Sylvia Plath's poetry and pain: the full story

from: Agence France Presse English Wire - April 4, 2000

by Barbara Lewis

London, April 4 (AFP) - Nearly forty years after US poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide, the instant sell-out of the first complete edition of her journals published here this week is being blazed as a major literary event.

Publisher Faber and Faber said 16,000 copies have already been sold and the first print run of 20,000 was expected to be virtually sold out by the end of the first day of publication Monday.

The public appetite for the unabridged version of the diaries had already been whet by a series of highly-charged extracts in The Guardian newspaper in Britain and the New Yorker magazine in the United States -- where the complete journals are to be published later this year.

Katharine Viner, editor of The Guardian's weekend section, said Plath and her tempestuous relationship with British poet Ted Hughes had the appeal of "a high-quality soap opera."

Part of its draw, she said, was the fact Plath, who gassed herself in her London flat in 1963 at the age of 30, "died having just been left by Ted Hughes. She's stuck in the role of a betrayed victim." Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times, agreed that Plath's story had "all the elements of a fairy tale without a happy ending."

"I must admit, even as someone quite close to it, I find the degree of interest quite extraordinary."

However, she continued: "We all like to read other people's letters and other people's secrets and to be allowed to do it gives free rein to people's prurience."

Moreover, Plath was "one of the great figures of 20th century poetry ...

She died tragically young and left two young children. She was a very vibrant young woman, who married a remarkable man."

Wagner's book "Ariel's Gift" that examines Hughes' volume of poetry "Birthday Letters" as a response to Plath and her poetry was also published Monday by Faber and Faber.

The full text of Plath's journals notably depicts the first "cataclysmic" meeting with Hughes at a party in Cambridge, England in 1956. Hughes kissed Plath "bang smash on the mouth," while Plath bit his cheek until it bled and then, for all her instant attraction to Hughes, had a sexual encounter with another man.

Plath vacillated between happy, requited love and chronic depression. "It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative," she wrote.

She is at once a severely disturbed woman and an eager girl, telling us vividly, urgently, frankly about her favourite outfit or rejoicing in her energetic sexuality.

Above all, she is the determined writer, cajoling herself: "Be stoic when necessary and write -- you have seen a lot, felt deeply and your problems are universal enough to be meaningful -- WRITE."

Plath began keeping a journal at the age of 11 and continued to do so until her death.

In 1982, her diaries were published in the United States in a heavily-censored version, edited by Frances McCullough and Hughes. Many of the parts excised include references to Hughes -- such as Plath's comment that he was "the biggest seducer in Cambridge."

McCullough also omitted sections out of respect for those still alive, such as Plath's mother, whom Plath blamed for the death of her father when she was eight.

As the New Yorker magazine said: "It is assumed that passages dealing with Plath's sexuality, for instance, were withheld in deference to her mother's sense of decorum."

Prior to his death in 1998, Hughes had been working towards the publication of Plath's unabridged diaries in Britain and the United States. He passed the responsibility on to his children Frieda and Nicholas and authorised the opening of journals that he had previously sealed.

The children in turn passed on the task of editing the journals to Karen Kukil, curator at Smith College, Massachusetts, where Plath studied before moving on to Cambridge.

Even the new edition of the journals does not include Plath's writing from the last three years of her life. Hughes destroyed one of the journals, saying: "I did not want her children to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)."

The other missing journal, he said, "disappeared". There is a belief it was stolen by a female friend of Hughes and that it could yet turn up -- and create another literary event.

Copyright (c) 2000 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.

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