“The Birthday Present”; Or, Sylvia Plath at 81

For Linda Wagner-Martin

A version of this essay appears in the 11 February 2015 edition of the Gray Matters section of The Houston Chronicle.  Today Sylvia Plath took her own life in 1963.  Here is the link:


Sylvia, you were so young.


If you had lived, you might have been on a television show, with Oprah fawning all over you, cooing about your brilliant career.  You might have been a spokesperson for so many things:  surviving infidelity, channeling betrayal into art, smiling while winning awards for spinning out words.  You would have known something about multitasking. You could have helped others live Their Best Life Now, or something close to it.  You might have been an endowed chair at a university and taught whenever you felt like it.  You might have said things like “I have never felt more alive” and had a line or two about knives and lying to prove your point.

You could have written poems about your tragedies, and how they leave one reeling, but then there is a center, and it holds, and then it is flying, not reeling.  Similar, but new.  I know you loved Yeats.

Today, Lady Lazarus, you are going viral, again, pictures of you, poems, references to The Bell Jar.  You are a chameleon: pretty, happy, morbid, overwhelmed, on the verge of tears, triumphant.  Everything but old.  You sure could go for the jugular, even when everyone was saying “don’t.”

In high school, you were kept a dark secret, no poems in class.  I think you were feared. You were the tsk tsk of poetry, the walking caveat.  You terrified, rose out of the ash, ate men like air.  Not nice!  A criminal offense.

In college, I was doing all the things you did, but I did not realize it.  But how things stay the same:  Be Pretty.  Be Popular.  Be Good with a Pen.  It is hard to do all those things at the same time, if you can do any of them at all.  You overachieved, but it never felt like it.  It mostly felt like Not Enough.  You should have been in writing in the nineties.  You would have been told how talented you are all the time.  No being rejected by the BBC, no going back to them, no recording of all those Ariel poems before the long goodbye.  You would have been knocking it out of the ball park the first time with them.  It would have saved you a lot of grief.

But then you would not have been you, the one who takes that misused finger bowl at the fancy lunch in The Bell Jar and turns the big bucket of awkward into the exquisite golden bowl of Images I Will Never Forget.  That was your brand of alchemy, turning the excruciating disappointment into the stellar lyric moment, the image burned into our brains.

In graduate school, I was lucky.  I had the best translators of your talent.  Did you know I know your biographer?  The one who gets you the most, who went through the blackberry bushes of publishing bureaucracy, and more, so that your voice would be audible.  There is always more to the story.  I was always fortunate that way, finding poems, finding brilliant minds that would naturally veer into my hemisphere.  Reading you required the outfit to protect the reader from bee stings, like the pictures of your father, keeping bees, covered from head to toe, before he died.

I read The Bell Jar, more than once.  I cannot count how many times I read this passage:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Some days I starved to death, sickened by watching the rotting figs.  Some days, I still feel that way.  I look at my students, hesitate, not sure if I should teach you or not.  I don’t think you can be taught, maybe felt, but there is no leading one out of your words, no education, just diving in and hoping you don’t break your neck, become paralytic.

Maybe I cannot write a poem, but you taught us all about being an “addict of experience.” It is an important thing, as so many push it away, dismiss, overlook.  You were fearless, or you covered it up, or you made something useful out of it.

I think of you reading your poem, “Tulips,”  protesting too much, saying “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.” But your words explode on every page, violent, scarring, permanent.  Tulips were never loud until you made them so.  Now, if you were romanticizing oblivion, I would get my girlfriends, talk about you behind your back, stage an intervention, save you from yourself.  We would be the best busybodies imaginable.  We would medicate you with champagne cocktails and wit.  We would be as good as we were raised. We wouldn’t let you get away with it. Like your stanzas, we would be models of efficiency. We would have brought the “country as far away as health” to your doorstep if we could. We would have driven you sane, if you had let us.

Instead, you are the supreme warning, iconic, untouchable, alabaster as the chambers in a Dickinson poem.  You are “the eye between two white lids that will not shut.”  I can’t bear to read your lines:  “I have let things slip.”  How did you know how to box such clarity? How did you do that?  I know that you “wanted/ to lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.”  But it didn’t work out–like so many things.  You keep offering these poems, like “The Birthday Present” on your death day–so many people have clicked it today, you wouldn’t believe it.  There you are, pretending, again, that “I am sure it is what I want,” reminding us of the suffocation of “adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.”

Now, you give us so many gifts back, both the sublime and the practical:  the stirring words, the back talk, the moments when we are “on the train there is no getting off.”  You gifted us the example, the warning that when we meet the Ted Hughes of our lives, with his slithering tongue, his stupid hawk in the rain, his stack of awards, that you should look right past him, don’t worry about ripping the pencil skirt, turn on your black patent high heels, do not flip your hair, do not look back, and even if there are cracks in the sidewalk, you just do one thing:  run.  You become the arrow, you fly.

You taught us to look behind the feigned confidence of the declarative line, the adorable ensemble, even the artifice of words on the page.  You taught us the gift that keeps on giving, every predictable day of our lives:  the knowledge that everyone around us, no matter how colossal, may be coming alive, the arrow about to launch; or dying, the cauldron simmering, waiting for something, or someone, to catch them, quench the insufferable thirst, come through.

10 responses to ““The Birthday Present”; Or, Sylvia Plath at 81”

  1. This is really clever and thought-provoking, Doni. Thanks. For some reason, I’m reminded of J M Barrie and the fact that he lived to be an adult and his brother, died as a boy, and therefore, sort of always remained a boy in immortality.

  2. I never heard of this person before…but the figs analogy is dead-on. In fact, my Sunday school class had a whole lesson regarding making decisions, having a purpose and not letting your life drift by. Wouldn’t it be awful to come to the end and wonder “what have I accomplished, what did I do with all these years?” or as she put it, “watching the figs wrinkle and go black,and… plop to the ground” – perfect.

  3. I was led here from your poetry blog because I saw “Sylvia Plath.” I am forever moved by “The Bell Jar” not knowing that Plath was first and foremost, a poet. Now I’m quite certain that I might be a greater fan of poetry than I previously thought. As always, thanks for your thoughtfulness.

  4. This is a delicious dive into the richness in her biography/senses interweaving…I love her for the same reasons you love her.

  5. Your post is beautiful. I have come across poems by Sylvia Plath over the years. But I just started reading her journals two days ago. I could feel every word you wrote here. From the depths of her dark and dreary core, she built such beautiful words. And now we will always remember her for them. 🙂

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