Sylvia Plath is, for many, the first Dead Woman Poet we learnt about - and the first step on a path into poetry and into the history of women who wrote before us. So it was with delight that we asked Claire Collison to resurrect Plath at the Sylvia Plath Literary Festival on 22 October in Hebden Bridge. She was joined by Natalie Linh Bolderston, who communed with Janice Mirikitani (more on that here) and we'll soon be releasing an edited recording of the event. But for now - here's Claire's essay 'One-Four-O: Cherries in the Snow' and the spirit of Sylvia.
I’m wearing Sylvia’s lipstick; Revlon’s One-Four-O: Cherries in the Snow. I’m listening to Sylvia reading her poetry. She rolls the words around her mouth in her extraordinary Boston vowels - sluttish dryads. I’m imagining the deep pink Cherries in the Snow on her lips. It’s April 18th 1958. She’s in Springfield, Massachusetts, talking to a man called Lee Anderson. Ted Hughes is there in the background, and in between the poems, there are tantalising snatches of conversation. Sylvia is talking about how she loves that very hard K sound. How, when she’s working on a poem, she doesn’t eat. Or bother with anything. Nothing else, morning noon and night. She lets out a wicked laugh, says Ted was howling for his supper, and she wouldn’t make him any. She says she wants her poetry to be musical and lyrical, with a singing sound. She doesn’t like poetry that’s bad prose. There should be a tension, she says. She likes forms that are strict, and yet the strictness isn’t uncomfortable - a comfortable corset, with some bones. She likes the idea of managing to get wit in with seriousness. She just likes good mouthfuls of sound which have meaning. She says she’d like people to understand what she’s talking about, that she doesn’t want to baffle anybody. She says she hasn’t read aloud enough, and has no idea how her poems affect other people.
In the black and white YouTube still, she’s perched on a chair in a writer’s studio, wearing wide leg jeans of the kind Katherine Hepburn might have worn, and a man’s cotton shirt, sleeves rolled above the elbows. She is barefoot, her toenails painted, and her extremely beautiful feet are propped on the arm of a second chair.
As I listen I scroll through the thread below. Someone shouts in CAPS - THE GIRL IN PHOTO IS NOT SYLVIA PLATH, SHE'S BARBARA LAAGE, FRENCH ACTRESS. THE PHOTO IS FROM 1946. THIS IS AN UNBELIEVABLE MISTAKE. THEY'RE TOTALLY DIFFERENT!!!
I realise I’ve been listening to Plath, and investing her with another woman’s body. This feels about right. If the bell jar of Plath’s novel is a distorting lens, skewing her protagonist’s perspective on the world, then the myth around Plath, and the particular contexts in which I became her reader, are further distorting lenses.
Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932. Four years before my mother was born.
She died on February 11, 1963, three months before I was born.
When I first read her, I was two thirds the age Sylvia was when she died.
Now I am almost twice her age.
I’ve been looking through my copy of The Collected Poems. I think it must have been on my twentieth birthday in 1983 that I was given it. I was at Goldsmith’s, studying English & Drama. I was a feminist and an activist, marching against Thatcher, Reagan, the war in the Falklands. I was part of a women’s street band, I shouted myself hoarse most weekends and banged a cheese grater with a stick. We visited Greenham Women’s Peace Camp, singing We are the Witches. I linked arms with other women, wove webs into the fence of the nuclear base, and held up mirrors to the soldiers. At Goldsmith’s I challenged the almost completely male syllabus, and demanded the inclusion of more women writers. We got Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath. I remember asking the friend who gave me The Collected Poems if I could exchange it: it was edited by Ted Hughes, and as a card-carrying feminist it was my duty to hate Hughes. I’m not saying this as something I’m proud of, but simply because it was true. I wanted to exchange it for Kate Millet, or Our Bodies Ourselves, but my friend had to admit he’d shoplifted it. I went to the poems I already knew and loved - 'Daddy', 'Lady Lazarus', 'Tulips'. A third year student called Julia with a pinhead and a stripy mohair jumper auditioned me for her staging of Plath’s radio play, Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices. I didn’t get the role, fortunately; the production was dreary and utterly outside my experience - pregnancy, miscarriage, hospitals. In fact, I realised Julia had been using the audition as an opportunity to grill me about her ex, who’d just dumped her for my flatmate Sallie, who, I now realise, looked a lot like Plath. In a tutorial one of my classmates Tricia whose family still lived in Chalcot Square, remembered Plath babysitting her. I still don’t know if this is true.
I’m listening to another interview with Sylvia and Ted. It’s London, 1962 the day before Hallowe’en. In a few months, Sylvia will be dead. The interviewer asks how having a baby has impacted on their working lives. Hughes says the baby is just like Ariel - which I think is both odd and infuriating - this is Sylvia’s word, surely, the title of the collection that will be published after she has died and establish her reputation. Hughes continues. Having a baby, he says, is like having a cat, only better. The interviewer asks Sylvia what themes attract her, and she talks animatedly about the peculiar private and taboo of Lowell, the quite new quite exciting writing of Sexton. She talks about the landscape where she grew up at her grandmother’s, how there would be sharks washed up in the garden.
She would have been working on Ocean 1212-W, a commission from the BBC Home Service for the programme Writers on Themselves, in which novelists and poets talked about their early experiences and influences. She completed it in around December 1962. In this essay, she recalls childhood summers at the Atlantic Ocean, and the summer of 1938, when the great New England hurricane struck. The title of the piece refers to her grandmother’s phone number at her home in the coast of Massachusetts, where Plath spent time when she was a young girl. A typed carbon copy of this essay recently sold at Bonhams auctions for £2,550.
I realise I’ve had a copy of this essay forever. I bought my mother Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. When I found the inherited copy this summer, I’d written inside, ‘I hope this is good, so I can read it after you’. I’d drawn a mermaid under my name. My mum and I shared most of our books; she took vicarious delight in the opportunities I was getting to study literature. Back then, I was drawn to Plath’s short story about a tattoo parlour, but now I’m captivated by Ocean 1212-W. Plath writes about a time when she was a baby, crawling on the beach, and how her mother yanked her by the heels from an approaching wave. Sylvia wonders what might have happened, had her mother not scooped her up - whether she might have developed into a mermaid.
I love the lyrical prose of this essay. After all Sylvia’s earlier concerns about whether one might include a toothbrush in a poem, it feels to me as if this form suits all the challenges she was excitedly listing in that first youthful interview. She describes with her uncanny mix of pinpoint accuracy and languorous mystery the things she found on the beach - skates like pillowcases, possessing women’s lips. She finds space here to be ponderous, in her particular heightened-conversational musical register, recalling the fragments of chinaware she gathered up, conjecturing the stories of their origins, and observing how the patterns never matched.
At the hub of the essay is the birth of her brother when she was aged two and a half. The arrival of the new baby leaves her feeling rejected and, for the first time, vitally conscious of her own individuality. With this philosophical awakening, recognising the separateness of everything, she mourns that her beautiful fusion with the matter of the world was over.
I am excited by the way Plath nails this moment of emotional illumination and take us with her. It led me back to MUSSEL HUNTER AT ROCK HARBOR, where her visceral and forensic observation of fiddler crabs is recorded, alongside her commentary on the naming of things generally, and is set up as real-time notation of her thought process. This is the version of Sylvia Plath that attracts me now. This is the lens I’m selecting - the witty, lyrical, proto-Eco-Plath.
With the publication of Birthday Letters in 1998 I mellowed towards Hughes; now, as someone in that YouTube thread wrote, I lament the tragedy of it all. And I celebrate the complex and pioneering poet Sylvia Plath was, and the multiplicity of the legacy she left us.
What can I say? There’s just not enough Sylvia Plath in the world
by Claire Collison
I have received a destroyed book. I am excited to read it
and don’t really have the time to send it back.
It comes with a few small dirt spots,
and with the corners slightly bent.
I gave this book three stars, right from the agonising.
I have bought this as a gift for myself.
Excuse me while I have a fan girl moment:
Plath made me want to write poetry.
Her words gloss over the pages like honey.
I can see a bleak beauty and would like to understand it better.
I don’t want to give it a less star;
I have idolised her since I was a teenager.
This is not for the weak of hearts though.
Her backstory is very unusual and quite deranged.
Some of the poems are really dark.
Daughter enjoyed reading this must-read, don’t get me wrong.
She conveys every emotion with realism but makes it artistic.
The Roman á clef tended to be rather entering adulthood.
Just 5 people found the book itself was quite dirtystars
I have got no idea about the quality of the pages.
Your life will be much better having read them. Mine is grey
instead of what appears to be dark blue.
I’d put 100 stars.
The most important thing for me to say is
every time I try to turn a page, the page peels out with
no tension. Spine was totally broken.
Harsh omissions, torn beauty in bad condition.
I have similar problems in common but having been
I have succeeded in living.
One person found this helpful.
but my favourites were
blood, hospitals, an ambulance
Not in the order she left them—
If you’re like me you’ll love
them feelings she may have been feeling.
Do you want to feel the void?
If only her imitators could write like her.
Perhaps I will in a few years?
Worth 5 stars easily for the intrusion.
The new version is in really bad shape.
Even more melancholy.
It’s like being punched or stabbed in a good way.
Her last hurrah is almost bland. Hard to fathom.
Too obscure for me, did not speak to me
nor reflect my experiences or my life view at all.
7 people found this very disappointing.
I have been studying her.
If you love poetry then do go for it. Worth it.
Writer, artist and educator, Claire Collison was one of three winners of the Women Poets’ Prize, 2018. She was placed second in the Resurgence Prize, 2014; Hippocrates Prize, 2017; and Winchester Prize, 2020. Her poetry is included in anthologies including Corrupted Poets, Verve, Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, and Field Notes on Survival (Bad Betty Press), and can be found in magazines including 14 (Vanguard), Perverse, Magma, Butcher’s Dog, Finished Creatures, and Rialto. She is a founder member of Poets for the Planet. Her debut pamphlet, Placebo is published by Blueprint, 2022.
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