2019, she was a semi-finalist in the 92Y’s Discovery Poetry Contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.