Reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

From Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:

I remember the day he smiled at me and said, “Do you know what a poem is, Esther?”
“No, what?” I said.
“A piece of dust.” And he looked so proud of having thought of this that I just stared at his blond hair and his blue eyes and his white teeth—he had very long, strong white teeth—and said, “I guess so.”
It was only in the middle of New York a whole year later that I finally thought of an answer to that remark.
I spent a lot of time having imaginary conversations with Buddy Willard. He was a couple of years older than I was and very scientific, so he could always prove things. When I was with him I had to work to keep my head above water.
These conversations I had in my mind usually repeated the beginnings of conversations I’d really had with Buddy, only they finished with me answering him back quite sharply, instead of just sitting around and saying, “I guess so.”
Now, lying on my back in bed, I imagined Buddy saying, “Do you know what a poem is, Esther?”
“No, what?” I would say.
“A piece of dust.”
Then just as he was smiling and starting to look proud, I would say, “So are the cadavers you cut up. So are the people you think you’re curing. They’re dust as dust as dust. I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those people put together.”
And of course Buddy wouldn’t have any answer to that, because what I said was true. People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn’t see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn’t sleep.

I have a weakness for writing about writing. I can’t get enough of it. Any time a novel touches on the timeless topic of why we write in first place, I am right there lapping it up. And Sylvia Plath writes so beautifully. The dialogue (and inner dialogue) is right on, and so many of the details throughout the book are written in a straightforward, but poetic way.

One of my favorite lines is when Esther refuses to return to the psychiatrist who gave her shock treatments, and her mother replies, “I knew you’d decide to be all right again.”

Whoa. Now that’s writing.

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4 thoughts on “Reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

  1. Hi, Susan, I have never been able to read Sylvia Plath. At the time she was writing I was going through some horrific situations and art and writing were my only isalnd of sanity. Knowing what I knew of her life I was terrified of falling into confessional poetry because I myself was so close to the edge. So, although I have never read her she certainly has had a geat deal in forming my life. I had read many commentaries about writers who could ONLY write about writing and how it had become almost boring to read (of course many did not have Sylvia’s creative ability nor her passionate drive.) But I realized that if I were to ever write anything interesting I had to bring living into my art. And since I did not want to explore my own situation, and I have been isolated for decades, I turned to nature. And so at the fork in the road I ended up going down a different path…

    But reading your post tonight I recall thinking that writing my little poems about birds or beetles or frogs or leaves and grass might be just as important as someone batting a ball back and forth across a net or into the outfield. And arrived at the same conclusion … albeit by a different route… that the only justification we need to do what we do and have to do is to realize that we ourselves must decide what’s important. We need no justification to be who we are.

    • Merrill, I know just what you mean about writing that only looks inward. The Bell Jar didn’t feel that way to me at all. The only passage directly about writing is the one above. Of course, the novel is based on Sylvia Plath’s own experiences with mental illness, but it is described in such a matter-of-fact way that it feels real — and especially interesting to me now as I am taking a crash course on mental health as I help my mom navigate through our family’s first exposure to these issues. I have read too many lists of symptoms and side-effects and was craving a narrative example to help me understand on an emotional level what this is all about. Sylvia Plath’s prose is straightforward, and she has an eye for small details that makes me think she would appreciate haiku.

      I love your comment about the importance of your poems. I think the process of realizing the importance of your own artistic work and not having to justify it to anyone else comes easier for some than for others. The character in The Bell Jar was a college-age young woman without the maturity yet of an established poet. I imagine the need to justify her poems was something Plath herself struggled with.

      One of the things that appeals to me about haiku is that it forces us to look outward. Not only outward, but forward. I just feel I am in a better mental space when I write haiku than when I attempt to write more reflective memoir pieces. It feels right to focus on the moment and keep moving forward…

  2. Hi, Susan, I know that Sylvia was writing about her mental illness, that’s why I could not bring myself to read it while I was going through such traumatic events in my own life. I suppose I still live with a certain amount of PTS… and it’s always been important to fill my life with balanced and creative things after living through so much destruction. The very fact that her writing was so “real” made it imperative that I not ever cross that line. You have to suspend your disbelief in order to enter any writing to understand it. It’s a place I did not want to go. And perhaps that is one of the motives of my own work.

    And yes I know what you mean about haiku looking outward, but I’ve found that haiku also offers me a way to deal with reality without having to enter into the complete submission of confessional poetry. There are things in this world that are truly dreadful. I’ve seen enough to know that the only way I could ever possibly deal with that side of the world would be in an art form that could be totally objective. I’m not so sure about moving forward… I guess I’m slow … it’s just that by the time the present moment has penetrated my awareness I’m already past it. The “haiku moment” aids in making that penetration a bit quicker and more brilliant as if you don’t have to think at all to understand. The understanding comes first.

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