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Reality Bites

Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the pursuit of literary fame

The circumstances of Sylvia Plath’s death, it is fair to say, have long loomed over the details of her life. Most people have not read a word of her poetry or a sentence of her prose, but they know that she stuck her head in an oven, in despair over the inanities of suburbia and a philandering poet husband. Her death was harrowing; all suicides, even those so poetically arranged, are. Plath’s is particularly sad because it inflects everything that came before—and a lot did come before—with the pathos of tragedy. A mumbled “poor dear” vibe hangs over her verse, deleting at times the vigor of a woman who was both brilliant and brutal.

Heather Clark’s new biography of Plath, titled Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, tries to correct the overemphasis on the circumstances of Plath’s death. In the prologue, Clark quotes the critic Maggie Nelson saying “to be called the Sylvia Plath of anything is a bad thing,” Plath having become shorthand for female hysteria. Male writers who kill themselves, Clark is careful to remind us, are not treated the same way. The book, over one thousand pages of it, seeks, by dint of its sheer length and its painstaking inclusion of everything, to direct attention to her life. Here is Plath wracked by her ambition, reckless in her desires, and prone to self-absorption. We see her unthinkingly or perhaps strategically making moves on other women’s men, using the men she beds to make connections with other more important men, using women and men to further the cause of Sylvia Plath. Plath may be the poet of the misfit or the lonely literary teenager now, but she was popular, glamorous, and very much the life of the party then.

It follows that it was not only Plath’s death that was a rendition of spectacular (and inalterably sad) acts of stagecraft; she reveled in the performative all through her life. Her first meeting with poet and eventual husband Ted Hughes, at a launch party for a literary magazine, is an example. The story of the momentous party begins on a February day, when a cold Sylvia Plath is riding her bicycle through Cambridge, England. There, on a street corner, she finds her friend Bert, a poet, selling copies of a new literary magazine. Launched by Bert and his friends, the Saint Botolph’s Review, produced through the generous underwriting of one of the group’s fathers, was (like all literary magazines) invented out of writers’ needs—because (other than Hughes) none of the group were getting anywhere close to publishing in Granta or Chequer. The Botolphians, as they called themselves, wanted to “open up a new era in literature” and were “desperate” “each of [them] with a different sort of anguish.”

Born as it may have been of desperation, anguish, and daddy’s money, the Review would become the basis for launching a famous literary passion. The evidence was there before Plath had even set her eyes on Ted Hughes or got to the party. Sitting in her dorm room, Plath blazed through the pages of the Review and recognized it as the work of a literary avant-garde. Obviously, she wanted to join their ranks. Such was her fervor that she rode her bicycle all the way back to the corner and asked Bert, who was still selling copies, if he knew the writers—particularly Hughes and Luke Myers—featured in the review. Bert said he did and invited the eager Plath to the launch party that evening of February 25, 1956.

Plath may be the poet of the misfit or the lonely literary teenager now, but she was popular, glamorous, and very much the life of the party then.

She didn’t need the invitation. Plath had already been invited by another man, a Canadian named Hamish from Queens’ College, to be his date. There is the whiff of destiny about these carefully reported pre-encounters, questions of whether the poetic futures of either Plath or Hughes would have unfolded the same way had they not been fated to attend the same literary launch party. Plath’s stronger interest initially was not Hughes but rather Myers, who she believed would “be great, greater than anyone of my generation whom I’ve read yet.” She would, Clark cannily notes, predict the same about Hughes some time later.

Plath was sincere in her admiration. She wrote in her journal that the “magnificent” writing made her own look superficial and filled with “glib, smug littleness.” She wanted to overcome this littleness, the Smith College–borne prissiness that she recognizes in her own writing. Plath headed out for the party determined, in Clark’s view, to fall at the feet of the two “brilliant” men. She is, Clark notes, “a disciple in search of a master the night she meets Ted Hughes.” If it were contemporary times, she might have taken pictures for her Instagram and posted them under the hashtag #avantgardepoets #StBotolphs #wild.

Plath arrived drunk and ready to rollick, eager to conquer the men whose talent she felt had exposed the feebleness of her own. Her wild intentions fit the mood of the moment: even Bert, the eager seller of the Review, later noted how the party was meant to be a lighthearted evening of song and dance but ended up with an air of the “sinister.” Others recounted it being very wild, very drunken, and very rambunctious, its nature aligned to the raw and wild poetry that was being celebrated.

Plath, it appears, was one of the wildest ones. Dressed in red and black, she soon ditched her date for Luke Myers, even though his girlfriend was right there. She ditched Luke, too, discovering he was, like her, an American. Then it was time for Hughes, and she approached him quoting his own poetry, cleverly using his words as a homage to him (a tactic that would still work at a literary party today). At some point the two retreated to a smaller “stove room” where all the extra liquor for the party was kept. It was here, in Hughes’s recollection, that he kissed her and grabbed her earrings; when he bent down to kiss her again, she latched on to his cheek and bit him. Blood flowed from his cheek and they both laughed. Their futures it appears, had been sealed with a kiss and a bloody bite.

Fated events, however serendipitous, can leave destruction in their wake. So it was with this one, literally and otherwise. Several Victorian-era painted glass windows in the hall rented for the party were busted that night, destruction for which Hughes would only later take credit, but which had to be resolved at the time by Luke Myers, who was disciplined by his college for it. Hughes’s relationship with his girlfriend Shirley would also soon come to an end, his attention entirely taken up by Plath. The misery of that severing, no doubt acutely felt by the ill-fated (or not) Shirley, does not, of course, appear in any record. There was also the detritus of Plath’s and Hughes’s old selves, ones that would be transformed by the reaction between their cumulative ones. Both had found in each other a partner in performance, or, as Clark puts it, an “aesthetic,” wherein they imagined each other as characters in a mythology rather than as actual people. By the end of April, Plath had written many poems about Hughes, most of which portrayed him, according to Clark, as “a creator and destroyer of worlds who spared little sentiment for the women he loved and left.”

Plath was much more than the worshipping fangirl she seems in this moment. As Clark’s meticulous research reveals, she was a woman who took herself and her poetry seriously. Plath, Clark notes, “pursued her literary vocation with a fierce, tireless determination.” The work she produced befuddled critics of her time; as Clark puts it, “they did not know what to do with burning pulsating metaphors in poems like ‘Lady Lazarus.’” Critics since then have tended to fall prey to the Marilyn Monroe of the literati image that confines her work to “a limbo between icon and cliché.”

In retrospect, that launch party was full of presentiments. Hughes’s easy lean into infidelity, Plath’s double-bladed admiration and envy, all shine through the handfuls of facts we have from that evening. Yet to just leave it there would be coy and cute, the sort of glib smallness that Plath detested in her own work. Of greater interest is their constant self-creation through performance or rather performativity—a tendency too often pinned to the aesthetically obsessed and trolling-tempted age that is our own. The Plath and Hughes meeting, where a young girl with literary aspirations and a young man who wants to be worshiped collide amidst drunken revelers and rebuffed partners, reveals that self-mythologization enjoys its own omniscience. Social media may well have made it the purview of everyone, not just emerging poets at Cambridge, but the rules of the game, the curation and the stage-setting and ultimately the performance, have not evolved.

The lingering question is whether performativity, Plath’s or Hughes’s or any other kind, deserves its reputation of being twice removed from authenticity. Would Plath and Hughes have had a less tempestuous time had they not been playing the Cathy and Heathcliffian characters that they found so alluring? Sometime after the two are married, Hughes takes Plath on walks through the Yorkshire moors and even to the setting of the actual Wuthering Heights. But Plath has already tired of the aesthetic (her poems from the time, Clark notes, suggest an ambivalence about Hughes’s homeground) given its incongruity with Hughes’s very ordinary shopkeeper parents. A few days after the visit to the ruins, she walks the moors alone, weeping over “Ted’s lack of understanding.” Here, then, is perhaps the tragedy, not of Plath herself but of those who see each other as the mythologized others of dream lives: more often than not, bits and pieces of reality turn up, messily expanding the chasm between life and verse.