We’re in the middle of an English winter, one of the ‘modern’ ones, i.e. not much snow, lots of rain, gales, some icy nights; a bit of everything. Kids are happy with a few snowflakes swirling about for a couple of hours. Older people are not impressed – what happened to 6 foot snowdrifts, cracked pipes and toboggans? If it’s global warming then we have something to worry about. If it’s just normal climate change (into or out of the next ice age) then I s’pose we can put up with it. Remember the winter of ’63, so my Dad says. Oh yeh, I remember it (the year we thrashed our sledges down Kite Hill on Hampstead Heath). Later I learnt how Sylvia Plath was so depressed she put her head in the gas oven (not far away from us, she was living in Primrose Hill at the time).
Now poetry is usually a way of getting us out of a mess rather than in one. We write in moments of duress – someone close dies, a love affair fizzles out. Sylvia couldn’t get that death wish out of her. She tried poetry; gut wrenching, almost too private stuff, very personal, but it wasn’t therapeutic, it just kept on compounding the faults, the interminable winter just added to the burden. Not even her kids could keep her going, her husband (the poet Ted Hughes) had left her, what was it all about? So she took the way out she had tried before, and whether it was a cry for help or not, she did it too well, and died. The same way Berryman died, and numerous others, jumping off bridges or drinking themselves into oblivion. So, was poetry a burden to all of them? Or was it perhaps the only expression they had, always under duress, for diverse reasons, all of them universally unhappy, unadjusted, taking out in poetry, because it is the purest form of speech.
I don’t think it was the winter, or poetry, or even her love affair with Hughes that did it. For Sylvia anyway, it was almost her destiny. Her soul was sensitive, needed to learn some lesson, leave something in life (her poems), as a signpost to others, to perhaps stimulate them when faced with the same depressions, the same blank wall, 6 foot drift of snow in an English winter, when winters really meant something, came upon us with a roar, before our centrally heated, double glazed and globally warmed modern existence began to cancel them out.