I never turn on the television on Saturday afternoons. I can’t remember the last time I did. Before today, that is. I’m not even sure what made me reach for the remote, except that I had peeled an orange and was perhaps seeking out something mindless while I ate it.
At any rate, I happened on the film Sylvia. It is about the life of poet Sylvia Plath and it stars Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead. I missed the first 20 minutes, a particular pet peeve of mine, but I decided to watch anyway. I’m so glad I did, as I haven’t been this taken with a movie in a long time.
I knew of Plath and of her marriage to poet Ted Hughes. I knew she killed herself. I have read “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus.” But truly I knew little else about the woman. How very beautiful and sad her story is.
There is a scene where she and Ted are in a boat and they’ve drifted pretty far out to sea. He appears worried as he rows against the tide. She simply looks thoughtful and recalls a day when she tried to drown in the sea. “It didn’t want me,” she says flatly.
This takes place at a time when Ted Hughes is an acclaimed poet and she is trying to write. Day after day she sits at the desk and crumbles up paper, turning to the kitchen and using her creative fervor to bake instead. Ted keeps asking why she isn’t writing. This day in the boat, he tells her she just needs to pick a subject and stay with it. But that just frustrates her. He continues probing and suggesting. Finally he tells her, “Your subject is you.” Ouch. She doesn’t see it, at least not yet. A friend of mine knows why this scene resonates with me so. He and I have played out a similar scenario and I’ve since discovered he is right.
But I digress. Back to Sylvia.
Later in the film, after Ted leaves her, she feels she is finally free despite her love for him and she is writing like crazy. There is a scene where she has just completed “Daddy” and she reads it aloud to a friend. “I really feel like God is speaking through me,” she says when she is finished. I was mesmerized by this, for I am very aligned with the idea that our best art comes through us.
Finally, in talking about the woman Ted takes up with when he leaves her, she is matter of fact. It is her greatest fear come true. “Don’t you understand? I conjured her. If you fear something enough, you can make it happen.”
So wise and so tortured. Brilliant. Flawed. Dead at 30.
I picked up two poetry books from my shelf and immersed myself in the Plath sections for a while, grateful to my orange for getting me there.