Happy Birthday to Sylvia Plath, who will always be my writer-hero

There’s a moment in the classic movie Annie Hall, wherein Woody Allen holds up a copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and says, “Sylvia Plath, interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality.”

There’s a lot wrong with that sentence. More than I can hope to touch on here. As a writer and a lover of poetry and words, it is her work that speaks to me, not the way in which she died. Plath was a brilliant poet. One only has to read a few pages of her unabridged journals to appreciate her love of literature and life and understand that she was a feminist with dreams and desires at a time when women had much fewer options than we enjoy today.

There’s a passage in her novel, The Bell Jar, where the main character is asked what she wants to be:

This is the Sylvia Plath that I adore. The girl who knew no limits, the girl who wanted to be everything.

So when I found myself in London last April for the launch of my first book in the UK, I decided to find the home where she once lived, worked, and wrote. Sylvia also died in London, in a row house where the poet William Butler Yeats once lived, just a few blocks away from the cottage where she wrote The Bell Jar. But I didn’t want to see that place. It was more important for me to see where she lived, where the words danced.

I took the tube to Regent’s Park, where I planned to walk the rest of the way to 3 Chalcot Square. There was a dog on the train that night. A pug. It was tiny for a pug, and absolutely adorable. It settled itself between the legs of the woman who held its leash and stayed nestled right between her feet for the entire ride. The woman wore bright red ballerina flats, and it made the sweetest picture, the dog on the train cuddled between those red shoes.

When I reached Regent’s Park, it had grown dark outside. Everything was eerily still and quiet; more serene than I’d ever seen the London streets in the busy neighborhood where my hotel was located. I wondered where everyone was, then I realized it had gotten much later than I’d planned.

I missed a turn and wound up walking the wrong way for a while. But it ended up being a gift, because my footsteps followed a low stone wall that surrounded the London Zoo. It was very dark outside, the night thick and black, with few streetlights, and there wasn’t another person in sight.

All of a sudden, I heard a noise. I stopped walking and stood waiting, my heart pounding. Then I heard it again. And again. Fainter at first, then louder and louder, until I realized it was the lions in the zoo, roaring to one another, over and over again. I stood in the dark, marveling at the fact that I was in London of all places, hearing the roar of lions in the night. It was so beautiful, a moment that will stay with me forever.

When the lions grew quiet, I managed to right myself and got going in the proper direction to Primrose Hill. I could see at once why Sylvia loved it there. Even in the darkness, it was lovely—streets that wound and curved, lined on either side with houses in candied hues. Pale pink, robin’s egg blue, minty green. Colors for Easter eggs. White moulding that dripped like icing on a wedding cake. Windows that glowed gold.

I followed these winding streets until I reached Chalcot Square, and Sylvia’s house, number three, was situated right on the corner. It faced a garden square, which made me happy, because I could imagine her looking out the window and seeing blooming flowers and leafy green trees. I always spend a lot of time looking out my window when I’m in London. I leave the window open as often as I can, and I usually buy flowers for the sill. I like to rest my elbows on the windowsill and lean out. There’s always so much to see down below. So many people to make up stories about. I like to think that she spent a lot of time looking out those windows, or possibly had her typewriter at a desk facing the garden.

The house is periwinkle blue, with a charming brick wall in front and a small yard overflowing with greenery. Other people live there now, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they knew of the writer who lived and loved there before. Had they read her poems? Were they acquainted with the words of the book that I clutched in my hands?

There’s a round blue marker on the front of the house that says Sylvia Plath, Poet, lived here 1960-61, which are the years in which she wrote her only novel, The Bell Jar. I sat cross-legged on the sidewalk that night and leaned against the old brick wall and read the entire first chapter. The familiar words seemed to spin and twirl right off the page. And when I rose to go, to walk back past the park and the zoo and the lions, and ride the train back to my hotel, I remembered this was also the place where she’d written the poem, Tulips.

This is now my favorite stanza, for it reminds me of my lions; the ones I heard while I walked to a house where a poet I loved penned one of my favorite books. Where I stood and read her words with a lump in my throat, on a night that bloomed out of sheer love for me.

Teri Wilson is a romance novelist for Harlequin Books. She is the author of UNLEASHING MR. DARCY, UNMASKING JULIET and the upcoming ALASKAN HOMECOMING, due for publication in March 2015. She loves romance, books, poetry and dancing every day. She adores hearing from readers and can be found at her website, Facebook, or on Twitter.

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