How it feels to realize I've outlived Sylvia Plath
National Poetry Day is on the first Thursday in October. This year, it falls on October 5th. At HG, we are celebrating how women poets have shaped our lives. The first week of October is also Mental Illness Awareness Week, and here, one contributor discusses her own mental health and Sylvia Plath’s poetry.
Today I decided I would write the article I have always meant to write about Sylvia Plath. About how she changed my life. Made me feel less alone. Touched me in ways that no one else could, with a language I felt was just for me.
I have reached my 31st birthday, when she did not.
This October 27th, Sylvia Plath would have turned 85 years old.
Due to her agonizing depression — and the fact that she lived in a time when modern treatments and medical research for depression didn’t exist — her genius is no longer with us.
I read her words:
I am devastated with a profound sense of loss, of wanting to know, what if she had survived? What would she be telling us at 40? 50? How would her voice change? How would her understandings of sadness, of suicide, of paralyzing depression translate to her powerful poetic influence?
I spent all day, eager to go home and write about her impact on my life. But now, realizing that I have outlived her, the profound loss I feel guts me.
I don’t even know what to say when my heart aches like this.
I am touched by poetry, art, and creativity’s power to connect us to our allies throughout history. Though I could never fully know her, my relationship with Sylvia Plath’s art has created a personal relationship, in my mind, with a living, breathing person. I feel I have known Sylvia all my life. She was with me through hospitalizations. She was with me in the darkest nights. She was with me when I published my own memoir about my bipolar disorder, Perfect Chaos.
Sometimes, the boundary between her and I became so skewed that I couldn’t tell who was who. And now, here I am, 31, feeling pieces of her separating from me as I begin to live life at ages and milestones she will never reach.
I read Sylvia’s book Ariel, realizing it was written at approximately my age, in the last months of her life. I wonder if she knew it was the end? I wonder if her words were, as George Steiner profoundly points out, “implacable, harsh brilliance” because she knew it was the end? Or was she maturing into yet an even more profound and powerful poet?
I am so heartbroken to never know.
Had she not taken her life, would Sylvia have changed the course of poetry? What would she have said of the many lives she would have lived in her later years, watching her children grow? What more could she have taught me? Taught us? What more could she have said?
It is profoundly bittersweet to live past the age of someone I idolize.
It is profoundly devastating to know that she will not experience the things in life I will continue to experience, yet deeply relieving in a way. Because somehow, I made it.
Thank you, Sylvia, for showing me I am not alone. Thank you, Sylvia, for teaching me I have a voice in writing. Thank you, Sylvia, for saving my life when the world couldn’t save yours. I am here today because you let me know I wasn’t the only one. I will continue to write for you. To share my life as I age, to understand my emotions in my 40s, my 50s, my 60s.
You changed so many lives. I will forever miss you. I know that I reached 31 because of you.