Sylvia Plath’s art of the visual


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


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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