The nurse was meant to arrive at nine o’clock in the morning on February 11th, 1963 to help Sylvia Plath with the care of her children. She was late; unable to get into the flat, she asked a workman for help. Sylvia Plath was in the kitchen, her children asleep in other rooms, their doors sealed, we presume, to keep out the smell. Plath had opened the oven but not with the intention of making a meal. Later, when the nurse made it up to the flat, the workman with her, she found Sylvia Plath dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. At approximately 4:30 am, Plath had placed her head in the oven with the gas turned on. She was only thirty.
They say poetry is an imaginative expression of experience portrayed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language. People have been expressing themselves and stories through poetry dating back to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature. For centuries, people have been pouring their hearts and souls into their works- writing what they cannot say out loud on a sheet of paper. A question has been raised quite a few times regarding poets and their work: Are poets truly crazy?
Writing poetry definitely takes a lot out of the poet. You must put yourself onto paper and leave your words there- vulnerable and open for much criticism if you choose to make them public. Writers like Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sylvia Plath did choose to let the public read their poetry. There was one poet in particular, however, a woman who seemed very cautious with releasing her poems or even putting her name on them. Only about a dozen of her poems were released during her lifetime, most of them anonymous and published without her permission; her name was Emily Elizabeth Dickinson.
In the late 1850’s Dickinson found her poetic voice in simple stanza ballad and hymn-like poems like the one below.
A thought went up my mind to-day
That I have had before,
But did not finish, some way back,
I could not fix the year,
Nor where it went, nor why it came
The second time to me,
Nor definitely, what it was,
Have I the Art to say.
But somewhere in my Soul, I know
I’ve met the Thing before;
It just reminded me—t’was all—
And came my way no more.
Dickinson became known as an eccentric recluse because she stayed in her house, away from others. She also became known as the “woman in white” because she almost always wore a white dress. The people in Amherst, where Dickinson lived, might have viewed her as a little odd. However, she was more curious than crazy.
Local children enjoyed it when she lowered treats and snacks inside a basket tied to a rope out of her second-floor bedroom window. She was always careful not to show her face, so the children only saw glimpses of her hands and arms.
There is speculation, a rumor if you will, of Dickinson having some sort of love affair through only letters. Her speculated pen pal was Judge Otis P. Lord of the Massachusetts Supreme Court who passed away six years after their written relationship had started. Soon after, Dickinson’s mental state of mind expressed itself in her poetry which seemed to be only about death.
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
Unlike Emily Dickinson, a majority of her poetry discovered after her death, Sylvia Plath demonstrated a talent for words at a young age- writing poetry by the time she was five. Plath’s first poem was published when she was only eight years old. She continued to write and publish her poems to her school newspaper in junior high.
In 1950, Plath attended Smith College in North Hampton, Massachusetts. Her writing career continued to flourish as she wrote for certain magazines like Seventeen, Harper’s and The Christian Science Monitor. Aside from her writing, Plath began to experience periodic fits of depression, insomnia, and thoughts of suicide. Soon she began to feel unfocused as she lost interest in her writing and suffered from sleeplessness.
On August 24th, 1953, Sylvia Plath waited until she was alone and broke into her parent’s lockbox, stealing and consuming sleeping pills. Plath was discovered two days later in the cellar where she was moaning and covered in her own vomit. She was quickly rushed to the hospital, and when physically able, she was admitted to McClean Hospital’s mental institution. She began writing again in 1954.
There were and still are many accusations that Sylvia Plath’s death was not a suicide. Those who believe it was suicide would use Plath’s last written poem as evidence. The last piece of poetry Plath ever wrote was entitled Edge. The poem seems to be about a woman who has or will soon commit suicide- written a couple days before Plath committed suicide herself.
The woman is perfected.
body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
flows in the scrolls of her toga,
feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Poetry is defined in many ways: a way to express yourself, a piece of literature written in meter and verse. But my favorite definition of poetry comes from Dickinson herself:
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me,
I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,
I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
People like to say that most poets are crazy, but were the above mentally unstable or were they just expressive? In reality, we’re all crazy, but it seems poets are the only ones willing to embrace and express it.
For all those future writers/poets out there, express yourself to your heart’s desire and don’t let anyone tell you you’re crazy. Although, don’t take advice from Sylvia Plath on dealing with death; take a note from Dorothy Parker instead:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.