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life & death in Winthrop, Massachusetts | Sylvia Plath on Azalea Path

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Plath & Hughes on Winthrop beach. This picture is often attributed to Cape Cod yet the jetty and rocks in the background identify it more clearly as Winthrop, where Sylvia spend her very early years and where family members had a house.

Lately i’ve been reading a lot about Sylvia Plath, though i’m not quite sure why – why now, after all these years am i coming back to Plath. After all, i’m older now and out of my semi idol worship phase and have developed a more realistic and clearer view of those that i admire, yet i’m still drawn to Plath the way I am still drawn to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana or Elliott Smith or any great artist that I respected before they died. I hate that the few that i actually identify with are the ones who opt out. I wonder what, if anything this says about me. Will one day, i too, opt out? God, i hope not. I don’t think so but who can predict their own life.

To be clear, my respect for any of these people did not increase after they took their own life. If anything, it just pissed me off to see such talent so selfishly taken away from us, as if they had each abconded in the night taking with them their gift of word or song or both, leaving us with their full and yet empty hearts, the profound sense of yearning and sorrow in their tone, that rings true and through both lyric and meter. Plath just won’t go away; it is almost as if she refuses to die. That her presence is still here, still present and because i happen to live not even two blocks from her childhood home in Winthrop by the Sea, i feel her more acutely. I look out of the study window and i see the beach – her beach – the one she wrote of so often, and to where she lay, allowing herself to be bronzed and blonded by the sun, her lungs filling with the same briney sea-air that fills my own on these foggy mornings and gauzey twilight afternoons.

I had read Bitter Fame, Ted and Sylvia, Birthday Letters, Sylvia Plath – a biography, etc etc. Any book on Plath, i had read long ago and filed away and every once in a while, i would seek out her poems and read those too, and even read her stories in Johnny Panic and The Bible of Dreams or even my tattered and torn copy of The Bell Jar. Reading the poems and the biographies at the saem time made each more impressive – by which i mean, it left an impression so deep that i could almost feel her strong hand squeezing my arm, leaving red marks and blue bruises as if she were desperate to reach the one person who would understand what it was she had been trying to get at all those years through her writing and the way she lived.

Sylvia may have committed suicide, but before that, she lived – she lived a life so full and so intense that it’s no surprise that she would wind up dead. She pursued Ted Hughes with a fury, and her responded. She drew blood because she knew this attraction to be primal. She fucked other boys because she saw herself as a painted whore with scarlet lips and blonded hair. Others may have lived interesting lives, no doubt, but Plath lived a life full of storm and full of fury and in this case, signifying everything.

All these years later, after being an avid reader of poetry and having followed the Plath-Hughes saga, i find that i am not one who can blame Ted Hughes for the too soon and too tragic death of his wife. Watch a the film Sylvia and see the Plath portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress i was sure would get it wrong this time because she was not serious enough; that though i like Paltrow, the role seemed to complex for her. Yet in the wake of losing her own father, Paltrow was able to put into the role the deep the same pain and yearning and sorrow that seemed to flow through Plath’s life. Sylvia is a tribute to both Sylvia and Ted Hughes for it shows each of them at their best and their worst, as they draw near and then flung apart like two ions of the same charge who are attracted nonetheless. Neither was ever able to fully leave the other’s orbit even if it was what they wanted. EVen when it was clear that for all the love that i believe was there, there existed to an element that was dark and destructive; an element that makes me think that there are times when it is possible to love too much – that you can love so deeply that you would crawl into the other’s skin if you could. That, as Plath is known to have said, you are but two parts of the same whole that were violently divided – like twins – too much alike in some ways that it made things hard, yet when separated, the pain of this too was unbearable.

Like anyone else, it seems clear that what Plath wanted more than anything was to be loved. But more, she wanted to be chosen – to be the One with the capital O. The woman chosen by the colossus of a man who would make her his goddess (she often referred to herself in poems as Medea). She wanted to be heard, to be read, for someone else to feel what she felt the way one would apply leeches in the Victorian era to bleed the individual of their psychic and physiological pain. If someone could understand, she seems to have thought, then she could survive. What she needed was to be vindicated, though for what remains obscured. This dependency on the views of others, this absolute must of being validated through the desire ad love of another is, of course, what contributed to Plath’s death in the end. She had an absolute lack of faith in herself and depended far too much on the opinion of others for validation. It wasn’t enough to know the work was good herself (though she often felt it was). it had to be published and not just anywhere, but somewhere like the New Yorker. It was a mission of Plaths and one she pursued vehemently and with force.

After all of this reading through many years now as an adult, i look at a photograph of Ted and Sylvia. They are dressed in their rain coats, and Sylvia has her hood up and her hands in her pockets as she leans in closer to Ted, bracing herself against the strong sea-wind and hard rain. Ted stands upright, a few steps a head of her on the stone jetty and unlike his wife, he is defiant to the wind – truly the colossus Sylvia had seen, firm and upright against the elements, unafraid and saying swallow me whole. Earlier today, i walked the half block from my apartment to the Winthrop beach and stood on teh same stone jetty of which Sylvia and Ted had stood. I looked at the rocks and thought of this young girl with her talent and her need and her brilliance and kindness and fury and hated the waste of it; the way she took herself from us.

I can’t blame her. Hughes had turned his back on her for the more exotic Assia Weevil, with her dark good looks and red freckled face and her Tel Aviv background. It’s not surprising that Hughes turned to Assia. She was the anti-Sylvia, everything Plath was not. She was controlled and cold in some ways, she was sophistacated and good at spin, she seemed self-possessed and secure, so unlike our fragile girl braced against the wind. Teh same girl who sits at home typing up page after page of poetry for her husband, putting his genius, she said, before her own because what he did was “important” and we gather, more important in her mnd than her own. Was it that Plath served Hughes to such a great extent that he lost his repect for her? If she had played the aloof, coy and cold seductress instead of hte needy and loving and sorrowful wife that she was, would he have loved her more?

From the outside, it seems that what Hughes wanted was respite – a break from Plath and her constant neediness. That much is understandable to a point and is the argument trumped about by others in their defense of him as they cluck their tongues and tell us how dificult Sylvia was, how impossible, which i don’t doubt for a moment. I don’t doubt it, but i also know that he knew of Plaths desperation. If anybody knew how fragile she really was it was Ted Hughes. He knew and he chose to marry her and in doing so, he tacitly told her and the world that he would be there for the haul. Yes people change, and yes, one can tire of this behavior, but there are ways of handling it. To lie to a person who is already on shakey ground, already worried that he is cheating (this was a constant fear of Plath’s and it seems cruel that Ted would then follow it through). Hughes had played out Plath’s biggest fear – that of abandonment and of not being good enough in every way, despite her tireless drive for perfection. In the end, Plath lost her colossus, the man she had seen as a sort of god to a woman who, with her husband David, rented the Hughes’s London flat at Court Green. From the beginning, Plath had sensed “a current of attraction” (Weevil told a friend) between Ted and Assia. This was her home, her husband and her child and it felt to Plath like it had been invaded or somehow polluted by this woman who would steal her husband.

Assia Weevil would never compare to Plath – not in the mind or heart of Ted Hughes. He may have wanted her, but the want was borne of Plath who is known to have said she “conjured her.” How awful it seems, to think of this insecure and desperate woman, still so in love with her husband, to know that he had turned to anybody, let alone someone who is the anti-you and isn’t anywhere near as good in so many ways (though you don’t see this at the time; sadly, at the time, Plath, like anyone in such a situation, agonized over what it was the other had that she didn’t. The answer to this is, of course, a simple one. Assia was not Sylvia and initially at least, Assia seemed self-possessed and strong compared to Sylvia’s perceived weakness or neurotics. Assia, who was half Jewish, had lived in Germany and Italy where she lived as a child, and then Palestine before she finally settled in Canada. When the Weevills came to visit Ted and Sylvia, Plath picked up on the attraction she had felt earlier right away and become stony and cold. Many say that the attraction would never have developed had Plath behaved differently that weekend. As it was, she become visibly upset, angry and stony. The next day, on May 11th, Plath wrote several of her best poems including The Rabbit Catcher and Event (originally Quarrel). In Event she writes:

How the elements solidify!

The moonlight, that chalk cliff

In whose rift we lie.

The poem goes on to say “who has dismembered us?” relating back to Sylvia’s notion that together they formed a whole. This Other has come along and split the one into two, leaving them both as broken, “We touch like cripples.” wrote plath, identifying the feelings of utter helplessness she felt. There was nothing Plath could do to stop this affair, though some say that if she had behaved less violently, Ted would not have turned to Assia. The theory holds little merit, given that the attraction pre-existed the anger; that Sylvia’s behavior was merely responsive to what she had witnessed. Her fury, then, is understandable. She had built a life for the two of them in which they were the star characters, circling each other in perfect orbit. She had tried to be the perfect wife, the successful writer and she had always put Ted first; not to question Hughes’es talent, but a great deal of his success came from Plath’s indefatigable, tireless typing and posting of his poems as she submitted each batch of tidy poems to different publications.

In the end, Assia too would commit suicide, perhaps realizing that she had been no betterthan Plath and was merely a tonic prescriped offering Hughes a slight reprieve from his intense and passionate wife, Sylvia. It mattered little that he had chosen Assia; no matter what happened, Hughes would always be Sylvia’s husband – it was a fact from which he could never escape, and the same held true for Plath. Neither was whole wihtout the other.

As i walk around the town here, the windy beach with it’s rough tide, i think of Plath – how she loved the ocean, the sun, all that is light and fierce and strong, and i can’t help but feel that with all of the incredible breadth of work she left us, there was so much more to say – just as there is more to say in this piece and no doubt, i will add to it here. I know that for Sylvia, her main accomplishment was her own death in which she “wears the smile of accomplishment.”

Later, i will walk to Otto Plath’s grave, only a few blocks West of where i live, and i will walk the Azalea Path, as she said, and find my way there – this author of “Bees and Their Ways” – a signed copy of which i have, and i will feel the terrible loss for a love that could have been the powerhouse of the literary world. That Plath and Hughes were better together than apart; that i think Sylvia was right about them being parts of the same whole, and i will know what a waste it has been to lose both to a thing so trite as lust, as adultery as a cheap moment that was never worth all this.

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • SFC SKI

    THanks for writing this peace, I am not much aware of Plath or her writing, but this was interesting to read.

    It always leaves a sour tatse in my mouth when I consider the “tortured artist suicide”, brilliant as they may be, their “opting out” from life always dimishes them talent for me.

    We all have problems and feel overwhelmed at times, most of us struggle on, who deserves the accolades and interest more?

  • http://www.sottovocce.blogspot.com srp

    absolutely i agree with what you say, and even say so in the piece toward th end. that what they do is rob the world of talent — and also, rom those who love them. having experienced the suicide of someone close, i know how awful the after affects, so i thihk we’re on teh same page. Plath should be neither idolized nor hated because she opted out; she should be, like anyone, considered on the merits of her work – and even now, i htink she had incredibly talent. a bit wearing at times, but strong and clean nonethelss. Living only a block from the house she grew up in is odd; one feels compelled to say something…

    thx. for reading, and be well

    srp

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    sadi, my wife teaches at a shelter for troubled girls. she said that a lot of the girls seem to be fixed recently on plath and cobain.

    i guess when you’re troubled you tend to seek solace in what looks like a ‘like mind’.

  • http://www.sottovocce.blogspot.com srp

    that’s interesting. i suppose it’s normal to seek out as you say, a “like mind.” I think though, speaking for myself, i actually DON’T identify with Plath — i can get to her, understand her, but i’m not as erratic as she was, i’m not so black and white. i think for Sylvia, there was Absolute Good and Absolute Bad, and while i tend to believe in absolutes (which is likey part of my epilepsy), i am also so very aware of hte many shades of grey. that life is rarely so extreme. if she had seen this, then i doubt she would have taken her life. In some ways, i can respect her commitment to the absolutes – it’s fierce and determined, but in the final account, she loses out on what could have been a pretty great life. she wanted perfect — that is rare, if ever attained. If she only knew that the trick to getting closer what you want is to some extent, learning how to settle for less than perfect but pretty darn great…

    just my opinion. . but it’s helped me life a better life.

    tx for reading and sharing about your wife; that’s interesting, but dangerous. those kids need to focus on a role model who sees it through and doesn’t take the easy way out. A person who went through immense shit but came out the other side, like William Styron (he’s alive, right? i think he tried, but anyway). His book about depression is an absolute MUST if you are in that place. It’s called “Darkness Visible” by William Styron. Check it out.

    cheers,

    srp

  • Jame McPhail

    Your piece is thoughtful and dramatic as Sylvia herself, but your georgraphy is off by miles. Sylvia lived on Johnson Avenue in Winthrop, Mass. Her parents (and grandparents) lived in a house on Boston harbor, which is several miles from the ocean side breakers in the photo, and your supposed apartment ” few blocks away” on Winthrop Beach.

    I guess imigination is what counts.

    s

  • Erstwhile Honan

    Winthrop?

    Not likely, since Ms Plath and her whole family moved from here when she was 10 years old..

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com/ sadi

    Plath lived in two places in Winthrop, one at the Schroeber’s house and another on Johnston avenue. she moved when she was ten or eleven to Wellesley. the apartment where i lived is right around the corner from the Schroeber’s beachfront place near Point Shirley, so yes, it was literally a few blocks away from where i was living.

    Winthrop is important because Plath herself felt that this was her “true” home, according to her own diaries. She always felt that strong connection with the sea and often came back to Winthrop, even brining Ted Hughes here to visit the beach (the one i saw from my bedroom window) and her father’s grave, which is right near St. John’s Episcopal Church, where i attend and have seen Otto’s grave.

    I’m not sure what the disagreement is? Did you not know she lived in two places in Winthrop and that one was beach front? Also, you said, Not Likely without knowing where i live exactly — so i’m not sure how you can know. The point and i believe i made it, if not, i’ll say it here, is that Plath LIVED in Winthrop and that this was b y her own voice, where she considered home. That is what she herself thought, so amen.

    If you disagree, then find some source b y her that says as much. I was saying that Winthrop WAS her true home, so i’m not clear on what the point was exactly — in any event, Winthrop was close to her heart and she hated leaving here. That much i do know. and please, don’t tell me where i live. If you are a Plath Scholar then you know she lived in two places in Winthrop, again, one on the beach, the other on the address you cite. What exactly is the problem here?

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com/ sadi

    oh, one more thing ‘ what the hell is “supposed apartment” a few blocks from the beach? Does it not exist? TRust me, i lived there up until a month ago. It exists. Indeed, it was less than half a block from the beach and the breakers. The harbor is NOT several miles, as you say from the photograph. It’s about a five minute drive with traffic lights. Do you live in Winthrop? If so, then do as i did and make the drive and count the mileage. It’s not “miles away…” as you say. I’m not going to argue geography with you but when you say my “supposed apartment” you’re even doubting the existence of where i lived as if i had conjured it up, which is absurd. If you want to disagree about mileage, fine… but since i live here and make the drive every day and have visited all locations, then i think i would know. What’s more, Winthrop itself couldn’t be more several miles in and of itself. It’s a small town right off of East Boston, separated by Saratoga Street, which runs over the water, so in effect,it creates and isthmus when the tide comes in. IF you live here, take the drive, count the mileage from Shore Drive to Johnson and report back. Otherwise, i’ll have to trust that my apartment exists, that the photograph is near the breakers, that as you noted, as i note, plath lived in two places etc etc and that she often came to this beach in that photo came here with Ted Hughes.

    I’m not repeating this again. It’s too stupid. If you live here, again, go count the miles if it makes you happy, and if you like, i’ll give you my old address so you can see that yes, in fact, it does exist and is yes, right there, a half a block from the ocean. Not imagination – but geographically correct and actually there.

  • D.B. Cooper

    It is kind of odd that this very interesting piece about a figure who has haunted us for several generations would be ignored all for the sake of making an unusual comment as to the location of the photograph or Sari’s pad…..

    Good God, we’ve all been haunted in some way by writings and photographs and history, and have returned to the exact spot where certain actions took place, perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of a ghost, or imagine what it would have been like to have been there at a specific moment.

    I have not a doubt Sari stood on those rocks, just as I have stood on rocks in Montana, in Gettysburg, in San Francisco, in Washington, D.C., imagining different places and unique minds. To doubt she did so is a bit strange….

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com/ sadi

    cheers, d.b.,

    point well taken. be well, and rock on.

    sadi

  • J. Weaver

    Hi,

    I really enjoyed the article. I agree with the opinion you stated. I feel Ted’s unfaithfulness sent Sylvia over the edge ending her life. Its a shame and tragic story of a relationship that went so wrong. It was a pretty cruel thing for him to do with a lady so honoring of him and so fragile in her own mind. I love her poetry though and she will live on in literary history. Thanks for the aritcle, it was an enjoyable read.

    -Justin

  • http://www.myspace.com/kubedstar Sage

    This was wonderful to read and i know all the places you talked about considering I grew up in Winthrop.
    I suddenly felt like i was sixteen agian, clutching my ratty copy of bell jar as i stared out at the water.
    Awesome.

  • http://johnthebarman.blogspot.co.uk/ Johnthebarman

    Thanks for a good read.

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