Pure Poetry #29: Sylvia Plath is Depressing

Pure Poetry Week(s):

#1 – 2/23/2011 – Intro & Def Poetry Jam, by Riese
#2 – 2/23/2011 – Eileen Myles, by Carmen
#3 – 2/23/2011 – Anis Mojgani, by Crystal
#4 – 2/24/2011 – Andrea Gibson, by Carmen & Katrina/KC Danger
#5 – 2/25/2011 – Leonard Cohen, by Crystal
#6 – 2/25/2011 – Staceyann Chin, by Carmen
#7 – 2/25/2011 – e.e. cummings, by Intern Emily
#8 – 2/27/2011 – Louise Glück, by Lindsay
#9 – 2/28/2011 – Shel Silverstein, by Intern Lily & Guest
#10 – 2/28/2011 – Michelle Tea, by Laneia
#11 – 2/28/2011 – Saul Williams, by Katrina Chicklett Danger
#12 – 3/2/2011 – Maya Angelou, by Laneia
#13 – 3/4/2011 – Jack Spicer, by Riese
#14 – 3/5/2011 – Diane DiPrima, by Sady Doyle
#15 – 3/6/2011 – Pablo Neruda, by Intern Laura
#16 – 3/7/2011 – Vanessa Hidary, by Lindsay
#17 – 3/7/2011 – Adrienne Rich, by Taylor
#18 – 3/8/2011 – Raymond Carver, by Riese
#19 – 3/9/2011 – Rock WILK, by Gabrielle
#20 – 3/9/2011 – Veronica Franco, by Queerie Bradshaw
#21 – 3/10/2011 – Poems I Like, by Tao Lin
#22 – 3/12/2011 – William Carlos Williams & Robert Creeley, by Becky
#23 – 3/13/2011 – NSFW Sunday is Pure Poetry Edition, by Riese
#24 – 3/14/2011 – Charles Bukowski, by Intern Emily
#25 – 3/16/2011 – Rainer Maria Rilke, by Riese
#26 – 3/17/2011 – Lee Harwood by Mari
#27 – 3/18/2011 – Jeffrey McDaniel by Julieanne
#28 – 3/20/2011 – Dorothy Porter by Julia
#29 – 3/21/2011 – Sylvia Plath, by Riese

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I hated legendary depressive Sylvia Plath from approximately the date of my introduction to Sylvia Plath (September, 1997) until almost exactly ten years later (September, 2007). She was just putting it all out there, you know? The vast, vacant depths of sadness, and how lonely but intimate that kind of consistent, inexplicable otherness could feel.

I am vertical
But I would rather be horizontal.
-i am vertical-

It was just out there, like you opened your front door and there was Sylvia Plath, crying on your porch with her hair messed up. Or so I figured, from skimming Ariel.

They call it “confessional poetry.” Which sounds so indulgent.

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A Brief Biography of Sylvia Plath

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Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 in Massachusetts, and started writing right away at the age of 11. Sylvia Plath’s father died whe she was only 8. She attempted suicide while an undergrad at Smith College but still managed to graduate and go on to Cambridge with a scholarship. There she met Ted Hughes, who she later married, and who later left her for another woman. Plath published her most famous book of poems, Ariel, around this time. In 1963 she published The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel, under a pseudonym. That same year, at the age of 30, she stuck her head in the oven and died by suicide.

End of Biography

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“I always expect lips to curl whenever I dare to mention that my favourite poet is Sylvia Plath. There seems to be an expectation that you have to be an intense adolescent girl to really appreciate Plath.”
– poet Helen Kitson, Envoi Magazine

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I blame myself, mostly, for my hatred of Sylvia Plath, but really honestly I blame “Amber,” my first roommate at boarding school.

Within 24 hours of meeting Amber, she’d informed me — and really anyone within earshot — that she’d tried to commit suicide three times, that her father, a well-respected doctor, beat her, and that she’d had sex with four guys. Her present boyfriend, an alum of our school who seemed to be using Amber as an excuse to never grow up/leave campus, was one of those guys who always wears shorts, even in the winter. He was a “shorts guy. ” Amber decorated the wall around her bed with quotes of things she herself had said. She called them “Amberisms.”

Within 24 days of our meeting, Amber still didn’t know anything about me. She never asked. Eventually it came up that my Dad had died two years prior but she was shockingly unaffected and quickly returned to her own narrative. My resentment of her was tempered by sympathy, but then overruled by aggravation and then taken hostage by self-loathing.

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
-mad girls love song-

The thing is, she put it all out there, you know? Amber did. Like she hadn’t gotten the memo that grunge was over and Kurt Cobain was dead and we’d all decided to be happy now.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
-the applicant-

Amber had read Ariel cover-to-cover within hours of picking it up for our Poetry workshop and LOVED IT. I felt I didn’t actually have to read Sylvia Plath to LOATHE her because I was regularly forced to read and evaluate poems inspired by Sylvia Plath, composed by Amber, with titles like “Fade to Black” and “Locked in the Bathroom.”

I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
-daddy-

And so to me, Sylvia Plath was Amber. It’s unfair, isn’t it? Sylvia Plath didn’t deserve that. But it was easier for me, at that time, to believe depression wasn’t entirely “real.” Like it’s really just an issue of mind-over-matter and truly anyone, even me (repeatedly diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder when all I wanted was to be normal), even Amber, was capable of being just as happy as the wide-eyed Betty Boop cartooned on the midriff-exposing “belly shirt” she wore almost every day.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
-lady lazarus-

I eventually disliked Amber for a lot of less complicated reasons — she hoodwinked me out of a classroom job later that year, stole my CDs, ate my Cheetos and frequently locked me out of the room to have secret sex with her enormous boyfriend. We had nothing in common besides the only thing we’d never talk about.

I guess when you’re a teenager you read so many terrible teenage therapy poems (inspired by Sylvia Plath or Trent Reznor or Elizabeth Wurtzel) about darkness that by the time someone hands you Sylvia Plath you’re like OH GOD SHUT UP ABOUT YOURSELF ALREADY.

That’s a mistake.

“I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root;
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.”
-elm-

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“There are so many things in Sylvia’s life which echo with young people now. A dependent mother who needs you to be happy and successful. An absent father. A woman trying to make it in a man’s literary world. Working and having children at the same time.”

- elizabeth sigmund (a friend of sylvia’s)

There are so many things I didn’t know/understand when I was 15 that I know/understand now — like that Sylvia Plath was brave. She told the truth of her life and of mental illness at a time when women weren’t supposed to. She’s still not my favorite poet, but there’s still something good there.

At 14, she had this to say:

How frail the human heart must be
a mirrored pool of thought.
-i thought i could not be hurt-

There’s not much wallowing, just brute-force verse, just language in fists, just up to your elbows in ridiculously vivid imagery, just truth. She didn’t want attention or sympathy. If Sylvia Plath was a blog, she’d prefer “thank you, this makes me feel better about being me” to “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

I didn’t know yet how to talk about sadness without sounding pitiful because I hadn’t seen it done. I judged Sylvia Plath by her fans.

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Ten years or so later, various catastrophes led me to surrender to my own diagnosis (significantly less serious than the bipolar disorder Plath struggled with, which is one hell of a mental illness, especially back then) and the treatment without feeling like I’d given up my pride by doing so.

But was there a place for that in my writing? In anyone’s?

Yes.

Because it’s never the big things that spark a lightbulb — hey, I know this story, this story’s like mine — “hopelessness” is too big. It’s the other things. The smaller things. The unexpected similarities between you and someone else that strike a previously unseen chord of recognition.

“What a thrill—
My thumb instead of an onion.
Cut

Some underlined quotes from The Bell Jar:

“The only thing was, when I tried to picture myself in some job, briskly jotting down line after line of shorthand, my mind went blank.”

“The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end.”

“If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.”

“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

“I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.”

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In 2007, on a lunch break from a temp job, I marched into Barnes & Noble and finally picked up The Bell Jar. I was teetering on the verge of a brief agoraphobic depressive episode that’d last into the winter and I figured I had nothing left to lose w/r/t sanity. Everything meant something new now that I was older and had grappled with my own demons. Plath was fresh in my mind when shit stubbornly hit the fan all winter long and I wrote and wrote about it.

Every woman adores a Facist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
daddy-

Women who dare to share are usually accused of “oversharing.” But good writing is never just about sharing pieces of your life and declaring them good because they’re true. Good writing is when you manage to talk about yourself and everyone else at the same time.

And g-damn if that isn’t the most powerful story a woman can tell — a queer can tell, a transperson can tell, a person of color can tell — the truth of your life, the world splitting open, and so forth.

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Sometimes, on workshop days, I’d feel like Amber just walked into our poetry class and set her heart on the table, and we all sat there and watched it bleed and talked about it, and she left it up there for the rest of class just so we wouldn’t forget it, even though she’d stopped paying attention to us, and then she took a bit of it back and slapped it on her sleeve and left the classroom.

G-d bless Amber for going on, for living, for certainly growing out of her own ridiculous adolescence as we all did — for doing everything in spite of everything. And G-d bless Sylvia Plath, in all of her “self-centered” glory, for being a thing Amber could relate to — because part of what makes these mental illness memoirs appear so self-centered is that well — depression is a self-centered experience. Befriending a fellow depressive is occasionally even more self-destructive than keeping it to yourself (which is why books/poems about it are so important), so depression walls you off like that. Everything IS about you because nobody else understands what the fuck is wrong with you. Or at least they didn’t, then.

The best one can hope for is, I think, what Plath accomplished: she utilized the distance between her and the rest of the world to deepen her perspective and tenacity and speak the truth of her life. And beautifully, too.

Her God, Herr Lucifer,
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

- from lady lazarus-

Original illustration of Sylvia Plath for Autostraddle.com provided by and copyright Michelle Mishka Colombo 2011

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Riese is the 33-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1758 articles for us.

36 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    Thanks for this Riese. As a long time Plath fan I feel like I have been defending her forever, but this is a lot more eloquent than many of my efforts.

    The other thing that you haven’t really brought up is that Plath can WRITE. Her use of language, her imagery and tone make her an important poet regardless of subject matter, even though what you say is very true.

    Sidenote: did you see that terrible movie about her starring Gwyneth Paltrow? Do yourself a favour and don’t if such a thing is still possible for you…

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    So glad I read Sylvia Plath at 15. Any earlier or later and she wouldn’t have made sense/would have been overkill. I’m glad you came to appreciate her. I love the poems you picked, lady lazarus and daddy are two of my favorites…

    “I have always been scared of you
    With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.”

    Kudos on the poetry on the site in general. We all need a bit of culture in our lives :)

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    Always have had an attraction to Sylvia Plath since I first read bell jar. I have three worn copies I keep around, one always in my backpack.

    I sometimes think about what she would have been like if she lived a full life and what works she would have produced. I think she would have been the Grande Dame of arts and letters. She would have been 78 this coming October.

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      This is going to sound brutal, but I don’t think she could have survived any longer than she did while consistently producing the type of work that she was. That sort of writing demands an immensely emotional drainage process, and without the help or the motivation to continue, I don’t think it would have been fair to expect anything more from her vis-a-vis continuing to live.

      That being said, “Can a selfish egocentric jealous and unimaginative female write a damn thing worthwhile?” Riese, you totally nailed it: “Women who dare to share are usually accused of ‘oversharing.’ But good writing is never just about sharing pieces of your life and declaring them good because they’re true. Good writing is when you manage to talk about yourself and everyone else at the same time.”

      Amen to that, and here’s to hoping that our generation will be chock-full of over-sharing, articulate, and brutally honest female-identified people.

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        no i totally get it. this is a not-entirely-accurate comparison, but when i was involved in a sort of psychotic period of my life i blogged a LOT. and it was all very very very close to the surface, w/r/t emotions, and very raw and i guess affected a lot of people (this is very weird for me to take myself seriously enough to talk about “my work” BUT I AM MODELING THROUGH IT) and then after that time was over people would talk about how they missed ‘when i wrote like that’ or those times and ‘old school autowin’ but i always felt like, the reason that was the way it was is because it was temporary. it wasn’t sustainable. to feel that way all the time would have killed me. or the drugs. idk.

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        I don’t disagree…her kind of writing had to take a deep emotional toll – it affects me profoundly and I am just reading it, I didn’t tear it out of me the way she did.

        That is probably why some of the most notable authors turn to alcohol or drugs, they medicate themselves to deal with it. Sylvia was much braver in choosing not to dull the pain.

        All this being said, it is always incredibly sad when people kill themselves. I have to believe there are alternatives that don’t involve killing yourself, heavy medication or padded cells.

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          Riese, I totally know what you mean. I read my own writing from times of serious issues and always have to pause and remind myself that this writing is objectively moving (as your friends noted) but not personally something that could continue in any sort of healthy manner. I mean chances are the impoetus wasn’t healthy to begin with…

          And to answer your comment, Lindsey, I don’t consider myself to be an advocate for suicide. That being said, the support system around at the time for women with mental illnesses (hell, the mental illness system all around) was almost non-existent, and the ones that did were not particularly helpful. I mean at this point, we’re looking somewhere between awkward spaces in the narrative of women’s mental health:

          -the “rest cure” for “hysterical women” as illustrated by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in The Yellow Wallpaper, first published in 1892

          -the “girl interrupted” world painted by Susanna Kaysen about her stay in a mental hospital for Borderline Personality Disorder in the 1960’s, where everyone was basically drugged into oblivion with Lithium or Thorazine

          –“the best little girl in the world,” written by psychotherapist Steven Levekron about a teenaged girl battling with anorexia in the 1970’s

          -the “improvement” of drugs for mental illness as seen in “prozac nation,” chronicling Elizabeth Wurtzel’s life struggle with Depression in the 80’s

          And those are just some of the BIG names that jump immediately to mind when we think “women’s mental health,” at least for me.

          What I’m trying to say is that women have almost always been unrecognized and underrepresented as victims of mental illness (whether it’s because they don’t know they have a problem, or society tells them to deal with it, or whatever– another discussion altogether), and therefore it’s not shocking that Plath did as she did, nor is it (in my mind at least) particularly reprehensible.

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          Thanks for your thoughtful reply and references. That’s what I love about you guys, such a rich source of intelligence and wisdom. I bought “girl interrupted” a little while ago, will move it up the read list.

          This discussion does remind me that even now, much improvement is needed. I remember reading statistics on women’s health issues that male doctor’s disregard at a higher percentage than male issues. Which is why I always ask for a female physician whenever possible.

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    Autostraddle and Riese, you magnificent bastards*. This is eerily timely. I’m analyzing Daddy right now– literally, the thing is open in a Word window this instant– for a presentation that I’mma give on Wednesday.

    (Being a hopeful poet someday,) <- (Probably the scariest clause ever) I always feel like I should be actively commenting on these Pure Poetry posts talking in litspeak and shit, but the fact is that you're all so thorough and lovely that there's nothing left to say except thank you. And really, it's a terribly heartfelt thank you, because this is the only website where people talk about poetry? I mean like really talk about it. I have about three friends in the world who I can talk to about poetry? Well I guess with AS that makes four. What I'm saying is thank you, thank you, this is soul-stuff. Also it is 3:20AM, so.

    *said with love

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      would you/anyone else be interested in starting a poetry/writing circle type thing? So we can all have more than 4 people to talk to about poetry, and we can spam each other with other poetry thoughts once we think of anything to say more than “the last poetry post on autostraddle rocked”? It could be fun, we could eat virtual brownies together.

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    Thank you Riese; I love it when you talk about your own history, and ‘Bell Jar’ is one of my fave novels. Now that we’ve gone into unstable-women-authors-with-superdark-humour territory, pleasepleaseplease do a poetry post on Dorothy Parker?

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          Right? And also it’s like, there was no color to her life on that Kansas farm & it just so happened that it was over the rainbow that she really started to experience life?

          But seriously…THOSE SHOES.

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          My bad :) and I always thought Toto should have been a cat…

          Oh and, Judy Garland said that whole “when I die I have visions of fags singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ and the flag at Fire Island being flown at half mast.” thing, so, yeah, DOROTHY GALE FTW.

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          Oh my god, I just looked up that quote and was brought to the wiki page “Judy Garland as gay icon.”

          A few clicks later, on the “Friend of Dorothy” page, I come across this:

          “In the early 1980s, the Naval Investigative Service was investigating homosexuality in the Chicago area. Agents discovered that gay men sometimes referred to themselves as “friends of Dorothy.” Unaware of the historical meaning of the term, the NIS believed that a woman named Dorothy was at the center of a massive ring of homosexual military personnel. The NIS launched an enormous hunt for Dorothy, hoping to find her and convince her to reveal the names of gay servicemembers.”

          LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL

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    The only thing I dislike about this is that I have nothing better to say then – I really really loved this. And I feel like it deserves a more intelligent / thought out response y’know? But I’m sorry because I just really really loved this though.

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    I’ve always had this vague awareness of Plath, and reading her has been on my to-do list for ever. Thank you so much for this incredibly well written piece, and really for the whole damn poetry series. You have no idea how much it’s appreciated.

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    I’m glad you touched on what my favorite part of my favorite lady poet’s poetry is (if that was confusing I apologize)

    It’s the little moments where she is so relatable. She can articulate twenty times better than me exactly the way I feel… even though she lived years ago.

    I’m currently reading her unabridged journals.

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    Isn’t it weird that depression is always placed in adolescent girls? Sylvia Plath has always been a great reminder that if one is still experiencing depression past age 13 that we are not developmentally stunted. Great post.

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    just steal my heart, why don’t you autostraddle. you stole it. its gone. thank you for this.

    sylviaplathforlyfe (and also anne sexton, what what?)

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    I burned out on Sylvia Plath a couple years ago but revisiting her here was nice. The only papers I’ve ever done on poetry were about hers and when I was 16 I read just about everything she’d ever written-except The Bell Jar, strangely enough. I still haven’t read it, mainly because of some weird resistance I feel because I know there was a sequel, but she burned it, and it would bother me forever. It’d be like wearing one sock under a pair of shoes. I would rather wear no socks, than one sock, if I can’t have both socks.
    But SYLVIA PLATH!

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    “If Sylvia Plath was a blog, she’d prefer “thank you, this makes me feel better about being me” to “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

    YES, I completely agree with that!! I’ve been reading her journals a lot lately, and just last night I read this:

    “I believe that there are people who think as I do, who have thought as I do, who will think as I do. There are those who will live, unconscious of me, but continuing my attitude, so to speak, as I continue, unknowingly, the similar attitude of those before me.”

    I just think that says so much about her, as a person and as a writer. I don’t think of her as self-centered at all.

    Thanks for this, Riese. <3

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    One of my favorite Sylvia Plath reads beyond Bell Jar, is her unabridged journals (anchor press, 2000). Its a little dense at 760+ pages, but beautifully written. Sylvia Plath comes across as a serial observer of life. Its like she just absorbed everything around her and filtered it through her psyche and emotions….an incredibly brave writer…..

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    I remember reading The Bell Jar for summer reading in 10th grade and then ending up having to write an impromptu essay about it in class. So I wrote what I thought was a bullshit essay relating to feminism* in The Bell Jar and my teacher proceeded to read it in front of everyone and recommend that I switch into a harder class? What I’m saying is that Sylvia Plath taught me how to bullshit.

    *I can’t completely remember what this book was about so for all I know I fabricated these feminist themes because I was listening to too much Sleater-Kinney, if that is possible.

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    The summer before I turned fourteen, I checked her books and unabridged diaries out from the library every three weeks. I would keep them as long as I could, return them, then check every day to see if they’d been put back on the shelf. I think at that time, I was just being a brat and doing things that worried my parents because I was a little Christian girl in the middle of the midwest and if I couldn’t rebel in any major way because I couldn’t drive and all my friends were little Christian girls too, I was going to stick it to them with my fucking library card. I did enjoy her writing but didn’t feel it. I couldn’t relate at all.

    I started revisiting her writing last year when I was in a very dark place and almost committed suicide, and now her work kind of serves as bookmarks for the different stages of my complete and total emotional breakdown, because they finally made sense to me and I fixated on a lot of them. I don’t think trying to off yourself is a prerequisite for appreciating Plath, but it probably helps.

    This probably doesn’t make sense, but I’m just saying: Thanks for this. Sylvia Plath is my heart.

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