The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume One--1940-1956 edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen K. Kukil, Harper, 1388 pages, $45.
Here’s Sylvia Plath, in 1956, writing about her love for her husband poet Ted Hughes. “I fell in love with Ted’s poems before I met him, at a very bohemian party given for a new literary review. He is big, athletic (a discus thrower, archer, plowman, etc.) with a voice that out-roars Dylan Thomas, knows all Shakespeare, Donne & Blake & Yeats and all my favorite writers by heart (most un-British, half-Irish, half-French with a dash of Spanish); can draw magnificently, witches & animals, portraits; can tell fairy tales, ghost stories, legends about Irish heroes till the birds are struck dumb on the trees, has one pair of dungarees to his name, is utterly penniless, honest, clear and brilliant.” And if that isn’t a perfect novelesque condensation of ardent young love among the literati, what is?
We know, of course, how that story ends-- with Plath, at 30, and Hughes apart, on Feb. 11, 1963 as she sticks her head in the oven and turns on the gas while her children Nicholas and Frieda slept peacefully. (She had, at least, separated the kitchen from them with towels and clothes in front of the doors). And then, with Ted as her much-decried literary executor, come years of contumely about his handling of her work.
Take a look at this truly gigantic book. It is, at almost 1400 pages, merely Volume 1 of the letters from this voluble poet who became American literature’s archetypal feminist cause and confessional poet. So many poets write wonderful letters. There is so much biographical interest here about emotional turmoil and depression that it’s possible to lose sight of the toughness and ambition of her literary sensibility.
In the final letter here, she writes to an editor of the Atlantic Monthly Review Press in 1956 on how she distinguishes herself from other women poets. She’s not, she writes, a “man-imitating neo-platonist intellectual (e.g. Kathleen Raine), nor a bitter-sweet coy feminine one, like the weaker [Edna St.Vincent] Millay, sarcastic Dorothy Parker or the miserable [Sara Teasdale]; such tremulousness; such frustration.”
Such a jetty of youthful brilliance under pressure.