It’s her birthday today. She always hated her birthdays, “looked forward” to them with grim white-knuckling determination.
I have “had a relationship” with her my whole life. I discovered her at 15, like a lot of girls do, and took to her right away. I devoured every single thing I could get my hands on. I continued to revisit her work over the years, and as I changed, so, too, did the work. It’s wild. It looks one way to a 15 year old, and one way to a 35 year old, and etc. I am just happy that I lived long enough for her two-volume full correspondence to be published – a GOLDMINE. The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1: 1940-1956, and The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol 2: 1956-1963. For such a major figure of American letters, it is a DISGRACE that there hasn’t been more “out there” in the public realm, letters and journals (don’t even get me STARTED on the debacle with those). Now let’s not get it twisted: I’m not talking about her reputation. She is one of the most famous American poets who has ever lived, and anyone who claims she is somehow underrated has an axe to grind and is not to be trusted. She’s basically the James Dean of American letters, and more ink has been spilled over every single word she ever wrote than most other poets attract in a lifetime. What I AM saying – in terms of there not being much “out there” – is that the Plath estate – run by Ted Hughes (but mostly run by Ted’s sister Olwyn – who always hated Sylvia) – was so draconian, so imperious, that nobody was ever allowed to publish anything or quote anything, without going through them first. The estate put the kibosh on ANY inquiry that may have “hurt the children” or whatever. It had a completely chilling effect on Plath scholarship: there hasn’t really been ANY proper biographies of her, either. She died in 1963, for God’s sake. She’s a MAJOR poet. Janet Malcolm wrote a whole BOOK about the challenges of writing about Sylvia Plath considering the state of the estate. This stasis all changed with the death of Ted and Olwyn – and then Ted and Sylvia’s daughter Frieda took over the estate, and we are seeing the results of that thaw. So now, for the first time, we could read Plath’s correspondence – to someone OTHER than her mother – and see what she was like with multiple people, not just the people-pleasing A-student she always had to be with her mother.
That correspondence was an absolute eye-opener for this lifelong fan. I honestly thought I had a grip on her. Turns out I was wrong. As I read the letters from December 1962 into January 1963, where she describes Ted helping her find an apartment in London, letters to her friend Marcia who was planning a trip to visit in March, all of these letters to editors and radio producers and all the rest … I found myself for the very first time NOT taking her suicide as a foregone conclusion. I actually thought at one point, “I think she’s gonna pull through this.” And then I remembered.
The correspondence is that powerful and that revelatory.
One of the many revelations in those volumes was what a massive movie fan Plath was. I never knew!! Why has this information been KEPT from us. Aurelia Plath edited out ALL of Plath’s comments on the movies she was seeing, 3, 4 a week sometimes. Why Aurelia would do that is anyone’s guess. Since for 40 years we have ONLY had the heavily-edited correspondence with her mother – where Sylvia often put a bright spin on things (understandable) – AND because Aurelia saw fit to leave so much out … well, you can’t know what you don’t know. Reading Sylvia’s letters, gushing about this or that movie, gave me a whole new perspective. She got a babysitter so she could go see Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly.
Anyway, I won’t go on and on because I wrote about this newfound knowledge of Plath’s cinephilia in my column at Film Comment. As far as I know I am still the only person to have dug into Sylvia’s cinephilia. (This is the first time I’ve ever been able to say that about any topic I’ve written about. Someone ALWAYS got there before you … but here, since for whatever reason, Sylvia’s mother edited OUT all the references to movies in the letters Sylvia wrote – none of us had any idea how big a movie buff she was.)
I rarely think “I was BORN to write this piece” but in this case, I did. I’d been preparing for this one since I was in high school.