Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Sylvia Plath Effect © Megan Snider

“The blood jet is poetry and there is no stopping it.”
--Sylvia Plath

"Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy."
--Marshall Mcluhan

I wondered if I was just the sum of my brain scan, little dots clustered in my frontal lobe. Is that where the poems came from? The desire to destroy myself?
--Betsy Lerner

The Sylvia Plath effect is dear to my heart. That sounds like an odd thing to say. Nonetheless, it is true. The Sylvia Plath effect is basically the statement that female poets have a higher incident of mental disorders than their male counterparts. It is no known secret that writers and artists have been pushed over any ledges or edges in sight for centuries now by mental and mood disorders. I have also heard the notion that just the love of "clanging words" or rhyming words and a disposition to use them is a marker for Bipolar Disorder or at least a sign of Autism.

The territory encircling the arts is fraught with financial, marital, public, personal, and mental ruin. I've had arguments with people in college about what is at stake when you are gifted and step into this world. Being inside this little world itself is enough to unleash the demons of mental illness on you. It is a likelihood that if you did not get into the profession with a mental illness, then you will leave it with one. Also, in Plath's case, being married to Ted Hughes probably wasn't a huge help.

I have a great love for Plath. I am able to read her lines and pick up her diary and go through it (the parts that weren't omitted by Mr. Hughes) and completely sympathize with what she was writing. It's true that I'm not sure it what sense she means what she writes-- is it ironic? Is this literal?-- but the point that it's there in the first place makes her work all the more human. I can't say enough about Plath, so I won't. Instead, I'm going to do my best to break down this very interesting insight into the female poet and the world of the breakdown.

The Sylvia Plath effect was coined in 2001 by James C. Kaufman and suggests that creative writers are more vulnerable to mental illness. It goes on to top this claim by the asserting that, out of all classes of writers, female poets are afflicted the most. It may very well be typical to think of the male poet as being dragged down into the depths of a mental illness. I think that this stems from the fact that men are more likely to physically react to illness with successful suicides. Women are diagnosed with depression twice as often as men, but women do not top the suicide statistics.
Another thing is that writers are painfully introspective-- poets even more so. It may be taken as arrogance, perhaps not, but the poet is always looking inward and delving deeper. The creative writer, too, has a responsibility to examine the internal markers of emotional situations and capture and explore them on a blank page.
I hear that women tend to be more introspective than men. Who am I to say that this is true? There is certainly no shortage of male poets and creative writers, so I'm not going to make any hasty accusations. I will simply bring this point carefully to your attention. Women seem to spend a lot of time agonizing over internal affairs and matters tangled up in heart-strings and such; I am in no way trying to sound sexist, though. Both sexes are quite capable of thought and emotion.

I stumbled on this connection when I was in a poetry class myself and doing a great job of scaring other writers. The theory itself is pretty self-explanatory. There are arguments as to whether mental illness causes creativity or if mental illness is mistaken as genius and so on. I think that for this particular topic, I will keep my opinions concerning that to myself. They're not of importance.

What is important is that there are links popping up all over the place like scattered puzzle pieces saying, "Mental illness is this" or "Mental illness is that." The problem is that everyone reacts to a mental illness differently. One can be mentally ill and capable of the works of Plath; another may be mentally ill and incapable of tying two shoe laces together.

I feel personally that people can analyze and re-analyze and brand Plath all they want, but that they will never really get to the root of the matter. I don't think anyone will have an official diagnosis on her. As a diagnosis goes, it is not uncommon for one to metamorphosize into another over the course of a life span or for the original ruling to be false. It's nice to have names for things, of course, but it's not nice to have any name that fits plastered across your forehead every time a symptom shifts or a mood changes.

This is a topic I have been interested in for some time now, but the resources are a little sketchy. For one thing, Plath is hard to pin down-- for another, women poets of note are scare, under-rated and under-studied. It took me several years in college before I even began to touch the surface of female poetry and I loved poetry.

Below you will find a general citation of my sources employed. If you're a poet and you don't know it, maybe you should check out some of these links. (I'm sorry; I couldn't help it.)

© Megan Snider

Links of interest:

Or, if you are so inclined, a basic Google search might satiate your curiosity for the moment.

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