The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962, edited by Karen V. Kukil

Review published on February 12, 2014. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

Sylvia Plath’s Journals have just been reissued by Faber & Faber. In this new edition, edited by Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College, ‘an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath during the last twelve years of her life’ has been included, and ‘there are no omissions, deletions or corrections of Plath’s words in this edition’. Her journals, says Kukil, ‘are characterized by the vigorous immediacy with which she records her inner thoughts and feelings and the intricacies of her daily life’. She goes on to explain the way in which, ‘Every effort has been made… to give the reader direct access to Sylvia Plath’s actual words without interruption or interpretation’.

The main body of the diary spans from its beginnings in July 1950 to 1959, and the appendices stretch up to 1962, the year in which Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty. The entirety is unabridged, and has been taken from twenty three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts. They document her ‘student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England’.

Journals contains a wealth of new material, all of which was sealed by Hughes until February 2013. The journals have been split into separate sections, each of which spans a different period in the poet’s life. Photocopies of her journal pages have been included at the start of every one. These show the progression of her writing, and are really a lovely touch to add to the wonderful whole. Two sections of glossy photographs can also be found within the book’s pages. As one would expect with such a bulk of work, the notes section and index are both extensive.

The first journal, dating from when Plath was just eighteen years old, opens with a poem by Louis MacNeice, and two quotes written by Yeats and Joyce respectively. The first entry which Plath writes reads like an echo for much of her life: ‘I may never be happy, but tonight I am content’.

Throughout her journals, Plath is so warm, full of vivacity, and strikingly original. In an entry in the first journal, written in August 1950, she writes: ‘I love people. Everybody. I love them; I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me. I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person. But I am not omniscient. I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have’.

Each and every entry is filled to the brim with musings, philosophy, emotions, questions and answers. Plath is so very honest, and incredibly witty too. When speaking about a dentist removing her wisdom teeth, she says: ‘The doctor pinned the bib around my neck; I was just about prepared for him to stick an apple in my mouth and strew sprigs of parsley on my head’. Some of the entries reflect upon her day, and others are small self-contained essays about a veritable plethora of subjects. Amongst other things, she touches upon such topics as literature, love, communal living, politics and the notion of democracy, and then burrows into each one of them in turn, providing the reader with her insights into and musings of each. Some of the vignettes included are so very charming. The following occurred whilst Plath was looking after a family of three children over the summer of 1950:

“Your hair smells nice, Pinny.” I said, sniffing her freshly washed blonde locks. “It smells like soap.”
“Does my eye?” she asked, wriggling her warm, nightgowned body on my arms.
“Does your eye what?”
“Smell nice?”
“But why should your eye smell nice?”
“I got soap in it,” she explained.

Plath’s writing, as anyone who has read even a single one of her poems will know, is absolutely beautiful. Her descriptions particularly are gorgeous: ‘The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance’, and ‘The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious’. Throughout, she makes the everyday entrancing, and notices the positive and beautiful qualities in everything which her words touch upon, however much we may take the element in question for granted in the modern world. The scenes which she builds are so vivid.

The importance of Plath’s art is prevalent immediately: ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow’. Poems have been included throughout, all of them placed into the volume in the order in which they first appear in her journals. It goes without saying that each and every one is perfect, startling and exquisitely crafted. At times, she provides a fascinating commentary upon her own writing, beautifully analysing her own finely wrought sentences.

Plath was such an intelligent woman, and throughout she writes with such clarity, even in the earliest journal entries. She both praises and chastises herself and humankind – for example, writing ‘I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive. What a fool!’ There are hints of the growth of her coming depression too. She writes in 1950, for example, that ‘I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad’. Plath also continually muses on life and death and the vast chasm between the two, as well as the very notion of existence: ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never’, and ‘I loved [Antoine de Saint-] Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone. Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?’

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a book to be savoured, and is a wonderful companion to the stunning Letters Home, another Faber & Faber must for any fan of the poet. Both books are sure to delight without a doubt. In them, Plath provides us with a window into her world, and her journals particularly are written in such a way that it feels as though we as readers are her closest confidantes. Nothing is hidden from us, and each and every entry drips with verity. Even the biggest of her fans will learn swathes from reading this beautiful and important book.

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