Listen to an excerpt from Red Comet
Critical acclaim has greeted a major biography of the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, written by the American scholar Heather Clark, who is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at the University of Huddersfield.
Titled Red Comet: The Short and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, the newly-published, 1,152-page book has been hailed as the definitive account of the life and work of the Boston-born writer who in 1956 married the English poet Ted Hughes. She suffered from depressive illness and in 1963, after the marriage had broken down, Plath committed suicide while living in London.
The tragedy of her end and controversy over her relationship with Yorkshire-born Hughes – who later became Poet Laureate – has often overshadowed Sylvia Plath’s literary career and accomplishments. Professor Clark has set out to redress the balance.
“I embarked on this book because I thought she had been overly pathologised in biographies, memoirs, TV dramas and so on. Too much attention has been paid to her suicide rather than her writing and literary career. I think she is one of the most important poets of the 20th century.
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“Yes, depression is part of the story,” continued Prof Clark, “but I tried to refocus attention on her ambition and her drive and the boundaries that she broke. She was a really inspiring figure for her use of language and surrealism and the way she introduced fear and anger into the poetic lexicon.”
Professor Clark began work on her ambitious biography in 2011 and uncovered much new source material.
An extensive review in the Daily Telegraph praised “Heather Clark’s terrific biography of Plath”, stating that “to demythologise Sylvia Plath is to make this extraordinary story more moving than ever”. A reviewer writing in the USA’s Oprah Magazine describes Red Comet as “a majestic tome with the narrative propulsion of a thriller. We now have the complete story”.
Other critics have described it as “an extraordinary book” and “the biography that Sylvia Plath deserves, one that takes her seriously as both a poet and a person”.
The University of Huddersfield is home to the Ted Hughes Network and therefore a major centre for the study of the ex-Laureate – born in nearby Mytholmroyd – and of his wife. Professor Clark is supervisor to several PhD students who are focussing on Sylvia Plath.
She is also Director of the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for International Contemporary Poetry and her website gives details of a virtual book tour she is conducting in order to promote Red Comet. Future plans – some deferred by the pandemic – include a summer school on the work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, taking place in 2022 at Lumb Bank, Heptonstall, once owned by Hughes and now a centre for the study of creative writing.
Professor Clark has previously written about the literary relationship between Hughes and Plath.
“Obviously they had a tempestuous relationship, but on the other hand the two of them - while they were married - produced some of the most important writings of the post-war period. They really pushed each other to become better poets. The end was not good but the early years of their marriage were incredibly fruitful and happy.”
“Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t stop; I read it upon waking and late at night, at the dinner table and during the workday. I thought I knew Plath, but this wonderful book shows me I did not. Like the lyric speakers of her late poetry, she emerges from these pages transformed. Red Comet presents Sylvia Plath as she ought to be: as an innovative, ambitious, driven artist, at a time when women weren’t supposed to be any of these things. In the end, I was awestruck by Plath’s courage and strength in the face of so many obstacles; I was awed, too, by the work Clark has done to bring this writer to life.” —Maggie Doherty, author of The Equivalents
“A major biography that redeems Plath from the condescension of easy interpretation . . . [Clark] meticulously explores Plath’s omnivorous literary interests and busy social life . . . The author’s attention to specifics serves her very well in the closing pages, as she tracks how Plath’s depression, anxiety over her literary standing, despair over her failed marriage, and fear of institutionalization speeded her death even while those same forces inspired indelible, harrowing late poems.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Finally, the biography that Sylvia Plath deserves, one that takes her seriously as both a poet and a person. Combining rigorous research with in-depth literary analysis and immersive style, Heather Clark’s magisterial book not only traces Plath’s influences and inspirations, but also chronicles her often-tumultuous relationships with respect and empathy. A spectacular achievement.” —Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life