One of the worst things that happens when a really talented artist commits suicide (you know other than the fact that they have committed suicide and are dead FOREVER), is that critics and fans often come to view all of their prior art through the lens of this single, destructive act. There’s nothing funny or subtle about suicide, so Sylvia Plath’s verses get read as odes to how awful the patriarchy is, and her depression comes to stand-in for the poet herself. But Plath’s depression (much less her suicide) didn’t write one of my favorite similes ever; a complex, witty, mean, smart, fucked up, whole woman thinking about motherhood as both entirely natural and unnatural at once did. From “Morning Song”:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
As I’ve told many students, there are essays within essays contained in that single line. But the popular sense of Plath is that she was the living last line of “Daddy” stripped of any possible irony. She was pure ladyrage driven to its boiling point by the evil Ted Hughes. That version of Plath is not a real person, and we’re worse off as a culture for not coming to grips with all of Plath.
Plath’s fate is no different from Kurt Cobain’s. Nirvana’s In Utero (the band’s best album, in my opinion) turns 20 this year, and of course that means it’s being rereleased with all kinds of extras and stray bits attached. It also means that the Cobain as poete maudite narrative will likely be rehashed. Obviously the guy was depressed. But he was also this:
From this and other accounts, Cobain doesn’t seem like he was the easiest person to deal with. But even saying that is a lot more complex that saying he personified teenage angst or something pat like that. Artists aren’t symbols. Symbols don’t do anything. Only people can. And really talented people do things like this: