Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Aurelia Goes to a Poetry Reading

Aurelia Plath's medical-secretarial student sat down with her for tutoring and then Aurelia said, Do you mind if just this once we cut this short and double up next time, because there's a poetry reading on campus I want to go to. Would you like to come with me? Aurelia also hoped to talk with the poet. The student went, but doesn't remember his name.

1977. Antifa AF. Read the title poem here.
This Cape Cod Community College senior, 1973, took several courses with Mrs. Plath and was tutored her senior year. I am tracing and talking with Aurelia's Boston University and Cape Cod former students because 1) it's never been done and 2) for firsthand witnesses it's now or never. I was curious which poet Aurelia interrupted their work for.

It was April 11, 1973 and they heard John Beecher (1904-1980), gritty political poet, Deep South labor and civil rights activist (related to those Beechers), "a premature antifascist writing about black oppression since the 1920s when people didn't want to hear about it. Even a lot of black people didn't want to hear about it," he told the college paper. His Collected Poems (Macmillan) were in press.

I never heard of John Beecher even though he went to Harvard. Somehow Aurelia had. John Howard Griffin, his friend, had a doctor dye him black and wrote Black Like Me (1961), and Aurelia had read it and wrote Sylvia about it (6 December 1962). It took stunts like Griffin's and demonstrations and oral-tradition poets like Beecher declaiming race murders and maimed workers to stir middle-class America --  morally, and its young people first. Beecher was an old white radical field-agitator academic serious as hell with no sacred cows. He'd be chased off of campuses with pitchforks now.

Those with delicate ladylike sensibilities probably would not alter their schedules to see and hear him.

Currently we have only scraps of info about Aurelia Plath's politics, but with this discovery they are now consistent across six decades.

Beecher recorded these LPs for Folkways in 1968 and 1977, now on the Smithsonian website; see the two albums' liner notes (PDFs) to read the poems for free and in full.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

What Is a Traumatic Death?

Would you agree that a death (which is always a loss) is an especially traumatic loss if:

·      it occurs without warning

·      is untimely

·      involves violence

·      there is damage to the loved one’s body

·      the survivor regards the death as preventable

·      the survivor believes that the loved one suffered

·      the survivor regards the death, or manner of death, as unfair and unjust [1]


If you agree that any sudden needless untimely death, especially your child’s, is particularly grievous, then imagine Aurelia Plath’s grief after her daughter Sylvia died, overseas, at age 30. Told at first that Sylvia died of pneumonia, Aurelia learned days later that it was suicide, and son Warren told Aurelia the context and the details.


Aurelia wrote a brief angry note to a London newspaper that says those responsible for Sylvia’s death “know who they are.” She did not mail it, but kept it; it’s in archives. For future readers of this unsent letter, Aurelia added the initials of the suspect parties.


I can’t find in Sylvia Plath studies any respect or allowance for Aurelia’s trauma and grief. Her trauma would be as severe and multidimensional as ours if authorities phoned right now to say they found our child dead by suicide on a kitchen floor.


Rather than empathy (meaning, feeling what others feel) or sympathy (saddened by what others must be going through), Plath biographies and essays imply that Sylvia’s U.S. death notices – few and short because Sylvia wasn’t famous yet -- do not say “suicide” because prim Aurelia hoped to hide the real cause. No reason besides her personal character flaw.


We will be called to account for our assumptions.


Studies of mothers whose children died by suicide say mothers have not only the grief of suddenly losing a child but a burden of guilt, and, on top of that, they are judged. Even people who know suicide is never simple still suspect that a young suicide’s parents did not love them enough or in the right way, or were not prescient enough, or present enough, to stop them.


Aurelia in 1963 sent Sylvia’s friend Elizabeth Compton a note that was less about Sylvia than Aurelia’s own grief. Compton was offended and later sent Aurelia’s letter to a biographer as an example of Aurelia’s true personality. In summer 1963 Aurelia went to England. Her son-in-law, unable to think of any good reason a parent might want to visit their dead child’s former home and grave and children, thought Aurelia was coming for an “investigation.” And that she might dump too much love on her grandchildren. Remember he too was bereaved, as were the grandchildren.


Sylvia’s readers sympathize with her loss of her father and how his death changed her. It would be a truer picture if we saw that his death disrupted and changed her whole family. Sylvia’s 1953 suicide attempt shocked and terrified them. Aurelia wrote that she dreaded a recurrence. For her and her son 1963 was the second time around, only worse. Two families became survivors of a suicide and to this day they have not heard the end of it.


The National Alliance on Mental Illness says each suicide directly affects about 115 people and one in five (=23)  are devastated.


Living in a time of epidemic suicide we know that survivors of traumatic loss might cope by saying or writing tasteless vengeful unhinged or sentimental things, or frame the death as a murder, point fingers, or try everything to fix or explain it and never heal. A percentage will commit suicide themselves. Sylvia’s traumatic death very obviously colored all that occurred afterward, not much of it worth celebrating.


Sylvia suffered. But so did her family.


[1] “Traumatic Bereavement: Basic Research and Clinical Implications,” M. Barle, C. Wortman, J.A. Latack, 2017.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

What a Hot Bath Won't Cure


Sylvia Plath's first act of artistry was to create with colored tiles, on the family's living-room rug, an outline of the Taj Mahal resembling the image woven into the family bath mat. Otto so liked toddler Sylvia's artwork that weeks passed before he allowed his wife Aurelia to vacuum. In Letters Home, Aurelia described Otto fawning over what Aurelia critiqued as Sylvia's "art without perspective, of course"-- Sylvia was only two years old! -- signaling unfinished business of a bitter sort. It seems Otto admired his daughter's artwork while giving his three-dimensional wife nothing but orders.

Most likely the Plaths did not imagine their daughter's face printed on a bath mat. Nor would they have a sense of humor about it.

I think Aurelia must have chosen a Taj Mahal bathmat because that is what new wives do, or because she was the artsy one of the couple, or bought it with hope or irony because the Taj is a monument to a happy marriage. Or secretly she chose it -- my favorite explanation -- because her former boyfriend Karl, an engineer, her true love, had rhapsodized to her about the Taj's flawless foundational engineering. 

Otto Plath too had his ideals. One was to sire superior children. For such a parent it is never too soon to show kids the wonders of the world, so maybe he bought the Taj Mahal bath mat -- and for such a parent it is never too soon for kids to perform like superior kids.

Not quite believing 1930s Taj Mahal bath mats ever existed, I looked in vain online for a vintage example. Instead, I found  Sylvia Plath towels and yoga blankets (sold out!; but you can get a Ted Hughes yoga mat). Or you can wear or tote or drink beverages from items with stylized versions of Sylvia's image, or photographic images fondly imagined to be Sylvia, such as the barefoot woman in slacks absorbed in reading or Olwyn Hughes, as in the battery chargers pictured.

Plath is far from being the only celebrity blasphemed with a bath mat. You can step buck-naked and sopping wet onto the face of Jesus or Emily Dickinson. You can James Dean your toilet; Eminem the whole bathroom; or buy a Harriet Beecher Stowe shower curtain, or a pretty Beecher Stowe yoga mat that I rather like. Is your own goal fame and fortune? Behold your fate.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

"I Am More Myself in Letters"

Sylvia Plath was under uniquely monstrous pressure to write happy, reassuring letters home, right?

Dearest Father and Mother! . . . Cable me as soon as you can as soon as you see my latest article in print . . . Your advice is very good, dear mother, I'm keeping my umbrella handy . . .  No, work doesn't really tire me, dearest of parents. But if I do feel fatigue, I stop writing . . .  I really feel very well . . . 

-Theodor Herzl, 1888

. . . I have never met anybody in my life, I think, who loved his mother as much as I love you . . . . the reason I am a poet is entirely because you wanted me to be and intended I should be, even from the very first. You brought me up in the tradition of poetry, and everything I did you encouraged. I cannot remember once in my life when you were not interested in what I was working on, or even suggested that I should put it aside for something else.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay to her mother, 1921

Are you certain that only Sylvia Plath, because she had to, wrote her mother about every little detail?:

I have been in Rome three and a half days and it seems like a whole epoch. I felt at home here more quickly than in other towns I've been to, and I had expected the contrary. Perhaps it is because the first thing I did here was listen to some good music. I arrived about midday on Saturday and congratulated myself on having the rest of the day to look for a hotel. But after I'd got my breath, bought and studied a town-plan and had lunch, it was already 2:30 . . .

-Simone Weil to her mother, 1937

One might argue that these authors' "false selves" wrote these fakey letters full of highlights with no lowlights to please and reassure very needy parents.

Yet on social media we "post" mostly our highlights and successes. Sylvia Plath in her letters "posted" the same.

Give Sylvia some context, such as what other writers wrote to their parents, and how we select our social-media posts, and how often, and it is not so simple as "700 letters means a sick bond with her mother." 

Sylvia had a "following." Aurelia typically read Sylvia's letters aloud to family, friends such as the Nortons and Cantors, or showed them to neighbors or others interested in Sylvia's progress, and Sylvia knew that.

Sylvia said so:

. . . I manage [to write] a weekly vignette to mother and rely on her to disseminate the cultured pearls and grains of sand, such as they are! (to Gordon Lameyer, 12 December 1955)

When Sylvia did not want particular passages "disseminated," she let her mother know:

This is all rather private musing, and I would rather you kept it in the family and shared the most extroverted passages with other people. (to Aurelia, 14 November 1955)

Non-writers might not understand that skilled writers such as Plath could turn up the heat or play it cool depending on their audience. This has nothing to do with a "false self" versus a "true self," as if humans could have only one solid unified self. The self is symphonic!

I think Aurelia savored reading to and sharing with Sylvia's followers to showcase her daughter's success and devotedness. If that is bad, it is just as pathological when modern parents and grandparents showcase brag-worthy offspring to every neighbor and friend and colleague they can collar. Does that mean their lives are empty? No, it means their lives are full. (Before grandparents had cellphones, they bought and carried small photo albums called "brag books," and Aurelia did too.)

Aware that her letters were a family affair, Sylvia liked knowing that while she was under pressure the folks at home cared that she wrote, creatively or otherwise, telling them from England:

I miss that very subtle atmosphere of faith and understanding at home, where you all knew what I was working at and appreciated it, whether it got published or not.

-Sylvia Plath, February 1956