BOOKS: Poets in Suicide Sex Shocker!

Janet Malcolm explores the lurid obsession with Sylvia Plath

Just because connoisseurs of poetry rarely read the National Enquirer doesn't mean they don't crave sensationalism. Witness the enduring legend of Sylvia Plath more than three decades after the writer's death. Certainly Plath's reputation as a fierce, accomplished poet has endured, but it is the shocking story of her life that really fascinates the literary public.

The details of Plath's suicide have assumed totemic significance for a cult of followers who regard her as St. Sylvia, the high priestess of suffering. On Feb. 11, 1963, she put her head in a gas oven in her London apartment as her two children,...

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