Rediscovering Sylvia Among the Tulips

In the January 2014 issue of Poetry there is a poem entitled “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath” by Sina Queyras I don’t know why the poem hit me so hard. It might be because Plath died at the age of thirty and this March I’ll be thirty-three. It might be because by the time she died she had two children, a book of poems and was embroiled in a tumultuous marriage with Ted Hughes. It might be because as I read Sina Queyras’s beautiful poem I was immediately, shockingly sad. The sadness was heavy. It pressed on my chest as I sat at my desk in my office at school. It pressed so hard that I felt my eyes water for a woman who has been dead for over fifty years. 
I have always found Plath’s story heartbreaking. Partially it is because we will never know the poems she could have written. Also, as a thirty some year old woman who is thinking about starting a family and who is also a poet and a professor, I find myself empathizing with her loneliness and her isolation. It is upsetting that that she couldn’t overcome her illness and I suppose now I find myself identifying with her more as a woman rather than an enigma. She was not just this brilliant, tragic poet. She was, as it turns out, a woman made of blood and bone.

Sylvia Plath with her two children, Nicolas and Frieda, in 1963.
Immediately upon finishing this elegy I went back and read the poem “Tulips.” and was reminded of how gorgeous and devastating that poem truly is. There is such isolation: “There smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks. Even love hurts. What must it be like to live this way? That flowers give you pain and that health is a far away place you know you cannot reach. At the same time, the poem is so beautiful and carefully rendered. So precise in it’s language. That such beauty can come from such pain is hopeful. I just wish it could have kept her alive.
After reading “Tulips,” I wanted to revisit more of Plath’s work, so I pulled out my copy of Ariel. My copy is the restored version which contains a foreword by Plath’s daughter, Frieda. This edition also contains notes and drafts that Plath left behind after her death. I had forgotten, until I opened the book, that it was a gift from a friend. At the time I was given this edition of Ariel, my friend was studying Philosophy and I was studying English at Allegheny College. My friend had a flare for the dramatic and included two quotes at the front of the book: “All, everything that I understand, I only understand because I love” ~Leo Tolstoy & “One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life; that word is love.”~Sophocles.

Still life with flowers by Paul Cezanne.

Unfortunately, my friend and I are no longer in contact. I don’t know why. 

And yet as I read his inscription, I am briefly sad about our lost friendship but the sadness is quickly replaced by anger. These quotes have no business in this book. Love couldn’t free Plath. Love fought bravely, but in the end her disease was stronger. This is especially arresting given that Ariel is dedicated to Plath’s two children, Nicholas & Frieda, and Nicholas Hughes committed suicide in 2009. It is difficult because love gave us so many of Plath’s wonderful poems but so did despair. 
I feel like there’s probably a poem in here somewhere. Maybe several poems.

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