Infusing her poetry with personal experience, Sylvia Plath probed the relentless conflict between inner self and outward appearance. Her complex body of work includes deftly imagined poems about marriage and motherhood, gender and power, death and resurrection, and the search for the self. Although she published just one collection of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, several collections of her work were published after her death and solidified her position as one of the leading American poets of the 20th century. Her Collected Poems (1981) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
Sylvia Plath was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932. A high-achieving and driven student, she began publishing poems and short stories at a young age. By the time she graduated from Smith College in 1955, her work had appeared in Seventeen magazine,The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and Mademoiselle, among other periodicals. She received a Fulbright scholarship and studied at Cambridge University in England from the fall of 1955 through the spring of 1957. She then returned to Smith to teach but left in 1958 to focus on her own writing.
Plath’s first collection of poetry, The Colossus, was published in the U.K. in 1960 and in the U.S. in 1962. The themes of rebirth and the search for a new identity figure prominently in many of the poems, including the seven-part “Poem for a Birthday,” in which the narrator waits to be made anew: “This is the city where men are mended. / I lie on a great anvil. / . . . There is nothing to do. / I shall be good as new.” For the landmark title poem, Plath drew on the devastating death of her father when she was eight years old. “I shall never get you put together entirely, / Pieced, glued, and properly jointed,” she writes, imagining the narrator “like an ant in mourning” crawling over the monumental ruins of a collapsed statue.
Because many of her poems echo the events of her life, Plath has often been labeled a “confessional” poet. Autobiographical and direct, confessional poems reveal the honest details of the poet’s life and innermost emotions. Plath revisited the painful subject of her father’s death in several poems, including her most famous, “Daddy.” By the end of the poem, which she wrote in the singsong style of a nursery rhyme, the narrator has angrily shed the heavy burden of grief, both for her father and for the husband who betrayed her.
In using her own life as inspiration, Plath gave voice to the daily experiences of all women. “Pursuit” speaks of a woman’s desire for a man, for example, while in “Lady Lazarus,” the narrator breaks free of social constraints to emerge as a fully realized self. Especially moving are her poems about motherhood. “Such pure leaps and spirals— / Surely they travel // The world forever,” she muses in “The Night Dances,” in which comets and snowflakes lovingly reflect the random movements of a curious baby. In “Morning Song,” strong, distinctive images of a watch and a museum mark the birth of a baby: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch. / . . . Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue. / . . . And now you try / Your handful of notes; / The clear vowels rise like balloons.”
Plath also created vibrant poems about nature and the sweet, enjoyable moments of everyday life. “Blackberrying,” for example, recalls her life in rural England, where there was “nothing, nothing but blackberries, / Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly, / A blackberry alley, going down in hooks and a sea / Somewhere at the end of it, heaving.”
Digital Color Postmark (click to order)
On February 11, 1963, Plath committed suicide in her London home. She had suffered bouts of depression since college and had attempted suicide ten years earlier, an event she recounted in The Bell Jar (1963), a semi-autobiographical novel. Of the collections published posthumously, Ariel (1965) is the best known and features 40 poems written in a short, fevered burst of creativity in 1962.
Sylvia Plath is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!
“Sylvia Plath”, n.d.
Photograph by Rollie McKenna
@ Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation