Who owns poetry?


In 1963, Sylvia Plath died. Her estate passed to her husband, Ted Hughes. By 2003, Ted Hughes was dead and Frieda Hughes, their daughter, became literary executor of both estates.

In 2003, a film about Plath, Sylvia, was released. Frieda Hughes was not keen. She refused requests to take part and denied filmmakers the right to use Plath’s poetry. In her poem “My Mother,” Hughes writes of being asked to “give them my mother’s words / To fill the mouth of their monster / Their Sylvia Suicide Doll.”

My critique is not with Hughes’ assessment of the film. Sylvia leans heavily into the trope of Plath as a “witchy death goddess,” as identified by biographer Heather Clark. Gwyneth Paltrow, playing Plath, is perpetually nervous, brittle. I doubt that the presence of the poems would solve this issue, but their absence surely worsens it.

Rather, my critique is with the model of ownership. Frieda Hughes did not write those poems. I do not wish to single her out. I do not object to her profiting from Plath’s work, not least because of the repeated tragedy she has endured in being Plath and Hughes’ daughter. But I object to monopoly. In the absence of the poet herself, the poems live on in the reader. And I believe in the right of readers to respond to those poems, even when that response is a frankly terrible film.

I attended a workshop on ‘Plath as poetic inspiration’. Faber, managing Plath’s estate, only granted permission for a session *about* Plath. We could not look at Plath’s actual poems, only poems responding to her. This sparked questions about poetry and ownership. 

Beattie is a writer and lapsed drag queen from Merseyside. You can follow them on twitter (@poofter_pontiff).