Sylvia Plath’s art of the visual

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I must admit that in the past, I’ve fancied
myself as a bit of a Sylvia Plath expert. I was first
introduced to her poetry back in 1998, when I was still in high school. Plath’s ex-husband Ted Hughes had just produced Birthday Letters,
an award-winning book of poems reflecting on his life with her. My English
teacher took advantage of all the accompanying Plath/Hughes retrospectives in the newspapers to introduce us to their story, and
to her work.

Like a lot of young women both before
and since, I was quickly drawn in to the story of this pretty, intense,
intelligent, angry girl, who struggled to reconcile her temper, her
creative drive, and her sexual desires with her wish to fit in with
the Doris Day–like female role models of the 1950s, as well as
her genuine desire to succeed as mother and homemaker. I got hold of
her collected letters, I read her journals in the library, I got a friend
to lend me The Bell Jar — and I can still remember the first
time I read through her famous poem “Daddy,” sat on the library
floor with the book balanced on my knees. I had asked my English teacher
to recite it to me, but he had refused, on the grounds that he didn’t
think he could do it justice.

It turns out there was a whole area
of Plath’s life I had no idea about, though. Editors Kathleen Connors
and Sally Bayley have recently published a book — to coincide with what
would have been Plath’s 75th birthday — titled Eye Rhymes: Sylvia
Plath’s Art of the Visual
.

Including sketches, paintings and photographs,
it reveals that Plath initially took fine art as seriously as writing,
only deciding to concentrate on the latter as a junior at Smith College
at the age of 20.

The book is on my wish list, but
I’ve had a flick through in the bookstore, and it only serves to extend
my impression of Plath as quite intimidatingly accomplished. Rather
like her poems, her paintings are bright, clear, direct, and arrestingly
odd — she has a talent for taking you inside her own strange mental
world and making it seem very real to you.

As well as showing a new side to
her talent, the revelation of her skill as a visual artist also casts
an interesting light on some of her poems — the title of “Watercolor
of Grantchester Meadows,” for example, or the opening lines of “Winter
Trees”:

The wet dawn inks are doing their
blue dissolve.

On their blotter of fog the trees

Seem a botanical drawing —

Recently, I also came across a BBC recording of Plath reading one of her later poems, “Lady Lazarus.”
You can listen to it here — although be aware that her reading makes
it even more powerful than it is on the page, and that in either case
it’s not exactly for the sensitive.

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