In search of the poet

Sylvia Plath was one of the 20th century's most important poets, a still-iconic figure who, paradoxically, has inspired some terrible poetry. Now, a film about her is adding to the myth. But, asks Christina Patterson, was she actually any good?
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The Independent Culture

When Sylvia Plath placed her head on a folded cloth in the oven, switched on the taps and waited to die, she could not have imagined what this single act would unleash. All suicides leave a bitter legacy of rage and grief and the shadow of a question that must remain unanswered. Some give rise to myth, but few have matched the grip on the public imagination of the beautiful young poet who loved and lost and died. She wanted fame and found it, but couldn't dictate the terms. "It is sad only to be able to mouth other poets," she says in her Journals. "I want someone to mouth me."

So, now we have Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia, looking pensive and poetic in a fetching range of cardigans and pleated skirts. Her looks need to be expressive, because Paltrow is not able to "mouth" the words that would bring her alive. Forty-one years after the act that turned her mother into an icon, Frieda Hughes has had enough and refused permission for the poems to be used. And so we have a film about the most famous literary couple of the 20th century without the poetry.

Instead, we have Sylvia on a punt on the Cam shouting Chaucer at the cows and Ted Hughes reciting chunks of Shakespeare or Yeats - all safely out of copyright. There's a lot of pounding away at old typewriters, a lot of crumpling up of failed poems which are then theatrically hurled into the bin, and a lot of staring gloomily out of the window. Later, when Plath's obsession with baking cakes has given way to a surge of feverish poetic activity, we are offered ingenious collages of the poems, fragments that give a flavour without landing the director, Christine Jeffs, in a legal mess. As creative endeavours go, it's certainly brave.

How, in two hours, can you capture the complexities of the woman who launched a thousand PhD theses? How do you portray the truth of the relationship that branded our late laureate a murderer? Well, you can't, of course. Nobody knows the truth of it. Hughes himself kept silent on the matter until the publication, shortly before his death from cancer in 1998, of his final collection, Birthday Letters. The poems offered astonishing glimpses into the passion and pain of a now mythical marriage, but those glimpses were, as always with the Hughes-Plath story, reflected in a hall of mirrors. Sylvia, like all biographies and artistic interpretations of a life, offers us a version of this story, a version that isn't entirely faithful to the facts. For all the false notes, however, and the less than brilliant script, it's an affecting film that does go some way to capturing the psyche of a fragile woman tormented by her own perfectionism. Gwyneth Paltrow is superb. She flits convincingly, and disconcertingly, between sexy siren, eager-to-please Fifties housewife and creative artist in the grip of an obsession in a way that suggests equal and opposite vulnerability and strength. Daniel Craig as Hughes isn't bad either: shadowy and enigmatic, but so was the poet. What he can't quite capture is the sheer magnetism of this man, which nobody who met him forgot. I met him four or five times and was always taken by surprise by a gaze that was almost hypnotic. Other women clearly felt the same.

With the assorted handicaps of a poetry-free script, the prejudices of the Hughes/ Plath camp-followers, and the sheer numbing weariness that must now greet every addition to the Plath production line, this was never a project bound for triumphant success. But I'm not sure that anyone could have predicted the screaming bitchery of its critical reception. "Sylvia," thundered David Sexton in the London Evening Standard last week, "is one of the worst films I have ever seen." Kate Muir in The Times sneered that "the most interesting aspect of this preview was the gaspworthy height of Paltrow's sandals". Joe Queenan, in an otherwise relatively measured review in The Guardian, ended with a threat. If, he declared, his wife "started reciting passages of The Bell Jar or demanded that I take her to too many more movies like Sylvia, I too would put my head in the oven".

Just what is going on here? You'd have thought that the loudest cries of disapproval would emerge from the poets' friends or peers, but so far this doesn't seem to be the case. Peter Porter, poet, critic, friend of Hughes and of Assia Wevill, the woman Hughes was living with when Plath died, found flaws but thought the "early scenes at Cambridge were pretty convincing".

Al Alvarez, who knew Hughes and Plath, published her poems in The Observer and features in the film (played, he was delighted to report, by the considerably taller Jared Harris) reached this verdict: "As for the look of the movie and its portrait of two gifted people linked together in an impossible marriage and putting each other down, I came out thinking, 'That's how it really was back then. Thank God it's over.'"

What we have here, it seems, is the Plath effect: an effect that afflicts not just adolescent girls, or armies of rabid feminists united against the (male, philandering, silencing, murdering) devil, but also male literary critics of a certain age. It is, in short, hysteria. It is certainly a little depressing that the online Sylvia Plath Forum offers "in excess of one million words on Sylvia", and that a Google search brings up 85,200 hits. It is more than a little depressing that a confused young woman who finally succumbed to the siren call of suicide should be any kind of role model for anyone.

How many more trees must be sacrificed to produce critical theses, I-was-there-at-the-time memoirs or embarrassing fictionalisations, often edging towards the Mills & Boon? The author of one of them even wrote a piece in The Guardian a year ago called "Baking with Sylvia", a lapse of taste that could almost have been funny if it hadn't been so entirely po-faced. To be both a feminist icon and a Martha Stewart figure must surely be some kind of record.

The sanctification and widespread appropriation of Sylvia Plath is certainly one of the more peculiar cultural phenomena of the 20th century. And, yes, it is also irritating. It is not, however, cause to fling reason and sanity out of the window, even if that does make for much more coruscating copy. The question, surely, is not whether or not she has given rise to a lot of nonsense, but whether she was a good poet. Whether, in fact, her legacy as a poet outweighs the nonsense.

Poetry scares the living daylights out of most people. We do not, on the whole, want our poets to be cuddly and approachable. We don't want to think of them buying toilet rolls at Tesco or filling out their tax returns. We want our poets to be brooding, Byronic, beautiful and preferably dead. The Romantics fit the bill, of course, and so do the Rupert Brookes and the Siegfried Sassoons. Bumbling John Betjeman and bald Philip Larkin were, on that front at least, a bit disappointing.

And then we got the Ted and Sylvia show: a tale of turbulent passion, adultery, madness and suicide. This was real poetry! This was exciting! Who wanted to read the poetry when you could read the life instead? For poets and their readers, it is clearly not a helpful model. "The myth is just a nuisance," says the poet and critic Ruth Padel. "Poets don't care about the myth. They care about Plath's ability to say things in a new way, a blazingly new way."

Putting aside the tangled mess of a life that can never be wholly understood, the life of a woman with a huge capacity for love, despair and histrionics, it is not hard to see why she was so swiftly elevated into the role of feminist icon. At a time when most women could not even think about "finding a voice", a time when she herself was making as many pies as poems, she was giving agonised expression to the struggle to find the self lost in the piles of laundry. In "The Applicant", published in Ariel after her death, she writes about "a living doll, everywhere you look./ It can sew, it can cook,/ It can talk, talk, talk." In "Stings", one of many poems about bees, she talks of having "a self to recover,/ a queen."

What emerges from behind the extraordinarily taut surface is her rage. The poet and novelist Michele Roberts, now professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, discovered Plath's poetry in her twenties, and was hooked. Roberts says: "She was writing at a time when men dominated the literary scene and she invented a voice, an 'I' female voice, that was sexual, angry and mythical, that translated felt experience into metaphor. Although men have put her down as confessional and hysterical, it's the opposite because hysterics can't speak. She speaks with power and authority and control."

But what of the torrents of bad verse that her work unleashed: what the poet Hugo Williams calls the "I am a garden of black and red sausages" school of poetry? Roberts won't be drawn on this, though she must have witnessed plenty. "I think that any poet worth her salt has, ultimately, to forge her own poetic voice," she says thoughtfully. "Just to imitate Plath badly will not do in the long run."

The American poet Jules Mann, now the director of the Poetry Society in London, saw a great deal of Plath's influence in the East and West Coast writing groups she attended in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the women-only groups, she says, "so many people were attempting it that it became almost a parody of itself. In the mixed writing groups, women who tried to imitate her were just shredded."

For the poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw, who was shortlisted for this year's Whitbread poetry award and TS Eliot prize, Plath is "a good model, but a bad influence. People are attracted to her heightened drama and don't realise that this intensity has to be matched by heightened technique. Robert Lowell described her as having 'the control of a skier who avoids every death trap'. I have," Greenlaw reveals, "learnt a lot from her about discipline and risk."

The point, of course, is that there is very much more to the poetry of Sylvia Plath than misery, rage and appropriated images of Fascism and the Holocaust. It's hard to forget the "skin,/ Bright as a Nazi lampshade" in "Lady Lazarus" or "The boot in the face, the brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you" in "Daddy". But it's also hard to forget the love that "set you going like a fat gold watch", the baby like "a sprat in a pickle jug", the tulips "opening like the mouth of some great African cat". If she spawned a lot of chopped-up prose masquerading as poetry, she certainly didn't write it. She is, says Ruth Padel, "absolutely vital for a lot of the current generation of poets. That's not do with the myth, it's the way she has fantastic formal control, her power of diving right into the heart of the metaphor and then to go beyond it, and also her power of cadence and movement forward in a completely free verse, which depends on her training in very formal verse."

Padel's observation that Plath's importance continues for poets of all ages is echoed by Maura Dooley, the poet and convener of the MA in creative and life writing at Goldsmiths'. "There is," she says, "a lazy assumption that she's a very important writer for young women, but that most of them grow out of it. She's much more important than that. She was an extremely exciting writer, whose work was full of innovation. She's been just as important to the male poets, and why shouldn't she be?"

The Irish poet Matthew Sweeney was introduced to Plath's work by the poet Peter Fallon, who told him that if he wanted to write poetry seriously, he should buy two books: Crossing the Water and Ariel. Sweeney took his advice and for the next two years carried them everywhere. "The early poems I wrote were just riddled with Sylvia Plath," he confesses, "but what I really picked up from her was how everything had, not just a lot of clarity, but * * this big-eyed awe at the world. Also, the importance of speaking tone in her work, the way it could be very, very dark and funny at the same time. Most people don't read her properly," he adds. "It's full of humour!"

When Plath published those first poems in The Observer, she was one of a handful of women in this country writing and publishing poetry. Her reviews were nearly all from men. Roger Scruton, reviewing Crossing the Water in The Spectator, began his review with a gender switch that now seems almost comic. "It is seldom useful to judge a poet's writing in terms of his character," he announces, "but Sylvia Plath so forces attention on herself that it is difficult to approach her work on other terms." The poet, it's implied, is generally a man, the "forceful" Plath an aberration.

If the reviews at the time don't exhibit quite the strength of feeling provoked by the film, they do, in many cases, suggest a strong sense of distaste. Alan Ross, reviewing Ariel, said: "These last poems of Sylvia Plath's, once read, hang around one like the smell of morphine, impregnating everything." You can almost see him wrinkling his nose. Charles Tomlinson even wrote a poem, "Against Extremity", in which he refers to "that girl who took/ Her life almost", and asks for "treaties" against "The time's/ Spoiled children" and the "extremity" they engender.

There's a scene in the film that says it all. It's the launch party for Ariel and it's a sea of men in dark suits. At a time when the majority of literary editors are now women, and when a suit at a literary party is something of a treat, it's difficult to imagine just how radically the scene has changed. "To be a woman poet," says the poet Ruth Fainlight, one of Plath's closest friends, "was an issue then in a way that it isn't now. She was one of the energisers."

Sylvia Plath will continue to inspire bad poems, bad books and bad films. She will also inspire some good ones. That's what good art does. Peter Porter rates her as "one of the finest poets of the second half of the 20th century", and I would agree. We have the work, as powerful today as when it was written, and we have the legacy. If that legacy remains a tangled and at times wearying mess, certain threads shine through. Here are poems of luminous clarity that speak across the ages; poems that speak of rage and grief, but also of love, joy, babies, poppies and potatoes. To men, and particularly to women, she offers permission to do the same. You can do this too, she whispers, but you must do it brilliantly.

Christina Patterson is the deputy literary editor of 'The Independent' and a former director of the Poetry Society.

'Sylvia' is on general release