Everything You've Ever Wanted To Know About Sylvia Plath (but were afraid to ask)
An Interview with Plath scholar Maeve O'Brien
In November 2017, I was lucky enough to attend the conference “Sylvia Plath: Letters, Words, Fragments,” at Ulster University, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was organized by Plath scholar Maeve O’Brien, who had recently finished her PhD on Plath’s poetry. The conference was a life-changing experience (at one point, a group of us, Guinness in hands, erupted into the last stanza of Plath’s “Amnesiac” and I was fairly sure I had transcended my human form into one of pure joy), and I have been lucky enough to know Maeve ever since. She is a writer, a scholar, a teacher, an ocean swimmer, and a well-known radical abortion activist in Northern Ireland.
Next month, she is offering an online course called “Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Sylvia Plath (but were afraid to ask).” It begins January 13, 2022, and runs for six weeks. The cost is a major bargain at 85 pounds. Maeve is a heavy-hitter in Plath scholarship, but the course is billed as fun— time to gossip, laugh, and dig into the stuff “serious” scholars usually tell you is off the table about our Sivvy. You can read more about it, and register, here.
To celebrate Maeve’s forthcoming course, I asked her five questions about our favorite writer. Enjoy!
1.What first drew you to Sylvia Plath?
I think my introduction to Plath was quite typical - finding The Bell Jar as a sulky teen and coming up in and around the same time as Livejournal communities sprang into existence online. Finding communities of like minded young women fascinated by this angry, dark, riveting and powerful prose and poetry. As a teenager, being a 'Sylvia Plath fan' was so much more than having a favourite writer - it was an identity. As I've gotten older - and have now surpassed the age Plath was when she died, my perceptions of her life and work have completely changed but I think that community of support and connection between Plath fans is always there.
2.What surprised you about Plath, once you began working on your dissertation?
Just how dedicated she was! All of her accolades: going to Smith, earning the Fulbright, writing the stories, poems, novels, journal entries, letters - this didn't happen easily but rather were the result of a purposeful and committed work ethic. Plath didn't allow her writing to fall by the wayside - not when she was striving to achieve at college, or when she was dwarfed by Hughes's fame, or when she became a mother. Cultivating and prioritising her writing took such perseverance and grit, and it really impressed me when I began to understand the reality of that. Giving up her teaching post at Smith for example - that was a wow moment. She had such faith in herself and so much commitment to her craft.
3.In your dissertation, you wrote about Sylvia Plath and silence. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Yes! In a way I think teaching this Plath course will help me heal the after-effects of my entire PhD process because sharing my headspace with Plath and all the other rigours of the academic world was tough!
My dissertation looked at the decisions of silence made by Sylvia Plath in her writing. Firstly, I argued my belief that Plath made conscious choices of isolation both socially and geographically in order to aid her writing process and gain inspiration for her craft. I suggested that the isolation Plath chose produced a safe space out of which she grew words. Secondly, I argued that Plath used silence in conjunction with words in order to poeticise problematic issues such as the horrors of the Second World War. By combining silence with words, Plath was able to produce meaning and expression that would otherwise be left unspoken. Thirdly, I argued that Plath embarked upon a writing strategy whereby she used silence as a language in order to break free from the textual restrictions of Standard English. So for example: we can look at some of the poems written in 1963, and read Plath's cutting of words and utilisation of blank spaces of silence as an attempt to pulse her writings with meaning and emotion that cannot be expressed in Standard English.
Since the dissertation I have become increasingly interested in looking at Plath's life and work in context with race and I have a chapter coming out soon that is one of the first to really interrogate her whiteness - which certainly Plath was fairly oblivious of during her life.
4.Do you have a favorite Sylvia Plath poem, and if so, what is it?
It really depends on my mood! I love the fire and rage of 'Stings'. I love reading that poem aloud and really spitting the words out. But at this time of year, I adore 'Nick and the Candlestick'. I think the final few lines of that poem are breathtaking:
I have hung our cave with roses,
With soft rugs—
The last of Victoriana.
Let the stars
Plummet to their dark address,
Let the mercuric
Atoms that cripple drip
Into the terrible well,
You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.
Those lines just take me away to another astral plane to be honest! The intimacy, quiet, beautiful, gothic and chilly tones always manage to stop me in my tracks.
5.If you could rewrite Sylvia's epitaph, what would you say?
I actually really like what is on Plath's gravestone: "Even in the midst of fierce flames the Golden Lotus may be planted". However, I do feel that it was a terrible thing she wasn't able to be brought home to America to be buried. Maybe it's the Irish in me because we are very close to our dead but if you haven't been - Heptonstall is a cold and lonely place. To me, knowing Plath had so many friends, family and was so loved in the States, it's just really sad that she's up in the unforgiving hills of Yorkshire. And really she was just a visitor to England. When I die, I want to be buried in my community, in the soil of my home. I wish the same had been possible for SP.
This is terrific. Thank you for sharing. One note about SP's burial spot: I agree with that sentiment--that being buried in Mass. would have been appropriate. However, I also seem some lit logic in having SP buried in Bronte country not too very far from some those iconoclastic sisters shaped literary history.
thank you Emily Van Duyne for your infectious passion for Plath and her rich complex legacy