Talking to Sylvia Plath

Here we are, Sylvia. It’s 51 years to the day of your death, and I wonder if the arc of your still-lofted legacy, were you aware of it, might now salve the burn of your life. Your slim body of work is still seen as some of the canon’s most vital, which I know you wanted. I’ve carried it closely over the last 8 years for my own part. Silly though it may sound, I feel in one way like I’ve been carrying you too.

It was a queer, balmy Autumn, the Autumn they opened the gates on my third year of University, and I didn’t know what I was doing in Oxford. Actually, I did know what I was doing there, though in retrospect I might have done much of it differently. Sally Bayley was my tutor at the time, but we were already friends. That I’d not change. She’d just a written a new book on your paintings, and was at the helm of a big event in your name. She asked if I’d write a song about you. Well, sure, I’d love to, except that I’d not read much of your work at the time, and what I had read fell under the regrettably prevalent view of you fostered by schoolboys who’ve not really read you properly: shrill, I thought; pure anger. But at some stage I must have also glanced at this, so I thought I’d glance again, more closely, in hope of finding the way in, the point of empathy I needed to write the song.

And boy, did I find it.

‘Morning Song’ is the finest poem of maternity ever written. I’m not going to subject it to any academic scrutiny, mostly because I’d embarrass you, Sylvia, and myself. But I will write just a few words on why I love it so much. You’re joyous here: that “fat gold watch”, those vowels rising “like balloons”. The imagery is almost whimsical, and full of love. But you’re wary too. You, whose principal theme was the construction of the Self, whose whole oeuvre is a song to this effect, are acknowledging the “erosion” of that Self through passing a piece of it on to this other person you’ve made; a new statue in the drafty museum. You who were once “cat-clever” stand here “cow-heavy” in a “Victorian nightgown”, so at odds with the glossy magazine photos you pasted in scrapbooks as a girl.

Not all would admit it, but I’m sure all parents have felt this fierce tangle of contradictory emotion, in itself representative of whole human performance. It’s enough to make anyone want to lie down, so I wrote you a lullaby. I still play it today, and it’s afforded me some great experiences: with Sally at various literary events; with our friend Elisabeth Gray, who wrote a play about you; with audience members who want to talk about you after the show; and just the experience of reading your work fully, properly, in thrall to its deft poetic inventions.

(I’ll not link those reading this directly to ‘Sylvia Plath’s Lullaby’. It’s on ‘The Flame and The Pelican’, which you can easily find if you haven’t already, and if you’d care to.)

I’m not sure we’d ever have been friends, Sylvia, but that doesn’t matter. You were all sorts of people: tender, lyrical, maddening, complex, vivacious, wounded and more. You were brimful of these things, and being so close to the surface they could spill over, the way they will in damaged people, sadly hard to know. But your work put all this beneath a Craftsman’s hand and an Artist’s eye, both artisanal and virtuosic. Ted Hughes said you approached your poems as if you were carving something from wood. The best of them also sound like you were breathing over flutes. I’m sorry about my riffing on ‘The Bell Jar’ up there, it was lame; but then you were funny too, you poor foot.

Ultimately, Sylvia, I hope you’d have forgiven my banality upon saying “here’s to you”, and thanks for the good work. I was walking through Borough recently, just South of London Bridge, and I passed the church where you were married. It’s beautiful. I can see why you might have chosen it, if in fact you did. The life you were trying to make for yourself was certainly a grand one, laden with such decoration. I’m sorry it couldn’t hold.