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Why should you read Sylvia Plath? - Iseult Gillespie


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Under her shrewd eye and pen, Sylvia Plath turned everyday objects into haunting images: a “new statue in a drafty museum,” a shadow in a mirror, a slab of soap. Her breathtaking perspectives and unflinching language made her a touchstone for readers seeking to break the silence around issues of trauma, frustration and sexuality. Iseult Gillespie shares why Plath's writing continues to captivate.

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Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 in Boston, where she lived until the untimely death of her father when she was eight. The family moved to Massachusetts and Plath later left to attend Smith College, where she excelled academically and contemplated studying medicine and journalism while writing and drawing feverishly – she also adored cooking and art. While she was at university she wrote joyfully to her mother about education, proclaiming “I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively… The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.” To read more of her expressive letters, visit this page for extracts.

In 1953, she won a prestigious position at Mademoiselle magazine in New York, a publication that billed itself “for smart young girls.” A few years later, she would be featured in its pages as an up and coming poet – you can view the original feature here. But it was during her summer in New York that Plath fell into her first documented depression, which resulted in electroconvulsive therapy and an attempted suicide. You can read more about this difficult period of her life in this in-depth article. She later fictionalized this period in her only novel The Bell Jar, which charts the protagonist Ester’s growing sense of alienation from the world around her.

Plath often depicts the uglier aspects of her surroundings in a detached manner: cadavers on a dissecting table, her own bleeding thumb, a skeleton in a museum cabinet. But she also invites the reader deep into her own psyche. These revelations could be comical, tender or shocking, and have sparked a wealth of responses and criticism. For numerous different takes on The Colossus, Ariel
and her individual poems, you can visit the Modern American Poetry resource dedicated to Plath’s life and work. You can also visit this extensive website, which has further information on her later life spent in Cambridge writing and teaching.

Plath’s unflinching and honest approach to expressing her innermost thoughts was a key feature of confessionalism, a movement that emerged during the 1950’s in the United States. Confessional poets such as Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Allen Ginsberg conveyed personal experience in explicit terms, often challenging social taboos by creating work about their own sexuality, trauma or addiction. But while confessional work traverses difficult material, Plath’s ferocious language and potent sense of self continue to captivate her readers. You can listen to a rare interview with her talking about her life and process here.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Iseult Gillespie
  • Director Sarah Saidan
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Animator Alexis Godard, Lisa Di Giovanni
  • Compositor Antoine Presles
  • Music Stephen LaRosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Fact-Checker Francisco Diez

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