Carol Ann Duffy was given a copy of Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems for her 25th birthday. Editing a new selection she has experienced afresh the electrifying excitement she felt on that first encounter
I was a few weeks past my seventh birthday when Sylvia Plath died on 11 February 1963, during one of the worst English winters on record. The snow, dangerously deep for children, grumbled and threatened in our ears as we fell backwards into its cold arms to make angels; in the mornings the bedroom windows were blind with ice.
In London, Plath had written to her mother in the US: "Thank goodness I got out of Devon in time. I would have been buried for ever under this record 20ft snowfall with no way to dig myself out." Holed up in a flat in Primrose Hill, in the former house of her admired WB Yeats, with two small children and no telephone, separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, Plath spiralled into the lethal clinical depression that had plagued her since adolescence. She was 30.
Although she had published her first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, in 1960, and her novel The Bell Jar, which appeared just before her death, Plath's huge and lasting fame was to be posthumous – heralded by the publication of Ariel in 1965. She lived on as a poet in the most extraordinary way – "I am lost, in the robes of all this light" – not least as a heroine to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Here was a uniquely radical, stylised poetic voice which claimed for its subject something that had not previously appeared in "the canon" – the experience of being a woman. Plath wrote about gender, motherhood and marriage, of betrayal and suicidal illness, in poems illuminated – like lightning over the moors – by love and fury. She had been influenced, through the American creative writing workshop system, by the confessional poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton; but she saw herself as a poet for whom craft was as important as the exploration of self: "I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying – like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience – and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind."
Plath, like all great poets, is ruthless in her pursuit of the poem. Although, as in the case of Oscar Wilde, say, or the war poets, we cannot think of the work without the life: she had a kind of lunar detachment that ultimately sets her poems free of herself. That is why they continue to have life. In his introduction to her Collected Poems (1981), Hughes writes: "Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like – if she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy."
And of the Ariel poems, Seamus Heaney comments: "They are full of exhilaration in themselves, the exhilaration of a mind that creates in some sort of mocking spirit, outstripping the person who has suffered. They move without hesitation and assume the right to be heard; they, the poems, are what we attend to, not the poet."
I was given Collected Poems as a birthday present when I was 25 and, although I'd come across individual poems of hers previously (I remember quoting the weirdly honest "What a thrill – /My thumb instead of an onion" when I cut myself badly, preparing vegetables as a student; and it occurs to me now that my own poem "Valentine" has a DNA link to Plath's "Cut") this publication was to be my first true – and electrifying – encounter with Plath's poetry. I felt, then as now, as though I were reading a superior contemporary. Two years later, in 1983, I was fortunate to win the National Poetry Competition for my poem "Whoever She Was", a Plath-enabled piece about motherhood.
One of the judges was the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke, who was born five years after Plath, in 1937. Writing to me recently she said: "Until I read Plath, I did not recognise that the poems I had written, especially 'The Sundial', were poems at all. The experience of most women then – the generation of women who, if they were clever enough, went to university, got degrees, married and had children in their early 20s – was that they found themselves at home with babies, and saw their 'brilliant careers', their shiny new degrees, go down the plug. Anne Stevenson (who is older than I) as an American, already saw herself as 'a poet' when in university. In Britain, a degree in English was exclusively academic. The pre-Plath generation of British students had studied the old dead men and, marvellous as they were/are, they were a scold's bridle on any idea that women too could be poets. In speaking when she did, Plath fired the wild hearts of the last silenced generation of poets in Britain. We all began to speak in our own way, because suddenly someone was listening."
Women writers were listening to one another. Clarke began to publish her poetry in 1971, a year after the publication of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. My own first collection, Standing Female Nude, was published 14 years later in 1985, when I was nearly the age at which Plath died. The senior women poets at that time included Plath's future biographer Anne Stevenson, Fleur Adcock, Elaine Feinstein, Jenny Joseph, Ruth Fainlight (a friend of Sylvia's), Patricia Beer and Elizabeth Jennings, with UA Fanthorpe, Liz Lochhead and Vicki Feaver coming into view – older sisters in poetry who had already cleared so much ground for my generation. One looked to the US and found the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich; to Ireland for the emerging work of Rich's admirer, Eavan Boland. Presiding over all these differing talents, indisputably, was Plath.
Plath, without the luxury of maturity, comes to us with her own poetic universe fully created. Her imagery is stunning, sometimes shocking or repellent, exhibiting a kind of courage that, ultimately, cost her dearly:
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it –
A sort of walking miracle,
my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify? –
Set alongside WH Auden's squirm-worthy and patronising review of Adrienne Rich's first collection, A Change of World (Rich's poems, he wrote, "are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs"), here was Permission Not To Be Nice. Plath's private mythology is straddled by a "man in black", the dead father that many of the poems take aim at. Her motifs are moons and mirrors, candles and trees. Plath looks up at the moon, "Staring from her hood of bone", but her great last poems are pulling her down into the Earth. As Anne Stevenson commented: "Twelve final poems, written shortly before her death, define a nihilistic metaphysic from which death provided the only dignified escape." Hughes felt, however, that "she had to write those things – even against her most vital interests. She died before she knew what The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems were going to do to her life."
Poets are ultimately celebrators, of life and of poetry itself. A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships. There can be a chilling detachment about Plath's poetic personality – like Yeats, she casts "a cold eye / On life, on death" – but she also deploys a comic playfulness, a great appetite for sensuous experience, a delight in the slant rhymes and music of her verse, bravado, brio, a tangible joy in the unflowering of her genius.
In my selection for Faber, intended to sit alongside Selected Poems (1985), roughly chronological to shadow her progress, I have tried to walk through the landscape of Plath's poetry as though for the first time, 50 years older than I was when she died. In doing so I have experienced afresh the almost physical excitement I felt when I first read this bold, brilliant, brave poet who changed the world of poetry for us all.