The Poetry of Sylvia Plath

The Poetry of Sylvia Plath

The talk by Professor Manju Jaidka on Sunday, March 21, 2021:


A  Report

  • Prashant K. Sinha

Professor Manju Jaidka made a very effective presentation on the Poetry of Sylvia Plath on the 21st evening to the members of the Book Club. In an excellent exposition, she provided the significant biographical details as a back drop to the poetry of Plath. In particular, she mentioned the trauma faced by her on the untimely death of her father when she was very young, her subsequent mental break down and the Electro Convulsive Therapy, she had to undergo as a part of her treatment.  She related Colossus poems to the Colossus of Rhodes and a symbol for late Professor Plath. She mentioned that the poems in it were primarily related to nature in its pleasant aspects. She stated that Ted Hughes, her husband, was another father figure, in many ways a replacement for Professor Plath. After a few years of marriage, when Hughes deserted her for the Canadian poet(ess) Assia Wevill, leaving the two children Frieda and Nicholas with her, she found it a traumatic experience parallel to the loss of her father. After Sylvia’s suicide, following a period of acute depression, Assia went through a phase of intense guilt anxiety and died by suicide along with her child. Later, Frieda survived, but Nicholas committed suicide. A little before his death, Hughes published his Birthday Letters to the late Sylvia Plath as an act of atonement.

Manju Jaidka considered Plath as a confessional poet and described the main attributes of Confessional Poets including Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton such as their glorification of mental illness, physical sickness and failure. She also referred to their father fixation. As she read aloud several poems of Plath including the iconic ones—“Lady Lazarus” and” Daddy”, she highlighted her sadistic and masochistic strain. Using The Bell Jar as a back drop, she emphasized Plath’s preoccupation with death and suicide. Commenting on Plath’s reception, Jaidka mentioned that she was a cult figure for feminists as also a symbol of liberation for women.

The discussion that followed at the end focused on Plath’s politics, her attitude towards men and her mental ailments.

On the whole, Jaidka had an excellent presentation: lively, lucid, informative, cohesive and exactly tailored to her audience.

Prashant K. Sinha

  • Virginia Naude:

WOW.  That was extrordinaray.  I think Manju Jaidka’s talk was among the best this past year when I have been privileged to be member of the Book Group.

Comment by Mohini Khot: What a pleasant evening with Manju Jaidka! It was delightful to listen to this lucid talk about one of my early icons. Definitely a cult figure in the 60s and 70s, Sylvia Plath attained a stature that belies her small body of work. You cannot but feel a deep sympathy for Plath, her neurosis, her love-hate relationship with her father and her sense of betrayal and loss when he died, her deep curiosity and fascination with Death. Thank you, Manju.

Comment by Kusum Gokarn: Today’s presentation of The Poetry of  Sylvia Plath by Manju  Jaidka was simply superb. Excellent and perfect to the T.

Manju  recited and  analysed  7 poems of  Sylvia’s.

It was saddening to hear that ‘death and ‘self  destruction’ form the main theme in most of Sylvia’s poems. But  perhaps that is what gave an impetus to her poems and also granted her name and fame among America’s renowned poets.

Moreover, to think that Sylvia produced a substantial output of poems during her brief span of 30 years is very creditable.

As described by Manju, many of Sylvia’s poems refer to her  love-hate relationship with her father.

The  first  poem that Manju referred to was   titled  The Colossus (from Greek mythology) .It  refers to the image of  her father. A giant figure like Gulliver  as against a tiny woman, that is herself who is trying to put him together. His  powerful image dominates many of her poems.

The Colossus ends on a note of despair and doom.

Sylvia had an unhappy childhood as her father had deserted her mother. Later her marriage with Ted Hughes, also a poet, was far from happy. He developed an affair with another lady. Thus Sylvia was given to frequent moods  of depression and suicide.

The second  poem that Manju spoke about  was  titled Lady Lazarus. It  has shorter lines which reflects Sylvia’s  urgency for her suicidal thoughts.

The line ‘my right foot’ refers to her father who had gangrene on his toe due to diabetes and eventually lost his leg.

There is recurrent harping on the thought of death as seen in the following lines –

‘Dying is an art’.

‘I do it exceptionally well’.

‘I’ve a call’.

‘I rise with my red hair

And eat men like air.’

The next  poem that Manju referred to was   titled Ariel. It  was published posthumously. This poem gives  a  cinematic impression of a racy  ride on a horse.

Once again the image of self destruction  dominates the poem.

Sylvia’s third poem   titled Daddy obviously refers to her father. She seems to have developed an Electra complex .There is reference to her father’s gangrene on his toe due to   Diabetes.

There are vitriolic  sentences like the following –

“I have lived like a foot.”

“Daddy, I have had to kill you.”

“Daddy, you bastard, I’m through – last time.”

Sylvia seems to suggest that she wants to kill her father and husband and get rid of their shadows.

Manju touched briefly  on the poem  titled Fever 103. In this poem  Sylvia imagines herself  and her two children  as dead and rising up to heaven escorted by  the Cherubim.

The  poem titled Words is a sort of her epitaph reflecting her thoughts of moving from creativity towards despair and eventually death.

Sylvia  refers to her husband Ted as ‘Homme Fatal’ .

In her poems Sylivia frequently  uses the Bee as the  symbol of freedom and liberation.

Sylvia Plath had become a cult figure for  Feminists. They referred to her as the “Bitch Goddess’.

At the end of Manju’s talk, Satish Khot lauded her presentation as being Excellent. Some of the members present also asserted the same.

Mohini Khot gave a vote of thanks. She too lauded Sylvia Plath’s powerful and controversial poems. Her cult figure is well deserved, she said.

One has to know about her  tragic life  to understand her poems which are autobiographical.

Nityaasha Foundation