Found Poetry

Balancing ‘The Bell Jar’: How Sylvia Plath Led to a New Appreciation for Poetry – guest blog post by Jessica Stilling

I don't know what it was about The Bell Jar that made me want to write about it but from the second I put the book down I knew there had to be more to Sylvia Plath and her character, Esther Greenwood's, story. When I learned that Plath had written other pieces, some of them likely about Esther Greenwood, that had been "lost" by her estranged husband Ted Hughes after her death, I knew someone had to tell more of Esther's story. When I read that Sylvia Plath herself was invested in the quasi-autobiographical character of Esther Greenwood and that she had died without publishing more than a handful of stories starring Esther, I knew her voice had to be channeled. I knew after reading that book that I was going to write fiction about Plath. What I didn't know, though perhaps I should have, was that by writing about Sylvia Plath and her most autobiographical character I was also going to learn so much about poetry.

The idea for my latest novel, The Beekeeper's Daughter, came from my love of Plath. In many ways it's The Hours with Sylvia Plath. It is the story of three women, one a modern day woman dealing with modern day, Plath-like problems (mental illness, a cheating husband), another is Sylvia Plath herself, during the time she moved back to London with her two young children just before her death. The third female storyline is that of Esther Greenwood. It’s a made-up story, but it does stick to the plot-line of the post The Bell Jar stories that Plath herself wrote (that survived) starring Esther. In The Beekeeper's Daughter, Esther Greenwood is just out of college and living in London. She's wondering about an old flame while becoming entangled with a guy whose voice is too loud, who drowns her out not only with his large physique but with his overpowering personality (a'la Ted). To research for this novel, I did more than read The Bell Jar many times. There were more than a few biographies and a trip to London to see the house where Sylvia Plath lived with her children just before her suicide. (It is coincidentally the home of the famed poet Willianm Butler Yeats.) But I found while I was writing, after a lot of research, that I really needed to go back to Plath's poetry.

It seems like a "well duh" moment now but honestly, I hadn't thought to focus on Plath as a poet when I started writing. I knew Plath was known for her poetry. I knew she thought of herself as a poet beyond any other medium. But I wasn't a poet and so I didn't even think to go there. And I will just admit that many novelists are terrified of poetry. Poetry scares us. An economy of language! That's not for us. We prefer to drone on and on. But I digress. I realized as I was writing about Plath that I needed to study, to really dive into her poetry.

And so I began to read her work. I started with Colossus, since that had been her first collection. After reading Colossus I moved on to Ariel. I blew through both collections and then realized I had to stop, I had to slow down and really take them in. I realized that despite studying English literature and creative writing extensively in college and graduate school, I never really figured out how to read poetry. But as I kept reading Plath's words, I found myself thinking more and more in poetry. I heard poetry in my head the way I used to get ideas for fiction. And as I kept reading poetry, I wanted to write it.

And so the old saying comes back to me: "Writers Read." It's very simple. I had always read novels. I had studied them almost to the exclusion of all other types of writing and so I wrote novels. But Plath's poetry stuck in my brain. I heard it on the subway, I listened for it in quiet moments outside. And as I started to hear her poetry in my head, I started to hear my own poetry as well. The more poetry I read the more I wanted to write it. It seems like another "well duh" moment but this revelation took a while to develop. As any writer knows, when you hear the words of anything, a story, a novel, a poem, in your head, you write them down. You listen to them. And so because of The Beekeeper's Daughter, because of my time reading and truly studying Plath, I found the poetry that had always been drifting in my own mind. Poetry is a very different headspace from fiction writing. It's imagery, it's words, it's a clearer, crisper focus because you are not bogged down by things like character or heaven forbid–plot.

I learned a lot studying Plath. I learned about her struggles with mental illness and I now have a greater appreciation for all those wrestling with various mental illnesses. I learned about her struggles as a wife and mother who still needed desperately to carve her own path, to be her own artist. But I also learned poetry. Not a single lesson, not rhyme or meter or metaphor. Just poetry. I learned that it is the spirit. It is hard work, yes. But it is also a way to just be.

Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts. 

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Jessica Stilling is the author of four novels. Her work has appeared in many publications including Bust Magazine, The Ms. Magazine Blog and The Writer. Stilling grew up in McHenry, IL, a town near Chicago. She has studied literature and creative writing at The New School and City College of the City University of New York. She has worked in publishing both as an editor and at a literary agency and she has had short fiction published in numerous literary journals. Jessica has taught at The New School, The Gotham Writer’s Workshop, SUNY Old Westbury and The City University of New York. She currently lives in New York City.


5 replies »

  1. Relate to novel writing and poetry, in that characters from my novels have been written about in poetry form. Life experiences, first written in poem form have captured atmosphere and experiences with relation to maritme novels. Recently poems composed for an anthology have led to certain historical characters slipping into the story line for my latest sci/fi novel. A radio interviewer remarked that this was the first time that he’d known of a novelist, who combined the two. That’s novel writing with poetry composition. But I find that composing a poem around a character or situation often gives insight that prose alone can lack. Most probably not alone in this method. Story telling and poetry seem to run alongside each other.

  2. This reflection is fascinating to me. As a writer, my default is poetry; but as a reader, I read much more fiction. I have the opposite fear from yours: I feel confident for the sprint, but not for the marathon. Recently I’ve begun noting exactly what I love about a piece of fiction, and attempting (hard, hard!) to recreate that effect. Thank you for this helpful post.

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