The Other Side of Sylvia Plath
By Adrian Ernesto Cepeda
While I was crafting the cento poems that became La Belle Ajar, I felt like I was communing with Sylvia Plath. As I wrote in the afterword of my poetry collection. Sylvia Plath once said, “I want someone to mouth me.” When I started this cento project that is what I did. For hours at a time, I could feel Sylvia’s timelessly evocative voice speaking to me in my head. I could feel her guiding me from the other side as I magically culled individual words from the chapter. I tried to stay away from pairs and just took single words and tried to craft a poem. This creative experiment was such a challenge. It would take hours. It was so intense channeling and being possessed by Plath’s spirited voice after each poem, I would be drenched in sweat. By the end of the twenty days, I was spent but inspired. I still felt Plath inside me. It was such a metaphysical experience bonding with Plath from beyond.
I believe Plath’s journey through Ouija, her vampire imagery and fascination with the occult eventually led to our mystical collaboration. Although some might be fearful of partaking in such an imaginative endeavor, curating and crafting La Belle Ajar’s is one of the most enlighteningly earthshaking experiences of my poetry career.
Because of Sylvia Plath’s connection to the occult, La Belle Ajar’s haunted verses perfectly harmonizes with Night Worms monthly book club. Still skeptical, I believe that Terri-Jane Dow said it best in her piece, “Sylvia Plath And the Occult”: “Sylvia’s poetry comes together once again; a constant conversation with another world.” La Belle Ajar is my otherworldly conversation with Plath and her most famous novel The Bell Jar. Critics agree that La Belle Ajar is the catalyst to have resurrected the spirit of Sylvia Plath from the other side.
Much of Plath’s output in 1957 was inspired by her Ouija experiences. She wrote the verse theme dialogue, “Dialogue over a Ouija Board” and the poem “Ouija.” Plath later explored vampire imagery in the poems “Daddy,” “The Shriek” and in her play in verse “Three Women” and even in “The Colossus.” It was Plath’s fascination in the occult that not only inspired her most otherworldly prose and poems, that still captivate readers of her work today. Plath’s allure to the experiment with the other side that led this poet to communing with Plath while crafting the cento poems that became La Belle Ajar.
Unbeknownst to most, thanks to her then husband Ted Hughes, not only did Sylvia Plath experiment with the occult but she channeled these experiences in poems like “Ouija” and her play in verse “Dialogue Over a Ouija Board.” Hughes claimed that “Dialogue Over a Ouija Board” was based on one of Plath and his Ouija sessions. Hughes believed having an “interest in the occult […] as a way of exploring one’s psyche.”
I believe the main reason Plath experimented in the occult, was “a deeper significance of the Ouija experience” with Hughes was to spark her writing, which she explained to her mother in Letters from Home:
I am at last writing my first poem for about six months, a more ambitious topic: a short verse dialogue that is supposed to sound just like conversation. ... It frees me from my writer's cramp and is at last a good subject-a dialogue over a Ouija board, which is both dramatic and philosophical.
That verse dialogue Plath wrote about eventually became “Dialogue Over a Ouija Board.” But this was not the only time, Plath wrote about her “Ouija experience.” Later that year, Plath penned the poem “Ouija.” In the piece, “How Sylvia Plath Used the Ouija Board to Write Poetry,” Kailey Tedesco reemphasized this experience when she explained Plath’s fascination with the Ouija board:
The board allowed Plath to shut down her exterior voices so that she might better listen to the interior ones. Scientifically, this is called the ideomotor effect. It allows for one’s caged subconscious to take a joyride, unbeknownst to the mind’s driver.
In her poem, “Ouija,” she states:
The glass mouth sucks blood-heat from my forefinger.
The old god dribbles, in return, his words.
The old god, too, writes aureate poetry.
Whatever spirit emerged from her upturned wine glass, be it Pan or Plath, spilled golden poems from her fingers.
For Plath, I believe, all of these experiences with Ouija and the occult always connected back to her commitment to crafting the written word.
Years later, Plath went from her experience with Ouija to penning vampire imagery in the poems “Daddy,” “The Shriek” and in her play in verse “Three Women.” Tracy Bain wrote about Plath’s symbolism in The Other Sylvia Plath:
Remember that Daddy is repeatedly likened to a vampire in the poem: If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—– / The vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year’. […] the speaker is not just drained of blood, is not just killed or bitten, but commits these acts herself. Every character in “Daddy’ is a vampire, and this filled with other people’s blood, so that no identity is attained.”
Many would argue that Plath was a gothic poet. I believe Sylvia was more than just a traditional gothic writer like the traditionalists like Mary Shelley and Emily Brönte, I saw Plath as a Bloody Gothic poet who went deeper and more graphic than Shelley and Brönte could ever imagine. Look at the imagery in “Pursuit” take the idea of gothic poetry and devours the traditional form with the bloody metaphor.
“Insatiate, he ransacks the land
Condemned by our ancestral fault,
Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;
Meat must glut his mouth's raw wound.
Keen the rending teeth and sweet
The singeing fury of his fur;
His kisses parch, each paw's a briar,
Doom consummates that appetite.
In the wake of this fierce cat,
Kindled like torches for his joy,
Charred and ravened women lie,
Become his starving body's bait.”
Plath took the bait of Gothic imagery seasoned it with bloody symbolism and let the color bleed down her tongue as she savored it watching drip all over the page of her poem.
Plath continues this blood imagery in the poem “The Surgeon at 2 AM”: “The blood is a sunset. I admire it. /I am up to my elbows in it, red and squeaking. / Still is seeps me up, it is not exhausted. So magical” Plath’s fascination with blood and this surgeon godlike ability they have over death reflects the kind of power Plath attempted to craft over death in her own poems. “The Colossus” reveals more of this enchanting imagery: “Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle/ Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.”
Sylvia is more than just a “mouthpiece of death,” in fact, Plath’s poetry obsession with morbidity, the grotesque with horror and monster imagery she reflects the darkness and fears of all us. Dissected bodies, buried alive with lines like “What large eyes the dead have” haunt and stay with us long after we have finished reading her verses, In her poems, Plath also crafted horror images in poems like “All the Dead Dears”: “the ankle-bone of the woman has been slightly gnawed,” Plath also culled many symbols of death especially in “Little Fugue,” when she wrote “death opened, like a black tree, blackly” and “black and stiff, but not a bad fit,” the straitjacket and a coffin imagery reflects the living death, as she “believe me, they’ll bury you in it.” Speaking of death, Plath’s brand of horror is the exploration of the grotesque, she is created her own horror narratives. In “Lady Lazarus” The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth? The sour breath will vanish in a day.” Plath gives life to death, most writers are afraid to write about the afterlife, To Plath death wasn’t the end: “dying/ is an art, like everything else/ I do it exceptionally well.”
For novices of Sylvia’s work, Plath is best known for the events on February 11, 1963 when she took her own life. Many readers, enthusiasts and Plath scholars have searched for traces of Sylvia’s suicide with her work. You can see the imagery in “Cut” when she writes: “I am ill. I have taken a pill to kill / the thin/Papery feeling.” That “papery” feeling is a universal emotion that almost everyone feels when they are fragile. That imagery is stunning and eerie in the same breath. Plath explores the gasping symbolism of suicide in “The Birthday Present” with lines like” “They are carbon monoxide. / Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in, /Filling my veins with the invisibles.” It is that thought of being invisible or being erased that would keep me up at night. The thing that keeps that fearful idea dormant is writing poetry. Plath’s poems conjure up the last exhale of breathlessness before the light is extinguished and we become a flickering memory inside the dark of night.
Plath has outlived her suicide because death was her obsession. Plath wrote in ‘Edge” Her dead/ Body wears the smile of accomplishment.” I used to dread the idea of death but Plath’s imagery has made me face this fear on and off the page. Sylvia makes me think about my afterlife, what do I want my legacy to be not just a tombstone or obituary, I want my poems to resonate my voice, to be the kind of Plathian spirit, “reflecting the inevitability of encroaching mortality” that speaks long after my final breath,. Like Plath, my epitaph will be my poems.
Later in 1962, Plath’s inner ‘mouthpiece of the dead’ penned Three Women, a monologue for three voices, where she continued this revenge and vampire motif in vivid language:
She is the vampire of us all. So she supports us,
Fattens us, is kind. Her mouth is red,
I know her, I know her intimately –
[…] Men has used her meanly. She will eat them.
Inside these mouthwatering and mesmerizing pieces, I found Plath’s fiery prose and poems fascinating and a valuable piece inside the craft of Plath. Edward Butcher agreed when he wrote, “Nevertheless, one can conclude that Plath's experiments in occultism [...] she heard her voice of inspiration.”
While composing the cento poem “Sunk in a Marble Calm” from La Belle Ajar, I too felt the voices of inspiration that Plath spoke about:
“me, my eyes saw a flicker
of strangeness: […]
My confused gray
skull sunk shivering suicides.
My shadow adrift of revenge
eyeing a black ground cadaverous
underfoot funeral. […]
burying eye batting question marks—
glances, my coffin departure
would be the last cry. So long”
Even when I was composing my collection of cento poems inspired by The Bell Jar, I could feel the aura of death in the words that were being resurrected on the page. I could feel Plath’s musing urging me to craft these words to create the last poem in my homage to Sylvia.
It was all about inspiration, writing and imagery for Sylvia Plath. She lived to craft lines, rhymes, symbolism and imagery about death, blood, suicide, and horror. While most poets go out of their way to avoid writing about the afterlife, Plath loved facing her mortality on the page. This is the reason Sylvia Plath and her life’s work resonates today. Poets and writers who outlive their mortality by writing about death with horror imagery give themselves an aura of immortality. Plath will live forever within every poem she ever wrote, poems like “Lady Lazarus” projected her resurrection with lines like I do it so it feels like hell/I do it so it feels real.” The key is that is more than just blood and guts, by making us feel, Plath turns her horror imagery into art. The kind of art that we play in our minds in the dark. Plath thrived in the metaphors of the dark imagery, she once wrote “I, too, create corpses” this why her immortal words rise from the dead, haunting us from beyond in such a way, Plath makes death the passage rite, reading our bodies to feed the appetites of the earth. It’s the beyond that Sylvia was captivated with. Plath’s masterful Gothic imagery makes the horror symbolism in her verses ooze, fleshlike, passing poetically, making any evil eye feel more than just alive.
Bain, T. (2001). The Other Sylvia Plath. Essex, England: Pearson Education.
Butscher, E. (2003). Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. Tucson, AZ: Scgaffner Press.
Cepeda, A. E. (2020). La Belle Ajar. NY: CLASH Books.
Dow, T. (2019, August 12). Sylvia Plath And The Occult. Retrieved July 06, 2020, from https://www.cunning-folk.com/read-posts/sylvia-plath-and-the-occult
Plath, S. (1968). Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices. London, England: Turret Books.
Plath, S., & Hughes, T. (2008). Collected poems. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Plath, S., & Plath, A. S. (1977). Letters home: Correspondence, 1950-1963. New York: Bantam Books.
Tedesco, K. (2017, July 05). How Sylvia Plath Used a Ouija Board to Write Poetry. Retrieved July 06, 2020, from https://ultraculture.org/blog/2016/01/31/sylvia-plath-ouija-board/