How not to write a biography of Sylvia Plath? We might put the question another way. What is the relationship for a poet between writing a mind and writing a life? Does self-revelation (or confession, a label often used to describe the work of Plath and her contemporary Anne Sexton) lead us, not just into the inner recesses of the poet’s thought, but through the veils, behind the closed doors of her past? Do we enter the room, see the knife slit the finger, catch the raised voices, watch the vase shatter, hear the baby cry? Plath’s language is sensuous, evocative enough to bring all this, and a great deal more, to life. But the question still remains. How much do we know? And is the point to try and find out? Are we meant to be sleuths, piecing together fragment on fragment until the picture is spread before us? There she is! Sylvia Plath – nothing hidden. The true story told. Isn’t that why she wrote in the way she did? Isn’t that what she would have wanted, after all?
Biography loves Sylvia Plath. When I ask students what they know of Plath, they almost invariably reply that she killed herself and was married to Ted Hughes. Occasionally they run these two snippets together as if the second were, in some mysterious and not wholly formulated way, related to the first; as if together they add up to something that leaves nothing more to be said. I watch this story shut down around her, clamping her writing into its hollow wooden frame. Death and marriage may have fed and fuelled her writing, but – posthumously at least – they cramp her style.