ORR: Sylvia, what started you writing poetry?
PLATH: I don’t know what started me, I just wrote it from the time was quite small. I guess I liked nursery rhymes and I guess I thought I could do the same thing. I wrote my first poem, my first published poem, when I was eight-and-a-half years old. It came out in The Boston Traveller and from then on, I suppose, I’ve been a bit of a professional.
ORR: What sort of thing did you write about when you began?
PLATH: Nature, I think: birds, bees, spring, fall, all those subjects which are absolute gifts to the person who doesn’t have any interior experience to write about. I think the coming of spring, the stars overhead, the first snowfall and so on are gifts for a child, a young poet.
ORR: Now, jumping the years, can you say, are there any themes which particularly attract you as a poet, things that you feel you would like to write about?
PLATH: Perhaps this is an American thing: I’ve been very excited by what I feel is the new breakthrough that came with, say, Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, this intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which I feel has been partly taboo. Robert Lowell’s poems about his experience in a mental hospital, for example, interested me very much. These peculiar, private and taboo subjects, I feel, have been explored in recent American poetry. I think particularly the poetess Ann Sexton, who writes about her experiences as a mother, as a mother who has had a nervous breakdown, is an extremely emotional and feeling young woman and her poems are wonderfully craftsman4ike poems and yet they have a kind of emotional and psychological depth which I think is something perhaps quite new, quite exciting.
ORR: Now you, as a poet, and as a person who straddles the Atlantic, if I can put it that way, being an American yourself…
PLATH: That’s a rather awkward position, but I’ll accept it!
ORR: … on which side does your weight fall, if I can pursue the metaphor?
PLATH: Well, I think that as far as language goes I’m an American, I’m afraid, my accent is American, my way of talk is an American way of talk, I’m an old-fashioned American. That’s probably one of the reasons why I’m in England now and why I’ll always stay in England. I’m about fifty years behind as far as my preferences go and I must say that the poets who excite me most are the Americans. There are very few contemporary English poets that I admire.
ORR: Does this mean that you think contemporary English poetry is behind the times compared with American?
PLATH: No, I think it is in a bit of a strait-jacket, if I may say so. There was an essay by Alvarez, the British critic: his arguments about the dangers of gentility in England are very pertinent, very true. I must say that I am not very genteel and I feel that gentility has a stranglehold: the neatness, the wonderful tidiness, which is so evident everywhere in England is perhaps more dangerous than it would appear on the surface.
ORR: But don’t you think, too, that there is this business of English poets who are labouring under the whole weight of something which in block capitals is called ‘English Literature’?
PLATH: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. I know when I was at Cambridge this appeared to me. Young women would come up to me and say ‘How do you dare to write, how do you dare to publish a poem, because of the criticism, the terrible criticism, that falls upon one if one does publish?’ And the criticism is not of the poem as poem. I remember being appalled when someone criticised me for beginning just like John Donne, but not quite managing to finish like John Donne, and I first felt the full weight of English Literature on me at that point. I think the whole emphasis in England, in universities, on practical criticism (but not that so much as on historical criticism, knowing what period a line comes from) this is almost paralysing. In America, in University, we read – what? – T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, that is where we began. Shakespeare flaunted in the background. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I think that’ for the young poet, the writing poet, it is not quite so frightening to go to university in America as it is in England, for these reasons.
ORR: You say, Sylvia, that you consider yourself an American, but when we listen to a poem like ‘Daddy’, which talks about Dachau and Auschwitz and Mein Kampf, I have the impression that this is the sort of poem that a real American could not have written, because it doesn’t mean so much, these names do not mean so much, on the other side of the Atlantic, do they?
PLATH: Well now, you are talking to me as a general American. In particular, my background is, may I say, German and Austrian. On one side I am a first generation American, on one side I’m second generation American, and so my concern with concentration camps and so on is uniquely intense. And then, again, I’m rather a political person as well, so I suppose that’s what part of it comes from.
ORR: And as a poet, do you have a great and keen sense of the historic?
PLATH:I am not a historian, but I find myself being more and more fascinated by history and now I find myself reading more and more about history. I am very interested in Napoleon, at the present: I’m very interested in battles, in wars, in Gallipoli, the First World War and so on, and I think that as I age I am becoming more and more historical. I certainly wasn’t at all in my early twenties.
ORR: Do your poems tend now to come out of books rather than out of your own life?
PLATH: No, no : I would not say that at all. 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 terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mini I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.
ORR: And so, behind the primitive, emotional reaction there must be an intellectual discipline.
PLATH: I feel that very strongly: having been an academic, having been tempted by the invitation to stay on to become a Ph.D., a professor, and all that, one side of me certainly does respect all disciplines, as long as they don’t ossify.
ORR: What about writers who have influenced you, who have meant a lot to you?
PLATH: There were very few. I find it hard to trace them really. When I was at College I was stunned and astounded by the moderns, by Dylan Thomas, by Yeats, by Auden even: at one point I was absolutely wild for Auden and everything I wrote was desperately Audenesque. Now I again begin to go backwards, I begin to look to Blake, for example. And then, of course, it is presumptuous to say that one is influenced by someone like Shakespeare: one reads Shakespeare, and that is that.
ORR: Sylvia, one notices in reading your poems and listening to your poems that there are two qualities which emerge very quickly and clearly; one is their lucidity (and I think these two qualities have something to do one with the other), their lucidity and the impact they make on reading. Now, do you consciously design your poems to be both lucid and to be effective when they are read aloud?
PLATH: This is something I didn’t do in my earlier poems. For example, my first book, The Colossus, I can’t read any of the poems aloud now. I didn’t write them to be read aloud. They, in fact, quite privately, bore me. These ones that I have just read, the ones that are very recent, I’ve got to say them, I speak them to myself, and I think that this in my own writing development is quite a new thing with me, and whatever lucidity they may have comes from the fact that I say them to myself, I say them aloud.
ORR: Do you think this is an essential ingredient of a good poem, that it should be able to be read aloud effectively?
PLATH: Well, I do feel that now and I feel that this development of recording poems, of speaking poems at readings, of having records of poets, I think this is a wonderful thing. I’m very excited by it. In a sense, there’s a return, isn’t there, to the old role of the poet, which was to speak to a group of people, to come across.
ORR: Or to sing to a group?
PLATH: To sing to a group of people, exactly.
ORR: Setting aside poetry for a moment, are there other things you would like to write, or that you have written?
PLATH: Well, I always was interested in prose. As a teenager, I published short stories. And I always wanted to write the long short story, I wanted to write a novel. Now that I have attained, shall I say, a respectable age, and have had experiences, I feel much more interested in prose, in the novel. I feel that in a novel, for example, you can get in toothbrushes and all the paraphernalia that one finds in dally life, and I find this more difficult in poetry. Poetry, I feel, is a tyrannical discipline, you’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you’ve just got to turn away all the peripherals. And I miss them! I’m a woman, I like my little Laresand Penates, I like trivia, and I find that in a novel I can get more of life, perhaps not such intense life, but certainly more of life, and so I’ve become very interested in novel writing as a result.
ORR: This is almost a Dr. Johnson sort of view, isn’t it? What was it he said, ‘There are some things that are fit for inclusion in poetry and others which are not’?
PLATH: Well, of course, as a poet I would say pouf! I would say everything should be able to come into a poem, but I can’t put toothbrushes into a poem, I really can’t!
ORR: Do you find yourself much in the company of other writers, of poets?
PLATH: I much prefer doctors, midwives, lawyers, anything but writers. I think writers and artists are the most narcissistic people. I mustn’t say this, I like many of them, in fact a great many of my friends happen to be writers and artists. But I must say what I admire most is the person who masters an area of practical experience, and can teach me something. I mean, my local midwife has taught me how to keep bees. Well, she can’t understand anything I write. And I find myself liking her, may I say, more than most poets. And among my friends I find people who know all about boats or know all about certain sports, or how to cut somebody open and remove an organ. I’m fascinated by this mastery of the practical. As a poet, one lives a bit on air. I always like someone who can teach me something practical.
ORR: Is there anything else you would rather have done than writing poetry? Because this is something, obviously, which takes up a great
deal of one’s private life, if one’s going to succeed at it. Do you ever have any lingering regrets that you didn’t do something else?
PLATH: I think if I had done anything else I would like to have been a doctor. This is the sort of polar opposition to being a writer, I suppose. My best friends when I was young were always doctors. I used to dress up in a white gauze helmet and go round and see babies born and cadavers cut open. This fascinated me, but I could never bring myself to disciplining myself to the point where I could learn all the details that one has to learn to be a good doctor. This is the sort of opposition: somebody who deals directly with human experiences, is able to cure, to mend, to help, this sort of thing. I suppose if I have any nostalgias it’s this, but I console myself because I know so many doctors. And I may say, perhaps, I’m happier writing about doctors than I would have been being one.
ORR: But basically this thing, the writing of poetry, is something which has been a great satisfaction to you in your life, is it?
PLATH: Oh, satisfaction! I don’t think I could live without it. It’s like water or bread, or something absolutely essential to me. I find myself absolutely fulfilled when I have written a poem, when I’m writing one. Having written one, then you fall away very rapidly from having been a poet to becoming a sort of poet in rest, which isn’t the same thing at all. But I think the actual experience of writing a poem is a magnificent one.
from The Poet Speaks: Interviews with Contemporary Poets Conducted by Hilary Morrish, Peter Orr, John Press, and Ian Scott-Kilvery. London: Routledge (1966).