By my reckoning, Sylvia Plath would have been 78 years old today. It's difficult to imagine her as a mature woman, with a body of such personal work that tends to freeze her in the mind at the age she died, 30 (sadly, far short of the 9 times to die she claimed to have available in "Lady Lazarus"), a young mother, a betrayed wife, a frustrated writer. It is hard to imagine what the rest of her life might have been like, and later work with the added perspective of experience and time.
But time was not something Sylvia had a lot of. Mental illness is still a mystery to medical science, and was that much more in 1963. Recently at the Dodge Poetry Festival, Joseph Millar said, "Your poetry will save you," and I sobbed, knowing how true that has been for me. How much more does that apply to Plath? Without that particular outlet of expression, how many comebacks could Plath have managed after all? Would she have drifted off into the Atlantic as a child, the first near-death experience she describes in "Lady Lazarus" as an accident?
I think poetry saved her for as long as it could. Along with the sadness, there is empowerment and inspiration in her Ariel poems. They often seem to be the words of a sorceress conjuring up a new life, a new world to move into just as soon as this one passes. In "Lady Lazarus", the speaker isn't falling, but rising. She is triumphant over those in her life who would oppress her. It seems to be only in the last few poems, written when she was sick, worn out and grief-stricken, trying to surviving the coldest London winter in decades, that the voice becomes resigned to a terrible, final failure.
For 10 years I hosted an event in Kingston, NY called "The Sylvia Plath Bake-Off". I billed it as perhaps the world's only combination open mic and baked goods contest. I was harassed by Pillsbury for the use of the term "Bake-Off", but oddly never by the Plath estate. No insult was ever intended, and the tone of the readings year after year never failed to be anything but honorable, sympathetic and appreciative of Plath and her work. We had all been too close ourselves, as poets and performers, to "our boy" (Anne Sexton's waggish term for death and the lure of suicide) to be anything but.
I am older now myself than Plath ever was, the same age as her son Nicholas, who committed suicide not long ago. I no longer have the heart for smarmy, eye-catching names for events. Many here in the Hudson Valley remember the Bake-Off fondly, and keep hoping I will revive it. Once a thing has outlived its white heat, it is finished. I may gather poets together again, but in a more gentle manner. Not at the expense of one whose pain draws closer to me and becomes more real every day. Rest in peace, Ms. Plath.