Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath By Heather Clark

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Plath’s poem ‘Words Heard, By Accident, Over The Phone’ was so powerful–full of raw anguish–that it motivated me to learn more about her life. Clark’s biography is over 900 pages long, so it took me quite awhile to finish it. This tome may contain too much detail for some readers. The biography kept me interested because it not only gave me insight into Plath’s life and poetry and introduced me to Ted Hughes and his place as a prominent poet, but it was also historically relevant to my own life. My Mother was born in 1922, Sylvia Plath was born in 1932, and I was born in 1947 and grew up in the 50’s. Plath’s story added to my own insight regarding the negative impact the 50’s had on generations of women. Clark also delves into the complexity of mother/father/daughter relationships. The author looked deeply into Plath’s life pouring over documents and interviewing people who knew Plath. Plath fought a lifelong battle with mental illness that ended in suicide. The major tension in her life was her deep longing to be a wife and mother and an equally deep yearning to be taken seriously as a published poet. Her poetry was unconventional and extremely brutal, especially at the end of her life. Her work, including her novel The Bell Jar, is autobiographical. Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Thomas McClanahan wrote, “At her brutal best—and Plath is a brutal poet—she taps a source of power that transforms her poetic voice into a raving avenger of womanhood and innocence.” The 50’s image of wife and mother, which Plath tried to embody, clashed dramatically with the emotions she was experiencing and the personal truths Plath expressed in her poetry. The clash fueled heartbreaking mental illness at a time when mental health professionals were routinely using shock treatments and performing lobotomies. Institutionalized once, she was terrified of repeating her experience–the shock treatments had terrorized her. The combined pressure of her broken marriage which left her feeling betrayed by the one man she trusted to give her space to be a wife, mother and poet; the need to care for two children alone as a single mother; and the necessity of making a living by writing threw her into a state of suicidal depression and fear. She saw no choice but to take her own life–she committed suicide on the day her family doctor had arranged for a stay at a mental hospital. Plath continues to have many readers, and she has had an ongoing influence on poets since her untimely death. Heather Clark did a superb job of honoring Plath’s life and place in literary history. Plath’s brilliance and courage shine through the tragedy of her death.

4 comments on “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath By Heather Clark”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful and thorough review, B. I’ve got this on reserve at the library and am looking forward to digging in. I saw an awesome 1 woman play about her life and death at a tiny theater in NYC ~15 years ago and it was transformative for me.

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    1. I’ll be interested to hear how the play and biography impact on you in both same and different ways. I’d love to read the play, but I can’t find it in print.

      Liked by 2 people

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