How a Sylvia Plaththemed literary pilgrimage helped one author find her words again
One cannot confess to understand or know, let alone write, another person’s trauma.
Writer Shannon Webb-Campbell discusses the controversy around her collection that was pulled from stores
This past summer, my boyfriend, who is an architect, took me on a trip to Boston to browse through the Central Public Boston Library, swim in the Atlantic Ocean and visit Sylvia Plath’s childhood home. The trip was a means to reconnect with what drives poetics after my poetry book Who Took My Sister? was pulled days after publication early in the spring.
At 35, I’m five years older than Plath when she killed herself on Feb. 11, 1963 in London, England, and left behind two children (Frieda, now a 58-yearold poet and painter, and Nicholas, a biologist, who died by suicide at 47 years old in 2009) and an extensive body of work.
Plath published The Colossus and Other Poems (1960), and The Bell Jar, originally published under pseudonym Victoria Lucas (1963), and later several books came out posthumously, including: Ariel (1965), Winter Trees (1971) and The Collected Poems (1981).
Like many young female poets, I worshiped Plath (who was born in Boston on Oct. 27, 1932) and, in a way, I still do. As a teenager, I spent my minimum-wage earnings scouring used bookstores in Toronto for vintage copies of The Bell Jar to make a collage for high-school art class. I bought nearly a dozen dogeared paperback copies of The Bell Jar, and tore them apart, and in my own way, rewrote excerpts of Esther Greenwood’s tragic tale as a means of working through my own pain. I even drew a portrait of Plath’s face in blank ink that resembled my own. At the time, I was depressed and regularly skipped math class for therapy.
Naturally, I wrote hundreds of really terrible poems.
For 20 years, I’ve been reading and rereading Plath. I’ve read The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, several biographies and non-fiction books about her life – Pain, Parties & Work Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder; Mad Girl’s Love Song, Sylvia Plath And Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson; Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of the Birthday Letters by Erica Wagner, and, most recently, Sina Queyras’ stunning poetry collection, My Ariel. Queyras asks readers to recall who they were when they first read Ariel, and what has changed in their lives.
When I first read Plath at 15 in my bedroom in the basement in Oshawa, a small city east of Toronto, I felt ripped apart by the desire to be wild and close to swallowing a bottle of painkillers. Nearly two decades later, the desire to die still collides with a hunger for life.
Plath’s legacy is both her work – her poems that give voice to the relationship between pain and gender – and her suicide. My poetry collection also spoke to themes of female pain, women, unresolved trauma and the ongoing effects of colonization.
Like for many writers, poetry has helped me soften the darkest edges, but it’s not necessarily an incubator without its own harm. Plath left a typewriter copy of the manuscript for Ariel on her desk when she placed a towel under the doors of her sleeping children’s bedrooms and turned on the gas oven in 1963. All that remains are her words and the story of her death.
In the poem Ariel, Plath writes, “And now I/ Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas./ The child’s cry/ Melts in the wall/ And I/ Am the arrow,/ The dew that flies/ Suicidal, at one with the drive/ Into the red/ Eye, the cauldron of morning.” I feel both the shimmer and the flame.
As my boyfriend and I slowly moved through the summer heat of Boston, we spoke to the relationship between architecture and poetry, and how places and spaces create language and pockets of thought. As an architect, he finds inspiration in buildings, churches and libraries – the various living forms of architecture that surround our daily lives. As a writer, I am married to the poetics, the invisible and unknowable details that exist somewhere between the past, present and other realms. Where he is directed by form, function and planning, I am guided by the emotional and often intangible. Both are witnesses to humanity, though I lack the sensibility and knowledge it takes to create buildings, so instead, I write poems.
As we stood outside Plath’s childhood home in Jamaica Plain, where she lived until she was 4, he saw New England architecture with a respectable yard. I envisioned the woman’s life long before she was married to Ted Hughes, as a poet prior to motherhood and everything that came after. What surprised us both was that there wasn’t a plaque or any sort of physical marker stating Plath had lived there. It could have been any house in any city.
From Boston, where she was born, to Britain, where she spent her final days, both places hold pieces of Plath’s narrative. In Ariel, Plath’s daughter Freida Hughes writes a foreword about the blue plaques issued by English Heritage designed to honour the contribution of a person’s work on the lives of others, a public declaration of where they worked and lived. English Heritage was led to believe Plath had done all her best work in this home, which Hughes writes, she had been in “for only eight weeks, written thirteen poems, nursed two sick children, been ill herself, furnished and decorated the flat, and killed herself.”
Hughes disagreed with English Heritage – she didn’t want her mother’s life to be commemorated where she was a single mother and was unproductive and miserable. English Heritage finally confessed that their rationale behind putting up a plaque there was because that’s where Plath had died. Now, there is a plaque on the wall of 3 Chalcot Square where Hughes’s mother and father first lived in London for nearly two years and Plath wrote The Bell Jar, published The Colossus and gave birth to her daughter.
Outside Plath’s unmarked childhood home, I reflected about what led me to her doorstep – the poetry, the criticism and the audacity it takes to write. Above all else, Plath’s life and work illustrates this conviction.
When my publisher, Book*hug, pulled my book Who Took My Sister? for not properly following Indigenous protocol, I looked much like English Heritage and clearly didn’t take into consideration the framework of the book until a sister of a woman I wrote about in one of the poems explained. It’s not how a family, especially a sister, would want her sibling to be remembered. Much like Plath, the specifics of a woman’s death aren’t the specifics of her life.
While poetry has long been a form of elegy, it does not honour a person’s life to create another gravestone. The last thing I ever wanted to do was create more harm, yet can now recognize the poetics did not belong to me – they weren’t mine to write. One cannot confess to understand or know, let alone write, another person’s trauma. To align yourself with trauma beyond your own lived experience is problematic and perhaps even dangerous. Honour comes from a living place. Plath wrote confessional poetry about her life that speaks to generations of women – and arguably reo- riented and advanced an art form, which illustrates that the only way forward is to change, evolve and move on. At the time, Plath was deeply criticized. Her poetic fame was after death, as her talent was eclipsed by Ted Hughes. Yet, in a way, we are able to imagine and create a larger narrative of the meaning of her life, work and contribution to literature – though we still cannot separate Plath from her suicide, as it is laced throughout her works.
This brings me back to being in Boston and how I yearned for this moment for 20 years. To stand in Plath’s shadow, to honour the fact that she was a human being, as well as a poet, with a childhood and a heartbeat. She had a vision, and perhaps at the time didn’t even understand what her own work could mean in the face of it all, but she kept writing until she couldn’t stand living anymore.
It was at Plath’s house at 24 Prince St., while paying my poetic respects, that I knew I had to return to my poems and revisit the book. The work was unfinished, and my publishers and I took full ethical responsibility and accountability, and apologized to the families and readers harmed. We owned the mistake and made amends. As part of the poetic process, I worked with editor Lee Maracle (who also wrote an introduction) on the revision, removed the problematic poems and revised the entire text. The new book, I Am A Body of Land, is very different from its former self.
Over the past six months, I’ve come to re-examine the role of poetry in my life. Much like the teenager who wrote in order to let the pain go, I am now a poet who remains in the crossover somewhere between the two, reciting Plath’s lines: “Where do the black trees go/ that drink here? Their shadows must cover Canada … This is the silence of astounded souls.”
As I look back to the photograph my partner took of me holding a copy of Ariel’s Gift (I picked up at Brattle Book Shop) outside of Plath’s childhood home, I can see traces of how one woman’s poetic legacy continues to map my life and work. Poetry is merely an attempt to distill meaning, to name silences and attempt to speak the unspeakable. Poetry continues to encourage us to change, evolve and move on. Above all else, poetry astounds.
Book*hug will be releasing Shannon Webb-Campbell’s poetry book I Am a Body of Land this fall.
A trip to Boston, the birthplace of poet Sylvia Plath, helped Shannon Webb-Campbell reconnect with her work.