Friday, July 13, 2012

"A Bad Day. A Bad Time": Sylvia Plath's Method

"Lightening had ripped your clothes off and signed your cheekbone. You only knew it had come and had gripped you by the roots of your hair and held you down on the bed and stretched across your retina the global map of nerves in blue flames. Then left you signed and empty." The previous quote is taken from Ted Hughes' "The Badlands", a poem written about Sylvia Plath, his wife and a brilliant writer in her right, and her "search for her poetic self" while being savaged by mental illness (Erica Wagner, ARIEL'S GIFT) According to Hughes: "Nothing refreshed her [Sylvia] more than sitting for hours in front of some intricate pile of things laboriously delineating each one. But that was also a helplessness. The blunt fact killed any power or inclination to rearrange it or see it differently. This limitation to actual circumstances, which is the prison of so much of her prose, became part of the solidity and truth of her later poems." (Hughes, Introduction to Plath's JOHNNY PANIC AND THE BIBLE OF DREAMS) Sylvia, herself, admitted this problem as well. In a 1959 journal entry, she noted her own "passive dependence" on others and concluded: "I shall perish if I can write about no one but myself. Where is my old bawdy vigor and interest in the world around me?" For me, Plath's words provide both special comfort and haunting fear. Each time I go to paint pottery, I think of Sylvia's method. Because for me, painting or writing are attempts at purification. They are no less (or no more) than a means of purging myself of images and ideas that hold me so firmly in their grip that whatever tenacity of spirit I possess is being strangled to the point of death. In those moments, there is no world outside of the one in my own head and heart. Nothing else has real meaning, only the search for purification, for peace. My pieces of pottery have names, dates, and dreams scribbled across them in wobbly handwriting. They are the places I pour my insecurities, my fears, my lack of sanity. "A bad day. A bad time. State of mind most important for work. A blithe, itchy eager state where the poem itself, the story itself is supreme." (Plath journal entry, Sunday, Nov. 15, 1962)

1 comment:

  1. I wonder how many artists have been influenced by Plath's account of her working methods and temperament. While Ted Hughes is a valuable authority on this point, he also did not understand certain fundamental aspects of his wife and her work--as I try to show in AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND ART OF SYLVIA PLATH, which St. Martin's Press will publish on January 22, 2013.