Sylvia Plath by Izzy Goldberg

History is in the Making 13-15-year-olds 1st Prize Competition Winner

When I think of Sylvia Plath, I think of the sort of person who reads The Bell Jar in high school and proclaims themselves – for the first time – wholly seen. For me, The Bell Jar failed to have this effect. Although deeply moving and painfully relatable at times, there was no epiphanic moment in which I finally felt understood. That moment came a few months later when I read Ariel. To read Plath’s poetry feels like holding up a shattered mirror to the most broken parts of yourself and watching them become whole again. And, although her gut-wrenching writing is perhaps most recognisable in her only novel, it is Plath’s poetry which makes her such a force of inspiration.

One can’t consider Plath’s work without considering her life. She has always been a person I have struggled to understand – I, as a Jewish woman, have never quite been able to reconcile her talent with her blatant racism and antisemitism, exemplified in her poem Daddy in which she compares her abusive father to ‘a man in black with a Meinkampf look’. Although this obviously isn’t a reason she is inspiring, she is a perfect example of how we must question and hold accountable popular figures for their wrongs, meaning even her flaws have inspired me to question my own implicit biases. Her dysfunctional relationship with Ted Hughes is also a subject of interest for many scholars and Hughes’ poem The Other is incredibly revealing. Although Plath is cited as a source of jealousy (‘she had so much she made you feel/your vacuum’) she is also a source of deep admiration to Hughes. Notably, the style of the poem – confessional poetry – pays homage to his former wife and shows the influence she has had on not only him, but poetry as a whole.

Plath is credited as popularising confessional poetry, particularly through deeply personal poems like the infamous Lady Lazarus. The poem talks of her suicidal tendencies with heart-breaking clarity, with her use of anaphora and repetition more broadly conveying the relentless nature of mental health issues. ‘Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well’ was a line which cut through to my core. The pain of being outwardly successful but inwardly broken is what has made Plath such an inspiration for me – before Ariel, I hadn’t read anything which spoke so candidly about these issues so close to my heart.

Also an icon of fierce feminist resistance, her creative interpretation of a burgeoning women’s movement in the 1950s and 60s through poems like Mushrooms has inspired my own art to depict social change happening currently. Most of all, I am grateful to Plath for inspiring my own work. Confessional poetry serves as an outlet for so many, me among them, that even without the poignancy of Plath’s individual poems, her influence on modern poetry and my own well-being is reason enough to call her an inspiration.

Izzy Goldberg (15) from RGS Newcastle won 1st place in the 13-15 years category of the History is in the Making Competition. In response to winning, they said:

It still feels slightly surreal that my essay – essentially a passion piece – managed to win the competition for my age category. Participating in the History is in the Making competition has been an amazing experience: getting to fangirl over Sylvia Plath, learn more about her and hopefully inspire others to read more of her work has been absolutely incredible. I was slightly nervous about putting my work out there, as it was something so close to my heart, but I don’t regret it at all and would definitely recommend that others do the same: you never know what might happen! 

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