The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz: the Iconic Poet in Historical Fiction

BY TRISH MACENULTY

The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. (HarperCollins, 2022) is Lee Kravetz’s first novel but not his first book. He is also the author of Strange Contagion about “infectious behaviors and viral emotions,” and SuperSurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Success and Suffering.  In addition, he has written for both print and television, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, The Daily Beast, The San Francisco Chronicle, and PBS.

Before becoming a writer, Kravetz trained as a psychotherapist. This experience informed his nonfiction work and eventually led him to explore mental health through the prism of fiction. The crossover from nonfiction, with its emphasis on objective reportage, and fiction, which focuses on subjective experience, is not always an easy one.

“As a now-recovering nonfiction writer, when I started writing a novel about Sylvia Plath, there was an immediate desire to compose a fictionalized version of what otherwise might be the Wikipedia page for Sylvia Plath, which wasn’t the right approach at all,” Kravetz said. “Eventually, I let go of the rails of truth and began to go deeper into the ‘what if’ —capturing the essence of the world around Sylvia Plath rather than the facts.”

It helped that his nonfiction tended toward narrative. He said that he was always “curious about the characters’ desire, the forces of opposition against them, their needs, and of course creating scene.”

That curiosity has resulted in a spell-binding novel that examines the iconic poet Sylvia Plath through the eyes of three women whose lives intersect with hers in some fashion — a curator who has come across what may be an original hand-written copy of The Bell Jar, the psychiatrist who treats Plath when she is committed to a mental hospital, and the rival poet who envies her. Kravetz said he rediscovered The Bell Jar when he was getting a Master’s degree in psychology and working at a mental hospital.

“The Bell Jar was in one of the patient waiting rooms, and as I re-read it there, I realized that not only was it the veiled memoir of Sylvia Plath’s experience at McLean Hospital in the early 1950s, but it was also a time capsule that showcased the way that psychiatry was changing during that time, from a strict-Freudian approach to a more person-centered approach,” he said. One important aspect of the book is how Plath’s psychiatrist goes against standard procedure to offer innovative and humane therapies, like bee keeping, to the patients of the hospital.

Another historical development that Kravetz explores is the advent of the confessional poetry movement, spearheaded by Robert Lowell. Its two most famous practitioners are Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

“Sylvia was widely seen as a de facto leader of the confessional poetry movement, which basically introduced the world to poetry that expressly spoke about the writer’s thoughts and feelings. Her suffering, but also her great capacity for hope and love, literally created this literary movement,” he said. Both Lowell and Sexton also suffered from mental illness.

author photo by ComePlum Photo

For the novel, Kravetz created a character named Boston Rhodes (a penname) who is the darling of the workshop run by Robert Lowell until she is overshadowed by the arrival of Plath. The two women develop a rivalry that inspires their poetry similar to the rivalry of Anne Sexton and Plath.

“Anne and Sylvia had a well-chronicled contentious relationship that was full of rivalry but also full of love,” Kravetz said. “In many instances, the two would communicate to each other not through direct dialogue but through competing poems. The truth is, I never saw Boston Rhodes as Anne Sexton, but instead as a character who is the exact opposite of Sylvia Plath in every way. The only thing they have in common is the poetry, but their motivations, and the ways in which they move through the world, are opposite.”

Kravetz deftly captures the voice of a poet in his depiction of Boston Rhodes, whose chapters are often lyrical and yet also contain the stark and brutal force we associate with confessional poetry.

“The magic of poetry is that it will sweep you up and swallow you whole. Once I understood who Boston Rhodes was, her voice was so crystal clear to me that I also understood that the way she saw the world was through poetry. Writing poetry for her was akin to writing dialogue. That is, I am not a poet, but Boston Rhodes is,” Kravetz said.

Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963 at the age of thirty; yet her art continues to exert an enormous influence even today. Kravetz taps into this ongoing fascination with the poet and novelist through the contemporary characters who stumble across her early manuscript.

“I was interested in how her art affected the people around it. I wanted to know how a psychiatrist in 1952 would respond to a patient who used poetry to express her psychological needs,” he said. “I wanted to know what a poet in 1960 would do when she confronted another poet who was in every way her equal. I wanted to know what a poetry novice in the 21st century might do when meeting the legacy of Sylvia Plath.”

Although she is not one of the point-of-view characters, Plath is the dominating presence in the novel. She appears first as a 19-year-old, and later as someone who is almost 30.

“To capture her voice at age 19, I read her poetry and journals from that age. She was sincere, perhaps overly sincere, youthful, struggling to sound older than she was, working to sound more sophisticated than she was, but also deeply intelligent. To capture her voice at 30, I did the same… I came to understand that her soul at this point was tarnished, and she also had a good understanding of her mental condition in a way that she couldn’t have when she was younger. There is a sophistication that comes with sadness, and an exuberance that comes with maturity. I hope I did her justice,” he said.

 

About the contributor: Trish MacEnulty is the author of four novels, a short story collection, and a memoir. She is currently preparing to publish her first work of historical fiction, under the pen name, Patricia Bartlett.

 


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