What Sylvia Plath Taught Me: Life Lessons

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(That Has Nothing To Do With The Art Of Suicide)

For a lot of English majors, Sylvia Plath is the ultimate rockstar. With her poetic genius, glamorous looks, celebrated marriage to Ted Hughes and her tragic death of carbon monoxide poisoning, she can make Kurt Cobain seem a bit too passé. If Holden Caulfield is the epitome of teen angst, then Esther Greenwood from her roman a clef novel, The Bell Jar is his female counterpart, except she’s saucier, and more delightfully whimsical and optimistic . Unfortunately her literary brilliance is often overshadowed by the controversies shrouding her suicide and more often than not, she’s associated with adolescent anxiety and morbid poetry and identified with incredibly talented but incredibly frustrated writers. For some she represents the extreme dark side of the creative life.

But a close reading of Plath’s collected works reveals much more than a tome of morbid poetry. There’s optimism and exuberance, a sense of childlike wonder and magic and an unwavering hope for a brighter future. In fact there’s so much of sunlight and love, especially in her early work, that it’s almost dazzling.

I first discovered Plath in high school in the conventional way. Having outgrown Salinger and My Chemical Romance in middle school, my angst and loneliness needed a new companion, and soon enough there was Plath, with all the pre-packaged melancholy waiting for me. But falling in love with her-truly, madly and deeply- is a lifelong experience, a journey of revelations. And there is so much more to her lively personality and equally charismatic poems, that’s just, for a lack of a better word, too underrated. There are plenty of optimistic and wonderful to learn from her life and her works, and in this post, I’m going to share some of the life lessons Sylvia Plath taught me.

1. If you want to be talented and creative, learn EVERYTHING you can: Plath’s legacy might be her in-your-face confessional poetry, but writing wasn’t her only hobby. As a child, she had watercolour and piano lessons and even won Scholastic prizes for her artwork. Her journals are filled with witty and insightful doodles that reveal her rich imagination and flair for creative problem-solving, which just goes on to show that the more you engage in a variety of artistic endeavours the more talented you’re likely to be in your chosen craft.

2. If you want to be a poet, get an English/Creative Writing degree: Okay, people are free to disagree with me on this, in this age of self-publishing and Neil Gaiman . But didn’t someone also say that most writers worth their salt are English majors? An English course not only carefully structures your poetry reading for better understanding, it will also teach you the rules and fine nuances of the craft, and give you insight regarding the evolution of the poetic form and the cultural and historical significance of poetry. Plath is proof that studying literature will be an impetus for improving your craft and soliciting constructive feedback.

3. Success is all about stepping out of your comfort zone: Introversion will get you nowhere. Plath was an extrovert, known for her bubbly enthusiasm and charisma, who openly flirted with boys and participated in a host of activities- be it working for the college magazine or being present at the local gatherings and parties (which is how she met Ted Hughes, btw). Being in the professors’ good books also help too, especially when you need the letter of recommendation for that Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge. And boy, was she fashionable!

4. Success is also a bit about academics: Sylvia Plath may have been an English major, but she was also a nerdy science student. At school, she excelled brilliantly scoring all A’s and she graduated from Smith College summa cum laude. In college, she had to take a compulsory science course that included physics, botany and chemistry, and although she claimed that physics class was like “death” and that she didn’t understand a word of it, in a test, she was the only one in her class to score an A, while all the rest had failed. And being an industrious student had its perks too- she wrote sonnets and villanelles in her chemistry class and still got through with a lil’ ingenuity.

5. Chase the life of your dreams RIGHT NOW: She didn’t wait to be published. She was the sort of person to hunt down opportunities and internships herself. She’d regularly win writing competitions both in school and college, get published in local newspapers and magazines and even won a prestigious internship at Mademoiselle Magazine that involved a summer trip to New York.

6. When life gives you lemons make lemonade: However, those of us familiar with Plath’s history know that the summer trip didn’t go as planned, and New York with all its glitter, glamour and high society, was disillusionment. But she didn’t let that kill her spirit did she? Instead she turned her dizzying experience into a highly popular roman- a-clef novel, similar to the Catcher in the Rye. Even after her first suicide attempt and a stint at the asylum, she bounced back, ready for life.

7. You need to learn the rules before you break them: Sylvia Plath was a dedicated learner, passionate about the arts and culture, and her unabridged journals reveal only a fragment of her knowledge and wide reading. While Plath’s legacy primarily rests on her later poems such as Ariel, Lady Lazarus and Daddy, written in free verse, her early poems are formal, meticulously-crafted with a reverence for the ancient rules of rhyme, meter and syllable count, especially evident in her villanelle, “Mad Girl’s Love Song “or the Glascock Prize winner “Two Lovers And A Beachcomber, By The Real Sea”.

8. It’s okay to be yourself: It‘s okay to be who you are no matter how confused, indecisive, whimsical or crazy you may seem to be. Plath spent the greater part of her life falling in love with mutually exclusive things, unable to choose the right career and path, bedazzled by the various choices… but that didn’t stop her from living her life as best as she could, excelling in what she enjoyed the most- writing, and balancing her writing career with her teaching job, a turbulent marriage and motherhood. In fact she excelled so brilliantly that posterity regards her as one of the finest American poets and a foremost name in confessional poetry. Plath teaches us to be unique and to celebrate our uniqueness, for that’s what sets us apart.

Of course, some people claim that had it not been for Ted Hughes’ affair with another woman, and the subsequent separation that left Plath as a lonely single mother struggling to take care of her children and pursue her creative interests at the same time, she may not have been pushed to the brink. But that’s a different debate altogether.


Previously published in Quail Bell Magazine.
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