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Sylvia Plath's Feminist Legacy Lives On : "I want, I think, to be omniscient. . . . I think I would like to call myself 'The girl who wanted to be God.' Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be? . . . But, oh, I cry against it. I am I--I am powerful, but to what extent? I am I." --Sylvia Plath, writing in her diary in 1949.


NEW YORK — In 1965, a few hundred well-dressed patrons filled an auditorium at the Guggenheim Museum and listened to two British critics discuss the state of modern literature. One of the speakers was A. Alvarez, who announced he was going to read a poem by an unknown American writer.

"I said the poem was by a young woman named Sylvia Plath who died a couple of years ago in London," recalled Alvarez, a friend of Plath's who had published some of her work in The Observer in London.

"I read 'Daddy,' and it was like releasing a small, tactical nuke. It's such a dark poem and it was a very chic crowd and it had the most extraordinary impact. If you've ever given a lecture, you can always tell when you've really hit the spot. There was a moment of shocked silence. I suspect that was the first time her late poems had had much of an airing in New York, or in America."

If the second coming of Plath didn't begin then, it was at least typical of the belated reaction to both her work and to her life. Just who was this poet who wrote about death and despair with an almost terrifying intimacy? Why would a gifted 30-year-old woman with two young children, not long after writing some of her best poems, decide to kill herself?

Overlooked in her own time, she is famous now, as famous as a writer could be in a video age. Many who never read the "Ariel" poems or her autobiographical novel, "The Bell Jar," at least have some knowledge of the American author who placed her head in an oven and gassed herself to death on Feb. 11, 1963.

"The fact is I still have my doubts whether she and her poetry would be recognized as being as good as they are if there wasn't this terrible tragedy surrounding them," Alvarez said.

"I don't necessarily believe that literature in general or poetry in particular has a very wide audience or a very wide effect. But for Sylvia Plath, there is this ghastly sort of scenario running behind it."

Whether it's the books themselves or the irresistible image of a tortured artist, Plath has developed a following of non-literary proportions. "Ariel," her first posthumous collection, was published in 1965 and has sold more than 500,000 copies, an astonishing figure for a collection of poetry.

"The Bell Jar," rejected by American publishers when she was alive, spent 24 weeks on the New York Times' bestseller list in 1971 and has sold more than 1 million copies. In 1982, her "Collected Poems" won the Pulitzer Prize.

Rebirth was one of her major themes and 30 years after her death, at least two Sylvia Plaths seem to have emerged: the feminist martyr who died for the sins of a male-dominated world, and the writer whose mastery of language helped her turn pain and loss into some of the most compelling art of the 20th Century.

"I remember the passage in 'The Bell Jar' where her character says, 'If neurotic means wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell,' " recalled "Backlash" author Susan Faludi, a teen-ager when Plath's novel became popular.

"It seemed to be a boiling down of women constantly being told by society you have to choose between private happiness and public success, that to one degree or another it will make you crazy. I remember going back to that passage when I was working on 'Backlash,' and having it on my mind."

"She was vital, she was absolutely vital in her use of language," said poet and critic Grace Schulman, whose poetry collections include "Hemispheres" and "Burn Down the Icons."

"She found a way of writing a good poem out of her personal sorrow," Schulman said. "But for any serious reading of those poems, it is essential to keep the life out of it. As a matter of fact, you get details that couldn't possibly be real."

Plath was an exceptional person who came of age at a time when women, exceptional or not, were expected to stay at home. For much her of life, she was torn between working within those limitations and rebelling against them.

Born in Boston on Oct. 27, 1932, she began trying to speak when she was just 8 weeks old and was composing poems by grade school. She would remember her early years as happy ones, at least until 1940, when her father died after a long illness.

Otto Plath's death haunted the poet for the rest of her life, but after her initial reaction--the 8-year-old Plath declared, "I will never speak to God again"--she seemed to settle into a normal childhood, joining the Girl Scouts and enjoying books and movies and listening to the radio. She also began submitting poems to newspapers.

On the surface, the tall, apple-cheeked Plath wasn't very different from any other intelligent, ambitious girl trying to find her way in America in the 1950s. She was an excellent student who seemed as impressed as anyone by winning awards and being accepted into a prestigious school, Smith College. While dreaming of becoming a writer, she also hoped to settle down and to raise children.

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