Best known for her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and her two collections of poems “The Colossus” and “Ariel,” American poet, short-story writer, and novelist Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) was one of the most talented and beloved American poets who advanced the genre of confessional poetry.
Heather Clark is the author of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, which was named a Best Book of 2020 by The Guardian, The Times (London), Barnes & Noble, O, the Oprah Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Lit Hub, Good Morning America Book Club, and other publications. She has also written two other books on modern poetry: The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast, 1962-1972. She has held an NEH Public Scholar Fellowship and a Leon Levy Biography Fellowship, and is currently working on a book, under contract with Knopf, about the Boston years of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Maxine Kumin. She lives outside of New York City and is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at the University of Huddersfield in Yorkshire, England.
Simply Charly: When did your interest in Sylvia Plath begin?
Heather Clark: I have no recollection of reading Plath in high school or college. The only woman poet I remember studying in any depth as an English major at Harvard in the 1990s was Emily Dickinson (which, it turned out, was good preparation for reading Plath). I do remember stumbling upon Plath’s Journals in a youth hostel while I was backpacking in Ireland one summer during college and being completely overtaken by the book’s heady mix of desire and ambition. Like Plath, I wanted to become a writer, and I was not used to seeing my own hopes and dreams articulated so powerfully by another young woman. It was very refreshing. So that was my introduction to Plath—not through the dramatic tale of her suicide, but through her literary and romantic yearnings, with which I felt a kinship.
My academic interest in Plath began when I was asked to teach undergraduate tutorials on her poetry at Oxford University. At the time I was a graduate student working on a Ph.D. about postwar Northern Irish poetry. I didn’t feel qualified to teach Plath because my focus throughout my undergraduate and graduate years had been on Irish literature, mainly James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, and Seamus Heaney. But I accepted the assignment and threw myself headlong into Plath. I read everything I could about her—I over-prepared—and in the process, I fell in love with her poetry. Her work (and Heaney’s) led me to Ted Hughes’s poems, which I also became passionate about. I also wrote quite a bit of poetry myself at that time.
SC: How did you come to write your first book on Plath and Hughes, and why did you call it The Grief of Influence?
HC: I did much of the research for my first book, The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast 1962-1972, at Emory University’s archive, which is one of the most important modern poetry archives in America. During one of my Emory stints, I was sitting at a reading room desk when carts full of Ted Hughes’s newly acquired papers started rolling by. There was a lot of buzz at the time—the archivists were very excited about the acquisition—and I remember watching the carts wheel past and wondering what was in those boxes. I thought “There’s my next book.”
My Belfast book was about literary collaboration and influence amongst a particular group of poets, and I wanted to continue investigating similar ideas. Plath and Hughes’s marriage seemed like a fascinating example of literary partnership, and there was much new Hughes material to research at Emory and the British Library. (Plath’s main archives are at Indiana University and Smith College.) I wanted to know how husband and wife had influenced each other’s work. I called my second book The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, after a phrase Harold Bloom uses in his book The Anxiety of Influence. It seemed appropriate, as grief and influence were big themes in my book. (Incidentally, Harold Bloom knew Ted Hughes at Cambridge. They didn’t get along.)
SC: At what point did you realize you wanted to write a biography of Sylvia Plath, and how did you go about preparing to write the biography?
HC: I realized I wanted to write a biography of Plath after I had published The Grief of Influence, and I was casting around for a third book project. I knew there was even more new material in the Hughes archives at Emory and the British Library to be mined, and I knew I had acquired a good critical foundation during the years I had spent reading scholarship about Plath and Hughes. I was also very comfortable with archival research. But still, it was an intimidating project. Ultimately, I was inspired by Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, and Lee’s feeling that women writers who suffered from mental illness and suicide were often treated as “psychological victims or case histories first and professional writers second.” Her words galvanized me because I felt Plath had been pathologized in books, movies, television, and magazine articles, and that her name had almost become synonymous in the popular imagination with madness and tragedy. I wanted to write a biography that would treat her as, in Lee’s words, “a professional writer first.” The overarching theme in my biography is Plath’s desire to become a great writer.
SC: What did you learn from earlier Plath biographies and what sets yours apart from them?
HC: Although I have criticized some of the earlier Plath biographies for pathologizing Plath, they made my task easier by providing me with a map of Plath’s life. I’ve always thought it would be very difficult to write the first biography of a literary figure, and indeed the earlier biographies, particularly those by Anne Stevenson and Paul Alexander, helped orient me. I particularly appreciated Alexander’s use of material from his interview with Plath’s psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, who had passed away before I began writing. And there were important details in Stevenson’s book, Bitter Fame, that had come from Ted Hughes. But Stevenson lost authorial control of her biography to Olwyn Hughes, who managed access to the Plath estate and who insisted on portraying Plath in a harsh light. (Stevenson’s correspondence with Olwyn Hughes about Bitter Fame is archived at Smith College. I also learned of Stevenson’s struggles from her sister Laura, with whom I worked for a decade at Marlboro College in Vermont.) Despite its shortcomings, I still think Bitter Fame is a very well-written biography.
What sets my book apart from the earlier biographies is, most obviously, its length—it is the longest, most detailed biography of Plath—and it is the first full biography to draw from all of Plath’s surviving letters, which were published in 2018, and the Harriet Rosenstein files at Emory University. Rosenstein began a biography of Plath in the early 1970s and interviewed scores of Plath’s contemporaries. She never finished the book, and the papers from her archive were recently acquired by Emory University. These interviews were conducted when memories of Plath were still fresh, and they help shed new light on Plath’s life. My biography is also the most comprehensive treatment of Ted Hughes’s role in Plath’s life.
SC: What do you consider to be the place of biography in the study of literary figures?
HC: Biography is history, and I think biographies are integral to understanding the lives and work of literary figures. They can illuminate the life, which in turn illuminates the work. As an academic working in the field of English literature, I was trained not to look for meaning in an author’s life. I chafed against this artificial separation. I enjoy spinning a good literary argument from a few lines or images as much as the next scholar, but I was always drawn to biography and literary history. Much of literary theory left me cold. I appreciate the fact that biography is written for a general audience, and I wish more academics would try it. It’s an important form of public scholarship. I now realize that my first book about poets coming of age during the Northern Ireland Troubles was basically a group biography. I’ve always been interested in how poetry intersects with politics and culture, and whether W. H. Auden was correct when he said poetry makes nothing happen. All three of my books have been, in part, a quest to answer that question.
SC: How would you respond to Janet Malcolm’s controversial and influential book about Plath and her biographers?
HC: I loved The Silent Woman when I first read it as a graduate student at Oxford. It made me want to read even more of Plath’s and Hughes’s work, and I credit the book with helping to inspire my interest in those writers. But I don’t agree with Malcolm’s portrayal of biographers as burglars rifling through private possessions. I don’t think of Robert Caro or Hermione Lee like that—on the contrary, these biographers have advanced our understanding of their subjects in profound ways. They are towering public intellectuals. So my feelings about The Silent Woman are now more mixed than they were when I first read the book in the late 90s. And “silent” is the wrong word to describe Sylvia Plath. She left a massive paper trail: thousands of letters, manuscripts, journal entries, etc. It’s almost possible to reconstruct exactly what Plath was doing on each day of her life. I understand Malcolm was referring to Plath’s inability to speak for herself after her death, but the title still feels wrong to me. It makes Plath seem more passive and fragile than she actually was.
SC: Have you learned much from the reviews of your biography? Does anything surprise you?
HC: Frankly, I’ve been surprised by how wide an audience there seems to be for a 1,000-page biography. Although Plath is a well-known writer, I assumed my book’s length would cost me readers. I was okay with that. I wanted to tell a full story. Plath—when she was not suffering from depression—was someone who wanted to take up space in the world and I wanted, as best I could, to give her space in a biography. But I was prepared for an onslaught of criticism. There have been some quibbles, but overall I have been heartened by reviewers’ embrace of the book’s length. My manuscript was originally much longer, and I still find myself thinking, “I should have said more about…” We need more big biographies of women, and I’m very fortunate that my editor at Knopf, Deb Garrison, gave me the time and space to write one.
SC: Is there still more to learn about Plath’s biography? What is missing?
HC: Yes, there is always more to learn, and more to say. As I wrote in my prologue to Red Comet, new material will probably surface at some point, perhaps material by Plath herself (her last novel and journals may still exist), and new questions will arise as time passes. There is no such thing as a definitive biography—each biography is always in dialogue with the ones that came before and the ones that will come after. I suppose this is one advantage of writing the first biography of a literary figure—one has a clean slate that is uninfluenced by previous biographies. Also, since my book came out, people who knew Plath are contacting me, saying they want to speak with me about her. So there are still new stories to record.
SC: How has teaching Plath shaped your perspective on her? What have you learned from your students?
HC: Plath is a wonderful writer with which to teach undergraduates the art of close reading. Students are enthusiastic about her persona and her work and seem to enjoy analyzing the relationship between form and meaning in her poems. Despite the “confessional” label Plath’s been saddled with, her poetry is fairly difficult to understand. Nothing about Plath comes easily—or, at least, it shouldn’t. The only other author I’ve taught who has engendered such enthusiasm for close reading is James Joyce. Looking back, I’m struck by how hard students worked in my classes on Plath’s poetry and Joyce’s Ulysses to find meaning in linguistic or metrical patterns and themes. I am currently advising Ph.D. students working on Plath, and I’ve learned much from their work situating Plath’s poetry and prose within cultural studies.
SC: What is next? Another biography?
HC: I’m currently working on a group biography of the Boston years of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Maxine Kumin, which is under contract with Knopf. The idea for this book emerged out of the 1958-59 Boston chapter of Red Comet. I felt I had much more to say about this time and place, the relationship these women had with each other—which in some cases was very intense—and their struggles to be taken seriously as poets. The book is also about the birth of confessionalism and the dawn of feminism. The supporting cast includes Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, and even Robert Frost. In a way, I’m circling back to themes I tackled in my first book, which was about a group of young poets in Belfast finding their voices against the backdrop of political turmoil. But I have plans for more big biographies, too.