Sylvia Plath: The idol, the victim - and the pioneer

Fifty years after her suicide in the bitter winter of 1963, Sylvia Plath survives as a legend as much as as a poet. Half a century on, it's time to drop the myth and focus again on the work.

"Poetry, I feel," said Sylvia Plath in a radio interview in 1962, the year before her suicide, "is a tyrannical discipline. You've got to go so far so fast in such a small space, you've got to burn away all the peripherals."

But have we, her readers, burned away enough peripherals of our own in the 50 years since she died to read her poems purely as poems - as we might read those of Pindar, or any poet about whose life we know nothing?

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Plath is a defining voice in 20th-century poetry. For women poets she was also a turning-point, a new vocal role model, but purely as poet she is part of the tradition for the whole poetic community. Most of today's leading poets, men included, would be different if she hadn't written. Each in a different way would be thinner, and have less sense of linguistic possibility – of where a voice can go, freedom, blaze and reach - without her.

Some react against her work, as you do. That is how tradition works, but they still have to reckon with her and are enriched by doing so. Her greatest work has offered one touchstone for how words behave in a poem: the tone, pitch and dramatic burn; freedom, balance, and that exhilarating delight in language. In the image of her poem "Words", the linguistic units in her work are axes, "After whose stroke the word rings./ And the echoes!/ Echoes travelling/ Off from the centre like horses.// The sap/ Wells like tears, like the/ Water striving/ To re-establish its mirror/ Over the rock…"

But Plath had a complicated, painful and much mythologised life, and this life can film the poems over with peripherals. Some ways of reading her poems are more illuminating than others. In one corner stands Reading-from-Life, or Biographical Reading; in the other is Reading-for-the-Poetry, which is the one that poets delight in and learn from. One of Plath's very last astonishing poems is "Totem". She described it as "a pile of interconnected images, like a totem pole".

The engine is killing the track,
the track is silver,
It stretches into the distance.
It will be eaten nevertheless.

Its running is useless.
At nightfall there is the beauty
of drowned fields…

Shall the hood of the cobra appal me -
The loneliness of its eye, the eye
of the mountains

Through which the sky eternally
threads itself?
The world is blood-hot and personal

Dawn says, with its blood-flush.
There is no terminus, only suitcases

Out of which the same self unfolds
like a suit
Bald and shiny, with pockets of wishes,

Notions and tickets, short circuits
and folding mirrors.

It also mentions West Country farmers, thinking of slaughterhouses as they travel up to London's meat market in the early morning on this train. Aha! says Reading-from the-Life. That's because the poet was in London, alone with her small children and no phone in the coldest winter on record: this railway line linked her to the husband from whom she had separated.

The engine is "killing" the track because her marriage is over and she's suicidal. A toy snake mentioned in the poem, which (editorial information tells us) was made of articulated scorch-patterned bamboo joints, suggests that the broken family is held together by something truly dangerous.

Read like that if you want, replies Reading-for-Poetry, politely. But let's go beyond the biographical occasion too. Look at the sonic relationships which "engine" makes to "killing", "eaten," "running". See how "stretches," with its short stressed e, sets up a new echo with the same noun. Its fierce short sound rings on through key emotion words "nevertheless", "loneliness", "useless". Look at the chime between "useless" and "beauty", the unspoken I behind "nightfall", "eye", "eye", "sky". That buried "I" is introduced and coloured by the moan of O in "loneliness". Look at the way "appal" echoes the lonely "nightfall", and at the overwhelming picture of an unvanquishable silver distance eternally burying some "us", which is lost in "terminus" and "blood-flush". This is the kind of reading that enriches. It puts us in contact with Plath's proper unique power. Let's read, not for the immediate situation, tragic as it was – a suicidal young mother - but for the processes by which this poet turned unbearable pain into pattern and form.

Some people, however, prefer biography to close reading; and new readers may sometimes find Plath's poetry is obscured by her life and death. In America her poetry is the curriculum. For poets, she is as central to the canon as Emily Dickinson. Her novel The Bell Jar is a mainstay of American high-school English classroom reading and, as teenagers, many readers identify with the part of its author which spoke for depression and despair; with an easily-split self whose symptoms of mental illness are misdiagnosed and barbarically treated via electric shock; and also with a blazing sense of victimisation. On both sides of the Atlantic, Plath's human relationships with father, mother and husband have often obscured the most important relationship a poet has as a poet - with words.

In America, Ted Hughes is a character in Plath's story. He is the Husband, and his own work often seems not to be read that much, except by poets. But in Britain, if you care about poems at all, his work is a potent force: taught in schools, part of the tradition. Poets react to it, think with it, teach it, learn from it. Hughes edited Ariel, the nearly-finished manuscript Plath left on her desk; he edited two later volumes containing her earlier work; he edited a Collected and Selected Poems. But feminist reactions to his many roles in her story caused the name he inscribed on her gravestone to be defaced. In a stark concrete challenge to his stewardship of her work and legacy, "Hughes" was often chipped off the "Sylvia Plath Hughes:" he kept having to replace it.

He also inscribed on her grave a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita: "Even amidst fierce flames the Golden Lotus can be planted" - words which salute both her genius and her psychological burden in mythic terms. The two poets had a deep professional kinship through the weight of myth in a poem but then became myth themselves. In the media, the Ted and Sylvia Show is constantly fanned by letters, journals, memoirs. In Hughes's posthumous collection Birthday Letters, his words, memories and feelings enfold and enter her poems: its poem-to-poem sword-dance illustrates the way that his life and work can complicate a readerly relationship with Plath's poetry.

I hope readers coming fresh to her poems now can set aside the myths, and the psychic despair she struggled with, to focus not on her domestic but her working life. That was a high-wire trajectory of voice, silence and metaphor, a lesson in how to pick your own path as you turn problems of feeling into solutions of form. Plath was an artisan, dedicated to her craft. "I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have," she said, "but I cannot sympathize with cries from the heart informed by nothing except a needle or knife. One should be able to control and manipulate experiences with an informed and intelligent mind."

In a stingingly swift apprenticeship, she began with conventionally patterned forms, structured mainly by rhyme - villanelles, sonnets rhymed and half-rhymed - but sometimes by syllable count. She went on through elaborate formal experiment, intricate stanzaic mirrorings, and beautifully crafted sinister landscapes. "Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people…/ A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;/ Stars open among the lilies". She was ruthless towards her work, perfecting a stark, sometimes dryly comic tone, keeping a cool eye on her own suffering but also on what happens to the world: dead moles, mushrooms, tulips, bee colonies. Her last poems are written with a wry economy of line and fierce rollercoaster images, as if the page had been waiting for her words.

In 1915, the flash-point of modernism arrived for readers in the third line of TS Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock". This poem seems to begin in four-beat rhymed couplets, like any suit-and-tie poem of the period. "Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky.'' Then the modern world bursts in. The third line, "like a patient etherized upon a table", takes a crow-bar to defensive traditional structure. If you go on using those traditional patternings, you will never use them again in the same way.

This is something like what Plath's late poems did in the Sixties. Perfectly pitched, her unexpected voicings lobbed, into the safe precinct of poetry, experiences from areas of life which had never been part of the canon before: motherhood, a woman's marriage, betrayal, mental illness, suicide; a cut thumb. She had a wonderful eye for the surrealities of wounded physical experience, her own or someone else's. In "The Surgeon at 2 a.m.", the speaker describes his excavations inside a living body:

"It is a garden I have to do with -
tubers and fruits
Oozing their jammy substances,
A mat of roots. My assistants hook
them back.
Stenches and colours assail me…
I worm and hack in a purple wilderness"

In "Parliament Hill Fields", a mother mourns a miscarriage then turns to the knowledge of a healthy child safe at home, saying to the lost infant,

"Your cry fades like the cry of a gnat.
I lose sight of you on your blind journey,
While the heath grass glitters and
the spindling rivulets
Unspool and spend themselves.
My mind runs with them,

Pooling in heel-prints, fumbling
pebble and stem."

If you burn away the glamour of myth, you can focus on Plath's mastery of voice, her address, subjects and images, and on what we learn from her work not about individual psyches but the roles that words play in our constant repositioning of inner and outer, self and world. What poems like "Ariel" and "Elm" actually do (rather than what they reflect, or express) - their shape, beat and energy, their notions, short-circuits and folding mirrors - is to find new ways of putting absolute voice into absolute silence; of laying daredevil verbal shapes on the white space of a page.

Ruth Padel's latest book, 'The Mara Crossing' (Chatto & Windus), is a collection of poems and prose about migration and immigration. Sylvia Plath's 'Collected Poems' is published by Faber & Faber, and 'The Bell Jar' has been re-released as a Faber paperback

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