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Author Spotlight: Sylvia Plath works transcend time, generations

In the poetry world, Sylvia Plath is a name all readers have at least heard of or read once in their lives. With transcendental works that have been translated across all generations, the writer has become an influential figure in poetry centered around mental health, feminism, loss and social issues due to her strong voice and creativity.

Plath was born Oct. 27, 1932, in Boston, as the daughter of German immigrants. After her father’s death in 1940, the writer was deeply affected by the loss, inspiring her to write many poems about him. His death, along with financial struggles, caused Plath and her family to move to Wellesley, Massachusets. During this time, she published her first poem at 8 years old in the Boston Herald, titled “Poem.” 

As she grew in school, Plath accelerated above her peers, entering and winning many national writing competitions during her middle and high-school years. On scholarship, she attended Smith College and won a Mademoiselle fiction contest, which earned her a guest editorship of the magazine in 1952. However, the poet started to experience a decline in her mental health while in college, noting severe signs of depression in her diaries and journals.

With no medications at the time to help combat her depressive thoughts, Plath attempted suicide when she was 20 years old in 1953. Luckily, she survived the attempt, writing about her experiences in a fictionalized narration of the incident with her first and only novel, 1963’s “The Bell Jar.”

After recovering, Plath returned to college and finished her degree, earning a Fulbright grant to study at Cambridge University. Here, she met poet Ted Hughes, eventually falling in love and marrying him in 1956. Following their marriage, Plath returned to the U.S. and began teaching English at Smith College from 1957 to 1958. 

Later, made her way back to the U.K. with Hughes and had two children. Here she published her first collection of poems, called “The Colossus and Other Poems,” in 1960. As her writing gained more of a following, Plath was again dealing with her mental health, as well as her failing marriage with Hughes, which drastically affected her writing style.

Left with two children to care for, the stress of being financially independent, and a declining mental state, Plath died by suicide in 1963, leaving many of her finished works behind. This didn’t mean the writer would be forgotten though.

Her last poem “Daddy” was published following her death that same year, detailing her difficult relationship with her father during her childhood. “The Bell Jar” was also published at the same time under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. A strong autobiographical tale, Plath wrote about the mental breakdown and eventual recovery of a college girl, a direct parallel to her own struggles with mental health.

Two years later, a majority of Plath’s works were published in a collection called “Ariel,” including “Daddy” and other poems that are now considered some of the writer’s most influential. The publication of “Ariel” allowed Plath to break through to the mainstream, earning her a massive following that has yet to die out.

The New York Times praised the collection for its “relentless honesty,” “sophistication of the use of rhyme” and “bitter force,” making her one of the most popular American poets during the mid-1960s. 

In the early 1970s, more of Plath’s unpublished works were made public, including 1971’s “Crossing the Water” and “Winter Trees.” “The Bell Jar” was also reissued in the U.K. under her name and published for the first time in the U.S. in 1971. Six years later, more short stories and poems by Plath, such as “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,” were released to readers.

“The Collected Poems” made Plath a staple of 20th-century poetry after its release in 1981, with the writer winning the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. This made Plath the first writer to win the honor posthumously, proving her significant impact on literature and writing on a national and international level.

Now in the 21st century, Plath is still a name people honor and respect, with many of her works being adapted to other art forms. In 2009, Plath’s radio play “Three Women” from 1962 was staged professionally for the first time. A volume of her letters from 1940 to 1956 was also published in 2017. 

If you haven’t heard of or read any of Plath’s works, it’s time you should. With a keen sense of the challenges women face on a regular basis, both mentally and physically, she has become a voice for those who are struggling. Providing comfort for readers everywhere, Plath is a writer relatable to all and her spirit is not going away anytime soon.


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