Today, celebrating my own birthday, I already look forward to the following day, as I do every year, toward recognition of Sylvia Plath’s birthday. Plath was born on October 27 in 1932. During her short life she kept extensive journals, a habit begun at the age of eleven, many of which are now available to readers. Among the daily reports and reflections included in her journals, Plath frequently reveals intimate thoughts and personal perspectives that are both informative and insightful. The language employed and the topics explored range widely from expressions of private concerns confiding an emotional state filled with anxiety and fear, as well as love and hope in more positive times, to sophisticated considerations about the subjects of literature and creative writing.
Her entries are engaging and enlightening, whether she is describing an array of feelings experienced during a first date, as written in a journal entry when she was nineteen:
Walking back alone in the raw March wind, we passed the streets, full of taxis, waiting, waiting, empty, empty. Then the road was bare and wind-swept, and the air like gulps of cold water as it blew across our mouths. Street lights chiseled out clear areas of light out of dark. My hair whipped back in the wind, and the white circle of net billowed and hushed and shushed about my silver feet. Stride and stride and stride and stride. Freely, walking, hand in hand. No people; no parties; no warmth; no blur of lights, voices, flesh, wine. Two of us, strong and together along the streets. Stride and stride. Then stop. Heads tilted back to the stars . . .
or a half dozen years later when Plath, after creating a group of poems about which she was proud, projected toward the possibility of her place among other well-known women poets:
Arrogant, I think I have written lines which qualify me to be The Poetess of America (as Ted will be The Poet of England and her dominions). Who rivals? Well, in history—Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Chriistina Rosetti, Amy Lowell, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay—all dead. Now: Edith Sitwell & Marianne Moore, the ageing giantesses & poetic grandmothers. Phyllis McGinley is out—light verse: she’s sold herself. Rather: May Swenson, Isabella Gardner, & most close, Adrienne Cecile Rich—who will soon be eclipsed by these eight poems: I am eager, chafing, sure of my gift, wanting only to train and teach it—I’ll count the magazines & money I break open by these best eight poems from now on. We’ll see.
Because Sylvia Plath died so young, by suicide at the age of thirty, one sometimes can forget that she might have lived to still be writing today. After all, other poets slightly older or younger but roughly of her generation—such as John Ashbery, Marvin Bell, Frank Bidart, Robert Bly, Lucille Clifton, Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Stanley Plumly, Adrienne Rich, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, Charles Wright—have continued to produce fine poetry in recent years. In addition, when encountering Plath’s expansive, easily readable, often interesting and even gripping journal entries, one does not have to take too large a leap to imagine her as someone who might have been comfortable and popular as a blogger had the Internet existed as an outlet for her regular ruminations—whether examining and contemplating personal issues as a writer, daughter, wife, and mother, or deliberating upon various topics relating to writing, as she does in the following excerpt, today’s “elegant epigraph”:
“Writing is a religious act: it is an ordering, a reforming, a relearning and reloving of people and the world as they are and as they might be. A shaping which does not pass away like a day of typing or a day of teaching. The writing lasts: it goes about on its own in the world. People read it: react to it as to a person, a philosophy, a religion, a flower: they like it, or do not. It helps them, or it does not. It feels to intensify living: you give more, probe, ask, look, learn, and shape this: you get more: monsters, answers, color and form, knowledge. You do it for itself first. If it brings in money, how nice. You do not do it first for money. Money isn’t why you sit down at the typewriter. Not that you don’t want it. It is only too lovely when a profession pays for your bread and butter. With writing, it is maybe, maybe-not. How to live with such insecurity? With what is worst, the occasional lack or loss of faith in the writing itself? How to live with these things?
The worst thing, worse than all of them, would be to live with not writing.” — Sylvia Plath
—From The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil (Anchor Books, 2000).
[“An Elegant Epigraph” serves as the recurring title for a continuing series of posts with entries containing brief but engaging, eloquent, and elegant excerpts of prose commentary introducing subjects particularly appropriate to discussion of literature, creative writing, or other relevant matters addressing complementary forms of art and music. These apposite extracts usually concern topics specifically relating to poetry or poetics. Each piece is accompanied by a recommendation that readers seek out the original publication to obtain further information and to become familiar with the complete context in which the chosen quotation appeared as well as other views presented by its author.]