What Say You In June, Teachers?

From a letter Sylvia Plath wrote to her brother:

and I am to sacrifice my energy, writing and versatile intellectual life for grubbing over 66 Hawthorne papers a week and trying to be articulate in front of a rough class of spoiled bitches…

(qtd in Stevenson).

Any artist knows exactly how Plath feels, especially if she is a beginning teacher. The first three to five years are the worst, especially in high school teaching.

When I began teaching English composition at the university level, it took five semesters before I stopped feeling nervous before each class, and even still the classroom gives me anxiety dreams. But teach I must if I want to earn at least some money!

I went into teaching after receiving a Master’s in Spanish with the hopes of writing poetry and short stories in the afternoons, but obviously that didn’t happen. I was too busy grading and planning to even think about any kind of writing besides in my journal.

And I did not have Plath’s genius nor her frenetic, passionate drive to succeed. I settled into conformity and set my sights on having babies. The down side is that it took me almost 15 years to get back to writing. But here I am, my children in college, and I’m shaping up a manuscript of poems.

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Sketch of Benidorm, Spain by Sylvia Plath, where Plath honeymooned with Ted Hughes. Photographed from illustrations in Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson.

Sylvia Plath Biography

Halfway through Bitter Fame, a Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson, I can say that although she does not paint as sympathetic a portrait of Plath as does Alexander in Rough Magic, she does get to the inner struggles Plath experienced that led to her poetic apotheosis in a more acute way.

Alexander had access to Sylvia’s mother while writing his biography, but he was writing blindly, because Ted Hughes did not allow him to view Sylvia’s letters or journals.

Hughes’s sister, Olwyn Hughes, worked with Stevenson and allowed her to quote extensively from Plath’s journals and letters.

Plath’s letters to her mother, as one might expect, give an optimistic report of Plath’s active social life and hard work at Smith and later at Cambridge, while her journal entries show she had an active, healthy sex life that unfortunately plagued her.

Part of Plath’s problem lay in her inability to reconcile her “swing from violent vampire to virtuous nun,” as Anne Stevenson writes (28).

The controversy around Plath’s life and death centers around her relationship with Ted Hughes. Obviously, she had an artistic temperament and was ambitious to the extreme. At the same time she was conformist and wanted to raise a family like her mother did.

Even though I was born three decades after Plath, I understand her ambivalence about motherhood, art, sexuality, and a career.

But her angst and passion led her to explore or flirt with death. She was too impatient to find out what lay beyond the moon at night.

Of course the shock of losing Hughes would have brought about a despair she couldn’t find a way to exit, but reading her Ariel poems, one realizes she was in the throes of a Dionysian fury that went beyond Hughes.

In the end, casting the blame for her death on Hughes means nothing. There are only the poems, which are as grand and sharp as polished steel.

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