Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982, nearly twenty years after her death on February 11, 1963. This was a rare event: the Pulitzer is almost never given posthumously. But the poems Plath wrote in the last five years of her life, leading to those she wrote during 1962, the year of her Ariel poems, were so distinctive -- such virtuoso performances in technique, such spellbinding expressions of emotion -- that the Pulitzer jury could award the prize to no other book.
Plath would have relished both the prize and the reasons it was given. She believed in her poetry, and she knew her craft thoroughly. In her poems, she wrote about the crucial issues of her life, but she made expert art from those issues. She voiced anger as well as hope; she spoke of sorrow as well as joy. She wrote scathingly about people of whom she disapproved and about the husband who angered her. She wrote peacefully, with a calm lyricism, about her children and their daily activities. And she wrote politically: Plath cared intensely about the arms race, nuclear power, and people's injustice to others.
Plath was a feminist, in a broad sense of the term: she never undervalued herself or her work. She insisted that she be recognized as the talented writer she was even while her children were infants and she was spending more time as a mother and a wife than as a writer. She sought out women as friends and mentors and long admired the writing of Virginia Woolf, Marianne Moore, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bishop, and Anne Sexton. Yet, product of the American fifties that she was, Plath knew that, because she was a woman writer, her work would be judged by standards different from those used to judge the work of male writers. She knew that becoming successful would be difficult, if she were to remain true to her artistic convictions and to her own poetic voice. That knowledge angered her, as did other circumstances of her life in 1962, when the pressures of caring for an ancient house and two children in diapers seemed relentless. Her "October" poems, written in part to release that anger, formed the heart of Ariel, the first book published after her death. There were a great many other fine poems from the 1960s; some were published in other posthumous collections, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees; others did not appear until The Collected Poems in 1981. Even the Collected Poems is not complete (Plath had published many poems prior to 1956; Ted Hughes, editor of the collection, includes only fifty poems from over two hundred written then which he terms Juvenilia), and it is possible that other of Plath's poems will be found.
Although her writing in the final year of her life has gained the most attention, Plath wrote well from early in her career. She considered herself a professional writer beginning in 1950, when at the age of seventeen, she published nine pieces of writing in Seventeen, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Boston Globe, all for payment. In college, her publications appeared in Harper's, The Atlantic, the Monitor, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen, as well as campus magazines. Several years out of college she was appearing as well in British magazines, and had added The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, The Nation, Partisan Review, Ladies' Home Journal, and other American journals to her credits. Her first poetry collection was chosen the alternate to the winner of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets book competition. In 1960 this revised collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, was published in England. It appeared in 1962 in the United States. In 1961 The New Yorker gave Plath a "first reading" contract, which meant that that magazine chose first from all her new work and paid her for the privilege. In early 1963, her novel The Bell Jar was published in England. .........................................