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Content warning: suicide and mental illness
Sylvia Plath has become something of a shortcut, both culturally and in literary circles. The same could be said of Anne Sexton, albeit a lot less, at least in my opinion. Plath has become a symbol of an anxious, depressed teenage girl who takes herself too seriously and hears a lot from Tori Amos or Portishead. In an MFA class, if you were to allow your favorite authors to be Plath and Sexton, all I can imagine is the kind of judgment you might make or the glances that would be exchanged between classmates. Plath has become something of a cultural joke. Regardless of whether she was able to easily write and illustrate fiction, poetry and children’s books, her talent falls by the wayside. Years ago, Vice even had a tactless, disgusting photo shoot depicting multiple suicides by female writers, including Plaths. Plath and Sexton seem to lack a certain kind of literary heaviness offered by other poets, and I can’t help but believe that this is due to the cultural components of all of this.
Are we making the same assumptions about someone – especially a c sharp man – reading Styron? Or Hemingway? The assumptions we might make about a man reading Hemingway would be the flannel shirt, which wears a sturdy individualistic style, not so much the suicidal and depressive kind. Even David Foster Wallace, whose struggles with depression were numerous and well-known, escapes those jokes or cultural stereotypes. (He also had multiple #MeToo accounts with him, but that doesn’t seem to affect his reputation either). People who engage in Infinite Jest are simply viewed as presumptuous with no inferences about their sanity or mood. When you’re a DFW fan, you’re usually seen as someone who is very literary, rather than someone going through a Wallace phase.
Also, let’s not ignore the fact that color poets have not and still have not received the same recognition as many white poets. They are not as universal as white poets in the way that leads to these associations, for better or for worse – which is why all of the poets mentioned in this post are white. (And there’s an entirely different discussion about race and the medical establishment’s recognition of depression / mental health problems.)
Given my own inclination
I recently discovered that I internalized this sexism myself when I told someone I was reading Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton by Gail Crowther (from April 20), along with the 1000-page book Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark. I made a joke, something like, “Obviously, I never got out of my Plath anxiety phase.” And then I wondered why I apologized for reading about two landmark writers – one of whom won a Pulitzer Prize – who are still very relevant today. Because somewhere along the way I internalized the stereotypes. I fed to the tropics.
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Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and me
Yes, I first read Plath and Sexton as a moody teenager. Sexton frightened me; Her raw and unfiltered honesty contrasted sharply with Plath, though I couldn’t have explained it at the time. She felt stranger to me and her poems a little less accessible, even though I read them and still thought about them.
Over the years, I read and reread their work over and over and found more things to appreciate in it. I read biographies and magazines and saw how far ahead of their time they were. These were the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s – they worked as writers, mothers, and wives, and a lot of people judged them for focusing on their writing rather than just giving up everything as mothers and wives (although Plath was very in many ways very traditional). They were downright sexual women at times when this was frowned upon.
And while I knew her writing was exemplary, I also knew that I shouldn’t bring her up in certain academic conversations and situations. I could see the amusement in people’s eyes on the few occasions when I admitted my admiration for their writing. These women just weren’t literary – or at least not the right kind of literature.
Your writing was bold and honest. They wrote about pregnancy, miscarriage, suicide, life, family, and sex. Your writing was revolutionary, especially at the time. But even now it is being dismissed as “denominational” by people – including writing teachers and critics (perhaps especially those people).
Ah, that dreaded word that somehow mostly only applies to women writers who dare to tell the truths of their lives. Men are almost never considered to be “denominational” writers. Confessional is messy. Confessional is “too much”. When the letter is referred to as “denominational” it means that the letter is not carefully crafted but is intended for personal journals rather than literary publications. There is an unbound emotionality associated with “denominational”. But that’s only if you’re not a man. Conroy, Steinbeck, Lowell, Nabokov, Vidal – they are never “denominational”, only daring and open.
These women also viewed writing as their job, not just a romanticized calling – Sexton demanded to be paid whatever she thought was worth, especially knowing that men were paid more for the same job she was asked to do . Plath had a keen eye for the market, taking notes of what stories and articles were selling in magazines, and at one point realized that writing was selling about mental health problems. Plath was incredibly critical and strict with herself and her writing, and Sexton, despite refusing formal schooling, was self-taught until she became a professor at Boston University. These women were brilliant scholars who also recognized the chaos their insanity was causing in their lives, and they hated it.
Understand how your life will evolve
Reading about Plath and Sexton’s suicides as a 40-year-old mother is very different from reading them as a teenager. In Clark’s book, she carefully researched Plath’s last few weeks, even though Hughes claimed that her last diary was “lost”. What she found is alternately horrific and devastating: Plath was clearly not doing well and she was fighting – and she knew exactly how she was fighting. She was given a drug that had a different name overseas and to which she reacted very badly after her first suicide attempt in the United States. She took a cocktail of amphetamines, drops of bitterness, cold medication, and antidepressants. A hospital stay was imminent. Her doctor considered taking her to the hospital earlier but decided against it. And on and on. Sexton had become an alcoholic and had been drinking a lot all along. Her therapist left her. She suddenly stopped taking her medication. She pushed many people away and isolated herself as their physical and mental health deteriorated exponentially.
Despite the dark jokes or stereotypes, there is nothing romantic or funny about these deaths. These two writers have made an impact on the literary world in the short time they had, but what could they have done if they had lived longer?
Refreshing plath and sexton
Where do we go from here? How do we separate these authors from the stereotypes? Is that even possible at this point? I’m not sure.
I hope that her writings and contributions will be more recognized by those in the literary world rather than being dismissed as the territory of capricious teenage girls. As Crowther points out too often in her book, people understand these women and their writing backwards from their death. Her death shapes the rest of her life and work, if it doesn’t at all. Her life and work are greater than the circumstances of her death. Bigger than her mental health problems. In essence, what Clark’s book does about Plath – it deals with her life: her goals, her relationships, her relentless appetite for work and writing, and love for her children – shows that her death will not be the event should, that all colors otherwise. I would like to see a book that takes up Sexton’s life and work in such detail.
In the meantime, I’ll be here to reread your poems and writings and make no excuses for it.