Sylvia and Me: Or, the Myth of the Tragic Poet

“Poetry, I feel, is a tyrannical discipline. You’ve got to go so far so fast in such a small space; you’ve got to burn away all the peripherals.”- Sylvia Plath

I’ve spent half of my poetry career comparing myself to Sylvia Plath. For instance, when Sylvia Plath was eight, she lost her father and started writing poetry,  while I only lost my toys for a week because I forgot to put them away. When Sylvia Plath was in college, she edited a literary journal, attempted suicide and graduated with honours. I just graduated.

Clearly, I am not Sylvia Plath, no matter how hard I wanted to be her. I don’t know if there will ever be another Sylvia Plath. For the sake of my future poets, part of me hopes there never will be.

I read my first Sylvia Plath poem when I was thirteen. I knew that what I had been feeling since the summer I turned twelve wasn’t simple pre-teen angst, but I didn’t know how to tell anyone that. Instead of telling people, I just self-injured. I had to pick a poem to read for a class project, and I chose “Lady Lazarus” because I was intrigued by the title. As soon as I read the poem, I knew I was hooked. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading every single Sylvia Plath poem I could find online. I had always wanted to be a writer, but from that afternoon on, I wanted to be Sylvia Plath.

I tried my damndest to write like her. I really did. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t duplicate her work. I couldn’t get my own work to make me feel like I did when I read hers. I took hot baths, like she did. I cut myself, like she did. I was depressed, like she was.

When you’re young you don’t think about how your heroes can die. I thought about how my hero killed herself. Sylvia isn’t the only writer to take their own life; it seems like half of my favourite authors killed themselves, whether intentionally or unintentionally. There seems to be this pervading mythology that to be a writer, and especially to be a poet, your life must be tragic. There’s this idea about suffering for your art.

Research has proven that this idea is completely false. While female poets have been found to be more likely to have a mental illness or have experienced personal tragedy, the symptoms of most mental illnesses are actually counterintuitive to the creative process. This idea that creative people are more likely to be mentally ill comes from famous examples like Sylvia Plath.

As a young person you don’t see that research. You become used to your suffering because that’s how you become a better poet, the one thing that you want more than anything else. You learn to revel in it and assume that you’re not going to get better, because you, like Sylvia, are a depressed poet and there is only one way for this to end.

I don’t blame Sylvia Plath for my tragedy. It would be foolish to. What I do blame is this idea of glorifying tragedy and mental illness that’s pervasive in popular culture.

I’m done with the myth of the tragic poet.

After reviewing my portfolio, one of my writing teachers gave me powerful advice: “you don’t have to be Sylvia Plath”. I had never realised that not being her was an option. As I continued to grow as a poet, I started to develop my own style and stray away from the formula I’d been following. I started to read other poets. I started to write about things other than my personal life.

In addition, I sought help for my mental health problems. I haven’t had to experience electroconvulsive therapy like Sylvia, but I dare say that the world is more equipped to handle people like Sylvia and I now than it was then. The advances in mental health and the reduction of stigma are staggering, even if there is still a long way to go.

I’ve spent half of my poetry career comparing myself to Sylvia Plath. I will always admire her, but I no longer want to be her.