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The Creative Tension Between Vitality and Fatality: Illuminating the Mystery of Sylvia Plath Through Her Striking Never-Before-Revealed Visual Art

“How frail the human heart must be — a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing — a fragile, shining instrument of crystal, which can either weep, or sing.”

The Creative Tension Between Vitality and Fatality: Illuminating the Mystery of Sylvia Plath Through Her Striking Never-Before-Revealed Visual Art

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) wrote to her mother upon the publication of her first tragic poem. Perhaps Plath would have felt differently had she been able to anticipate how inseparable her poetry would become from its indelible wellspring, her personhood, as posterity enveloped both in an immensity of interpretation — and misinterpretation — the right to which “the public” all too haughtily presumes over any artist’s life. In the decades since her death — a death the circumstances of which have only intensified the impulse for interpretation — her poetry has permeated the fabric of culture, quoted in everything from popular science books to Hollywood blockbusters, often unmoored from context and warped by a superficial understanding of fact. Half-opaque though we are to ourselves, we so readily presume to see the reality of another’s life on the basis of little more than fragmentary glimpses and biographical half-fictions.

Sylvia Plath

In addition to her poems, Plath left behind a rich body of journals and letters — an abundance of autobiographical material that seems to have only deepened the mystery and myth of her person. She found an outlet for what words could not contain in her visual art. “It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” Plath wrote in a letter to Ted Hughes when she took up drawing seriously at the age of twenty-four. “I can lose myself completely in the line, lose myself in it.”

In One Life: Sylvia Plath, Smithsonian curator Dorothy Moss hopes that we may find Plath — the unseen, unfathomed, misinterpreted Plath — in the lines of her visual art.

Self-Portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, ink and gouache on paper, c. 1946-1952
(Estate of Robert Hittel, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

The exhibition features a selection of images and objects from the Plath archives at Smith College and Indiana University’s Lilly Library, most of them never previously exhibited — sketches, drawings, collages, photographs, letters from her psychiatrist, handwritten pages from her journal, her childhood ponytail, her typewriter.

Triple-Face Portrait by Sylvia Plath, tempera on paper, c. 1950-1951
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia Plath’s childhood ponytail with her mother’s inscription, August 1945
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
“A War to End Wars,” self-portrait by Sylvia Plath, February 26, 1946
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

Moss, curator of painting at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, had been incubating the idea for the show for five years. Having studied English and art history at Smith, where she first encountered the poet’s remarkable archives, she grew convinced that Plath made a worthy candidate for the Smithsonian’s One Life exhibitions, each offering a deep look at a single person’s impact on American life and culture. Previous installments in the series have celebrated founding father Thomas Paine, poet-philosopher Walt Whitman, baseball legend Babe Ruth, rivaling Civil War generals Grant and Lee, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.

Plath is one of a handful of women portrayed, among them pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart and farm work activist Dolores Huerta. (Incidentally, Plath’s first job was as a farm worker — an experience she believed shaped her as a writer.)

“Twas the Night Before Monday” by young Sylvia Plath, (Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Collage (Includes images of Eisenhower, Nixon, bomber, etc.) by Sylvia Plath, 1960
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

Moss, who teamed up with Plath scholar and Smith Rare Book Room curator Karen Kukil, was particularly interested in Plath’s curious power over the popular imagination — how she has remained so relevant even to people who know little about her, why so much of the mythology that surrounds her stems from a place of misunderstanding, what it is about the combination of her poetry and her personhood that so enchants. Moss tells me of her fascination with Plath’s visual art:

Her impulse to draw and sketch was as strong as her instinct to write.

In the context of a museum of art history and biography, Moss set out to explore the poet’s visual imagination and the way Plath performed her identity — how she made sense of herself in her art, how she deliberately revealed herself only in fragments. Half a century before Instagram and Facebook’s hyperconscious art direction of the self, Plath carefully curated her own image, sculpting before the camera a persona she felt represented her ideal self and destroying many of the photographs she didn’t like.

Studio photograph of Sylvia Plath (with brown hair) by Warren Kay Vantine, 1954
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia “Marilyn” Shot by Gordon Ames Lameyer, June 1954
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Yorkshire, England. Photograph by Harry Ogden, 1956.
(Courtesy Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts)
Sylvia Plath with her children, Frieda and Nicholas, Court Green. Photograph by Siv Arb, April 1962.
(Courtesy Writer Pictures Ltd., © Writer Pictures Ltd.)

In her selections for the show, Moss sought to honor the full dimension of Plath’s person beyond the archetypal persona of the tragic genius into which popular culture has flattened her — to celebrate not only the undeniable darkness of her poetry, but also her sense of humor, her witty and whimsical sides. “To have the intensity that she achieved in her writing, she needed to experience a range of emotions,” Moss tells me — a sentiment Plath herself articulated in a poignant and precocious letter to her mother penned at the age of seventeen:

Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

Sylvia Plath by Rollie McKenna, gelatin silver print, 1959
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Rollie McKenna © Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation, courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation)

In consonance with this effort to illuminate Plath’s multitudes, the show highlights two of the poems she penned in the final days before taking her own life, both animated by an exuberant vitality and a benevolence toward life, and posthumously published in her Collected Poems (public library):


Kindness glides about my house.
Dame Kindness, she is so nice!
The blue and red jewels of her rings smoke
In the windows, the mirrors
Are filling with smiles.

What is so real as the cry of a child?
A rabbit’s cry may be wilder
But it has no soul.
Sugar can cure everything, so Kindness says.
Sugar is a necessary fluid,

Its crystals a little poultice.
O kindness, kindness
Sweetly picking up pieces!
My Japanese silks, desperate butterflies,
May be pinned any minute, anesthetized.

And here you come, with a cup of tea
Wreathed in steam.
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
You hand me two children, two roses.


Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Oval soul-animals,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk

Invisible air drifts,
Giving a shriek and pop
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling.
Yellow cathead, blue fish —
Such queer moons we live with

Instead of dead furniture!
Straw mats, white walls
And these traveling
Globes of thin air, red, green,

The heart like wishes or free
Peacocks blessing
Old ground with a feather
Beaten in starry metals.
Your small

Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
He bites,
Then sits
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
A red
Shred in his little fist.

When I asked Moss what most surprised her in bringing the show to life, it was this creative tension between fatality and vitality that she pointed to — “how much wonder and light is in [Plath’s] work throughout her life, even in her last days.”

Accompanying the exhibition is an arresting sound and light sculpture by Wellesley composer Jenny Olivia Johnson, titled Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath) — a haunting homage to Plath, both physical and ethereal, in which visitors tap on glass jars to activate the sound of Wellesley college students singing Plath’s verses. The title of the piece is inspired by the parenthetical last verse of Plath’s first tragic poem:

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

One Life: Sylvia Plath is on view until May 20, 2018. Complement it with Plath on what makes us who we are, her little-known children’s book written for her own kids and illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake, and a rare BBC recording of her haunting reading of the poem “Spinster,” then revisit her ink sketches collected by her daughter.

All images courtesy of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery


Friend or Foe?: A Lovely Illustrated Fable About Making Sense of Otherness

A playful illustrated inquiry into whether mutual attentiveness is enough to dissolve enmity into friendship.

“The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy,” the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer wrote in his treatise on healing the heart of society. Yet, paradoxically enough, it is often our stories — those involuntary circumstances of our lives dictated by accidents of birth and chance — that cast the air of enmity in another’s eyes: that we were born one race and not another, that we came from one country and not another, that we fell in love with a person of one gender and not another. (This, perhaps, is why the ancient Greek notion of agape is directed equally at friends and enemies.) But the heartening counterpoint to these tragic polarizations is that they can often be undone just as easily, by another accidental flip of circumstance.

That’s what Canadian writer John Sobol and Brooklyn-based Russian illustrator Dasha Tolstikova explore with delightful levity in Friend or Foe? (public library) — a charming modern-day fable, without a simplistic moral, about what makes for and what undoes the sense of otherness.

We meet a lonely mouse who lives in a small house beneath a lavish castle, and a white cat who lives in the castle above. (It is a modernist castle, to be sure — portraits of same-sex royal couples grace its walls and lightbulbs like the kind you’d see in a Brooklyn bar illuminate its halls.) Every evening, the two look at one another for hours on end — the mouse sitting atop the little house, the cat perched at the window of the big palace.

One day, the mouse discovers a tiny hole in the wall of the castle that could bypass the stringently guarded main entrance. Sobol writes:

He stared at the hole for a whole day. He was wondering if — after all those hours of looking at each other — he and the cat were friends.

It’s a lovely question — can sustained mutual attentiveness turn natural enemies into friends? — a question evocative of Simone Weil’s abiding assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Finally, the mouse decides that he cannot go on living lonesome and friendless, and must find out if a friend or a foe resides in the castle. So he skulks inside, past the garrulous royalty in their glittering gowns, and makes his way to the top.

It took all day to climb the stairs. But finally, as the sun was setting, the mouse reached the top step. He peered around the great oak door and there was the cat, sitting on the window sill, staring at the empty roof below.

The mouse creeps quietly up the lush velvet curtain and positions himself on the stone ledge next to the unwitting cat, where he gathers the courage to speak up.

But when he finally does, posing his existential question — “Hello, are you friend or foe?” — the cat is so alarmed by the surprise visitor that she leaps into the air.

The mouse studied the cat’s whiskered face as she flew through the air. At first he felt sure he was about to be eaten. Then he changed his mind. Perhaps they were to be friends after all.

Friend or foe, thought the mouse. In a moment I’ll know.

But in her startled pirouette, the cat slips and falls out the window, landing to safety, in perfect feline fashion, near the little house below.

A moment later, a woman came out of the small house and scooped up the cat.

“Why, we’ve been wanting a cat, and now here you are. Dropped right out of the sky, didn’t you, puss?”

Hopeful that the fortuitous cat will solve the household’s mouse problem, the woman takes her in. And, just like that, the tables have turned, and one can almost hear Bob Dylan singing: “The order is rapidly fading / And the first one now will later be last / Cause the times they are a-changing.”

A cat lives in a small house beside a great palace. In the great palace lives a mouse.

Every evening the mouse creeps up the stairs to the palace tower. Every evening the cat climbs to the roof of the house.

In the end, the mouse once again confronts his question, this time from the other side of privilege. The answer offered in the final page is perhaps the only real answer that existential question has.

Complement the quietly delightful Friend or Foe? with this visual taxonomy of platonic relationships, then revisit the Tolstikova-illustrated The Jacket — a lovely meta-book about how we fall in love with books.

For other treasures from independent Canadian powerhouse Groundwood Books, see The White Cat and the Monk, The King of the Birds, and Sidewalk Flowers.

Illustrations © Dasha Tolstikova courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs by Maria Popova


Rebecca West on Survival, the Redemption of Suffering, and the Life-Saving Will to Keep Walking the Road to Ourselves

“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”

Rebecca West on Survival, the Redemption of Suffering, and the Life-Saving Will to Keep Walking the Road to Ourselves

In a 1928 letter to her sister, Virginia Woolf described the great English writer Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) as “hard as nails, very distrustful, and no beauty … a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes, very shabby, rather dirty nails, immense vitality, bad taste, suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence.” (Because Woolf regarded her with such amused admiration, she was pleased when West lauded Orlando as “a poetic masterpiece of the first rank” in her New York Herald Tribune review later that year.)

It was this great and rugged intellect that West poured into Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (public library) — her remarkable 1941 account of her three visits to Yugoslavia. Published at the peak of WWII and exploring a country made by WWI, the book accomplished with unparalleled poignancy West’s aim of revealing “the past side by side with the present it created.”

Dame Rebecca West

While recovering from surgery in an English hospital in the fall of 1934, West heard on the radio that Yugoslavia’s King Alexander I had been assassinated — the first monarch of a young country born out of the horrors of WWI, murdered by the same fascist forces that would pave the way for WWII. She recognized instantly, with a sorrowful urgency, that such local crises of inhumanity never exist in isolation from the whole of humanity. A quarter century before Martin Luther King urged us to see that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” West reflected on hearing the radio announcement:

I had to admit that I quite simply and flatly knew nothing at all about the south-eastern corner of Europe … that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny.

And indeed, from West’s regional focus on my native Balkans radiates a larger inquiry into the collective fate of humanity, with all its tragedy and tenaciousness, and the ultimate resilience of the human spirit — nowhere more so than in a passage describing her encounter with a woman on a mountain road in Montenegro. West relays the woman’s response to being asked how she had ended up there, across the country from her hometown of Durmitor:

She laughed a little, lifted her ball of wool to her mouth, sucked the thin thread between her lips, and stood rocking herself, her eyebrows arching in misery. “It is a long story. I am sixty now,” she said. “Before the war I was married over there, by Durmitor. I had a husband whom I liked very much, and I had two children, a son and a daughter. In 1914 my husband was killed by the Austrians. Not in battle. They took him out of our house and shot him. My son went off and was a soldier and was killed, and my daughter and I were sent to a camp. There she died. In the camp it was terrible, many people died. At the end of the war I came out and I was alone. So I married a man twenty years older than myself. I did not like him as I liked my first husband, but he was very kind to me, and I had two children of his. But they both died, as was natural, for he was too old, and I was too old, and also I was weak from the camp. And now my husband is eighty, and he has lost his wits, and he is not kind to me any more. He is angry with everybody; he sits in his house and rages, and I cannot do anything right for him. So I have nothing.”

To the question of where she is headed on that mountain road, the woman responds:

“I am not going anywhere. I am walking about to try to understand why all this has happened. If I had to live, why should my life have been like this? If I walk about up here where it is very high and grand it seems to me I am nearer to understanding it.” She put the ball of wool to her forehead and rubbed it backwards and forwards, while her eyes filled with painful speculation. “Good-bye,” she said, with distracted courtesy, as she moved away, “good-bye.”

Public domain photograph via Swedish National Heritage Board

With this, West delivers her stroke of genius in revealing the animating force of human existence, that which gives rise to all art and all science and the irrepressible roving curiosity that has given us everything we call culture:

This woman [was] the answer to my doubts. She took her destiny not as the beasts take it, nor as the plants and trees; she not only suffered it, she examined it. As the sword swept down on her through the darkness she threw out her hand and caught the blade as it fell, not caring if she cut her fingers so long as she could question its substance, where it had been forged, and who was the wielder. She wanted to understand … the mystery of process.

I knew that art and science were the instruments of this desire, and this was their sole justification, though in the Western world where I lived I had seen art debauched to ornament and science prostituted to the multiplication of gadgets. I knew that they were descended from man’s primitive necessities, that the cave man who had to hunt the aurochs drew him on the rock-face that he might better understand the aurochs and have fuller fortune in hunting and was the ancestor of all artists, that the nomad who had to watch the length of shadows to know when he should move his herd to the summer pasture was the ancestor of all scientists. But I did not know these things thoroughly with my bowels as well as my mind. I knew them now, when I saw the desire for understanding move this woman. It might have been far otherwise with her, for she had been confined by her people’s past and present to a kind of destiny that might have stunned its victims into an inability to examine it. Nevertheless she desired neither peace nor gold, but simply knowledge of what her life might mean. The instrument used by the hunter and the nomad was not too blunt to turn to finer uses; it was not dismayed by complexity, and it could regard the more stupendous aurochs that range within the mind and measure the diffuse shadows cast by history. And what was more, the human will did not forget its appetite for using it.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s timelessly incisive perspective on the only effective antidote to evil, found in the fact that “one man will always be left alive to tell the story,” West considers the essential quality of spirit which the Montenegrin woman modeled:

If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe. We shall discover what work we have been called to do, and why we cannot do it. If a mine fails to profit by its riches and a church wastes the treasure of its altar, we shall know the cause: we shall find out why we draw the knife across the throat of the black lamb or take its place on the offensive rock, and why we let the grey falcon nest in our bosom, though it buries its beak in our veins. We shall put our own madness in irons.

Complement this particular portion of the densely illuminating Black Lamb and Grey Falcon with Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering and Viktor Frankl, who was deported to a Nazi concentration camp just after the publication of West’s classic, on the human search for meaning and the key to spiritual survival.


Citizen King: The Last Five Years of MLK’s Life

Today marks the 25th annual Martin Luther King Day, commemorating the visionary whose work and legacy transcended borders of nationality, ethnicity and ideology to make one of the most important contributions to human rights in history. In 2004, PBS produced Citizen King — an extraordinary documentary that skirts the all-too-familiar stories of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and instead offers a rare glimpse of the last five years of MLK’s life through personal recollections and eyewitness accounts of friends, journalists, policemen, historians and cultural luminaries.

The series is now available on YouTube in 13 parts — or, for those keen on quality, on DVD.

My dear fellow Clergymen: I came across your recent statement calling our present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’ I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ~ Letter from the Birmingham Jail, MLK, 1963

Catch the remaining parts here: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.

Finally, no celebration of MLK’s legacy is complete without his iconic I Have a Dream speech — catch it here in its full hair-raising glory:

For more on MLK’s legacy, we highly recommend A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. — published more than 20 years ago, still an absolutely critical capsule of thought leadership and moral history.


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