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Sylvia "Marilyn" Shot by Gordon Ames Lameyer, June 1954Photo by Gordon Lameyer, Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

Exhibition proves Sylvia Plath was more than a sad writer

Rarely seen items from the writer’s personal life help shine a light on the diversity of her literary output

The Romantic poet John Keats once wrote that “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body”.

This was a go-to quote for the deluge of literary critics in the middle of the 20th century who attacked the popular ‘confessional’ poetry of Sylvia Plath, who bemoaned the various biographical references that seemed to place the poet’s “Identity” at the centre of her texts.

Today, Plath’s work remains overshadowed by the tragic circumstances of her personal life, and her devotees are often perceived to be more infatuated with her “Identity” than they are with the texts themselves. In Annie Hall, when Alvy Singer described the writer as an “interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality,” he effectively summarised this persistent caricature of her general readership.

“What these photos really reveal is the elusive, mutable identity that Plath presented throughout her life”

At first glance, One Life: Sylvia Plathan exhibition currently showing at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery, might look like it’s playing to this “college-girl mentality”. Plath’s own Girl Scout uniform is exhibited, as is her childhood ponytail, preserved in a box by her mother. The personal photos of Plath reveal a woman that could easily match the description of Esther Greenwood, the beautiful and doomed protagonist of The Bell Jar, and it would be tempting to connect these portraits directly with the poetic and narrative voice of the writer’s work.

But what these photos really reveal is the elusive, mutable identity that Plath presented throughout her life. In the photo for her Fulbright application, she is reserved, dark-haired and academic. In what has been dubbed her “Marilyn” portrait, she is coquettish and beaming in sunshine-blonde hair. The most revealing images on display at the exhibition are Plath’s self-portraits, two abstracted paintings that appear to contort her self-image; in the cubist “Triple Portrait”, she refracts her visage into profiles that seem to face off and oppose each other. What these images from the writer’s personal life reveal is that her identity was always changing according to her situation, and this is also evident in the diversity of her literary output.

The “Triple Portrait” might bring to mind Plath’s poem, “Three Women”, in which through mirrored poetic imagery, her experiences with pregnancy, birth and miscarriage are expressed through three contrasting voices. The ubiquitous, lyrical ‘I’ of Sylvia Plath’s poetry was often accused of solipsism by her critics, but this ‘I’ is split and transfigured throughout Plath’s work to reveal the breadth of human emotion, not just the dark, tragic themes she is most often remembered for.

More and more people are now drawing light on Sylvia Plath “as a funny, warm, intelligent, very witty and talented woman, someone very different from the cultural stereotype usually attached to her”. At the exhibition, a playful handwritten poem embellished with illustrations of “Grammy and Mommy” particularly emphasises this emerging discussion. And her politically charged, Richard Hamilton-esque collage of American magazine cutouts goes some way to challenge the preconception of Plath as an always inward-looking writer; it recalls the landscape poet from the collection Crossing The Water who wrote about the world around her and her position as a transatlantic writer living in England.

Literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn has said that “The chances that Rimbaud will become the bible of your life are inversely proportional to the age at which you first discover him.” If you first encounter a writer at a very young and impressionable age, whether that writer be Rimbaud, Sylvia Plath, or any other mainstay on the bookshelves of college dorms, an indelible and romantic notion of what that writer was like as a person will infuse your reading of their work for the rest of your life. In spite of those critics who wanted to dissolve the “Identity” of the poet from literature, a personal connection with the writer’s life is often so important to our engagement with their work, but this exhibition should lead us to question our historically narrow-minded idea of who Sylvia Plath actually was. In fact, it seems that the more we learn about her as a person, the more we see how truly versatile and enlightening her writing really was.

One Life: Sylvia Plath runs until 20 May 2018 at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery