Sylvia Plath inspired generations of female writers. But which authors would inspire her if she were alive today?
If Sylvia Plath were alive, she’d be turning 83 this October. And it seems likely she’d still be writing – and reading. But what would be on her to-read list? What authors would be influencing her work?
Plath died by suicide in 1963, a famously sensational literary death that’s still talked about today. When she died, she’d published a small but vivid body of work: the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and the poetry collection The Colossus, as well as individual poems in journals and magazines. A second, critically acclaimed volume of poetry, Ariel, was published shortly after her death. Additional poems and journals have surfaced in the years that followed, receiving more acclaim and attention than anything released while she was alive. But the lack of timely validation never halted her talent; she was a writer who wasn’t stopped by mediocre reviews, continuing to write and write in the months leading up to her death despite a chilly reception to The Bell Jar.
Those writings give us clues to the tastes that shaped Plath as a writer and a woman. As she matured, her work became more female-centered, and if she were still writing and reading today, we believe she’d be delighted with the women writers, new and established, making their mark in the 21st century. Here are a few to whom we think Plath would be drawn.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood has been a presence on the literary scene for decades, and Plath might have been reading her as early as her 1969 debut with the novel Surfacing. Her award-winning 1985 speculative novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, gained notice with its powerful look at an anti-woman future, and in the years since, she’s demonstrated her versatility as she’s approached a wide variety of topics and styles, imagining everything from the distant past to the broken future. Her 2009 novel, The Year of the Flood, dwelled on a topic that also fascinated Plath: beekeeping. Plath, who often wrote about bees after her husband, Ted Hughes, began keeping them, might have delighted in Atwood’s descriptions of the songs of bees and their essential place in the life of her novel.
Plath was a writer of confessional poetry, a relatively new movement when she was at her peak. Her poems are deeply personal, drawing on the details of her life and innermost musings. Confessional poetry such as Plath’s lays bare subjects that were once taboo: suicidal thoughts, sexuality, past traumas. Plath greatly admired and was influenced by other confessional poets, such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, even as her own writing helped advance the genre.
One of the poets building on Plath’s legacy of confessional poetry today is Sharon Olds, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and T.S. Eliot Prize for her collection Stag’s Leap. More than a darling of the critics, Olds is also accessible, and Oprah Winfrey named Stag’s Leap one of her “Favorite Reads of 2012.” Plath’s love for the confessional poetry of her peers probably would keep her looking forward to Olds’ next volume.
Plath’s poetry circled around the things she knew – and despite popular caricature, that included much more than her experience of mental illness. Scenes of her daily domestic life often made their way into her writing, but she twisted and tweaked them, making them strange and surreal. Critic Marsha Bryant called Plath’s writing the “domestic surreal,” and Plath’s love for finding the darkly weird side of daily life probably would have led her to seek out other surrealist writers. Aimee Bender is one of the young surrealists writing today, with two novels – An Invisible Sign of My Own and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – and several short stories to her credit. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, a girl discovers that she can taste emotions in food; in “Dearth,” a woman is a mother to seven young potatoes. In both works, she weaves magic realism and the surreal alongside threads of the familiar. Bender exudes rage in stories like “Debbieland” and “Off,” and female rage is as central to Plath’s writing as is surrealism. She would likely have found much to admire in Bender’s works.
Plath was deeply in love with the poetry of Dylan Thomas – so much so that after missing a chance to meet him, she fell into a deep despair and began experimenting with self-harm. If she were alive today, we believe she’d find kindred spirits in other poets who were influenced by his work. One such poet is Gillian Clarke, the current national poet of Wales. Sharing a homeland with Thomas, she took inspiration from the dense verse of one of her country’s greatest writers. Her recent collections include Ice and A Recipe for Water.
Eimear McBride has published just one novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, but we think it’s a book Plath would have had on her shelves. Award winning and widely praised, it’s an experimental debut novel marked by rhythmic prose that becomes poetic, but not in a pretty way – the writing is angry and raw, revealing trauma, violence and sexuality. Reviewers continually return to words like “visceral,” “harrowing” and “intense” and, even more frequently, “genius.” Plath likely would have been excited by the impact of both the story and the style, seeing in it some of the darkness she captured in her own work.
If Frieda Hughes‘ name sounds familiar to Plath fans, it’s because there’s a relation – Hughes is Plath’s daughter. Not quite three years old when her mother died, Hughes was raised by her father, fellow poet Ted Hughes. Growing up amid poetry as she did, it’s no surprise that she became a writer, one who has published both poetry and a number of children’s books. Her most recent poetry collection, Alternative Values, was just published this year. Plath would have read her daughter’s work, no doubt – but her appreciation would likely have extended beyond maternal pride. Hughes’ poetry tends toward the confessional, like Plath’s, and its anger and personal nature harks back to what Plath wrote. She may have seen something of herself in her daughter, a gift for words that runs deeper than the physical similarity between mother and her child.
If you could recommend one of today’s female authors to Sylvia Plath, whom would you urge her to read? Tell us in the comments.