2 Y ago

Sylvia Plath and the Poetics of Illness

My most beat up, used book, by far, is The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. I’ve had it since I was eleven years old and it has survived three cities, four bathtubs, and countless backpacks. Sylvia Plath has always been my refuge in a storm. I know this sounds cliché and I may be accused of romanticizing mental illness. But cliches exist because there is usually more than an ounce of truth of them. Maybe it can be healing to try to find the light in the darkest parts of your life – to make art out of the horrible and exhausting.

Can illness be poetic? Romantic, even? My first instinct is to say no. I’ve always been against the romanticization of mental illness in popular culture. I believe that many books, movies, and TV shows do not depict what mental illness is actually like. It is not beautiful or glamorous. It’s a disease. Depictions of illness in the media and art can be tricky and can quickly turn into a battleground. But at the same time the best art I have created has come out of one of my “episodes”. I have found that my illness – as painful and frightening as it can be – has also been my greatest inspiration. I have often had my best ideas when I’ve been at my lowest points. But, by saying this, by thinking this, am I trivializing mental illness? Betraying the seriousness of my disease? Am I helping or hurting myself?

When Sylvia Plath wrote gorgeous prose about the ugliest things, was she healing or participating in her own destruction? Plath is known for her angst and her demons. Some of her poems discuss them literally (Tulips, A Birthday Present), while others are more metaphorical and take more poetic license (Elm, Pursuit). She spoke of institutionalization and suicidal thoughts. She was the first writer I read who accurately described the intricacies of mental illness through an artistic lens. She was the first person I knew of who was able to create something out of the pain I felt every day. She became my first hero.

 I don’t venture to compare myself to one of the greatest writers in history, but, if Plath was anything like me, she wrote because she needed to. Because it was the only way she knew how to survive. It was both her outlet and her escape. And that is also true for me. It is why I make art. Creating is the only way I know how to cope with my illness, how to express myself, and how make sense of the world around me. I don’t think the acknowledgement of the link between my illness and my art is the same as romanticization. We – Sylvia Plath and I – are not creating false or rosy depictions of the seriousness of mental disease. Our art, devoid of scientific or clinical terminology, represents what we really feel living with mental illness.

The brilliance of a “tortured artist” is another old and well-known cliché – that good art comes from pain. And I know from personal experience, and by research into other’s experiences, that sometimes this old cliche rings true. Mental illness should never be viewed as a short cut to creativity. I am sure that there are many healthy, happy creative people in the world creating brilliant art. However, Sylvia Plath was a tortured artist. And she was brilliant.

I have been tortured in the past. I will probably be tortured in the future. If I look at her life as a blueprint, my own prognosis is grim with the likelihood of an early death. However, I would like to look at the example she sets in another way. A more hopeful way. My disease has not and will not strip me of my life. When I am sick, I can still create. My illness cannot take that from me. When Sylvia was sick, she was able to create things that will last forever. And while she herself lost her battle with mental illness, she left behind knowledge and ways to survive cloaked in the most beautiful verse.

Below is one of my favorite Sylvia Plath poems –  Street Song. This poem captures what it feels to try to function while suffering through severe mental illness. It helps me tremendously just to know that someone once felt the same way I do. That I am not alone. And that someone who was as sick as I am, was still able to write something so beautiful and so meaningful. The knowledge that I am also able to create art from the chaos that can engulf me doesn’t feel like glamorization – it feels like power. Illness is not romantic or poetic in the traditional sense, but when turned into art and not trivialized it can be used to help others and give power back instead of only take it away. Sylvia Plath is an inspiration. She is also my friend when things get very dark. She lets me know that I can still continue. That I can “strut it clever”.

 By a mad miracle I go intact

Among the common rout

Thronging sidewalk, street,

And bickering shops;

Nobody blinks a lid, gapes,

Or cries that this raw flesh

Reeks of butcher’s cleaver

Its heart and guts hung hooked

And bloodied as a cow’s split frame

Parceled out by white-jacketed assassins


Oh no, for I strut it clever

As a greenly escaped idiot,

Buying wine, bread,

Yellow-casqued chrysanthemums-

Arming myself with the most reasonable items

To ward off, at all cost, suspicions

Roused by thorned hands, feet, head

And that great wound

Squandering red

From the flayed side


Even as my each mangled nerve-end

Trills its hurt out

Above pitch of pedestrian ear,

So, perhaps I, knelled dumb by your absence,

Alone can hear

Sun’s parched scream,

Every downfall and crash

Of gutted star,

And, more daft than any goose,

This cracked world’s incessant gabble and hiss.



I go intact.


Purchase a print of this illustration 



  #, #, #, #