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.