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Last Updated: Monday, 2 February, 2004, 11:01 GMT
Why Sylvia Plath is more than just a tragic film role
By Mark Davies
BBC News Online

A new film on the life of Sylvia Plath has been released to poor reviews in the UK. Fair enough, say Plath fans from the US to West Yorkshire - but don't knock her poetry.

Gwyneth Paltrow (front) and Sylvia Plath
In West Yorkshire, Elaine Connell adds comments from all over the world to her website on Sylvia Plath's work.

In Northampton, Massachusetts, Shannon Hunt handles the peppermint-pink notepaper bearing Plath's poems as she helps to make her work available to scholars around the world.

The two are tied by a fascination with Plath which stretches beyond any sense of the poet as a cult figure or totem for adolescent angst.

A new film about Plath's life, Sylvia, with Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role, has been released in the UK to generally poor reviews.

Romantic view

And for Elaine Connell the concern is that as it only uses a little of Plath's poetry, it will merely add to her image rather than encouraging film-goers to assess her work.

It was a fear neatly summed up by Christopher Tookey, writing in the Daily Mail: "If you've long been fascinated by Plath's poetry, or if you're a teenage girl who's painted her walls black, has a romantic view of death and would choose Feelings as one of her Desert Island Discs, this movie is for you.

"Otherwise, it's hard to imagine who might constitute its target audience."

Elaine, who runs a website called The Sylvia Plath Forum from her home in Hebden Bridge, close to where Plath was buried after committing suicide aged 30, is one of those long fascinated by Plath's work - but she has no high hopes for the movie.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath
The film has received poor reviews
"It's the sort of Marilyn Monroe, Diana, James Dean type of thing, with Che Guevara thrown in for good measure," she says.

"As a result, a lot of people don't then look to see what's behind the image."

So what is it about Plath's poetry which makes it worthy of further investigation?

Writer of rare distinction

Professor John Beer of Cambridge University first came across Plath when he read a short story she had published while a student at the university.

It is a very good illustration of a highly intelligent woman trapped in a time when the highest ideal was to be Doris Day
Elaine Connell
"I was immediately impressed by its extraordinary intelligence," he says. "I've thought of her ever since as a writer of rare distinction."

She and her husband, Ted Hughes, addressed "fundamental questions about the fate of humanity in the present age by acting out in their own careers and writings issues involving the relationship between consciousness and being that lie at the centre of literature".

This admiration is shared across the Atlantic at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Plath also studied.

Shannon Hunt, a Smith student who is responsible for processing Plath's manuscripts into an online register, says the poet is much admired at the college.

"Plath's Ariel poems prove especially intriguing," she says.

"She liked to use both sides of a sheet of paper, and so we have a first draft of "Daddy" written on the reverse of pages from Hughes's discarded play The Calm, as well as a number of poems penned on the backs of typed chapters from The Bell Jar."

Strong presence

People who simply dismiss her as morbid fail to see the complexity of her late work and her active search for an individual voice
Shannon Hunt

Born in Boston in 1932, Plath grew up in the town of Jamaica Plain, going on to attend Smith College.

She suffered a breakdown while at college, but recovered to win prizes for her work and was subsequently awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University.

It was there she met and married Ted Hughes and settled in England, having two children. She killed herself in 1963.

Shannon says that although death is a preoccupation for Plath, her Ariel poems, for instance, do show glimpses of the poet's delight in her children and in the beauty of life.

"People who simply dismiss her as morbid fail to see the complexity of her late work and her active search for an individual voice," she says.

Highest ideal

One of the reasons Elaine Connell was drawn to the poet was as a feminist at the height of the women's movement in the 1970s (although she now believes Plath was not a feminist - "she wanted to conform far more than feminists do, she was torn between being a genius and wanting to be an ideal 1950s mother".)

Shannon Hunt: Plath's work highly complex
Shannon Hunt: Plath's work highly complex
"It is a very good illustration of a highly intelligent woman trapped in a time when the highest ideal was to be Doris Day," she said.

Another reason for Elaine's interest in Plath was that her own father had killed himself when she was 13.

"I wanted some insight into something who would do something like that," she says. "I cannot say it really explained those depths of depression.

"I came to the conclusion that there are no explanations."

The release of the film about Plath's life has also led to questions as to whether she or Ted Hughes was the better poet.

The author Philip Hensher, writing in the Daily Telegraph, praised much of Plath's work, but said Hughes was the truly great poet.

"One you grow into, the other you turn away from," he wrote.

'Just some silly woman'

Elaine, an English teacher, says it is a futile question as the two were completely different poets.

Shannon Hunt dressed as Plath for a college costume party
Shannon Hunt dressed as Plath for a college costume party
Those who reach the conclusion that Hughes's work is superior tend to criticise Plath for concentrating on her own experiences, she says.

But, she says, "the romantic poets like Coleridge and Keats used 'I' all the time".

"When the 'I' is a man that's the universal human condition. When the 'I' is a woman it's just 'some silly woman'."

But is her work still relevant to young women in the 21st Century?

Anja Beckmann from Leipzig, Germany, who also runs a website paying tribute to Plath insists that it is.

"She often writes about life from a woman's point of view, about motherhood, marriage, creativity," she said.

"The style she achieved in her late poems, the chains of associations, the density, the sound quality, has not been surpassed. And the emotional power of her poetry is also amazing."

Sex, suicide and poetry in Sylvia
07 Nov 03  |  Entertainment
Plath film angers daughter
03 Feb 03  |  Entertainment
Hughes blames drugs for Plath suicide
06 Aug 01  |  Entertainment

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